Guest post: the conflation between atheism and secularism

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.

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Jacques Berlinerblau and the problem of secularism

by Sigmund

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.

The major secular organizations in the US, however, namely the Secular Coalition for America and the Secular Student Alliance  are explicitly non-religious in their organization and membership.

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.

42 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Jacob
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    Secularism, to me, is primarily institutional in nature. One can advocate for neutral political institutions, yet take a more partisan stance in private, and yet still consider oneself a “secularist”.

  3. Sastra
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Yes, I’ve also been disturbed by the popular conflation of ‘secularism’ with ‘atheism.’ There is a very real need to have a term which denotes the political or social position of concerning oneself only with those facts in the world which are available to everyone (as opposed to spiritual “facts” discerned through revelations to the enlightened few.) Science is secular; math is secular; gardening is secular (unless you’re in to gardening woo.) Coupling the two concepts together leads to the belief that failing to turn religious rules into law means that you’re denying God.

    Religion feeds on sloppy thinking; it’s grounded in confusion. Don’t give them an easy path to Fallacy Land.

    There is, however, an eventual conflict in the “keep religious views — including atheism — out of secular matters.” The problem is that the theory of atheism is … well … true. It stands firmly on the evidence of the world. We don’t need or want special rules which “protect” our beliefs from the normal grind of test and public debate.

    Religious people who want to separate their religious views from how they actually live in the world are implicitly accepting the humanist stance that religion doesn’t really matter. It matters on a personal level — not a communal or public level. But, if it were true — how could that also be true? This is one of the lines of thought which lead to my own acceptance of naturalism.

    Bottom line, a secular society will eventually have a lot of non-religious and atheist people in it. The means of protecting against this — insisting strenuously that one needs to believe in God for its benefits to moral character – will slowly erode as the pious come into more and more contact with nonbelievers.

    Of course, a religious society will also suffer from the same fate, sooner or later. Maybe even sooner, since the religious hoi polloi might get suspicious of a “truth” which can’t stand any open dissent. We’re all too interconnected now. Religious harmony requires isolation.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Religious people who want to separate their religious views from how they actually live in the world are implicitly accepting the humanist stance that religion doesn’t really matter. It matters on a personal level — not a communal or public level. But, if it were true — how could that also be true? This is one of the lines of thought which lead to my own acceptance of naturalism.

      Thinking along the lines you describe here also led me to naturalism and atheism: that there are so many religions claiming truth, they can’t all be right, and most likely they are all wrong.

      It is true that the religious who consent to live in a secular society must at least accept that they cannot force their “truth” on others. They don’t need to accept, as you say, that religion doesn’t matter, but at a minimum need to accept that by embracing secularism they protect themselves against domination by those other guys; the presbyterians can be protected from the methodists who are protected from the baptists and so on. Thus religious minorities can be satisfied in secularism without having to concede that it is a compromise to their beliefs, as long as they are free to broadcast their beliefs in the free market of ideas.

      It is only when a religious majority feels empowered to abandon secularism and go for winner-take-all domination that trouble arises for secularism (and minority religions).

      As long as religion is fragmented into different religions and sects, atheists should be able to ally with religious minorities in stressing the importance of secularism.

      Secularism will allow us to erase “In God We Trust” but not to replace it with “God Does Not Exist” or “In Physics We Trust”. So even atheists must compromise something in accepting a secular rather than an atheist society.

      • gbjames
        Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        …but not to replace it with “God Does Not Exist” or “In Physics We Trust”

        These are not equivalent. The second is not a religious statement. I do not think there are many people who do not understand the consequences of stepping off the edge of a tall building without some kind of tether.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

          I’m sure that any post has some nits you can pick. For example, who said the two were equivalent?

          The first is not a religious statement either. It’s an anti-religious statement.

          “In Physics We Trust” is linked by connotation to the historical “In God We Trust”, so it implicitly nullifies “In God We Trust”. There probably are some people who trust in Physics and trust in God. That doesn’t change the fact that “God” is absent. What matters is that it is not a statement that is offensive to atheists like “In God We Trust”.

          At any rate, I prefer that we leave such statements off of our currency. I wouldn’t want an atheist majority to be assholes like the religious majority who put their God on our money.

