Secularism – its internal problems

Book Review: How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by James Berlinerblau

Price: US$15.29
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (September 11, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0547473346
ISBN-13: 978-0547473345

Secularism makes the headlines these days – if only because of attacks on it by militant religionists. So I welcome media articles and books which help counter this misrepresentation. It’s necessary to encourage the proper understanding of what exactly secularism is and why “far from being the enemy of religious pluralism, is its guarantor”.

Berlinerblau describes secularism as “a term that, as we shall see, has been defined, derided, used, and abused in a bewildering variety of ways.” Especially by today’s “Christian ‘outrage machine.’”

So it’s worth quoting in a little detail Berlinerblau’s own definitions of secularism:

“Secularism is a political philosophy, which, at its core, is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion. It translates that preoccupation into various strategies of governance, all of which seek to balance two necessities: (1) the individual citizen’s need for freedom of, or freedom from, religion and (2) a state’s need to maintain order. . . it may create or actualize certain dispositions and world-views in us all. Foremost among these are the “secularish” qualities, such as tolerance toward others, moderation, and a willingness to be self-critical about one’s own faith.

It ensures that your child is not forced to join a “voluntary” prayer circle in the school cafeteria.

And if you fancy being able to think about God in any way you see fit, then once again, a little gratitude is in order. This type of freedom is secularism’s essence. This is secularism’s promise. This is the end to which all genuine secularisms aspire.”

But, my feelings about this book are mixed. On the one hand Berlinerblau does clarify the meaning of secularism and criticises those who use the word too loosely. He also delves into the history of secularism in the USA and proposes his own advice on the future strategy and tactics required by the US secularist “movement.” On the other hand I have doubts about the historical accuracy of some of his claims. And while there may be value in some of his suggested tactics, I think the advice sufferers from his own ideological biases and his idealisation of the concept of a secular “movement.”

Atheists need to pay attention

While Berlinerblau criticises the extreme distortion of secularism by strident Christians and other religionists he also takes a well-deserved biff at those atheists who often uses secular as another adjective for atheist. Sure, I can understand the need, particularity in the USA, to make use of words other than “atheist”, given its demonisation. But it does no good to co-opt “secular” – especially as this plays right into the hands of the religious militants and the “Christian ‘outrage machine’” who want to equate “secular” with “atheist.” It’s bad enough when those people play the old “bait and switch” trick. When they take text using the inclusive meaning of secular (neutral about religious belief) and dishonestly argue assuming it means atheist. But atheists who use “secular” as meaning “atheist” or non-religious” only fuel militant religious arguments against secularism.

So we should criticise anyone who uses the term “secular” in such a misleading way – especially in the names of organisation or benign references to people, organisation or media. On the other hand, the English language is full of confusing words and people should always take context into account. No amount of action from “language Nazis” can really influence common usage. Nor will our arguments instil sudden honesty into those religious militants and leaders intent on maintaining their privilege. Perhaps we just have to carefully make out context clear when we use these words.

History of secularism

I won’t comment on how accurate the author’s presentation of the history of secularism in the US is. Its outside my areas of expertise. I do think he makes interesting comments relevant to the tactics of people today wishing to prevent undemocratic encroachment of religion into government and state issues. But my concern is that Berlinerblau’s presentation of the history of secularism in the USSR and of the current attitudes of the so-called “New Atheist” is just not objective.

Quoting Stalin on “reactionary clergy” when he says “Anti-religious propaganda is the means that ought to bring to a head the liquidation of the reactionary clergy.”  Berlinerblau adds “Liquidating clergy? Needless to say, this is not a legitimate aspiration of secularism.” No, but he should recognise that “liquidation” of hostile, even armed, reactionary elements – in terms of removal from power and influence – is the “legitimate (even if undemocratic) requirement” for a regime that wishes to stay in power after a bloody civil war. And yes, sometimes that liquidation became physical as well as political.

Berlinerblau’s error in equating political and military actions during an extreme period of social upheaval with “legitimate aspiration of secularism” make me a bit suspicious of all the history he presents.

Personally I think the experience of religious groups after the 1917 revolution up to the present is a rich area which could teach us a lot. It is just too simplistic (if ideologically satisfying to many historians) to present the myth of a persecuted and banned religion and Orthodox Church during the period of communist power. After all, the most dangerous organisation to belong to during the Stalin Terror of the 30s was the Communist Party – half its Central Committee disappeared in the space of a few years between two Congresses so imagine what it was like in the ranks. Persecution at that time was widespread so it is wrong to draw general conclusions only from persecution of church members then.

After the 1917 Revolution and subsequent civil war all political organisations, except the Communist Party were made illegal. The outstanding exception was the Orthodox Church – a little surprising as it had lined up against the revolution and had previously supported Tsarism. The new regime obviously accommodated the church, seminaries operated during much of the time and priests were even members of the Supreme Soviet. Clearly, as the only legal political organisation, the Communist Party would have included members of all sorts of ideology and religious belief – it was the only way to take part generally in society. I think that, and the integration of the Communist Party into state and commercial structures helped decide the relatively peaceful transition to the post-communist society. It probably also influenced the nature of post-communist institutions and power.

