In Praise of Secularism

In Praise of Secularism

To arms, freethinkers! Religious zealots have hijacked your government!


It is no secret that the Bush Administration is engaged in the most radical assault on the separation of church and state in American history. The apostles of religious correctness never hesitate to broadcast their contempt for the Republic’s secular laws and traditions–whether that means committing the federal government to uphold the “sanctity of marriage,” as the President did in his State of the Union address, or stocking Grand Canyon National Park’s bookstore with fundamentalist tracts claiming that the awe-inspiring canyon was created in six days.

It is equally evident that most Democrats are too terrified of being seen as antireligious to acknowledge that the very survival of America’s secular government may be at stake in the 2004 election. Howard Dean’s sudden discovery of the value of daily prayer, after being tarred with the dreaded S-word early in the primary season, exemplified the spinelessness of politicians (and others in public life) who fear identification with secularism, nonreligious humanism, even liberal religion–everything once encompassed by the lovely, evocative term freethinking.

Timid twenty-first-century secularists–in sharp contrast to the bold proselytizing freethinkers of the late nineteenth century–are missing a chance that may never come again if the Republicans have four more years to appoint federal judges who share their scorn for secular government.

The campaign offers the perfect opportunity to re-educate Americans about a heritage that has been denigrated not only by relentless attacks from the religious right but also by the failure of public schools to foster awareness of the nation’s secular roots, embedded in a Constitution that omits any mention of God and instead assigns supreme power to “We the People.”

Right-wing religion, money and political clout have driven the rise of religious correctness during the past thirty years, but an equally important factor is the larger American public’s unexamined assumption that religion per se always exerts a benign influence on society. The ultraconservative minority has exploited that assumption brilliantly and succeeded in tarring opponents of faith-based adventurism as enemies of all religion, as atheists, as “relativists.”

It takes a drastic example of religion’s potential to do either public or private harm–say, a Christian Scientist’s denial of a blood transfusion to his dying child or the transformation of a plane into a lethal weapon in the name of radical Islam–to shake the American faith in religion as a positive social force. Indeed, religious correctness demanded that Bush deny any connection between the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and “real” Islam. Yet there is a very real connection–however twisted it may seem to moderate and liberal religious believers–between fundamentalism and extremism in Christianity and Judaism as well as Islam.

The problem, of course, is not religion as a spiritual force but religion melded with political ideology and political power. Since the religiously correct do not acknowledge any danger in mixing religion and politics, evil acts committed in the name of religion must always be dismissed as the dementia of criminals and psychopaths.

What America lacks today is a public figure who talks about the danger of religious interference with government in the uncompromising terms used by Robert Green Ingersoll, the foremost freethinker and the most famous orator in late-nineteenth-century America, though he is scarcely mentioned in standard history texts today. Ingersoll, who was known as “the Great Agnostic,” declared that the founders “knew that to put God into the Constitution was to put man out…. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man.”

Today’s embattled secularists have failed to tap into a reservoir of respect for separation of church and state that stubbornly persists in spite of the pious drumbeat in the public square. A 2001 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed an astonishing disconnect between Americans’ general approval of faith-based funding and their deep reservations about what specific churches might actually do with government money. While 71 percent endorsed tax support for faith-based social services, 78 percent would exclude religious organizations that hire only members of their own faith. There is no reason to believe that this overwhelming public sentiment has changed, yet Bush has pushed ahead with executive orders allowing church groups to qualify as public contractors–even if they refuse to hire workers of other religions. One reason the President may feel free to disregard public opinion is the near-total absence of press coverage highlighting the kinds of reservations expressed in the Pew poll.

The most striking finding was that nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose any tax funding for groups that encourage religious conversions. That is significant, because Judaism is the only faith among America’s major religions that does not have a proselytizing tradition. Christian evangelicals, the staunchest supporters of faith-based funding, are also the most ardent seekers of converts.

Indeed, the public’s fears about religious proselytizing have already been borne out in at least one fundamentalist Christian program for prisoners, operating in four states under the auspices of a foundation headed by Charles Colson, the convicted Watergate felon. Last year, Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued to halt the federally funded “Christ-centered” program, which offers prisoners privileges that include access to big-screen televisions and computers in return for a hefty dose of Bible study and “Christian counseling.”

Finally, the poll results underline the most obvious peril inherent not only in government subsidies for social services but also in tax vouchers for parents sending their children to religious schools. On what basis do we decide which religions–and which factions within religions–are “moderate” enough to be eligible for tax money? That is precisely the question that the framers of the Constitution never wanted to fall under the authority of any government agency or official.

The Pew poll showed that Americans want to limit tax funding to the Big Three–Protestantism, Judaism and Catholicism. About 60 percent said synagogues and mainstream (whatever that means) Protestant and Catholic churches should be able to apply for government money, but only 38 percent would allow grants for Muslim institutions (and the poll was taken before 9/11).

Americans’ qualms when presented with specific questions about faith-based funding–as distinct from a general question that never discusses exactly which religions will get the money and for what purpose–suggest that many would respond positively to an honest discussion of the issue. But for that to happen, secularists must first stop pussyfooting around the larger issue of the harm that religion is capable of doing.

In “Kicking the Secularist Habit,” a peculiar essay in the March 2003 Atlantic, the conservative writer David Brooks (now an op-ed columnist for the New York Times) admitted to having discovered the astonishing fact, in the wake of 9/11, that humans “yearn for righteous rule, for a just world or a world that reflects God’s will–in many cases at least as strongly as they yearn for money or success.” The crucial questions, Brooks argued, are, “Do individuals pursue a moral vision of righteous rule? And do they do so in virtuous ways, or are they, like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, evil in their visions and methods?”

