Have We Forgotten How to Be Secular?

Have We Forgotten How to Be Secular? September 13, 2012

According to Jacques Berlinerblau, associate professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, more biblical verses have been invoked by presidents and presidential candidates in the past four years than they have in the previous two or three decades. Berlinerblau posits that our society may be forgetting how to be secular, or what “secularism” even means, and has written a new book entitled “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom” in order to address the issue.

“Weary of religious conservatives urging “defense of marriage” and atheist polemicists decrying the crimes of religion? Sick of pundits who want only to recast American life in their own image? Americans are stuck in an all-or-nothing landscape for religion in public life. What are reasonable citizens to do? Seen as godless by the religious and weak by the atheists, secularism mostly has been misunderstood. In How to Be Secular, Berlinerblau argues for a return to America’s hard-won secular tradition; the best way to protect religious diversity and freedom lies in keeping an eye on the encroachment of each into the other.”

Berlinerblau notes that the concept of secularism has been blurred from both sides, with conservative Christians and atheists both defining the term as equivalent to atheism. This wasn’t always so, as “secular” was a label anyone could apply to themselves, in many different contexts.

“Why must so-called secular organizations be focused exclusively on nonbelievers? After all, just a few decades back, in secularism’s mild separationist golden age, all sorts of religious believers could have been categorized as secularists. The term could refer to a Baptist, a Jew, a progressive Catholic, a Unitarian, and so on. Also, there were secular identities that didn’t make any reference to a person’s religious belief or lack thereof. A secularist might just as likely have been a public school teacher, a journalist, a civil rights activist, a professor, a Hollywood mogul, a civil libertarian, a pornographer, and so forth. From the 1940s to the 1980s all of the aforementioned groups mobilized on behalf of secular causes, the most prominent being separation of church and state.”

With secularism so out of fashion in the United States we risk, according to the author, the very “soil in which democracy is planted.” This erosion of secularism could be especially harmful to religious minorities within the United States, including Pagans. There’s been a noticeable trend towards “religious freedom” initiatives that directly favor the majority faith, while purporting to bring freedom to all people of faith.

“The problem with these attempts to codify “religious freedom” into law is that almost always benefits the majority at the expense of the minority. I have seen time and time again, in a number of different circumstances, when laws and policies that are supposed to be viewpoint neutral end up empowering one expression of faith in the public square. That’s bad when it involves adults struggling over the issue, but it becomes pernicious when we use our children as proxies in a fight over the nature of religious freedom and secularism within our country. It shows just how desperate and anxious sections of our  Christian majority have become.”

We’re in a weird place right now when it comes to religion, the Christian character of our nation has been softening, and smaller faiths (and people of no faith) have been expanding, but our politics and culture are dominated by a Christian narrative (more than 3/4 of Americans identify as Christian). A robust secularism could be the answer to mollifying some of the tensions inherent in the demographic shifts currently underway, but only if we understand what secularism is, and what it can be. A new coalition for a strong secularism, the separation of Church and State, must be built from moderates in the dominant religions, agnostics, non-theists, and the many religious minorities who rely on secularism to protect their rights and freedoms.

“To ensure the future of secularism and its “virtues of moderation and tolerance,” millions more Americans must declare themselves secularists, including followers of liberal faiths and religious minorities.”From the Kirkus Review of “How To Be Secular.”

I have yet to read Jacques Berlinerblau‘s book, but I think it addresses an important topic for our interconnected communities, and I look forward to doing so.

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16 responses to “Have We Forgotten How to Be Secular?”

  1. I just had an enormous blow up with someone in regards to the idea of Christian privilege and the de-secularization of the country, which lead me to write a long rant that will not see the light of day. But still. This is a fortuitous coincidence. Thank you!

  2. I’m seeing two trends in American politics from the 1980s onward that are ominous for freedom. One is the blurring of the boundaries between the religious and secular spheres. References to God, the Creator or Providence have been part of American political rhetoric since the Revolution, but used to be reserved for major speeches on life and death topics. It wasn’t routine and expected to end every public address with “God bless America”. As someone else observed, John F. Kennedy and other politicians of that era didn’t do this.

    There is a less noted blurring of the boundaries between the civilian and the military. First, all the uniformed, quasi-military organizations like police departments, fire departments and the Boy Scouts put American flag patches on their uniforms as if they can’t function without continually pledging allegiance to the federal government. Wearing a flag lapel pin for public appearances became an unofficial requirement for national politicians. Since 9/11, I have been hearing more and more references to the President as Commander in Chief when the subject under discussion is civilian activity. The POTUS is Commander in Chief of the armed forces. I am a civilian. The President is an elected public servant who works for me and other citizens. He is not my commander; I have no duty to obey him. Criticizing or disagreeing with the President or resisting his policies is not disloyalty.

    Both of these trends are creeping fascism and they make me nervous. To say nothing of the Department of Homeland Security, sounds better in the original German as the old joke goes.

