War on Secularism

Rick Perlstein has a great new article up at the Rolling Stone with the apt but cumbersome title, “Behind the Right’s Phony War on the Nonexistent Religion of Secularism.” I particularly like the background he provides:

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 Right,” in 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.

I also loved this part:

Liberals, dumbfounded by irrationality in that patented liberal way, pointed out that the number of people calling themselves “secular humanists” was only a handful, so how could they possibly possess such omnipotence. Well, fundamentalists would counter, doesn’t that just prove the success of their conspiracy?

Ain’t America grand?

*groan* America was founded on that kind of thinking. Is the British Government placing a minuscule tax on tea? It’s a conspiracy! The small size of the tax is just proof that they’re trying to lull us into a sense of complacency. Paranoia: America’s first founding principle.

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  • vasaroti

    Never heard of that MD case. I thought secular humanism’s “birthday” would have been linked to one of the ancient Greek philosophers – or maybe when the first episode of Star Trek aired. However, June 19 is herewith added to the “days of extra beer.’
    As for the rest, it’s just that special way religious people have of warping their own language, as in the meaning of “theory.” The Bible is infallible; dictionaries are just “our chef recommends.”

    I think you have misunderstood the reason behind the Boston tea party. Please read more on the subject.

    • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

      Well said. The dictionary comment is the crux of the matter. While some on the right may cite the Supreme Court’s daft footnote, it is only after scrambling for a shred of evidence for their presuppositions about things they neither understand nor care to. In fact I have been in countless discussions with paranoid Christians who firmly believe in the religiosity of secularism (and humanism, which even some humanists see and certainly use as a religion), and a Supreme Court definition has just never come up. This one’s new on me. I don’t think they care and I don’t think it is particularly relevant – they just cannot get their head around a concept like non-religion or neutrality. In these arguments, whether they play out on forums, on TV or in newspapers, it is abundantly clear that the religious persons in question cannot imaging a lack of belief – people have to belief in something, just like we do, even if it means the sacraments are secularism and the holy book is Origin of Species.

      Besides, the argument that secularism cannot be established by the government because of the separation clause immediately falls apart when it is used as an excuse for endorsing Christianity, thus ignoring the exact same clause. It’s an empty argument, at best a case of poorly thought out special pleading.

      The Supreme Court should never be held up as the be all-end all of judgement anyway; its members can be obtuse, overtly biased and at times outright stupid. Scalia once tried to argue that a cross is not a Christian symbol, so Jews and Muslims should not care if somebody slaps one up as a monument to them, even on public land. He thinks it outrageous that anyone would conclude that a cross used as the symbol of a war memorial is somehow religious in nature. The guy’s a clown. Naturally, those who deplore secularism would agree with me on how untrustworthy the Supreme Court is when we start to discuss Roe vs. Wade. Perhaps one secular (in the real sense of the word) issue we can agree on is their utter betrayal of the country when they declared corporations are people.