Secularism Isn’t Atheism

Jacques Berlinerblau’s recent HuffPost religion column touches on a theme that is near and dear to the heart of this blog: the difference between atheism and its false equivalents.

In the past months (and years) I’ve occasionally commented on the highjacking of the term ‘humanism’ by atheists in search of an upmarket brand name.

As most readers will know, its combination with the term ‘secular’ to make the brew even weaker and more tasteless (e.g., by the so-called “Council for Secular Humanism,” a limb of the uniquely misnamed “Center for Inquiry”) continues to appeal to shrinking numbers of full-blooded atheists.  Increasing numbers of atheists are happy to be known as atheists; and a few of those are just as pleased to be free of the moniker “secular humanism,” which  never meant anything anyway.

But on the pretext that words and definitions matter, neither secularism nor humanism are explicitly irreligious, anti-religion, or atheistic.

Their core propositions, as Berlinerblau says, are agnostic.  Moreover, their first dim stirrings were in the fight for religious tolerance and more this-wordly philosophies of life.  Secularism has its roots in the writings of the 12th century  Andalusian Muslim thinker Ibn Rushd, centuries before the notion occurred to thinkers in the Christian west.


From The Huffington Post 7/28/12

By Jacques Berlinerblau

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. The religious right has profitably promulgated this misconception at least since the 1970s.

More recently politicians such as Newt Gingrich have gleefully fostered this confusion. During his raucous, unforgettable 2012 presidential run, the former Speaker of the House fretted that his grandchildren were poised to live in “a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

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 prejudicestoward them. By intentionally blurring the distinction between atheism and secularism, the religious right succeeds in drowning both.

Yet it is not only foes, but friends of secularism, who sometimes make this mistake as well. 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.

Let’s start with some brief definitions. Atheism, put simply, is a term that covers a wide variety of schools of thought that ponder and/or posit the non-existence of God/s. 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.

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.

What secularism does concern itself with are relations between Church and State. It is a flexible doctrine that can embody a lot of policy positions. Strict separationism is one, but not the only, of those positions. At its core, secularism is deeply suspicious of any entanglement between government and religion.

Secularism needs to be disarticulated from atheism for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, these two isms are simply not synonyms. One concerns itself with primarily with politics, the other with (anti-) metaphysics. They have different concerns, intellectual moorings and histories (though, interestingly, it may be that both emanated from Christian theological inquiry).

Second, for secularism to reinvigorate itself it needs to reclaim its traditional base of religious people. 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).

Throughout American history it has been groups like Baptists, Jews, progressive Catholics as well as countless smaller religious minorities who have championed secular political ideas. But religious believers today, even moderate religious believers, will not sign on to secularism if they think it’s merely the advocacy arm of godlessness.

Finally, we need to distinguish secularism from atheism because some atheists, of late, have taken a regrettable anti-secular turn. True, secularism is a proponent of religious freedom and freedom from religion. It sees the “Church” as a legitimate component of the American polity. It 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.

Most atheists, of course, are tolerant to a fault and simply wish for religious folks to reciprocate (and most do). Yet 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

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16 thoughts on “Secularism Isn’t Atheism

  1. “[When he departs] we will weep — as one weeps when a cross-grained and rich stepmother has departed this life.”
    (Huldrych Zwingli – tense transposed)

  2. Overall this is of course a necessary reminder, which is unfortunately needed a little too often. But I disagree with a couple of points…

    For example you state: “the highjacking of the term ‘Humanism’ by atheists in search of an upmarket brand name”. I disagree with your perception, I have had political negotiations with Humanists for many years, to my eyes, it’s the Humanists, or rather the Soecular Humanists, which are highjacking the term atheist. We are ALL born atheist, we are all born without the notion of supernatural entities. Concepts like the supernatural need to be taught by deluded people, otherwise, realism is what older tribes display, tribes who have not been touched by modern civilisation. But Humanism is a religion unlike most others, in that it is celestially godless, but in most other regards, as with Buddhism, it behaves like a religion.