In particular – I think there is a fascinating story behind the current Russian power structures with strong influence from a nationalistic Orthodox Church and the security forces on the one hand, and the roles and situations of these organisations before 1990 on the other.

Still, Berlinerblau history of secularism in the USSR has some value and his comments on secularism without democracy are worth consideration for the lessons they provide. They seem especially relevant to the current struggles in the Middle East where undemocratic secular regimes are being swept aside by the very religious forces they were meant to control. They were not able to solve the problems presented by militant religions and surely do not represent the future we wish to see for secularism in the West.

Then again the political situations and maturity of the various political and religious forces are very different. As are the societies themselves. So the history of secularism in undemocratic and authoritarian regimes maybe interesting but is of little relevance to our political situations. Despite the attempts of the local religious extremists to paint today’s democratic secularism in the colours of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (let’s not mention Hitler).

Those nasty “New Atheists”

This is a major obstacle for me. If an author presents an obviously distorted, and motivated, description of current phenomena we are familiar with, what trust can you place on their presentation of, and interpretation of, past histories? And what value can you see in the strategy and tactics they advocate for supporters of secularism today? Very relevant because the book is a “Call to Arms.”

Berlinerblau declares he desires that “secularists and atheists can pursue their legitimate and worthy agendas and work together when their interests overlap (which is often).” However, he belongs to the groups of non-believers who think that vocal atheists should STFU. Which makes me think his valid request for atheists not to equate “secularism” with” atheism” sometimes transforms into a wish for atheists not to be too public about their presence in any secularist movement, or in their demand for secularist policies. I wonder if that is what really motivates his desire to “disarticulate secularism from atheism.”

This agenda also prevents him from understanding lessons drawn by others. He ridicules the point made by Richard Dawkins and others that even “mild and moderate religion . . helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.” I think it’s a valid point but Berlinerblau’s agenda-driven misunderstanding raises questions in my mind about his objectivity and ability to understand issues he deals with. How does he possible get to this?:

“Surely a school of thought that can’t distinguish between a member of the Taliban beheading a journalist and a Methodist running a soup kitchen in Cincinnati is not poised to make the sound policy decisions that accrue to the good of secularism.”

This distortion reveals his wish to exclude vocal atheists from his secular “movement” – purely because they are vocal (he describes it as  “sound and fury”). As does his assertion:

“It is very clear that extreme atheists would rather that the church not exist, and this makes their inclusion in the secular camp problematic. New Atheists tend to make grand rhetorical gestures toward that goal, though little indicates they seriously plan on bringing their ideas to fruition. We now turn to some extreme atheists who did precisely that.”

This is followed by his chapter “How not to be secular” where he considers the experience of the USSR! Isn’t that “gleefully tarring” today’s vocal atheists with the Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot” myth? (I am borrowing a term he used in the book against these vocal atheists).

I think this emotive reaction to vocal atheism displays a political naivety that undermines his “call to arms”. How can we build an inclusive secular movement by excluding important sections  – just because these people are vocal about their beliefs and understandings? After all, it is the nature of beliefs that people keep them despite uniting in the common actions. Unity of action does not mean denial of freedom of belief or removal of political rights and freedom of expression.

Do we need “manifestos” or honest appraisal of political realities?

I disagree with Berlinerblau’s apparent assumption that we need a “Secular Movement” – for which his book is a “Call to arms.” Politics is rarely that simple – especially when unity of action  from diverse groups around abstract aims is involved. Personally I see that issues will be dealt with and resolved on an ad hoc basis. People will unite and act on specific demands, often local and not national issues. Even where they are motivated by grander concepts such as freedom of (and from) religion, equal rights and opposition to discrimination.

Also participants in a (lower case) secular “movement” bring their own understandings, ideas and skill to that movement. We are not rank and file soldiers unquestioningly following a “Call to arms.” Some people are activists, others are armchair supporters. Some people will follow a lead, others will lead. Some people are preoccupied with today’s struggles, others have longer term vision and aims.

That is why I think Berlinerblau and others who rant against today’s vocal atheists make a big mistake. They try to fit everyone into their own concept of what an atheist should be without recognising the reality faced by today’s atheists. There are a multitude of requirements. Unified political action for secularist aims isn’t the only game in town. Another important one is education – consciousness raising. How can atheists take part in a political movement if they don’t even recognise that they are atheists, are afraid to acknowledge that fact or inhibited in their political actions by their social surroundings.

In his rather biased criticism of the “New Atheism” Berlinerblau loses sight of fact that the practical role of Richard Dawkins and some others is consciousness rising for atheism – not coalition building for secularism. Concentration on consciousness raising does not mean opposition to coalition building by any means – as a simple reading of pronouncements by these people will make clear.

Frankly, I see consciousness raising as an important factor in any secularist movement. Denial or exclusion of that function, as Berlinerblau appears to want, actually weakens the movement.

And that is my main objection to this book.

Some readers will no doubt find value in the book’s description of the history of secularism in the US and the mistakes it may have made. The history of secularism and religion in the USSR and post communist Russia needs further analysis. (A general criticism of today’s historians as the ideological “perspective of the victor’ makes objectivity difficult). And the history and problems of secularism in authoritarian Middle East state needs further analysis. it’s a topical issue.

The book is of value for those reasons but I don’t think it should be taken as a “Call to arms.”

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