Secularists are not atheists

Secularism is about separating church and state, not disbelief. Mixing it up with atheism serves only the right

Published September 9, 2012 4:00PM (EDT)

This article is excerpted from "How to Be Secular," available Sept. 11 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Secularism leaves the mystery of deity to the chartered imagination of man, and does not attempt to close the door of the future, but holds that the desert of another existence belongs only to those who engage in the service of man in this life. —George Jacob Holyoake, “English Secularism”

American secularism has lost control of its identity and image. That’s because the equation secularism = atheism is rapidly gaining market share. It is increasingly employed in popular usage, political analysis, and even scholarly discourse. This formula is muscling out an infinitely more accurate understanding of secularism as a political philosophy about how the state should relate to organized religion. If this association prevails, if secularism simply becomes a synonym for atheism, then secularism in the United States will go out of business.

Which is fine by the Revivalists and which may account for why they perpetuate this confusion. In these circles secularism has become another word for godlessness. As one journalist perceptively observes, “secular” is a “code in conservative Christian circles for ‘atheist’ or even ‘God-hating’ . . . conjur[ing], in a fresh way, all the demons Christian conservatives have been fighting for more than 30 years: liberalism, sexual permissiveness, and moral lassitude.”

Not only foes draw this link, but friends as well. The website of the Secular Coalition for America describes the group as “a 501(c)4 advocacy organization whose purpose is to amplify the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States.” This community, it points out, is comprised of “atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and other nontheistic Americans.” An affiliated organization, the Secular Student Alliance, refers to its mission as “to organize and empower nonreligious students around the country.”

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.

Aside from being preposterously imprecise, the equation secularism = atheism gravely undermines the potential of secularism as a political movement. It leaves people of faith with little incentive to buy in and reduces secularism’s personnel to the size of the tiny American atheist movement.

This equation poses a serious public relations problem as well. The atheist movement is not just small, but it is also among the least popular groups in the United States. A survey in 2007 found that respondents viewed nonbelievers more unfavorably than any other cohort they were asked about. This included Muslims, whom the atheists somehow edged out by 18 percentage points. If atheists are perceived to “own” secularism, its approval ratings will plummet even further.

This is certainly not the fault of atheists, the vast majority of whom are tolerant, self-critical, and moderate in their outlook (that is, secularish). And were a true secular movement to be forged, it should make the eradication of anti-atheist prejudice integral to its platform. The fact remains, however, that the more secularism becomes narrowly equated with atheism, the less it will be able to forge coalitions and pursue its agenda effectively.

Which brings us, then, to the aforementioned impending bankruptcy. The growing popularity of the secularism = atheism equation has to do with the advent of a group known as the New Atheists. Incensed by the political and cultural might of the Revivalists, this movement crashed into the public square in 2004. The result included enviable book sales, preposterous polemics, and the almost overnight development of a national media platform.

Yet instead of honing their powers of critique on anti-secular Revivalists, the New Atheists advanced a mixed-martial-arts assault on religion in general. They gleefully (and catastrophically) set about pitting nonbelievers against all believers. They thus included in their onslaught the one constituency in whose hands the future of secularism lies: religious moderates. The New Atheist creed maintains that moderates are just as dangerous and misguided as their extremist co-religionists.

Here is Sam Harris, offering his characteristically subtle take on the question: “Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflicts in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.” Richard Dawkins, in “The God Delusion,” includes a self-explanatory section titled “How ‘Moderation’ in Faith Fosters Fanaticism.” “Even mild and moderate religion,” he avers, “helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.” Surely a school of thought that can’t distinguish between a member of the Taliban beheading a journalist and a Methodist running a soup kitchen in Cincinnati is not poised to make the sound policy decisions that accrue to the good of secularism.

The precise relation of atheism to secularism needs to be teased out and explained to the general public. This is actually an old dilemma, one that was debated a century and a half ago. There, the possibility was raised that the passions of extreme atheism tend to muck up the agenda of secularism.

Secularism Born Again?

Opinions differ as to when secularism was born. One approach focuses on Christian premodernity and identifies Paul and Augustine as having laid down the initial tracks of the secular vision. The second, which is preferable, points to the high-speed thought corridor that stretched from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. It was there, in early modernity, that the Luther-Locke-Jefferson line carried the secular vision into the sunlight of Reason.

Others, however, identify a completely different starting point: the winter of 1851, when the Englishman George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) recalls having coined the word secularism (his contribution being the suffixing of that -ism onto the word secular). He shared that recollection in a book written forty-five years later, so, unless his memory was flawless, perhaps we should not canonize the precise date. Suffice it to say that secularism experienced a third and auspicious birth sometime during the mid-nineteenth century.

For some it is Holyoake, not Jefferson, nor Locke, nor Luther, who is the true father of secularism. And if secularism suffers from a definitional crisis today, let us note in passing that to him must be ascribed some responsibility for that as well. In his works, such as The Principles of Secularism of 1871, he somehow managed to define secularism in about a dozen different ways.

This complex figure lived a long and tumultuous life in what must have been a very interesting era to think outside the confines of Christianity. The viselike grip of ecclesiastical control was clearly loosening in Victorian England. This context provided a perfect, though not necessarily risk-free, environment for Holyoake and countless other “infidels” to mount a ferocious attack on the status quo.