    When you mention NG stated “secular atheists”, that was actually the opposite of lumping their definitions. I am the opposite of a ‘secular atheist’ for I do not think that ‘secularism’ is a viable strategy to run a nation of people. Most more stupidity tolerant atheists than I think that ‘secular atheist’ is the way to go… let the religious be, but separate Church and State…

    You state: “atheism, put simply, is a term that covers a wide variety of schools of thought that ponder and/or posit the non-existence of God/s. Among scholars there is a fascinating debate about when precisely atheism arose.” That is simply false, one does not need to “ponder/posit” in order to be an atheist, we are all born atheist, just like the rest of the animal kingdom, until we are taught delusion. And there is no such thing as in “ism” for atheists. If you had stated: atheists live by a variety of schools of thought, that would have been a truer statement.

    I am atheistic, I do not believe in the social validity of secularity, and I most certainly disagree with Humanism, secular or not, which is an offshoot of Christianity, both entirely anthropocentric, which is why ex-Christians find it so appealing, they get to change their denomination, be trendy, appear to be modern, without changing most of their values, bleah.

    • I am not sure your idea “that we are all born atheist” has any more punch than Rousseau’s belief that we “are all born free.” I suppose if you mean cognitively not “religious” there is something to it. And I suppose if you mean that a specific doctrine is taught to many people from childhood, that seems clear enough. But it would be difficult to explain the emergence of religion if atheism is the “natural” condition of the human race: anthrolpology and archaeology aren’t with you on this. BTW, flattered as I am the passage you quote is from the essay by Jacques Berlinerblau. I can’t take credit, but I think he is right.

      • Theism may indeed be the ‘natural’ or default human condition. I’m not at all sure that it is, but it could be. Possibly depends on a definition of human. Was Homo erectus a theist? Or the version before him/her? I suppose we may never know, but my guess is theism arrived at some stage, as a concept.

        It is of course largely irrelevant, as i’m sure you’ll agree, whether it’s the natural condition of the only living member of the genus or not, vis a vis accuracy.

        And don’t start me on how atheism may just be the next rung on the evolutionary ladder, partly because I don’t think there is one (an evolutionary ladder, even a metaphorical one) and partly because you’ll be here all night reading my outpourings.

      • This little article only lists some non-religious primitive tribes, little article there are a few others. Religiosity is a modern (compared to the 60,000 years Homo sapiens have been in our modern configuration). The existence of primitive atheist tribes demonstrates that religiosity is not universal. We are taught how to be religious. To assume that because a concept is common it is necessarily universal is a great fallacy. I was never indoctrinated so I have been supernatural-free since birth. My parents do not consider themselves atheists (apathetic-agnostics at the most), it was never discussed at home. Nor was religiosity ever discussed at home I simply lived in a void as to woo concepts. I was taught critical thinking, on all matters equally. Ask all the other life-long atheists out there (there are few of us). We are also a demonstration that universal religiosity is a myth. Realism is innate, it is evolutionary, and tried and tested through millions of years. Religiosity is a cultural power grab which has no mystery to it. It is common because it makes narcissists powerful.

      • Your little article is an unfortunate and eroneous source to depend on and not only do you misrepresent it, but the author is manipulatively misleading (and what’s with the superfluous epithet ‘secular’ for ‘atheists’?) and does not seem to have grasped his sources. There is no evidence of the existence of primitive atheist tribes and it contradicts the evolution of human ideas and developments in knowledge. Will Durant’s study of ‘primitive tribes’ is in the modern era. These tribes are not living in ancient times. We were not ‘born atheists’. We are born without ideas. We become curious, and curious about the meaning of life and death, and natural phenomena beyond their control.

        The tribes studied in your article (or by Durant) are from the modern era. Their ancestors are ‘unavailable’ – long dead. The Zulu quoted demonstrates the evolution of ideas, and influence of modern ideas, evolved in the view of science. They are not the ideas of his ancestors as they sought answers to life and existence. But that he has not seen a god, does not support an argument that he might not believe in its existence, nor that he does not have any other ideas.

