Jacques Berlinerblau, the Director of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University (whatever that might be; I really don’t know), has an article in the Huffington Post trying to decouple atheism and secularism. He has the beginning of a good point, but he takes it entirely too far.
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.
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…
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.
There is a kernel of something valid here, of course. One can be a secularist and not be an atheist; lots of religious people are staunch advocates of strict separation of church and state. But while there are some theists who are secularists, it’s also true that nearly all atheists are going to be secularists, for reasons too obvious to require discussion here. But I think he takes this valid point too far:
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.
I see no reason to believe that last sentence to be true. It is as invalid as it would be if an atheist argued that we cannot allow religious people to be considered secularists because that will somehow couple secularism with religious belief. One can be a theist and a secularist or an atheist and a secularist; both positions are entirely irrelevant to the validity of secularism itself.
He seems to be making a pragmatic argument here, that as long as outspoken atheists advocate for secularism, some religious people will reject secularism because it is sometimes espoused by atheists. But even if that is true, so what? What does he suggest, that outspoken atheists just stop advocating for secularism? Sorry, that isn’t going to happen, nor should it. It should be enough for any rational person to simply have it pointed out that secularism is independent of every position on the existence of God; if that fails to convince them, why should it concern anyone else? They are behaving irrationally.