          • gbjames
            Posted July 31, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

            One man’s nit is another man’s horsefly, I suppose. I think that in terms of the secularism discussion the two sentences you offered are substantially different. The first is clearly about religion (anti, yes… now THAT was a nit). The second one is clearly NOT about religion. Putting the former on money is a violation of secular principles of keeping government and religion separate. Putting the other does not violate this principle. (It would violate the principle of “it should make some sense”, but that’s not the point.)

            I don’t disagree with you about whether this belongs on our money. But saying “In Physics We Trust” is not an atheist statement. It has nothing to do with religion. It is not anti-religion. It is just an over-obvious silly truism.

            • RF
              Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

              According to Grice, an interpretation of a statement that violates the principle of “it should make some sense” is inferior to one that does not violate that principle, and it is natural in communication to impute additional meaning to a statement so as to avoid violating that principle. Thus, while “In Physics we trust” is not explicitly anti-atheist, there is implicit anti-theist meaning in replacing “In God we trust” with that statement.

  4. JamesM
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    I didn’t quite get how exactly some atheists are not secularists because of metaphysics? What was he drinking when he came up with that nonsense?

  5. eric
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    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?

    Sigmund, I think you can be stronger. The question should be: how could it be otherwise? How could secularism even be said to exist in a State where one cannot advocate that a theistic worldview is unsupported by evidence?

    In such a state, the government is heavily regulating religious speech. It is stifling it. It is acting as a gatekeeper to religious arguments, deciding which arguments may be voiced in the public sphere and which may not be. That, arguably, is not secularism.

    I guess the counter-argument is that even-handed oppression of religious (and atheist) speech is a form of secularism. But I don’t find that counter-argumnet convincing at all. For me, state secularism involves the state removing itself from the field altogether (or as much as reasonably possible). Secularism is not just becoming equally heavily entangled with every religious speech-act.

    • eric
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      Ah, forgot my end thought:

      (For the above reasons) I think Berlinbau’s version of secularism is not secularist at all. It entangles the state with religion too much. Even if one considers it secularist, its at best a highly authoritarian type of secularism that very few actual secularists advocate for (i.e., its a straw man).

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Berinblau confuses “advocacy” of a point of view with “compelling” people to have a point of view. I don’t know of any American atheists trying to outlaw religion, just keep it meddling in other people’s legal and civil affairs.

    Secularism is the notion that public policy in the public square is based on what is publicly verifiable.

    I wouldn’t say so much that atheism is “true” as say that no form of theism is verifiable in any way that is replicable or reliable. Ergo a certain type of humanism becomes de facto the “default” or “fallback” view in a secular society.

    As for Newt Gingrich, does he really believe this Krapp?

    • PeteJohn
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      “I don’t know of any American atheists trying to outlaw religion, just keep it meddling in other people’s legal and civil affairs.”

      I couldn’t care less if my neighbor Bob is a devout Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain, or Pastafarian.

      I would care very deeply, however, if he tried to make my future kid learn some version of religious creationism (even one directed by noodly appendages) in a public school.

  7. raven
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    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”

    Cardinal Cormac called atheism the “greatest of evils” and blamed atheists for all the wars in history, a blatant lie.

    Cardinal Cormac is also up to his pointed hat in the Catholic child rape scandals and was moved out of his position.

    Cardinal Cormac ‘Atheism the greatest of evils.’ – Topix
    ww.topix.com/forum/religion/atheism/TDRQ63I51E48E4HFJ

    8 posts – 2 authors – 21 May 2009
    Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, said, that a lack of faith is ‘the greatest of evils.’ He blamed atheism for war and destruction, and implied it …

    • raven
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      Cardinal Cormac is a prince of a church with a millenial long history of astrocities.

      The RCC’s best argument was always burning people alive on stacks of firewood.

      There is no reasoning with such people. You just never, ever let them get behind you, watch them closely, and when they break the law, arrest, try, convict, and send them to prison.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 31, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        Which seems to be where Ratzinger belongs, seeing how much he was involved in aiding and abetting criminal activity.

  8. Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Well, there’s political secularism and then there’s social secularism, depending on whose defenition you want to use. ATHEISM: a disbelief in the existence of a diety; the doctrine that there is no diety.

    SECULARISM: indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.

    Indifference is quite distinct from a doctrine. Social movements are at odds with strict defenitions. Varying meanings arise, reliant on the many factions who declare themselves as such. Language evolves, so different people will choose to label themselves accordingly.

    In any case, I agree that science is secular. Or whatever the word is that means completely neutral to human constructs.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Thanks, I didn’t know this! Two senses seems to be the case.

