Thursday, 19 July 2012

View from America: Secularism and atheism are not synonyms

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To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we areposting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his third dispatch he considers the relationship between atheism and secularism, and explains why they are not interchangeable concepts.
The Secular Centre, Episode 3: Secularism and atheism are not synonyms

No term in the American, or even Western, political lexicon is more widely misunderstood than “Secularism.” It’s an -ism that is constantly – and sometimes intentionally – confused with other –isms.

Opponents equate Secularism with Stalinism, Nazism, totalitarianism and socialism. Supporters associate it with liberalism, humanism, and rationalism. Yet foes, as well as friends of late, also assume it’s really the same thing as atheism.

Atheism and secularism are both important and noble –isms. But they are not the same thing. Secularism unlike atheism does not pursue metaphysical queries. That is to say, secularism is speechless – agnostic, if you will – on the problem of the existence or non-existence of God.

That question is above its pay grade. Secularism doesn’t ask, as some of the best atheist philosophy does, how humans should exist in a world without God (or, with more nuance, in a world like the one Jean-Paul Sartre described where we are forlorn of God). Nor does secularism try to figure out the operating principles – be they scientific, ethical, or otherwise – of a godless universe.

To that, Secularism responds: “These are important and fascinating questions. I’d love to look into all of that. Can you recommend some good books? I’ll be sure to read them as soon as I stop getting waterboarded by the Religious Right in the United States and abroad!”

The secular vision developed in Christian political philosophy (one might say the atheist vision developed there as well. That’s a different story for a different day. But if you’re curious read Professor Alan Kors’ Atheism in France 1650-1729: The Orthodox Source of Disbelief).

Secularism’s philosophical roots may run as deep as the writings of the Hebrew Bible, Paul and Augustine. Yet for our purposes we should understand modern Secularism as a development whose major architects were Martin Luther, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

A blog post is not the proper place to develop such an argument and I have, fortuitously, written an entire book about this subject. But to put it as pithily as possible, let me note that each of these (religious) men was deeply skeptical of any sort of contact between the State and the Church.

A secularist, then, dwells not in the atheist realm of theology or anti-theology, but in the domain of politics. A secularist asks: how can we get this here Church/Mosque/Synagogue to be treated justly by government? How can we make sure that this here Church/Mosque/ Synagogue doesn’t take over the government? How can we keep this religious group from trying to exterminate that one? How can we assure religious freedom and freedom from religion for all? How can we make it so that Christians and Atheists, Muslims and Agnostics live in peace and order?

Those are the subjects that interest Secularism. Many atheists, understandably, are interested in these subjects as well. Let’s call them “secular atheists.”

Of course, there are also non-secular atheists. Those would be the ones whose metaphysical assumptions lead them to deny the legitimacy of the “Church.” As such, they make an inference about Churches (i.e., that they really should not exist) that is completely alien to the logic of the secular idea.
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