In his youth, Holyoake was a relentless critic of Christianity. Like so many Victorian dissenters, he spent time in jail for blaspheming. In 1843 he bitterly, but eloquently, recounted the tale of his imprisonment in his essay “A Short and Easy Method with the Saints.” There, the twenty-five-year-old protests that “religion is ever found the mother of mental prostration, and the right arm of political oppression.”

Holyoake was understandably enraged at having been thrown in a dungeon for an off-the-cuff poke at Christianity he had made while taking questions after a lecture. He complained that this religion forces the concession of “man’s noblest right, the right of expressing his opinions.” “Infidels have never received anything from Christians,” he broods, “but calumny, contempt, insult, imprisonment, and death.”

As he aged, however, Holyoake’s views would mellow and evolve in ways that make him difficult to categorize. In his early life he threw his lot in with atheism, but one scholar sees him drifting to agnosticism in his old age. Another writer refers to him as a “lukewarm” atheist and notes that Holyoake “was sympathetic to religion.” He saw secularism as a worldview or system of ethics that moved to- ward knowledge of God insofar as it assiduously strived to discover the truth. Holyoake, for his part, endorsed an “atheism of reflection,” which “listens reverentially for the voice of God, which weighs carefully the teachings of a thoughtful Theism; but refuses to recognize the officious, incoherent babblement of intolerant or presumptuous men.”

This calls attention to a very important truth about self-professed atheists in the nineteenth century and most likely today as well: rather than having a fixed lifelong identity as deniers of God’s existence, there is a recurrent fluctuation in their thought. Individual atheists change across the course of a lifetime.

Should this be surprising? People change. Theists change. Atheists change. The latter are not godless every minute of their lives. Nor are the former lacking in doubts. Extreme theists and extreme atheists insist on locking people into one fixed identity. But atheist identity is always in flux. How to be secular? In matters metaphysical, keep an open mind or, as we shall see later, “don’t get overwrought.”

In any case, Holyoake refined and defended his thought about secularism across more than a half-century of published work. His initial comment from 1851, referenced earlier, maintained that “secular” connoted “principles of conduct, apart from spiritual considerations.” Gaining attention and growing in stature, the rising star would publish a book a few years later called Principles of Secularism. There he offered up a plethora of definitions. It is hard to pinpoint which understanding of his subject he preferred, but the following would seem to represent his view well: “Secularism is the study of promoting human welfare by material means; measuring human welfare by the utilitarian rule, and making the service of others a duty of life. Secularism relates to the present existence of man. . . [it is] a series of principles intended for the guidance of those who find Theology indefinite, or inadequate, or deem it unreliable.”

Holyoake’s sympathetic readers were variously confused, elated, or angered by this definition. Let’s begin with confusion: a passenger on the Luther-Locke-Jefferson line might be justifiably flummoxed. Where is the reference to order? The state? The church? In truth, political conceptions of secularism were always an afterthought for Holyoake. He did occasionally contemplate the role of government, as when he wrote, “The State should forbid no religion, impose no religion, teach no religion, pay no religion.”

Ethicists, however, might be elated by a definition that placed the accent of secularism on moral behavior instead of politics. Holyoake, as we have seen, spoke of principles that were to guide secularists, what he called “a code of duty pertaining to this life.” Foremost among them were the following mantra-like propositions: (1) “the improvement of this life by material means,” (2) “science is the avail- able Providence of man,” and (3) “it is good to do good.”

Holyoake’s definition(s) not only stressed ethics, but ethics geared to the present. “Secularity,” he commented, “draws the line of separation between the things of time and the things of eternity. That is Secular which pertains to this world.” The emphasis on ethical action in the here and now is constant through all of Holyoake’s thinking. Holyoake went so far as to opine, “Giving an account of ourselves in the whole extent of opinion . . . we should use the word ‘Secularist’ as best indicating that province of human duty which belongs to this life.”

Thus far we have encountered two species of definitions of secularism: the political and the ethical. The political was born of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. It stresses the relation between religious institutions and government. Its bearers were our five visionary architects. The ethical definition was engendered by Holyoake and later on we will note its affinities with the thought of Saint Augustine. We would add, parenthetically, that Holyoake’s approach has lived a long and healthy life in dictionaries and encyclopedias in the entry titled “Secularism.” Curiously, many reference books tend to favor this ethical definition over the older political one that developed in Christian political philosophy.

Among those who were chagrined by Holyoake’s approach would be the small but growing band of Victorian infidels for whom he was a hero and leader. True, Holyoake would earn their respect by championing the cause of freedom of expression (a huge issue for an out- spoken population that had a knack for getting thrown in the clink). But why didn’t his definition reference infidelity or atheism or agnosticism or some such thing?

Holyoake intentionally omitted any reference to atheism in his definition of secularism. To understand why is to glimpse a credible alternative to the extreme forms of atheism that are coming to dominate secularism today.

Excerpted from "How to Be Secular" by Jacques Berlinerblau. Copyright © 2012 by Jacques Berlinerblau. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

By Jacques Berlinerblau

Jacques Berlinerblau (@Berlinerblau; is a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University. He has written numerous scholarly books and articles on the subject of secularism, his most recent being "Secularism: The Basics" (Routledge). He has also published "Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue" (Georgetown) with Terrence L. Johnson. He wishes to thank Denise Altman for her research assistance. He is currently working on "Can I Laugh At That? Comedy in the Age of Cancellation."

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