      Intuitively I would think that the realpolitik (lessens conflict) behind religious freedom would be sustainable, while a rarified non-bias would be doomed in a democratic society. For better or worse, as much as every generation needs to rediscover and protect democracy, we likely need to rediscover and protect basic human rights (freedom of religion, say).

  9. Posted July 31, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Berlinerblau seems to think that telling atheists to sit down, shut up and only do things that won’t “offend” theists will work. When someone must redefine a word to support their argument, that demonstrates their dishonesty. Being secular is not being neutral or allowing others to walk over you, meekly accepting their religious nonsense in order to not “offend”. It is actively standing against religious influence in society. And to be “anti-secular” would mean that one is *for* religious influence over everything. A problem with redefining words, you catch yourself in your own nonsense.

  10. Ludo
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Is it not a tried and tested tactic to fight emancipatory trends (like secularization) by obfuscating the underpinning concepts? This is what those who keep repeating that (for example) evolution is a kind of belief, and science a kind of religion, and secularism synonymous with atheism (and atheism is of couse synonymous with evil and perversion).
    Secularism (just the Universal Declaration oh Human Rights) is totally unacceptable to those religious groups who want society – all citizens – ruled by them, by their religious laws, rulers and institutions. It is a pity that they find so many (so called) cultural scientists on their side – to begin with that peculiar group of academics labeling themselves as unbelieving ‘cultural Christians’.

  11. ReasJack
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Why is there always such difficulty acknowledging a difference between the meaning of the words compel and convince?

    A USAF Academy officer that insists cadets attend worship service is compelling.
    Making a threat that you will kill your family member if they abandon Islam is compelling.
    Structuring a religious observance into mandatory attendance classroom schedules is compelling.
    The Vatican envoy insisting they be given a special consideration in the Irish constitution is compelling.
    Sam Harris giving a lecture on why Abrahamic religion should be abandoned is convincing.
    Tim Minchin making fun of superstitious beliefs is convincing.
    This blog is convincing.
    It’s not that hard.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      +1.

      [Insert contributory content here for getting around the blo… website netiquette.]

    • RF
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      If you’re trying to highlight this distinction, “coerce” or “force” would be better than “compel”. “Compelling” is an established synonym for “convincing”, and you thinking it really shouldn’t be doesn’t change anything.

  12. John K.
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that any organization of atheists would almost need to have secular political views by default (except perhaps for the bizarre case of Ann Coulter). I suppose some could directly try to use laws and government to squash religion, but I know of no such atheist groups in existence. I always thought that groups like the SSA deliberately use the word secular to emphasize that they want to remove religious privilege and not inflict beliefs via government, religious or otherwise. Of course many theists think that the removal of privilege is oppression, including the privilege of never being openly challenged. I suspect that the constant presentation of challenge to religion is Berlinerblau’s real objection.

    It makes a lot of sense that atheists would be big supporters of secularism. It makes a lot of sense for all minority religions to be secular as well, but they often do not see it as clearly.

    • John K.
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      Rats, I meant it makes sense for all minority religious believers to endorse secular government.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted July 31, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        Seventh Day Adventists are in fact very strong supporters of full church-state separation.

        • Douglas E
          Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

          As are Amish and most Mennonites and other Anabaptists.

    • peter
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      “I suppose some could directly try to use laws and government to squash religion, but I know of no such atheist groups in existence.”

      Presumably “..in existence in USA” or similar is meant, since the successors of Mao are still doing it, even if the successors of Stalin may not be. I don’t know why Berlinerblau did not use the present ‘communists’ in power in China as an example of atheists who are not secularists in the sense of his insistence on the classical definition of secular (and also why he didn’t shut up about the ‘new atheists’, which is what people here correctly object to). The so-called New Atheists are farther away from the Chinese communist party than is the roman catholic church in this respect.

      • John K.
        Posted July 31, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        Ah, good counter example. My USA-centrism is showing. I should indeed have qualified it to “new atheists” and even the western world.

      • RF
        Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

        I think there’s a difference between an atheist group and a group of atheists. The Communist Party of China is a group of atheists, but it’s not an atheist group.

