Covers | May 11, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Is Godless Great?


A New Heyday for American Secularism

On April 10, 2009, the Harvard Secular Society took over Harvard’s Memorial Church to present Joss Whedon, the TV producer and director, with the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism. Whedon began his acceptance speech by reminding his audience of “nonbelievers” that President Obama had given them “a shout-out during the Inauguration.” He insisted that “the important thing is not that we’re right … [but] where do we go from here?”

According to Barry Kosmin, principal researcher of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, a “rising tide of secularity” is sweeping through the nation. The proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans has reached 15 percent, and will likely continue to rise since the unaffiliated are disproportionately young. Secularism faces challenges ahead, including the continued hostility of religious leaders and a lack of internal cohesion, but the movement will continue to grow in influence in this religiously diverse country.

The Secular Mindset

It is important to clear up just what we mean when we talk about secularism. Secularism is different from atheism, agnosticism, or pure religious indifference. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker defined secularism as “the attempt to separate religion from political life.” This, Pinker said, entails “political movements” that seek to counter the dangerous decisions made by politicians “out of a faith that … [they are] doing God’s work.”

Some nonbelievers say that that’s not enough, though. Greg Epstein, Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain, said that humanism is far more than “the need for a separation of church and state.”  He sees humanism as “a movement,” or as “a way of life that millions of people adhere to,” and believes that humanists need to create their own community predicated on the notion that people can be “good without God,” which is the title of Epstein’s recent book. It is clear that secularism depends on a positive set of beliefs, rather than mere rejection of religion.

Secularism’s Social Legacy

Pinker claimed that secularism’s greatest achievement is simply “democracy,” which he described as “a form of government that was reasoned from first principles, most famously in the Declaration of Independence, with no support from theological principles.” More humbly, Epstein maintained that the secularist movement has served America by pushing a “forward-thinking set of social policies,” on “evolution [in the school curriculum], on stem cell research, on a woman’s right to choose … where we use science and technology for human good.”

Pinker echoed Epstein’s concerns about the failure to teach evolution in all US classrooms, claiming that one aspect of secularism’s “main pragmatic work … consists in combating attempts to force superstition and misinformation in school curricula.”

Attempts to integrate religious principles into public education have recently received national attention in such spectacles as the Dover, PA, “Intelligent Design trial” and the Texas Board of Education’s March 12 vote to approve a social studies curriculum “stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.” In opposition to such initiatives by the religious right, Whedon said in his acceptance speech that “education, education, education,” is the highest priority for which secularists can strive today. Whedon argued not that every educated person will become “secular, or humanist, or a nonbeliever,” but that education “does mean, however, that more people will stop lining up like lemmings.”

Religion Strikes Back

Despite its many achievements, particularly in the last half-century, secularism remains a controversial subject in the American public sphere. Hunter Baker, a professor at Houston Baptist University and the author of The End of Secularism, told the HPR that secularists’ goal of removing religion from the arena of political decision-making is problematic. Baker said that “individuals bring their religious beliefs to the public square because they have integrity.” Baker argued that, since the great majority of Americans are still Christians, it is inevitable, and even desirable, that politicians will “want to provide their real basis for a stand they take, rather than formulate a false one that meets some secular language requirement.”

Baker further claimed that “having a [religious] counter to the government can be freedom-enhancing and protect against the development of totalitarianism.” Likewise, Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute, told the HPR that religion operates “as a check and balance to the power of the state” and “provides the kind of moral and ethical standards that you’d like to see.” “If you’re starting de novo,” London insisted, “where does your morality come from?”

But secularists counter that many “European nations are now majority atheist,” yet do not appear to have sunk into immorality and despair, as Pinker pointed out. Whedon agreed, arguing that “the best in us will still exist, even if we break down the systems that so many of us fight so hard to preserve.”

Semper Fidelis?

Although secularism seems poised to withstand religious challenges, the movement faces  problems of its own. In particular, secularist thinkers differ as to whether secular humanism will ever truly be able to supply the sense of community that organized religion can provide. During a joint speaking event with her husband Pinker at Harvard Hillel, the philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein agreed that access to a community is a “great [human] need … that needs to be addressed” in order for secularism to flourish. But as to secularism’s ability to provide it, Goldstein could only say, “I don’t know.”

Epstein is more optimistic. He said that “the challenge is not … [to] get millions of educated Westerners to act like sheep and lemmings,” and that he does not “want members of the humanist movement to devote every fiber of their being” to their secularism. Epstein envisions communities of people who share secular ways of thinking, come together “to teach their children about … what it means to be human,” and to celebrate important moments in their lives.

Thus, secularism in America will remain a controversial proposition, but it is unquestionably here to stay. The current secularist movement serves to balance the prevalent influence of religion in American life, particularly in the classroom. Moreover, secularism fits with America’s longstanding tradition of religious innovation and pluralism. As Kosmin remarked that “we’re in a world of boutiques … we’ve left the world of department stores.” Thanks to the efforts of Epstein and his colleagues, secular America has set up shop for all.

Sarah Harland-Logan ’10 is a Contributing Writer.

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