Back at the beginning of the US Presidential campaign Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of launching  ‘a war on religion’ and of wanting ‘to establish a religion in America known as secularism’. The irony is that Obama himself, even before entering the White House, had made clear his own disdain for secularism. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama had chided fellow Democrats for equating ‘tolerance with secularism’. In embracing secularism, he wrote, Democrats ‘forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with larger meaning’.

Secularism is clearly a toxic word in US politics. But why? And how can we detoxify it? Those are the two questions at the heart of sociologist Jacques Berlinerblau’s new book How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.  Berlinerblau is Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. The key problem in the current debate about secularism is, he argues, the association of secularism with atheism. Studies have shown atheists to be America’s least trusted group. For most Americans, one study concluded, an atheist symbolizes some one ‘who rejects the basis for moral solidarity’. Atheists, in other words, cannot be ‘one of us’.

The irony in the contemporary notion of secularism is that the separation of church and state began historically as a project not of atheists but of believers. The secular outlook, Berlinerblau observes, is rooted not just in the Enlightenment but in the Reformation too. He makes a case for even Jesus, and perhaps Paul and Augustine, too, being de facto secularists.  He sketches out a history of the development of secularism, particularly in the Anglo-American tradition, weaving together the stories of the five men he takes to be the architects of the secular tradition: Martin Luther, Roger Williams, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Over the past century, however, and in particular with the emergence of the so-called ‘New Atheists’, the original constituency for secularism has shattered as the idea has become associated simply with atheism. The result of ‘having extreme anti-theists carry the secular flag has’, Berlinerblau writes, ‘taken its toll’, alienating potential religious supporters. ‘The single constituency that could best enlist with these nonbelievers to effect the political changes they seek’, he argues, ‘is, somehow, the one that they attack with the most vitriol.’ Without resurrecting the original constituency for secularism, without reaching out to moderate believers, religious conservatives will continue to erode the distinction between faith and state, until little of that distinction survives.

Berlinerblau is right in insisting on the need to rethink ideas of secularism and of religious freedom. His observation that secularism in America has developed through judicial activism rather than the creation of a popular movement is a valuable insight that tells us much about the problems facing secularists today. Berlinerblau’s own argument is, however, deeply flawed and many of its political consequences troubling.

Berlinerblau’s real case is not so much for secularism as for pluralism. He wants to see a world in which a thousand cultural and religious flowers are allowed to bloom. And to protect such pluralism, he seems willing to water down his secularism. To build the widest possible coalition we must, he suggests, adopt as our goal the lowest-common-denominator form of secularism. We should ‘stop fetishizing separation of church and state’ and accept instead disestablishment as the minimum necessary for a secular society.

Pragmatism can be a useful tool in building political alliances. But pragmatism can, and should, never be an end in itself. There are two ways through which one can build a constituency for a project of social change. One can win people over to a position to which they are currently hostile. Or one can accept that opponents can never be convinced, and that to build a campaign one must water down one’s own principles.  Most real social change, from abortion rights to racial equality, has come about by winning people over to a view to which they were initially hostile, not by accommodating to existing prejudices. But this is exactly the approach against which Berlinerblau argues. ‘A revived secularism’, he writes, ‘should not try to engineer a new species of secular man. It should not try to lure individuals away from their present identity’ Instead it should be ‘about getting individuals to understand that beings secular… is already part of who they are’ (italics in the original). We can only build a secular society, in other words, if we do not challenge people’s prejudices, but accommodate to them in the name of religious pluralism. It is a deeply conservative vision both of secularism and of social change.

I have sympathy with Berlinerblau’s distaste for that strand of atheism that dismisses all religion out of hand and that erases any distinction between liberal believers and fundamentalists.  Yet his own hostility to what he calls ‘extreme atheism’ is itself disquieting. Berlinerblau suggests that atheists whose aim is a world free of religion cannot be secularists because any separation of faith and state requires the existence of religion. One does not have to believe that religion is the root of all evil, nor that religion is invariably problematic, to hold that a world in which people did not look to the divine for guidance or consolation, but faced up to the world as it is, would be a better place. And while holding such a view of faith, one can also accept that in a world in which religion does exist, secularism is a good. Such a view is close to mine. Am I not fit to be part of the secularist movement?