        Contrary to the out of date simplistic ideas of Durant, the ideas of Pygmy tribes vary. Baka religion is animist. They revere a supreme god called Komba, who they believe to be the creator of all things. However, this supreme god does not play much of a part in daily life, and the Baka do not actively pray to or worship Komba. Jengi, the spirit of the forest, has a much more direct role in Baka life and ritual. The Baka view Jengi as a parental figure and guardian, who presides over the male rite of initiation. Jengi is considered an integral part of Baka life, and his role as protector reaffirms the structure of Baka society, where the forest protects the men and the men in turn protect the women. Everything in the Mbuti life is centered on the forest; they consider themselves “children of the forest,” and consider the forest to be a sacred place. An important part of Mbuti spiritual life is the molimo. The molimo is, in its most physical form, a musical instrument most often made from wood. To the Mbuti, the molimo is also the “Song of the Forest,” a festival, and a live thing when it is making sound. When not in use, the molimo is kept in a tree, and given food, water, and warmth. The Mbuti believe that the balance of “silence” or peacefulness, and “noise” is important; when the “noise” becomes out of balance, the youth of the tribe bring out the molimo. The molimo is also called upon whenever bad things happen to the tribe, in order to negotiate between the forest and the people.

        Of course skepticism is not a modern phenomenon. With curiosity comes skepticism too. Human beings become skeptical about ideas and ideas evolve. Skepticism arising from the emerging evidence of the sciences in the Post enlightenment allowed the emergence of the earliest atheism in the nineteenth century. Christian ideas evolved in view of the emerging evidence of science so that many modern Christians do not hold beliefs which contradict the scientific evidence now available. Prior to the enlightenment, there was no atheism. The Greeks accused Christians of atheism because they rejected the Greek gods. Much more advanced research since Durant has produced evidence which contradicts your claim (which does not correspond with Durant’s ideas anyway) and is in accordance with the natural concept of evolution. Also despite Durant’s leading questions, he received answers which in no way support a claim that they were even ‘atheists’.

        tnt666 sounds like the devil’s courier – or advocate. I wonder why people who hate religion so much always have it on their mind. Rhetorical question.

      • @steph Your rebuttal addresses fine details, but it does not debunk the fact that the most un-modernised of our peoples show high degrees of non-belief. The point that was made is that some of them were a form of agnostic “meh maybe some sort of god but doesn’t affect us” to outright straight-up realism. Scepticism not only existed before religion, but was much stronger before religious dictatorship of ideas came around. I stated no beef with a fallacious duality between a majority of modern Christianity and science. Most education in the sciences in Europe came from Christian universities. But the point is crazy-god-in-the-sky ideas do not arise spontaneously, they arose because lies became political, and people found they could control the actions of others through fear. This form of ridiculous needs to be taught, to young ones to stick, because human children learn so much from their parents, if we teach them falsities, they will think them true.

        As for your point, why do atheists so often speak of religion? Because it is crammed down our throats every single day by the 95% of peers who are either religious or “spiritual”. So we can either be meek and accept all the lies or counter them. You yourself are speaking up here against that which you disagree, why on earth would you expect me to do less?? that’s the irrational part of your thinking really showing through.

      • No historian has ever suggested that any ‘god in the sky’ ideas developed spontaneously. On the contrary, these ideas developed relatively late. There is no “fallacious duality between a majority of modern Christianity and science”. Many modern Christians do not hold biblically literalistic beliefs and do not hold beliefs which contradict the evidence of science while other modern Christians ‘believe’ in both science and hold unevolved supernatural beliefs and regrettably try to reconcile them. There are still modern Christians, more likely the ones you know, who are hostile to and ignorant of science.