  13. Randy
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    There are atheists who “expouse radical anti-theism” if by this Berlinerblau means those whose desire is to assist in the passing of to religion into oblivion. I have heard some of them say so honestly. Blogger Greta Christina has pointedly said her goal is to eliminate religion. But Berlinerblau is inccorect in asserting that they do so in the name of secularism. He provides no evidence to support this claim. And not one of these atheists — Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris included — have nor would advocate the use of coercion to achieve this objective. This is not a claim that, I think, is true of the fundamentalist religionists. Secular atheists who make no effort to hide their desire to see theism’s demise are content to use the power of reasoned argumentation and evidence alone to achieve this goal. The evidence against theistic belief is so overwhelming that the power of coercion is not necessary. All that is required is a relentless verbal assault and patience. I really do think time is on our side. Religion will wither, slowly, but almost assuredly under the constant assault by those armed with reason and evidence.

    I accept that secularism and atheism are different. Berlinerblau is, I think, either intentionally misrepresenting these “new atheists” or is in fact ignorant of what they are actually saying. They are not saying that to be a good secularist, a “true” secularist, you must also be an atheist bent on the destruction of religion. In fact, Berlinerblau states a fallacy, the no-true-scostman fallacy. It is not, I think, an established criterion that to be a secularist you must accept the church as a legitimate component of the American polity. It is a player in this polity. But I have every right to question its legitimacy given its checkered history. Furthermore, those “new atheists” who attack religion so aggressively do so because it (1) makes numerous unsubstantiated claims unsupported by evidence, (2) claims privileged status in the American polity, (3) and doggedly refuses to admit its errors or take responsibility for the harm it inflicts. Being a secularist does not carry any prohibition or restriction on criticizing religion and its adherents. Finally, Hitchens did not view religion as a poison nor advocate this viewpoint because he was a secularist. Harris has not called for an “end of faith” because he is a secularist. Both made their statements because they are atheists, who also happen to be secularists, who, I think correctly, determined from the evidence that religion in general is a “poison” that corrodes politics and that its eventual demise will make for a better politics and a better world.

  14. MNb
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    “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.”
    Exactly. Fortunately even most catholics in Europe support the separation of religion and state at least to some extent. The major battlefield in The Netherlands is education. Religious schools are sponsored by the government.

    “so long as the atheist or believer doesn’t try to compel others into accepting their beliefs”
    As far as I know all atheists are more than happy with religious neutrality. Berlinerblau is playing the old trick: stating that questioning religious privileges hurts that neutrality.

  15. Randy
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Another point occurs to me. Berlinerblau states that “Nowadays most major atheist groups describe themselves as “secular.” He links to the Secular Coalition of America website where they do state “The Secular Coalition for America represents the viewpoints of nontheistic Americans.” But Berlinerblau seems to be engaging in some intellectual subterfuge. Nowhere does the SCA claim they are speaking for all secularists. They claim only to speak for the non-theistic secularists. Yet Berlinerblau seems to be implying that SCA is claiming to speak for all secularists and for all brands or varieties of secularism. Simply isn’t true. SCA and SSA make it clear they are representing a particular constituency within the secularist community.

  16. Greg Peterson
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I received a review copy of Berlinerblau’s book, “How to be Secular.” This is what I said about it on Amazon:

    One Star
    Shut up about the emperor, or quit coming to parades…

    Jacques Berlinerblau is an excellent writer–clear, concise, able to coin or turn a phrase with great skill. I loved one of his previous books, The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously. As an atheist with a biblical studies degree from an evangelical college, I completely agreed with his thesis, and appreciated his ability to articulate things I had thought but had not the capacity to express so well.

    So what a breathtaking disappointment “How to Be Secular” turned out to be, content-wise (it has to be said that the trademark writing ability is unscathed by the dubious nature of the book’s thesis). Advocating a sort of atheist accommodation to (moderate) religion that falls somewhere between the appeasement of a Neville Chamberlain and the outright perfidy of a Vidkun Quisling, Berlinerblau seems to think the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” should have kept his damned mouth shut or risk note being invited to future parades. No atheist should disagree with the well-argued and carefully defined version of secularism Berlinerblau presents in the book. But he goes on to make the case that the so-called “New Atheists” who are more vocal and less willing to give in to religious privilege, are hurting the cause of secularism. Only atheists who earn that label out of something like lukewarm indifference to reason, science and philosophy need apply. This view insults everyone (requiring as it does that atheists patronize and condescend to religious folks who, contra Berlinerblau’s opinion, we do in fact respect and occasionally revere), and promotes something immoral. It promotes pretense and sly alliance. Yes, this can be effective…and in fact Berlinerblau makes the compelling case that the “Revivalists” (as he calls what I would think of as the “religious right”) have made, and make, the strides they have precisely through “co-belligerence” among evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Mormons.

