Jacques Berlinerblau just really dislikes atheists. I don’t know how else to account for this bizarre article in which he announces that Secularists are not atheists. Oh, yeah, I say? We know. I’m a big fan of Americans United…and I know full well that it is not an atheist organization. I also know that the history of church-state separation in the US, and that it was driven not by atheists (who were nearly nonexistent until the last century), but by diverse religious interests.
So why is Berlinerblau complaining? Because of two factors: fundamentalist Christians who want to make secularism synonymous with atheism to demonize the cause, and because atheist organizations have risen in strength and numbers enough to have built lobbying organizations that fight for secularism. Who is the villain Berlinerblau will chastise? Guess what: it’s not the Christian fanatics who abuse the term. It’s atheists who dare to speak up in support of secularism.
American secularism has lost control of its identity and image. That’s because the equation secularism = atheism is rapidly gaining market share. It is increasingly employed in popular usage, political analysis, and even scholarly discourse. This formula is muscling out an infinitely more accurate understanding of secularism as a political philosophy about how the state should relate to organized religion. If this association prevails, if secularism simply becomes a synonym for atheism, then secularism in the United States will go out of business.
Which is fine by the Revivalists and which may account for why they perpetuate this confusion. In these circles secularism has become another word for godlessness. As one journalist perceptively observes, “secular” is a “code in conservative Christian circles for ‘atheist’ or even ‘God-hating’ . . . conjur[ing], in a fresh way, all the demons Christian conservatives have been fighting for more than 30 years: liberalism, sexual permissiveness, and moral lassitude.”
Not only foes draw this link, but friends as well. The website of the Secular Coalition for America describes the group as “a 501(c)4 advocacy organization whose purpose is to amplify the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States.” This community, it points out, is comprised of “atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and other nontheistic Americans.” An affiliated organization, the Secular Student Alliance, refers to its mission as “to organize and empower nonreligious students around the country.”
Right there, he notes the real source of the problem: that it’s the Christian revivalists who have an interest in perpetuating the confusion. But then he begins his elision into finding common cause with Christian fanatics by criticizing atheists for lobbying. You know, atheists have an interest in having a secular (not atheist) government; the SCA and SSA are perfectly reasonable organizations that, like Americans United, fight for less religious interference in government. That they represent atheist interests means…what? That they shouldn’t speak up?
Berlinerblau really needs to get some remedial math and logic. Maybe then he’d understand that “atheists can be secularists too” does not imply that “secularism = atheism”, an equation he uses frequently.
Also, maybe if he’d read beyond the first paragraph of the SCA’s about page, he’d have noticed this:
While the Coalition was created expressly by and for nontheistic Americans, we also enthusiastically welcome the participation of religious individuals who share our view that freedom of conscience must extend to people of all faiths and of none. Accordingly, our staff works in cooperation with a variety of other organizations and coalitions where common ground exists on specific issues, and our e-mail Action Alert system is open to all who visit our site.
Ooops. There goes his whole damn thesis.
But it’s ignored. His real target isn’t the SCA, but the New Atheists, and it’s to his advantage to pretend that the Secular Coalition and all atheists are equivalent to the New Atheists (there is a similarity here to how fundamentalist Christians try to paint all of modern secularism as an atheist plot—you’d think he’d notice, but I don’t think self-awareness is his strong suit).
Yet instead of honing their powers of critique on anti-secular Revivalists, the New Atheists advanced a mixed-martial-arts assault on religion in general. They gleefully (and catastrophically) set about pitting nonbelievers against all believers. They thus included in their onslaught the one constituency in whose hands the future of secularism lies: religious moderates. The New Atheist creed maintains that moderates are just as dangerous and misguided as their extremist co-religionists.
I sort of agree with bits of that. Yes, it’s true: I think faith is a vice, whether it’s practiced by a moderate Christian or a far-right-wing fanatic. It’s not a creed — we don’t have one — and I don’t think it’s catastrophic at all. Atheism is booming right now, concurrent with the rise of clear-thinking, aggressive atheism that questions the premises of all religion. What would be catastrophic is to treat only the symptoms of anti-secularism while allowing the root cause, widespread gullible acceptance of nonsense, to fester.
But you’ll also notice that the New Atheists write books and blogs. They don’t have a political arm lobbying the US government to ban religion, nor do they plan to have one, because that’s not our goal. We don’t plan to legislate religion out of existence, but simply to wake people up and get them thinking, and thereby allow them to leave religion on their own cognizance.
We are completely aware of the difference between secularism and atheism. The only people who seem to be confused and have an interest in blurring the difference are religious fundamentalists and Jacques Berlinerblau. And the other thing those people have in common is a willingness to shade the truth in their zeal.