  3. Marc , we are on the same wavelenth . Is this rant available on line or would you like to make it so?I would like to see it , i have ranted /vented here b/f . Tis good for the soul. besides we will probably agree with you . Kilm

  4. I agree This country is headed in the wrong direction . To my memory most of this crap started with Bush 1 courting the RR and NAR types the religious Right wingnuts , Bush 2 otherwise known as ” W” took it even further .All this stuff is extrememly dangerous , contrary to what these people believe the US was never meant to be a Christian Theocracy. Secularism is the only way for this noble experiment of ours can survive Have people really forgotten that a secular government is the only way to keep all of us free. The very principles of religious freedom our nation is based on depends on this type of government . Do they realise how bad things will get if a extreme right wing religionist group takes control of our govt?If such a group starts dictating public govt. policy , based on there extremist right wing Christian views .Not to even mention these folks only like there flavor of Christian , not even other Christians and dear gods they hate us and all other moderates/ religious minorities . If such a absurd change was to happen to our govt , i for one and most pagans would be looking for another home , not to even mention the rest of the 25% of the population that isn’t Christian . Altho i personaly don’t have the time or money to form a Secularist Movement i would happily support and jion one .We need to remind the rest of the country exactly who the RR wingnuts are and what they want to do. I’m sure if others knew what they have planned for us , we would not have a problem turning this ugly trend back . The RR wingnuts currently have hijacked the Republic Party , has anyone looked the the Republican platform lately ? This thing reads like a wanted items list from the RR , NAR wingnuts , is really scary .The whole idea of God forbid , a moderate Republican is completely unheard of these days .So it goes , I quess , i’m just hoping after this upcomong election this country has room for those like us . Kilm

  5. Unfortunatly Deborah , you are entirely correct ………….these people , our wonderful politicians seem to have forgotten they work for us , not big money and special interest groups

  6. When White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism and Catholicism classify what ‘secular’ is, so far as norms are in America, it is very hard to reverse this trend of radicalization. With pushing coming on so hard from the right, a growing reactionary atheist movement and media with the attention-span and memory of Dory from Finding Nemo, it is little wonder we have little room between things to speak our minds. It does not help that we are derided by both fundamentalist right-wing Christians and New Atheists.

    If we are going to have anything like a secular society I feel that civility has to be restored before a single solitary thing can be done. If we cannot so much as speak in the same room without descending into invective, what good does it do us to come together on policies?

  7. What is amazing is that conservative religious (Christian and Jewish) tend to bewail the increasing secularization of the culture. So, let me ask a question. Can you think of anyone, who does not identify with a religious tradition, who would refrain from an action merely because a given religious tradition does not approve of it? The culture is, if anything, becoming more secular, not less. The mere fact of a lot of media screaming and electoral posturing does not change that in the slightest.

  8. It’s basically just a reiteration of things that Jason has written here, as well as some of my own thoughts thrown in, intended to be read as a response to people who don’t understand what Christian privilege is/are so saturated with it that they can’t see how oppressive it is. It’s really nothing that hasn’t ever been read before!

    I just like how things work, that I get down to ranting on a word processor about a subject, and all of a sudden the very next day this comes across my vision.

    I’ll consider placing it on my personal blog, but it deals with a family member, and I don’t want an issue to arise from it.

  9. I remember when, back in the 80’s, I was a teen in a fundamentalist Christian church (or cult as I would describe it today). In those days we were taught that secularism was the only guarantee of religious freedom because our brand of religion was a minority, at least in the political arena. Those same groups mobilized politically and have now gained a substantial influence in politics. Now they seem to have forgotten the arguments they proposed against the State being in bed with the Church. Religion combined with government degrades both. I believe there are elements within the New Atheist movement as well as more liberal (or at least less fanatical) Christians who are still uncomfortable with this unhappy marriage of politics and spiritual belief. Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but sometimes it just gets replaced. We need to work with whomever we can to insure this particular phenomenon is ended as soon as possible.

  10. Secularism is necessarily political, because it fights against the political aspirations of religious groups that seek political power. Therefore secularists tend to fall into two categories: left and right.

    Secularism used to be a significant force on the right, but the rise of the Christian right has now completely marginalized any secularist voices at that end of the spectrum.

    But secularism was always much more closely associated with the left than with the right. This goes back to 1789, when those who sat on the left-side of the National Assembly essentially defined what “Left” means in political terms: opposition to the Monarchy, opposition to the Church, and support for equality, liberty, republicanism and democracy. But over the last several decades, Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) have made a serious attempt to insinuate and assert themselves throughout the Left (including among Communists, Anarchists and other far-left types), and have succeeded both in legitimizing themselves, and in delegitimizing anyone who is perceived as overly “intolerant” in their criticism of Christianity. In this effort the Christians have been greatly assisted by the moronic “New Atheists” who have seriously dumbed down the once proud intellectual tradition of anticlericalism.

  11. Some articles about the RNC convention pretty plainly state that the Republican Party Platform that came out of it was pretty much written BY the evangelicals.

  12. Agreed. Yet the Media can have a great influence in such situations. That is why The Wild Hunt is so important in bringing these public discussions to our attention. Education and communication are one of the ways Media can contribute positively to our world.

  13. Secularism cannot be a “stand alone” thing – first of all, the concept of the secular and sacred is a Catholic Christian concept, even in fact a Biblical concept – Render unto Ceasar, render unto God – The US is not a Christian nation – even Jesus would consider a Christian nation to not be possible since his own words state that his kingdom is not of this world).
    But nor is the US a secular republic. It recognises God (the deist kind at least in the humanist Christian tradition of the 18th century) in the Constitution as the giver of rights to mankind. The French revolutionaries – who the Americans looked to in admiration when starting their own revolution – would have balked in horror at those words as they of course did not recognise such things – the rights of man were what men decided the rights to be. This of course led to their revolution turning on itself and what today in France in recognised as the Reign of Terror that followed for the next 10yrs, including finally the fall of their new secular republic and France becoming a dictatorship and ruled by an Emperor.
    What America needs is for both Christians and non-Christians to first understand the meaning of the word Secular and not use it as a battering ram against each other