While Berlinerblau is relaxed about the erosion of the line between faith and state, he is less sanguine about people crossing the line dividing faith and politics. Churches should keep out of politics, he believes, and politicians should not bring religious beliefs into the legislature. It is an argument that raises profound questions of what we mean by freedom of religion and by freedom from religion. Does freedom from religion really require the exclusion of faith from the political sphere? Can such an exclusion square with a defence of freedom of religion? These are not questions that Berlinerblau explores, perhaps because for him order is more important than freedom.

‘Order and freedom’, Berlinerblau writes, ‘are the yin and yang of the secular vision’. Every secular society ‘has to calibrate a functional equilibrium between the two.’ The trouble is that the balance for Berlinerblau seems very much tipped towards the maintenance of order. ‘Never underestimate a secularist’s desire for order’, as he puts it. The ‘secularist vision’, he insists, ‘is statist to the core’. This leads Berlinerblau to a deeply undemocratic vision of secularism. He adopts John Locke’s argument that secularism cannot be a matter for democratic will. There can be, Berlinerblau insists, ‘no establishment of religion even if the majority wants one’ (italics in the original). To the unhappy masses, Berlinerblau has this to say

‘Keeping religion out of government, schools, and other public spaces is better for all of you.  We know this from experience – y’all should read about it yourself sometime. Now please return to your houses of worship quietly.’

This may be a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way of expressing his argument. Yet Berlinerblau clearly believes that ‘I know best, so your democratically expressed views are irrelevant’.  Having lambasted the New Atheists for alienating potential allies, does Berlinerblau really think that such patronizing guff is acceptable or useful?

The real problem with Berlinerblau’s argument is not that it is a radical rethink of secularism but that it is not radical enough. Anglo-American ideas of secularism and freedom developed at a time when religion was the crucible within which all intellectual and political debate took place. Berlinerblau still draws upon ideas forged in that period. Today, though, questions of secularism and freedom and tolerance are not about how the dominant religious establishment should respond to dissenting religious views, but about the degree to which society should tolerate, and the law permit, speech and activity that might be offensive, hateful, harmful to individuals or undermine national security. It is time we rethought our arguments from first principles.


This review was written for New Humanist.


  1. Justiniano Liebl

    Enjoyable analysis. Here is my vote for the PERFECT SECULARIST OF ALL TIMES — — — Jesus, that slob prophet from Nazareth. He subverted the Jewish Symbolic Order of his day and therefore as a blasphemer of their god was handed over to be crucified by the Romans with their religion of many gods. He was a man completely coherent with his human raisond’tre up to his last breath. Justiniano de Managua

  2. Explicit Atheist

    Secularism is part of democratic infrastructure, and in this respect is just like freedom of expression. Just like a majority of citizens don’t get to deny freedom of expression, they don’t get to deny secularism. That doesn’t mean that freedom of expression or secularism is statist, or anti-democratic. It means freedom of expression and secularism are not up for majority vote because democratic government is limited government. Democratic government doesn’t have the powers to deny freedom of expression or secularism because freedom of expression and secularism are themselves requisite to democratic government, they are essential elements of democratic government.

    Berlinerblau is wrong when he tries to argue that secularism is under attack by people who want to disestablish monotheism or by people who advocate against theism (not the same groups of people, but these two groups will, of course, overlap). Secular government is part of the broader democratic principle of equality before the law and disestablishing monotheism would strengthen democracy. And he is wrong when he equates secularism with pluralism. Secular government can exist when it’s citizens are 100% members of a single religious institution or 100% atheists just like free expression can exist when it’s citizens are 100% in agreement or disagreement on a given issue, although both are clearly oriented to preserving democracy by protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority when there is a disagreement.

    • Don’t kid yourself that denying democracy is really protecting democracy. The claim that because X is essential for democracy, so X must be safeguarded from the democratic process is both contradictory and dangerous. Far from helping protect free speech, it is often the argument used to restrict it. From John Locke denying rights to Catholics and atheists (because they undermined social order) to contemporary moves to ban certain kinds of speech (hate speech, Holocaust denial, political and religious ‘extremism’, etc), the claim that something is not conducive to democracy has long been used to restrict freedom of expression and, indeed, freedom itself.

