Reader Sigmund keeps a weather eye on HuffPo and BioLogos, and found an interesting piece by Jacques Berlinerblau (remember him?) on the difference between secularism and atheism. Sadly, Berlinerblau, who apparently can’t help himself, goes beyond his thesis to bash New Atheism.
Jacques Berlinerblau and the problem of secularism
Over on the Huffington Post, the accommodationist historian Jacques Berlinerblau has a new piece on the problems of secularism: ‘Secularism is not Atheism’. Berlinerblau, who seems to have abandoned his call for others to shut up about the subject of atheism if they haven’t read Lucien Febvre’s ‘The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais’, approaches the subject using the classic HuffPo accomodationist template: a couple of good but obvious points, a shot at some easy GOP target , a plea to buy his new book and, finally, a gratuitous swipe at the new atheists.
Secularism, as Berlinerblau notes, is concerned primarily with the relations between Church and State. “At its core, secularism is deeply suspicious of any entanglement between government and religion.”
As such it provides a target by those groups, most notably the religious right, who seek a strong role for their religion in government. Berlinerblau begins by pointing out the misrepresentation of secularism by the religious right in the US:
“Secularism must be the most misunderstood and mangled ism in the American political lexicon. Commentators on the right and the left routinely equate it with Stalinism, Nazism and Socialism, among other dreaded isms. In the United States, of late, another false equation has emerged. That would be the groundless association of secularism with atheism.“
This policy of linking secularism with both atheism and totalitarianism has resulted in nonsensical claims such as Newt Gingrich’s much-derided claim that the US was on the path to become “a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”
As Berlinerblau points out,
“Claiming that secularism and atheism are the same thing makes for good culture warrioring. The number of nonbelievers in this country is quite small. Many Americans, unfortunately, harbor irrational prejudices toward them. By intentionally blurring the distinction between atheism and secularism, the religious right succeeds in drowning both.”
Berlinerblau next turns to a problem he sees in the use of the term ‘secular’ by the non-religious.
“Nowadays most major atheist groups describe themselves as “secular.” Many are in fact good secularists. But others, as we shall see, are beholden to assumptions that are strikingly at odds with the secular worldview.”
Berlinerblau rightly draws a distinction between a non-religious or naturalistic worldview and a secular world view.
“Secularism, on the other hand, has nothing to do with metaphysics. It does not ask whether there is a divine realm. It is agnostic, if you will, on the question of God’s existence — a question that is way above its pay grade.”
In other words, secularism is a political position rather than a metaphysical one, concerned with the freedom to believe in whatever religion one wants and the freedom from religious strictures imposed by the state on its citizens.
What this means, in effect, is that one does not need to be a nonbeliever to be a secularist. Indeed many of the founding fathers of US secularism, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. were religious; and it is important to remember that prominent contemporary religious secularists exist, such the Reverend Barry Lynn, the Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Berlinerblau sees this non-religious exclusivity as a problem, a dangerous blurring of the line between secularism and atheism that can and will be exploited by the religious right.
While he may have a point here it is questionable to what extent the membership policies of the SCA and SSA influence the view of secularism amongst the population at large. Some of the most outspoken attacks against secularism have come from leading Catholic figures from Europe, a region where secularism is not synonymous with atheism.
For example the UK based National Secular Society seeks to:
“promote secularism as the best means to create a society in which people of all religions or none can live together fairly and cohesively. The NSS sees secularism – the position that the state should be separate from religion – as an essential element in promoting equality between all citizens.”
This has not, however, prevented virulent attacks against secularism from both the Pope and one of the UK’s most senior Catholics, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, who recently claimed:
“The rise of atheism is very, very dangerous”, going on to state: “no one should be forced to live according to the new secular religion as if it alone were definitive and obligatory for all mankind”
Berlinerblau finally and predictably takes aim at the new atheists:
“some atheists, of late, have taken a regrettable anti-secular turn.”
He then goes on to equate secularism with a kind of religious neutrality – one that is violated by advcoating an anti-theistic worldview. Using the examples of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris as Violators In Chief, Berlinerblau makes a final dire and prediction:
“as long as some celebrities of nonbelief continue to espouse radical anti-theism (in the name of “secularism,” no less) the future of secularism is imperiled.”
The implication of Berlinerblau’s argument seems to be that one cannot advocate that the theistic worldview is unsupported by evidence and at the same time assume the mantle of secularism.
But why not?
Wouldn’t his caution apply equally to a theist who advocates others to accept their faith? Don’t Christians and Muslims want others to ‘see the light’ and become Christians or Muslims respectively? Wouldn’t that mean that they must be anti-secularist too?
If secularism really entails freedom of religion, then so long as the atheist or believer doesn’t try to compel others into accepting their beliefs (and Berlinerblau provides no evidence that prominent New Atheists seek this option), then where is the incompatibility between outspoken atheism and secularism?
In the end, Berlinerblau is partly correct. There is indeed a problem in the US with secularism and religion. Perhaps, however, he should ask himself not why there are so many ‘secular’ New Atheists, but why there are so few Barry Lynns.