You don’t have to be an atheist to be secular. In fact, according to a new book, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, confusion between the two terms may well harm progressives.
How to Be Secular was written by Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University and director of its Program for Jewish Civilization. In his book, he covers what he believes to be secularism and what isn’t, the rise and fall of American secularism (he puts “rise” in quotes), and why being “secularish” (i.e., not too hardline) could be a positive development.
One argument that is often used to try to prove that secularism is bad is to equate it with Hitler’s and Stalin’s nasty regimes. As Berlinerblau writes,
The secularism = murderous atheist regime meme has become a staple of political, religious, and academic discourse. Believing and nonbelieving secularists had better learn how to neutralize this talking point; they’ll be hearing a lot of it from both the Left and the Right.
That meme is nonsense, of course, but hard to respond to intelligently if you don’t know the facts of history. Read this chapter before the next time someone asserts that Hitler and Stalin were atheist and secular and that’s why they were so monstrous.
Berlinerblau offers readers a thorough description of his tolerant view of what secularism should ideally be: one in which we take it easy and learn to live with one another. He’s not a fan of the so-called New Atheists. Thus, in his own words:
5 Lessons About How Not to Be Secular:
1. Do not fetishize separation of church and state. Separation might be a necessary condition for a healthy society, but it is absolutely not a sufficient condition. A commitment to separation must be soldered to an equally robust commitment to religious liberty. The case of the Soviet Union confirms this observation: it was totally committed to separation, but from a human rights perspective (and many other perspectives) it was a total disaster.
2. A secular state cannot espouse a religion. It seems safe to say that the Communist Party advocated and promulgated the quasi religion of scientific atheism.
3. Hatred of religion, like hatred of atheism, is an impulse that should be tempered. If atheists cannot make peace with the idea of the existence of religion, they will never to be able to function in democratic polities or a true secular movement.
4. Nonbelief cannot be spread by force. The human soul [Berlinerblau’s word] is such a complex mechanism; its carapace resists coercion and tyranny. Soviet atheists tried everything to separate worshipers from their gods. Nothing worked.
5. Nonbelief can rarely be spread by persuasion. Few empirical studies address the subject, but attempts to “rationally” distance a person from faith do not often work.
Listen to the author discuss secularism here.
Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry