Which Kinds of Secularism does Atheism Endorse?

March 22, 2011

It is easy, too easy, to talk about "secularism" as if everyone agreed on what that means.

Social and political theorists have long investigated how several varieties of secularism have come into existence around the world.  Secularists themselves are noticing that they aren't necessarily advocating the same thing.

And not only do secularists have to take greater care among each other, secularists have to think about how religious believers are listening in.  As secularists are getting heard more and more today, what exactly is the religious world hearing?   Not all secularisms are alike, and atheists should be clear about their secular hopes.

Four primary varieties of secularism must be distinguished from another.  Here's a brief guide:

Structural Secularism: Society’s core political, legal, economic, and educational organizations ought to be independent from religious control.  The number of political and social institutions that religions control ought to decrease over time.  Religious organizations should devolve into voluntary social associations.  Not to be confused with the legendary “secularization thesis” that religious belief will fade away over time.  Structural secularism is about power, not faith.  Indeed, faith may increase around the world even as the power of religious institutions diminishes.  People can cling harder to mere faith when religion does little else for them.  Don’t be impressed by claims that “secularization” has been “disproved”.

Political Secularism: Government and religion are mostly separate.  Government does not obey or endorse any one religion, but it may give religions funding and special privileges.  Government imposes impartial justice on everyone, but does not inhibit personal religious belief and practice.  There are sub-kinds of political secularisms, ranging from governments inhibiting public religious expression (France) to governments protecting free exercise and giving believers special exemptions (USA, Canada, Britain), to governments supporting one religious culture (Nazi Lutheranism, Italian Catholicism, Indian Hinduism, Turkish Islam), and to governments supporting many religions equally (historical examples are numerous, including some American colonies during the 18th century).

State Secularism: Government is completely separate and independent from religion, and government uses law to positively discourage religious belief and practice.  Laws should place special and expensive burdens on all religious believers to make it harder to practice and teach religion.  The primary aim is to abolish religion from all aspects of public life.  Communist countries (former USSR, current China, etc) are the clearest examples of state secularism.  France is viewed as possibly moving more towards state secularism.

Atheist Secularism: All political and social institutions should actively contradict, disparage, and discourage all forms of religious belief and practice.  Laws should place heavy burdens and severe punishments on all religious believers to make it practically impossible to practice and teach religion.   The primary aim is to diminish and eventually eliminate both religious practice and belief from everyone in society.  No country has yet attempted full atheist secularism (even the USSR and China tolerated the survival of certain religions).

Secularists should be very precise and clear about which varieties of secularism they advocate.  If secularists are not clear, it is quite easy for religious believers to arouse misconceptions and fears about the “true intentions” of secularists.  Atheists in particular must get straight what they advocate now, and what they hope for in the future.

For example, questions like these deserve answers.

Is moving from Political Secularism towards State Secularism or Atheist Secularism really the ultimate point of public advocacy of Atheism in the long run?

If advocacy for Atheism doesn’t really aim at State Secularism or Atheist Secularism, how would atheists reassure the overblown fears of religious believers?

If advocacy for Atheism actually does aim at State Secularism or Atheist Secularism in the long run, how should atheists explain to believers why the US Constitution and the First Amendment should no longer apply?

On the other hand, if advocacy for Atheism is only just a cultural and educational movement, not a movement aiming at abandoning Political Secularism, shouldn't Atheism then stop trying to obtain political help?

Which is the greater priority for Atheism now: defending current Political Secularism and religious toleration (so Atheism can speak freely too), OR using all social and political tools available to diminish toleration of religion and de-convert religious believers (so that there are even more atheists in the future)?

For those inclined to answer the last question with "Hey, let's do both at the same time!" there is an urgent reminder that the religious world regards these two options as mutually contradictory. Religions are asking, "If you really can politically tolerate religion and religious expression (Political Secularism) then why are you sounding so much like militant intolerant bigots trying to suppress religious faith?"

All good questions indeed.   It's time to think, and speak, even more clearly.