Secularism shouldn’t be atheism. A brand new guide explains why the excellence is so crucial.


(RNS) — In the USA, secularism has turn into synonymous with atheism. However that’s an enormous mistake, argues Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown College professor.

At its core, secularism is an strategy to governance, writes Berlinerblau in his new guide, “Secularism: The Fundamentals.” And critically, it’s one many spiritual folks, not simply atheists and agnostics, help.

In truth, though the phrase “secularism” was first used round 1851, its key elements have been hammered out lengthy earlier than that by some deeply religious Christians. Amongst them, none apart from Martin Luther, the good reformer, who was so distrustful of the Roman Catholic Church he needed secular authorities (within the type of princes) to keep up the regulation.

In Berlinerblau’s wide-ranging however compact primer, which appears to be like at how numerous international locations have applied secularism, he outlines the ten ideas of secular authorities, together with equality for all, the supremacy of the state, freedom of conscience and the thought of disestablishment, that means the federal government should divest itself of loyalty to anybody religion.

Berlinerblau’s guide additionally identifies what he calls “life-style secularisms,” folks for whom secularism is an identification. Amongst them, in fact, are the so-called New Atheists, who’re hellbent on eviscerating faith. That motion, he suggests, has run out of steam.


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However as he factors out, amongst secularism’s champions are numerous non secular folks, most particularly non secular minorities. On this nation, the overwhelming variety of Jews, Muslims, Mormons, even Catholics, champion secularism as a type of authorities, as a result of they consider it may be a greater referee of their liberties than a state church.

Faith Information Service talked to Berlinerblau about secularism and why it’s gotten such a nasty rap (each from non secular conservatives in addition to some postmodern students who’ve criticized it).

The next interview was edited for size and readability.

What’s the other of secularism? Theocracy?

Sure, with the proviso that there’s a spectrum starting from excessive types of secularism to theocracy. On that spectrum are completely livable nonsecular states. Then, as we transfer throughout the spectrum, we discover all types of middleman nonsecular types of governance the place there may be lack of freedom of faith for minorities, crackdowns on freedom of speech, lack of tolerance for nonbelievers and heretics, and so on. After which we get to out-and-out theocracy: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Islamic Republic of Iran.

You say in your guide that in the USA, separation of church and state is just about useless. The place does it determine within the U.S. now?

Separationism is only one type of secularism; it’s a method of doing it. Within the U.S., it hasn’t been properly thought out, theorized or legally grounded. Right here’s the issue: Separationism shouldn’t be within the First Modification. In a non-public letter, (Thomas) Jefferson stated we should construct a wall of separation between church and state. However with the Nice Awakening on the horizon, and with Mr. Jefferson having a repute as an iconoclast, atheist and a troublemaker, no one listened to him. Separationism wasn’t actually within the judicial combine from 1800 to the mid-Twentieth century.

From 1947 to 1985, separationist secularism, as a binding judicial and legislative framework, was, lastly, an actual dwell factor. Below the affect of Justice Hugo Black, our legislators and judges believed there was a constitutional mandate to separate church and state. However that argument rested on a moderately wobbly basis — as a result of, as I famous, separationist secularism isn’t within the Structure. However that doesn’t nullify secularism or negate the necessity for secularism in the USA.

The U.S. Capitol is seen at daybreak in Washington on Sept. 27, 2021. (AP Photograph/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

I’ve tried to chart higher methods to make use of the Structure to render the deliverables of separationism to long-suffering Americans — be they non secular minorities, non secular moderates or the religiously unaffiliated, atheists and agnostics. One chance is the 14th Modification. American secularism ought to linger on the modification’s assure of equal safety beneath the regulation. Why ought to a Jewish lady in Texas be subjected to a conservative Christian conception of when life begins? Why ought to a homosexual couple in Kentucky be denied a wedding license due to the non secular free-exercise proper of a county clerk? I’d advise the secular motion to maneuver away from separationism and sofa its authorized arguments and technique when it comes to equal safety beneath the regulation.

Is it extra correct to explain American secularism at present as accommodationist?

Sure, it’s extra accommodationist than separationist! Few are conscious of the shift that occurred when George W. Bush launched his Workplace of Religion-based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships as his first government act in 2001. What Bush was saying is what the Christian proper was saying for many years: There was a spot for faith in public life and there was a spot for the federal government to accommodate and work with faith as a result of that partnership accrues to the frequent good.

That’s a core assumption of a doctrine I name accommodationism. Accommodationism’s roots are in India. It comes from the fertile creativeness of Mahatma Gandhi and a few others. Gandhi believed religion and spirituality have been nice social property and the federal government ought to encourage and help faith for the better good of the state itself. When Bush launched this workplace, he murdered separationism. But unusually, many Individuals don’t perceive that this shift occurred. The American authorities is now attempting to accommodate faith, not separate itself from it.

However accommodationism leaves lots of unanswered questions: What do you do with non secular teams which are violent or seditious or racist or homophobic? Ought to the federal government help them, too? Write them a examine? However maybe the most important drawback with accommodationism is what to do in regards to the equal rights of nonbelievers? Can the federal government “accommodate” atheists and agnostics? If not, why not?

Can secularists flip to the Bible to underscore a few of the foundations of secularism?

Secular polities are based mostly on purpose, not revelation; science, not suras. However, that stated, if secularism have been to interact in a PR marketing campaign to win over non secular hearts and minds, the thought of everybody being created in God’s picture and due to this fact entitled to being handled equally by the governing authorities — that’s one place to start out. I’ve all the time appreciated the Guide of Ruth and its insistence we should always all simply get alongside. Then there’s Romans 13, by which (the Apostle) Paul is urging Christians to undergo the federal government authorities. He didn’t say turn into the governing authorities, take over faculty boards, run for workplace, storm the Capitol!

To me, the interpretations which are dominant in conservative Christianity run in opposition to the grain of many biblical verses.

What are a few of secularism’s blind spots?

Secularism generally develops an dependancy for order at any price. Enlightenment theorists like John Locke noticed the world nearly collapse due to non secular violence. So their resolution was a powerful authorities that assures order. Such a authorities can guarantee non secular folks the appropriate to worship in peace and security. That’s a really good concept.

The issue is that secularisms generally fetishize order. In so doing they obliterate different secular ideas, like freedom of conscience or toleration. The tragic flaw in numerous secular regimes — the Soviet Union, Baathist Syria, the Individuals’s Republic of China — is the elevation of the thought of order to an extent that verges on totalitarianism.

Secularisms need to be taught to manage themselves. Governments can’t merely do something they need. There need to be checks and balances, brakes on the superior and infrequently horrifying energy of the state. Secularism goes incorrect when it elevates order to the raison d’être of the secular state.

There’s a second drawback that happens when secularisms set up atheism or nonbelief because the “faith” of the state. This can be a recipe for catastrophe and the Soviet Union and the Individuals’s Republic of China have adopted this strategy.

You plan a pan-national motion to coalesce individuals who worth secularism. Clarify that.

I used to be struck by a structural asymmetry. Whereas non secular teams mobilize throughout geopolitical boundaries — Islamists, Catholics, Mormons, the Jewish Chabad motion — secularists are all the time nationwide. It’s puzzling to me that secularism by no means developed transnational actions or regional actions of like-minded people who’re equally chagrined or discriminated in opposition to by a given non secular orthodoxy.

I ponder how various things can be if there have been a secular caucus within the U.N., led by France, say. These secular international locations would have a look at nations by which non secular minorities and nonbelievers are disadvantaged of their human rights or civil rights and advocate on behalf of secular governance moderately than the state’s established faith. It’s a thought experiment. The absence of transnational secularism is de facto, actually fascinating.

Ought to journalists make a better effort to differentiate political secularism from secularism as an identification when writing our tales?

Sure (in italics, caps, and exclamation factors)! That was one of many drivers of penning this guide. I’ve nothing however respect for journalists. They’ve carried out heroisms for this nation, particularly up to now few years. That stated, there was a malignant confusion about these phrases — secularism, secularity, atheism, secular humanism — and that’s what I sought to rectify.


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