    It might be tempting to say upon reading this insight, “Fair enough,” and take away a single lesson: that cooperation on issues of mutual interest to these groups (abortion and homosexuality issues chief among them), leads to political success. But that would ignore the fact that many evangelicals still consider the Catholic Church the Great Whore of Babylon spoken of in the New Testament book of Revelation, and many conservative Catholics still view Mormons as belonging to a cult, and of course most Mormons believing that both Protestants and Catholics are benighted while their church is the “only true and and living church upon the face of the whole earth” with which God is pleased. Given that, why does Berlinerblau insist the following:

    “The result of having extreme anti-theists carry the secular flag has taken its toll. Secularism is no frequently associated not with with atheism but with radical anti-theism, or hatred of religion. The New Atheists, for their part, have decided to focus their critique on religious moderates. The single constituency that could best enlist with these nonbelievers to effect the political changes they seek is, somehow, the one they attack with the most vitriol…As one scholar complained, secularists push ‘religious moderates into the arms of their extremis brethren.'”

    Do we in fact? I would be surprised. But even more surprising is just how innocent this line of argument is of facts. I have been with the New Atheist movement since its inception, marked from roughly the publication of Sam Harris’s book, “The End of Faith,” in 2004. It is true that “End” takes moderate believers to task for their unsupported commitments, but almost exclusively because doing so provides cover for religious extremists. It is NOT the case that New Atheists are incapable of discerning the respective harm caused by moderate and fundamentalist religious positions. Uber-antitheist Richard Dawkins has said that if all religious folks were more like Quakers, his take on religion would be quite different. To the extent that New Atheists needle religious moderates, it is not because we find them especially deluded or unintelligent, much less dangerous. It is because THEY ARE SO CLOSE, but remain unwilling to take a final step into compassionate reason and give up the vestiges of superstition. But even if we DID lambaste the moderately religious for their irrational positions, as Berlinerblau insists we do, how could that be worse than what many Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons who are unified around some issues continue to say about each other’s beliefs in general?

    Those of us who came out of faith communities understand that religion provides a powerful framing device, a narrative around which one might help organize her life, and a wonderful inspiration to altruism and everyday kindness. What we are SAYING to our moderate religious friends is NOT “you are stupid and crazy just as the radical fundamentalists are.” We are saying, “You are kindred, and these days we need all reasonable and compassionate hands on deck to solve the serious problems our species faces, but damn it, you have failed to make the case for the emperor’s spiffy outfit, and we know that Dumbo’s feather was just an amulet, a magicless prop, and so can’t we set aside superstitions and work together within the shared reality?”

    By casting secularism’s lot with the “moderates” who really sound more like indifferent milquetoasts rather than trying to rally the passionate in common cause, I don’t think Berlinerblau has done as much for the cause of secularism as he intended.

    Despite a review that from my perspective is necessarily very negative, I actually recommend that people of all positions–the passionately theistic AND atheistic, as well as the calmer moderate–read this book. Because while it failed spectacularly at winning me to its theses, it succeeds spectacularly at generating response. It demands further thought. In my case, this took the form of a good deal of sputtering and swearing, but I cannot deny that I was fully engaged and propulsively driven while reading Berlinerblau’s prose.

  17. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    A problem with trying to avoid “offending” religious believers is that they often tend to take offense at things that are not meant offensively. Bill Donaghue’s Catholic League is a major case in point.

    I will in fact try to avoid deliberately offending religious people (I do so spiritually but not religiously), but if they choose to take offense at my speaking my truth, there’s nothing I can do about it.

    • RF
      Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      Religious people not going along with their religion to be “offensive”. When someone fails to wish them “Merry Christmas”, that’s offensive. When a court found that “under God” was unconstitutional, Hillary Clinton called that “offensive”.

  18. Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    These are the objectives of the Secular Europe Campaign:

    We promote:
    * freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech
    * women’s equality and reproductive rights
    * equal rights for LGBT people in all the European Union
    * a secular Europe – democratic, peaceful, open and just, with no privilege for religious or belief organisations
    * one law for all, no religious exemptions from the law
    * state neutrality in matters of religion and belief

    We oppose:
    * the privileged status of the churches under Article 17 of the TFEU (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union)
    * the privileged status of churches in countries where they are established
    * the special status of the Vatican at the United Nations and its economic and political privileges across Europe
    * state-funded religious schools

    No wonder the Pope despises secularism!

