Have We Forgotten How to Be Secular?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 13, 2012 — 16 Comments

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.

Jason Pitzl-Waters