Beyond Secularism

Beyond Secularism June 9, 2014

Secularism is an important value: a secular government – a government which does not embody or promote any particular religious or nonreligious worldview, and which bases its policies on what is likely to improve the welfare of its citizens rather than on any particular religious ideology – is an essential component of a flourishing society. Efforts to protect the secular nature of the US government – such as preventing public schools from imposing religious views on their students through mandatory prayers or religiously-motivated materials in textbooks – are worthwhile and praiseworthy, and perfectly appropriate for Humanist organizations to pursue.

Over recent decades, however, it seems secularism has become the primary value of the American Humanist movement – indeed it sometimes seems to be the movement’s only value. Efforts to police the boundary between church and state have taken on increasing prominence, to the extent that they have begun, from my perspective, to crowd-out other issues which are even more pressing.

Take, for instance, the American Humanist Association’s recent lawsuit against a cross-shaped World War I memorial in Maryland. Setting aside the bad will this move is likely to provoke (“Humanists denigrate memory of WWI veterans!”), and assuming the AHA is correct on the matter of law (I’m dubious), we must still ask “Is this the most pressing matter that the legal resources of the American Humanist Association could be tackling at this moment?”

I think not. We live in a time when many Americans are struggling to get basic healthcare insurance due to the flaws in the US healthcare system and the incompetence of the US government; a time when a stumbling economy has left a generation looking toward a future of insecure employment and reduced affluence; a time when Republican laws threaten the basic right of suffrage for minorities and the poor; a time when trans people face legal discrimination, cultural ostracism and violence; a time when unions are under attack and workers’ rights are being eroded; a time when gun violence is commonplace and increasingly deadly; a time when women live in an atmosphere of constant threat; a time when our endless consumption has put the health of our very planet at stake. Humans – and Humanists – have bigger problems and more pressing priorities than old crosses on public land.

The over-emphasis on secularism in Humanist circles has two deleterious effects: first, it associates secularism too closely with atheism and non-religion, scaring off some of the religious supporters of secular government we will need to ensure the US remains secular. In recent years (according to one employee I spoke with a while ago), the membership of Americans United for Separation of Church and State has shifted from being majority religious to being much more atheistic. This is a huge problem, because atheists are massively outnumbered by religious people in the USA. The more secularism comes to be seen as a battle between religious and nonreligious people, the less it will be embraced by the majority religious population, and the more frequently we will lose in the court of public opinion when we champion secularism.

Second, the focus on secularism-above-all-else pushes other important political issues relevant to Humanism to the sidelines. When our major movement organizations can find the time and money to lobby against memorial crosses, but have little to say about legal attacks on voting rights or a racist criminal justice system, we diminish Humanism, reducing it to a narrow focus on one issue among many. If we place so much emphasis on secularism that we fail to speak to the great social and political issues of our age, we show ourselves to be out of touch, a single-issue pressure group rather than a movement for the radical improvement of human life on this planet.

Though Secularism, as I have said, is a critically important value, it is not the only such value, nor is it even the most important one. Humanism is about the promotion of human welfare in all its aspects, and we cannot allow one small part of our political agenda to expand to fill the whole horizon of our hopes. We must be bigger, bolder, and more radical than that.

I understand the desire to place secularism at the center of Humanist activism. Humanism is, for many, a position achieved after a long struggle with religious faith, and many of our most passionate activists see religious influence on society as the root cause of many of our problems – and not without cause. The influence of conservative religion on US society, and societies around the world, is often baleful. But a narrow focus on small infringements of legal church-state separation is not the best way to move society on from the influence of conservative religion – especially if it serves to undermine support for secularism in the broader population.

The world cries out for a non-religious, values-based movement striving for a more humane society on every level. Humanism could be that movement – but only if we look beyond secularism.

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