Fanatics throughout history have always been convinced of the virtuousness of their visions. The crucial issue is not whether individuals pursue a “vision of righteous rule” but whether the melding of religion and government, or religion and a transnational terrorist movement in the case of bin Laden, enables fanatics to pursue their particular religious/political vision with devastating consequences for those who do not share it. If bin Laden did not have financial support from radical Islamists dedicated to extending the sweep of their theocracies, the morality or immorality of his personal vision would be of little consequence: He would be just another aggrieved prophet crying in the wilderness.

It is precisely because secularists do understand the power of religion, and the possibility that any intensely felt drive for righteousness may overwhelm dissenters in its path, that they insist on the fundamental importance of separation between church and state. Bin Laden is an easy case; the hard cases, which the Constitution was designed to prevent, involve political decisions in which both virtue and evil may be in the eye of the beholder. There is no doubt that Bush, in many areas of foreign and domestic policy, is pursuing his vision of righteous rule in a fashion compatible with his religion-based morality–but he is pursuing it through a government that represents millions of Americans who do not share his religion or his personal idea of righteousness.

It is not enough for secularists to speak up in defense of the godless Constitution; they must also defend the Enlightenment values that produced the legal structure crafted by the framers. Important as separation of church and state is to American secularists, their case must be made on a broader plane that transcends politics and rises to the defense of rational thought itself.

The great nineteenth-century freethinkers, heirs of the Enlightenment, are often mocked today for their faith in human progress and for their predictions that a secular religion combining humanism and scientific rationalism would soon replace the orthodox creeds of the day. Men like Ingersoll were certainly wrong in their predictions of the imminent demise of religion–even in its most retrograde and cruel forms–but whether they were wrong under the long arc of the moral universe remains to be seen.

The need for a strong secularist defense of science is especially urgent, because many of the religious right’s policy goals are intimately linked to a profound distrust of science and scientists. There is a strong connection between the revival of antievolutionism since 1980 and the attack on separation of church and state, because the Christianization of secular public education has long been a goal of the forces of conservative religion.

There is also a link between the antievolution campaign and the general decline of American scientific literacy. During the past two decades, study after study has documented the declining knowledge of basic scientific facts among American public school students and their teachers. This ignorance is generally attributed to lax American education standards, and there is of course a great deal of truth in the charge. But fundamentalist, antimodernist religion has also been a significant player in the dumbing down of the elementary and secondary school science curriculum.

Just as the word “evolution” was removed from most high school textbooks after the Scopes trial in the mid-1920s, many biology teachers in the 1990s began to use the less inflammatory (to fundamentalists) word “development.” The obfuscation of scientific terminology to placate the religiously correct cannot help but undermine Americans’ general ability to make crucial distinctions between scientific fact and theological opinion.

The attack on science is a prime issue for secularists not because religion and science are necessarily incompatible but because particular forms of religious belief–those that claim to have found the one true answer to the origins and ultimate purpose of human life–are incompatible not only with science but with democracy. Those who rely on divine instructions for political guidance, whether on biomedical research or capital punishment, are really saying that such issues can never be a matter of imperfect human opinion. If the hand of the Almighty explains and rules the workings of nature, it can hardly fail to rule the workings of the American political system.

The fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God and (in much smaller numbers) regularly attend church does not mean that a defense of secular government and science will fall on deaf ears. Most Americans disapprove of the sacralization of government decisions on such matters as biomedical research and the right to die, for example.

The problem is that fundamentalists care more about religious issues than the rest of the public and do more to see that their views are heard. They have dominated public discourse and have trapped American secularists between two poles. On the one hand, secularists’ importance is exaggerated by those who have swallowed the argument that the nonreligious have already won the day; on the other, secularists are attacked (sometimes by the same people) as enemies of majoritarian, by definition religious, American values.

The antisecularists cannot have it both ways. If secularists are in charge of everything, then America is not as religious as the religiously correct claim; if secularists are an insolent minority trying to erode the values of the majority, then they are not in charge of everything.

To reclaim their proper place in the public square, secular humanists must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religiously correct. No one is a more pedestrian orator in ordinary circumstances than Bush, but when, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, he drew on the words of the Apostle Paul to assure a grieving nation that “nothing can separate us from God’s love,” he gained stature not only from the gravity of the situation but from the passion and grace of the words written in that most emotional of books, the Bible.

Secularists frequently present themselves, and are perceived by others, as a cool lot, applying intellectual theories to social questions but out of tune with the emotions that move religious believers. Last summer, when federal courts ordered the removal of the hefty Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama State Supreme Court Building, thousands of Christian demonstrators converged on Montgomery. They were not only outraged but visibly grief-stricken when the monument was moved out of sight. It was, one demonstrator said with tears in his eyes, like a death in the family. In Montgomery, Christian demonstrators kissed their Bibles; for a secularist, kissing a copy of the Constitution would be a form of idolatry.

Today’s secularists would do well to take a lesson from their freethinking nineteenth-century predecessors, who, with a combination of passion and rationalism, sought to change hearts as well as minds. In a speech (appropriately titled “A Lay Sermon”) delivered before the American Secular Union in 1886, Ingersoll quoted “the best prayer I have ever read”–Lear’s soliloquy when, after raging on the heath, he stumbles upon a place of shelter:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your unhoused heads and your unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

This is the essence of the secularist and humanist faith, and it must be offered not as a defensive response to the religiously correct but as a robust and ardent creed worthy of the first secular government in the world.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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