      Consider how your argument may play out somewhere like Egypt, where the people have fought a bloody struggle for freedom and democracy. That democracy has brought to power not, as many hoped, a liberal or leftwing administration, but the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt now has a government that opposes secularism, has restricted freedom of expression and has talked of the introduction of sharia law. The government and its policies are bitterly opposed by many inside Egypt, but they also possess a democratic mandate. I support the opposition to the Brotherhood, the government and its policies. You’re suggesting, however, that we should oppose not just such governments and such policies but the very right of people to vote for such governments and for such policies. How would you stop democratically-elected governments from implementing policies that have a popular mandate apart from through the use of military force? And if you did stop such governments and such policies, what would have been the point of the struggle for freedom and democracy in the first place? Does democracy in Egypt mean that you decide what is good for the people of Egypt rather than the people of Egypt decide for themselves?

      One of the reasons that Islamists have gained traction in places like Egypt is precisely because ‘secularism’ has become identified with the authoritarianism and repression of previous regimes. The consequence of denying the democratic will in the name of secularism or democracy is only to ensure greater support for anti-secularists and anti-democrats.

      If you really want to see the bloody consequences of denying people the right to overturn secularism, look at Algeria. In 1992 the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) seemed certain to win parliamentary elections. The Algerian army, with the connivance of Paris and Washington, stepped in, cancelled the elections and arrested thousands of FIS supporters. The result was a decade-long bloody civil war (that spilled over into terrorist attacks in France), in which more than 60,000 people were killed, tens of thousands imprisoned and tortured, and which pushed tens of thousands more into the arms of the Islamists.

  3. Apart from the tone, what is wrong with Berlinerblau’s injunction against establishing a state religion?

    I mean it is safe enough to keep the things like the C. of E. around, but that’s only because nowadays it’s “establishment” is just an empty pageant. Things would not be so harmless in a country where a real democratic majority were eager to establish a religion? This is an important issue right now in countries like Egypt which are trying to decide whether and how to give teeth to Sharia law.

    • If by this you mean that one should oppose the creation, or maintenance, of an established religion, I agree. If you mean, on the other hand, that we should deny people their democratic rights in the name of protecting secularism or democracy, I disagree. As I suggested in my response to @Explicit Atheist above, it is precisely in places like Egypt that the defence of democracy matters so much.

      • Hmm, it seems we are no longer arguing about secularism in particular, but about the general balance between majority and individual rights. Here are some competing propositions:

        1) The majority will is morally paramount, thus majorities should even be allowed to legislate away basic individual rights.

        2) Basic individual rights are paramount and aught be protected even above the democratic system itself.

        3) Basic individual rights aught be protected if possible, even against majority will, but only by means that leave democracy in tact.

        4) Individual rights aught not be protected against the majority will, because it is impossible to do so successfully without destroying democracy.

        I vote for #3. You seem to be accusing @ExplicitAtheist of supporting #2, and you use something like #4 as an argument against him. But #4 is patently false: around the world, popular bills are routinely struck down, or silently dropped for constitutional (or quasi-constitutional) reasons – and yet democracy hums merrily along.

        And if the world is going to accept #1, I’ll shout us all a round of hemlock.

      • Adrian, I am all for constitutional protections. But constitutions themselves are not God-given tablets of stone or inviolable laws of nature but human creations that can be changed, amended, torn up, rewritten. After all, the First Amendment was, as the name suggests, an amendment to the US Constitution, as indeed was the whole of the Bill of Rights. Today there are moves to amend the First Amendment, to remove some of its protections. I support the First Amendment, I oppose moves to change it. But I wouldn’t for a moment want to deny the people of America the right to change their constitution if they so wish. Otherwise it would be to treat the Constitution as a holy tablet of stone. To say that one should protect individual rights if possible ‘but only by means that leave democracy intact’ is to beg the question, for no democrat would argue against that. What I was arguing against was precisely protections that do damage the integrity of the democratic process.

  4. Well put Adrian – I’d drink to that scenario.

    I don’t see an issue with a ‘relative’ secularism, where we encourage people to believe whatever religious myths they wish, while asking them to keep it out of politics and government. The more aggressive atheists only cause a backlash preventing rational discussion and what some might consider progress. I know you see this approach as a ‘watering down,’ but I see it differently. The masses need faith or ideology for their psychological equanimity. Freud, Camus, Becker, and some of the world’s brightest thinkers all saw it that way, and Terror Management Theory (TMT) has given scientific backing to this view of human nature. I don’t think you will ever have the secular ideal (if you dispose of religion, you will still have religious-like ideologies). But if you understand this collective psychological need, you can at least make room for religious belief (outside of government), so that we can all meet on some common rational ground when it comes to government.

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