    /@

  19. Posted July 31, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    My thanks to Sigmund for keeping his eye on this crap so that I don’t have to.

  20. Thanny
    Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Neither Thomas Jefferson nor James Madison were at all religious, in any sense of the word.

  21. Posted July 31, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    It’s an odd argument, somehow those who can advance secularism have to either be theists, or separate themselves from being atheist. Perhaps it’s necessary because people just don’t get the message if they dislike the messenger, but that’s no excuse to throw fuel on the fire…

  22. RF
    Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Berlinerblau flat-out contradicts himself:
    “Finally, we need to distinguish secularism from atheism because some atheists, of late, have taken a regrettable anti-secular turn. …[secularism] doesn’t view religion as “poison” (to quote Christopher Hitchens) or hope for an “end of faith.” As noted earlier, secularism has no dog in that fight.”
    So, he is claiming that:
    1. Saying that religion is a “poison” is “anti-secular”.
    2. Secularism has no “dog in that fight” of whether religion is a “poison”.

    Which is it? If secularism is neutral on the issue of whether religion is poison, then saying that religion is poison is not “anti-secular”. If saying that religion is poison is “anti-secular”, then secularism must have an official anti-“religion is poison” position, which means that secularism does, in fact, have a “dog in that fight”. It’s ironic that he writes an entire article distinguishing between atheism (a matter of person belief) and secularism (a political point of view), and then he himself is unable to distinguish between the two. “Religion is poison” is not a political view. While it might *lead* to a political view, it itself is entirely a personal view. It is no more “anti-secular” than is the belief that faith in Jesus is necessary to go to heaven. He seems to think that “secularism” is not merely the belief that the government should be neutral on religion, but that *individuals* should be neutral. Or, quite likely, he believes that people are free to speak in favor of religion without being “anti-secular”, as long they stop short of advocating government involvement, but any atheist who speaks *against* religion is “anti-secular”, which is just a rank double-standard. Apparently, atheists are allowed to not believe in God, but they are not allowed to have any further opinions on religion (or, at least, no negative ones) without forfeiting the label “secular”. I wonder: does this apply only to general statements about religion, or does it also apply to more specific statements? For instance, is “the strain of religion promoted by al Qaeda is poison” an anti-secular statement?

    One can be pro-choice while opposing abortion, one can be pro-gun rights while acknowledging that guns are dangerous, one can be pro-free speech while thinking that the speech of the KKK is disgusting, one can be pro-drug legalization while thinking that drugs are bad, and one can be secular while thinking that religion is poison. That Berlinerblau fails to recognize this shows that he does not grasp what “secularism” truly is. While others confuse secularism with opposition to religion, he confuses secularism with support of religion. Both reject the fundamental concept of secularism, which is that one’s personal position on religion can be distinct from one’s political views on religion; one can be religious, or anti-religious, without demanding that the government be religious, or anti-religious.

  23. RF
    Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    “Among scholars there is a fascinating debate about when precisely atheism arose. One compelling theory (see writers like Alan Kors and Michael Buckley) is that nonbelief as a coherent worldview developed within Christian theological speculation in early modernity.”
    Just who are these “scholars” who spend their time debating when atheism “arose”? Is there also debate as to when nudism “arose”? This is nonsense. Atheism is not some development or invention; it’s the natural state of humanity. It really shows the arrogance of Christians that they are actually *taking credit* for atheism. Atheism is not a “worldview”, any more than disbelief in unicorns is a worldview.

    “As I noted in my forthcoming book, the secular vision was birthed by religious thinkers, such as Martin Luther, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (the last two, admittedly were idiosyncratic believers, but believers nonetheless)”
    I’m pretty sure that the people being burned at the stake as witches during the middle ages had a rather strong wish for secularism. Theocracy was a problem created by religious people, and the only reason it was fought primarily by religious people is because religious people refused to allow nonreligious power.


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  1. […] Berlinerblau’s recent piece on secularism and its supposed links with new atheism (see Sigmund’s post on Berlinerblau over at Why Evolution is True) – which is simply a slanderous way of sniping from the […]

  2. […] post: the conflation between atheism and secularism « Why Evolution Is True Guest post: the conflation between atheism and secularism « Why Evolution Is True. Share […]

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