The Fake War on Secularism

It’s rather amusing to me to listen to the wingnuts spew invective about “secular progressives” as if we actually had some huge influence over legislators. We could only dream of the kind of power and influence they think we have. Rick Perlstein has an article in Rolling Stone about the right’s phony war on secularism, or secular humanism. It begins with this anecdote:

Once upon a time, in early 2004, I attended one of hundreds of “Parties for the President” organized nationwide for grassroots volunteers who wanted to help reelected George W. Bush, at a modest middle class home in Portland, Oregon. At one point, a nice old lady politely pressed into my hand a grubby little self-published pamphlet she had come upon, purporting to prove that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had faked the heroics that had won him three purple hearts in Vietnam. I added it to my mental store of the night’s absurdities that I expected to hear rattling across the wingnutosphere the entire fall: “I still believe there are weapons of mass destruction”; “There is an agenda—to get rid of God in this country”; “John Kerry attended a party in which there was bad language!” What I didn’t expect was to see Kerry’s war-hero cred earnestly debated night after night on CNN. Then came August and “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” — and that little old lady’s fever dream began dominating the media discussion of the campaign, and the rest, as they say, is history.

That’s the way, in my experience, the ecology of right-wing smears works: Insane horror stories – Clinton is running cocaine out of an Arkansas airport! Barack Obama had gay sex in the back of a limo! – bubble up from the collective conservative Id at the outset of an election year; professional conservatives in Washington identify the ones that seem most promising and launder them through the suckers in the “balance”-hungry mainstream media; and presto, before you know it, it’s death-panel-palooza, 24/7.

Responsible political reporting, of course, would seek to penetrate this process while it’s going on. But we don’t have responsible political reporting – or reporters who understand enough about the historical matrix from which these predictable discourses emerge to recognize the contending lies for what they are before they nose across the finish line.

One could list lots and lots of examples of that dynamic, the most obvious being birtherism. Perlstein is particularly interested in a current meme, exemplified by Mitt Romney’s recent statement that folks like us are trying to “establish a religion called secularism.” This is little more than a rhetorical trick, of course — “they say we’re trying to enforce our religious views on them, but stopping us from imposing our religious views means we’re establishing their religious views instead.” But it’s being taken seriously. And there’s a long history here, as Perlstein documents:

Here’s some background those befuddled Democrats need to know: One of the most robust and effective conspiracy theories on the right, the notion that “secularism” – or, just as often, “Secular Humanism” – is a religion is meant to be taken entirely literally: right wingers genuinely believe it refers to an actually existing religious practice. How do conservatives know? Because, they say, the Supreme Court said so. It was, as religious historian and Lutheran minister Martin E. Marty has written, “an instance where one can date precisely the birth of a religion: June 19, 1961.” That was the day the Court ruled in the case of Torcaso v. Watkins striking down the Maryland Constitution’s requirement of “a declaration of belief in the existence of God” to hold “any office of profit or trust in this state” — specifically, in atheist Roy Torcaso’s case, the office of notary public. In his decision, Justice Hugo Black, writing for a unanimous court, further asserted that states and the federal government could not favor religions “based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs” – and, in a fateful, ill-considered, and entirely offhand footnote explained: “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would be generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”

From here, things get wacky. As unearthed by the outstanding scholar Carol Mason in her masterpiece Reading Appalachia from Left to Rightin 1974 a Jesuit priest and Fordham University law professor named Edward Berbasse argued that “since humanism is now considered by the court to be a religion , it must be prevented from being established by the government.” An activist asked him if that meant they could win their fight to ban the satanic textbooks being forced down their children’s throats in Kanawha County, West Virginia by taking the matter to the Supreme Court. “I think you may have the material if you can get a crackerjack lawyer,” Father Berbasse responded. A Supreme Court case was never actually attempted – not least because, as Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have pointed out, “While historically there has been an organized humanist movement in the United States since at least the 1800s, the idea of a large-scale quasireligion called secular humanism is a conspiracist myth.” In Kanawha County, the textbook fight was fought out with dynamite instead. Nationwide, however, the conspiracist myth took on a life of its own – even unto the halls of Congress.