        It is in fact false that “most un-modernised of our peoples show high degrees of non-belief.” Some of these people ‘observed’ by travellers and the philosopher Durant, did not express expected beliefs they expected – that is the beliefs that Durant thought they ought to hold with his limited view of religious definitions. The notion of self that was responsible for creation for the Zulu was not explored with the unsophisticated study by Durant. What was the Zulu’s understanding of reality? Durant did not investigate. He merely observed that the Zulu was skeptical of Durant’s idea of what a god should be. Present day anthropological and sociological studies have examined these ideas extensively.

        Agnosticism is not an expression of non-belief or belief that there is no supernatural. It therefore is not representative of ‘atheism’. Skepticism towards beliefs expressed by others is not indicative of atheism either. The Zulu does in fact have religious or spiritual ideas as has been demonstrated by modern researchers. Are you blessed with the power of time travel? Your assumptions contradict logical processes such as the concept of evolution of historical thought and explanations. Some doubted explanations, but they had no explanation for human existence available such as we have today. The assumption that modern people’s ideas reflect ideas prior to the scientific enlightenment couldn’t even be argued for Christians today. How many religious ideas of Christians, existed in the first centuries? How many didn’t believe in resurrection? How many read the Bible as religious literature with a historical context? Not even Durant would support your irrational view. Shakespeare for example had caustic views of the Church and orthodox religion, but he was no atheist. His writing is full of religious imagery, satire and assumptions. There was no atheism in Endymion.

        I suggest you let go of your indiscriminate hatred towards religion, and channel your enthusiasm to critiquing the biblically illiterate literalist fundamentalist forms of religion saturating your society, education and government. Living in a secular environment with secular religious people might help you be a little less hostile for I too grew up without ‘religion’ and received a secular education. I wasn’t properly introduced to religions until I chose to take subjects at university. I’m sorry you live with such people you describe.

  3. Every now and then I toy with the idea of “eternal humanism”, which is clearly the opposite of “secular humanism”.

  4. From the reviews of the Berlinerblau book:

    ‘I am not sure I have Berlinerblau’s case right, and to be honest, his negative case (of what secularism is not) is much clearer than his positive case as to what secularism is. In the end, he seems to come out in favor of some sort of accomodationism, where we can all (including governments) see the value of religion, but accept that it should have a very limited role in public life (with no preferential treatment).’

    At the end of the day, I think most atheists would have very few problems with this sort of accomodationism, and many of those would have no problem at all. Similarly if we move from politics to education.

    Sure, to some extent, the religious secularist and the atheist secularist are going to tend to disagree on a lot of things, and even be pulling in different directions at some fundamental level, but personally, I think that it is entirely possible for them both to pull in the same direction on enough issues for there to be grounds for a useful coalition.

    Whether this will/can happen in the USA, the land of contradictions, where one slice of the country have a full set of whitened, straightened teeth and another slice have just one or two yellowy brown ones, is another matter. But it would be good.

    • I agree; that looks like a flub and makes no sense in the context of the larger argument. I can agree that secularism is not about metaphysics, but it is certainly about not letting the church into policy decisions precisely because the church is all about metaphysics. It is about defining limits.

      • On this one can think back to Jefferson and his letter to Baptists of a certain circle in his day. Of course, I suppose we can also think of historical, secular attempts at moving away from the Church like “De Monarchia” Defensor Pacis” etc.

      • Exactly: early secularism–the sort that arose in the Investiture Controversy–was about “borders’ as well, separating the kingdom from the kingdom of Christ (Christendom).

      • I note that someone in the comments section pulled him on it, said his bias was showing, or something like that. Well, maybe it was. Or maybe it wasn’t. Either way, it doesn’t, for me, detract from what nonetheless looks like a very interesting book (‘How to be Secular’ I mean) among a number of interesting books, by Berlierblau (interesting name. Blue Berliner?)

        There is what seems like a decent case for atheists and secularists and agnostics and humanists and liberal theists to cooperate better. I for one am not against it. Obviously, I’m an out and out atheist, so……..there are bound to be points of friction and disagreement (some of them fairly fundamental), but in the main, I value liberal thinking as an umbrella term.

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