For Secular Humanism was not just an imaginary religion. It was, as the subtitle to a 1984 book still revered by religious conservatives, put it, The Most Dangerous Religion in America. How so? Because it held that man, not God, determines human affairs. From that, as Martin Marty explained, the ascendant religious right developed the claim that “when a textbook does not mention the God of the Bible … it necessarily leads to a void which it must fill with the religion of Secular Humanism.” (It’s a religion. Thus the Capital Letters.) And that any textbook which does not mention the guiding hand of God is rock-solid proof that the “secular humanist” conspiracists had written it; the absence was the presence…

The professional right had found its substitute for the Red Menace. In many ways “secular humanism” was Communism’s superior as an organizing tool, because it so handily took the fight directly to the bloodiest crossroads in our political culture: the space between the public school and the home. There is no more effective way to organize against liberalism than to argue that liberals are invading the sacred precinct of the nuclear family – the basic unit of government under God’s covenant, as the “Christian Reconstructionist” Rousas J. Rushdoony, father of the home-schooling movement, argued in his 1972 book The Messianic Character of American Education. The power-grabbing would-be-messiah government must be defeated, argued Connie Marshner, a Heritage Foundation staffer influenced by Rushdoony, if Christians were to “reverse the coming of the secular humanist state.”

As the Catholic Church cranks up the propaganda machine over the contraception mandate, you can certainly look for Mitt Romney to try to tap into the rich vein of the Christian right persecution complex over the next few months as a means of convincing the righteous that he is one of them — or at least isn’t one of Them, as Obama is.

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  • d cwilson

    I wonder how much of this stems from the “nature abhors a vacuum” idea. Just as many theocrats insist that atheists really do, deep down, believe in god, they just hate him, they can’t imagine mindset of not having any religion. Therefore, Secular Humanism must be a religion, QED.

  • Ben P

    I wonder how much of this stems from the “nature abhors a vacuum” idea.

    I think there’s something to that. Having gone to an evangelical church school, some of my classmates had very strange beliefs about other religions, but ultimately they could accept other religions, they just thought they were “wrong.”

    On the other hand the same people would quite earnestly struggle with the concept that one might not believe in god at all. It would literally result in bizarre things like arguments that broke down because someone didn’t accept the bible as self-evident.

  • Scientismist

    I remember the early 60’s (before the fateful June 19, 1961 SCOTUS Declaration that seems to have established a Universal Religiosity) when “secularism” meant that religious believers of all stripes could agree with each other, and even agree with the unbelievers, that there were some issues on which everyone might at least try to just get along — That some things really were “of this world”, like science, and politics.

    As a junior in high school in 1960 I wrote my first letter to the editor of a newspaper in response to another letter writer who declared she wasn’t going to vote for Kennedy, because someone else thought that a Catholic, as president, ought to let the Pope guide his decisions. Kennedy had already said he wouldn’t do that, so I thought we should take him at his word. The original letter writer wrote to me personally saying that, having thought it over, she agreed with me.

    Now, however, there doesn’t seem to even be a concept for “just getting along” over religious matters; and if there is, there is not a word for it any more.

    If school textbooks that fail to promote the idea of a “guiding hand of God” are unacceptable because they suggest human beings might actually have to take responsibility themselves for guiding human affairs, I guess the new orthodoxy will have to be that human affairs are and must remain totally without any guidance, rational or religious. (And “secular” is right out!) That may explain a lot about the directions politics has taken in recent decades.

  • Some Christians(and presumably people of other superstitions as well) literally cannot imagine living without religious belief, and honestly do believe that atheists worship Darwin, government, themselves, nature, or something else. Anything else, because they are incapable of seeing it as anything more or less than a one-for-one swap, Christianity-for-X.

    Plus in a similar way everything is zero-sum for these folks. If they have power and you take it away from them, it MUST BE that you want to use that power against them instead of wanting to make sure no one uses that power against anyone. That’s why they are overjoyed to have the Taliban to rail against, because it is an equal-but-opposed enemy that wants the same things that they do but for a different imaginary friend.

  • Chiroptera

    Improbable Joe, #4:

    It even gets worse. Many evangelicals believe that people, even atheists, actually do believe that God exists and even that the Christian religion is basically true, but deny it because an acknowledgement would mean giving up their sinful ways.

  • lofgren

    This sounds a little far-fetched. While I’m sure there are a few believers who honestly think that secular humanism is a real religion, I suspect that there are far more Christians on websites just like this one saying “Can you believe that the atheists actually believe that we think any book that doesn’t mention God is created by a conspiracy of secular humanist high priests? Those wacky atheists!”

  • lofgren, you should have conversations with these folks sometimes. You’d be surprised how many people believe this stuff. I’m not saying that the guys at the top don’t know that they are lying, but the millions of people who listen to them believe them wholeheartedly. After all, wouldn’t “God” stop people who are lying in “His” name?

  • abb3w

    I’ve been looking at Dale Cannon’s book “Six Ways of Being Religious”. Trying to portray contemporary Western progressive/pro-science secular humanism as a religion runs into some problems, under that framework. Finding practices to fall under “Rational Inquiry” is easy enough. Finding practices that can be fit to “Sacred Rite”, on the other hand, presents an unsubtle challenge.

    The catch for theists who want to take this stance is at Shamanic Mediation:

    [T]he way of shamanic mediation consists into entry into altered states of consciousness in which persons become mediators or channels for the intervention of spiritual reality°, in the expectation that "supernatural" (transmundane) resources of imagination, power, and guidance will be released for solving or dealing with otherwise intractable problems of life.

    The most familiar Christian example of Shamanic Mediation would be a revivalist tent healer type; the I Kings 18 account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal and Asherah would be a scriptural example.

    Though Cannon would expressly reject such, a counterpart for Shamanic Mediation within “atheism”-as-religion can be given. Consider “mundane” as referring to Naïve Physics and other “folk science” conceptions of the universe — the world as humans instinctively think about it, rather than how it really is. Consider reflective thinking in formally logical, mathematical, scientific modes as an example of “altered states of consciousness”, compared to the reflexive habitual forms of human though. Consider “spiritual reality°” to refer to the universe of space-time as it actually is, with all the counter-intuitive weirdness science has uncovered. In which case, using science to understand the universe, and engineering and other applied science to solve problems, is a secular form of shamanic mediation.

    That this looks like a major twist-and-stretch isn’t the big problem for Christians. Rather, the catch and massive headache is that they then have to concede that it works — much more often than their approach.

  • abb3w

    Sigh… human thought.

  • lofgren

    Improbable Joe @7

    Obviously I know quite a few Christians – you can’t help it – but keep in mind the Christian community is vastly more huge than the atheist community and actually overlaps with the secular community in terms of political activism. There is a tendency to define that community by its wackiest members, just because there are the loudest and most destructive. I am not convinced that they represent more than a small subset of the Christian population.

    Hard data on this matter is very difficult to gather thanks to mercurial definitions. Certain groups have a habit of saying “Christians all agree with me!” and then citing a poll that says that 90% of Christians believe something and a census that says that the majority of the US is Christian – eliding the fact that the poll might have used a very specific definition of Christian such as “believes in inerrancy, premillenialism, and the virgin birth” (tossing out all other professed Christians for not being “true” Christians). So what I am saying is that I really don’t even believe the apparently hard data on these matters, due to persistent flaws in methodology.

    Do a large number of people believe it? Sure, compared to the total number of atheists out there. But compared to total number of Christians? I doubt it.

  • It was, as the subtitle to a 1984 book still revered by religious conservatives, put it, The Most Dangerous Religion in America. How so? Because it held that man, not God, determines human affairs.

    This line of reasoning, if it can be called that, has always mystified me. If you believe that God guides human affairs, what difference does it make what people do or believe? If our destiny is predetermined by Big Deity, what could it possibly matter if some people don’t believe it? If by not believing they can change their destiny or that of others, then the whole premise is wrong and human beings really do determine human affairs.

    I bewildered that the whole thing relies on such blatant stupidity. Did none of them pause for just a few seconds to think this through?

  • “The Fake War on Secularism”

    By the way, your construction of this seems backwards. The War on Secularism is very real. What’s not real is “Secularism” as some sort of religious or political movement, other than as the passive avoidance of injecting religion into everyday life, something that even the vast majority of religious people do. So right-wing loons have decided to wage war on something that doesn’t really exist, but the war they’ve started is real enough.

    In other words, this is an inversion of for example the War on Christmas, which is definitely phony.

  • matty1

    “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would be generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”

    I’ve been a devout practitioner of others for many years. It’s a hard religion to follow since every time someone finds out what we believe we have to change it all but I can confirm there is no God involved.

  • kermit.

    lofgren: Do a large number of people believe [secular humanism is a religion]? Sure, compared to the total number of atheists out there. But compared to total number of Christians? I doubt it.

    Maybe not in the UK or Sweden, but in the USA, sure, lots. The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, numbering about 15 million, and the Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Pentecostals all reject evolutionary science. They are rigid thinkers, anti-science, fiercely authoritarian, and more prone to believe random emails that affirm their suspicions than an august scientific body with evidence and working theories. These are pretty much the same ones who can’t imagine folks who don’t worship something (“Isn’t everybody a slavish devotee singing praises to somebody?”).

    Surveys indicate about forty percent of the US are Creationists, although many of them are simply scientifically illiterate. But if even half of those are educable, that still leaves one fifth who are bizarrely conspiracist. They not only are poor at putting themselves in another person’s shoes, they have a hard time with the very concept that other people can be fundamentally different in their world views.

    If the Fundamentalists are good at anything, it’s at being unable to process “what if…” scenarios.

  • lofgren

    The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, numbering about 15 million, and the Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Pentecostals all reject evolutionary science.

    This is exactly the kind of broad brush that I don’t trust. The SBC is probably the largest of those groups, and even though its leadership projects a unified stance there are smaller organizations within the church who are trying to change that, advocating everything from anti-creationism to pro-gay rights. In addition despite decades of working to consolidate their power the SBC remains a fairly loose coalition, with power residing primarily at the local level.

    But OK, let’s say I accept the reasoning that because it is the official stance of the SBC, all Southern Baptists deny evolution. So what? What does that have to do with the subject at hand? You can’t just leap from the fact that they deny a scientific theory that conflicts with teaching they have received since childhood to an assumption that they therefore believe everything described in Ed’s post. The two are certainly tangentially related but if there is one thing we know about people, it’s that they are really good at compartmentalizing their beliefs.

  • kermit.

    Do all of them believe any particular thing? No, of course not. But I was raised Southern Baptist, and group think and paranoia are rampant among these folks. They think that millions of scientists, from all countries, for the last six generations, have been conspiring to fake evidence for evolution. It is not that much of a stretch to imagine them thinking that there is a conspiracy of the secular humanists to get Jesus, or whatever their goal would be.

    And throw in a couple of million Tea-Partiers who aren’t especially religious but are also paranoid and anti-science: the non-religious who are nonetheless GW denialists, birthers, etc.

    I’m willing to look at decent surveys that cover this particular topic, but I’ll bet a bundle that this minority is 20% to 40% of the US population.

  • lofgren

    I’m willing to look at decent surveys that cover this particular topic, but I’ll bet a bundle that this minority is 20% to 40% of the US population.

    I’ll bet that it’s around 27%, but I suspect that that number goes down much lower much faster with minimal prodding. It’s not enough to know whether or not somebody believes something, you also have to know how deeply they believe it – that is, to what extent it affects their behavior, and how much its gravity influences the movement of beliefs that pass within its orbit.

    I suppose I am shifting the goalposts a little here, but remember I am comparing this crazy belief that atheists have about Christians to some of the crazy beliefs that Christians have about atheists. You can find plenty of atheists who are irrational, abrasive assholes who use their atheism to justify plainly dickish if not immoral behavior, as well as “atheists” who are really just believers in denial or trying to shock their parents. Those characters do exist, but Christians – some Christians – generalize those characteristics and apply them to all or most atheists, which is unfair. I think we should avoid doing the same thing to Christians. While the point-and-laugh approach has value, we should ensure we are pointing at the right thing when we do it. The goal is to drive a wedge between our true enemies and those who we both seek to convert into allies. With regards to secular government, the majority of self-professed Christians, even self-professed conservatives and right-wingers, are actually potentially valuable allies. We don’t want to alienate them by associating them too strongly with beliefs that they might hold tentatively or even find absurd. That’s why it pays to name specific names rather than talk about large groups of people.

  • Michael Heath

    Chiroptera writes:

    Many evangelicals believe that people, even atheists, actually do believe that God exists and even that the Christian religion is basically true, but deny it because an acknowledgement would mean giving up their sinful ways.

    Misrepresenting apostates as ‘backsliders’ has a long tradition in conservative Christianity. From what I’ve read from you before, I’m confident you already know this.

    To those not brought up fundie, focusing on “backsliding” is a nice avoidance that many think their way to discarding with belief and faith. The vast majority of rhetoric I encountered while being raised fundie when it came to American unbelievers was that they hated God or believed but were attracted to a sinful life where they hoped to pay their insurance premium just prior to death. The idea their faith could be falsified and therefore abandoned as an objectively moral response was rarely brought up and when it was, it was always misrepresented or met with a lame avoidance tactic. In my case, “your too smart for your own good” (when as a teen I challenged the falsity of certain claims).