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. 

Comments:

#1 Frank Bellamy (Guest) on Tuesday March 22, 2011 at 10:51am

Isn’t there a form in between political secularism and state secularism? A sort of neutrality principle, whereby government may not give special privileges to religion, but it doesn’t actively discourage religion?

Also, the whole atheist movement seems to support state secularism at least in the particular context of the public high school biology course. We all do want biology teachers to actively discourage certain forms of religion, for example young earth creationism. What do we make of that?

#2 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Tuesday March 22, 2011 at 12:23pm

@Frank,

I don’t think we need to have biology teachers actively discredit religion.  When I was in jr. high school in the early 70s in conservative Orange County, I was taught evolution in seventh grade.  I already knew a lot about it, and enjoyed the instruction.

Religion was completely kept out of it.  The teacher kept it to science.  If someone brings up young earth creationism, ignore the religion and discuss the geology.  There is plenty of scientific evidence of how old the earth is; no need to bring in the bible, christian bible, or koran.

From the above definitions, I suppose I’m a structural secularist.  Religion and politics should be completely separated.  However, I don’t think a crusade against religion is necessary.  Keep people well educated, well housed, well fed, and healthy: that should be the primary role of government.

#3 jean nutson (Guest) on Tuesday March 22, 2011 at 12:56pm

Yeah i do hold the same view with you on the fact that religion is indeed bullshit,but to say there must not be a crusade against it is debatable,well i could understand may be you are the head of one yourself but jack,let’s face it the worlds contribution to green house effect is alarming have you considered the number of humans that currently exist on earth?.Not to talk about the number of their non human members.

#4 Frank Bellamy (Guest) on Tuesday March 22, 2011 at 2:13pm

Jim,

I think you missed my point. Simply discussing the biology and geology is discouraging particular types of religion. Teaching students that the earth is billions of years old and that humans share common ancestors with other species (as every atheist I’ve ever met believes should be done) is teaching students that young earth creationism is incorrect. It is not necessary to explicitly mention a religious text or story to actively discourage a particular sort of religion. If we pretend that the science can be taught without addressing the religion then we look disingenuous at best, and we do ignore a very real issue. Personally I think that in that context discouraging those forms of religion is the right thing to do. I just think that we have to acknowledge that that is the position we are taking and reconcile it with our understanding of secularism and church/state separation, and that isn’t easy.

#5 Jim, Religion is Bullshit (Guest) on Tuesday March 22, 2011 at 3:48pm

@Jean and Frank:

I agree with both of you.  I think religion should be challenged, especially in personal conversations.  I just don’t think it is a good idea to explicitly challenge it in class rooms. 

From climate science to biology, I think that by letting the science speak for itself would be enough.

I do think that any science class needs to inform the student of the difference between logically unverifiable ideas and falsifiable ideas.  In a brief lecture on that, all religious explanations get dismissed.  That would explain to the class why religious explanations don’t belong in science.

However, nothing is written in stone.  If you have a different way of presenting it, please let me know.

Cheers,
Jim

#6 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Wednesday March 23, 2011 at 6:29am

John has established three very useful distinctions. I’m not sure what is the utility of atheist secularism as he defines it; as John notes it has never been the policy of any nation. Moreover I’ve been an atheist activist for thirty years now and I’ve never met a single serious advocate of that position. (A few wacky ones, but we’re talking about individuals whose tinfoil hats made them easy to spot in a crowd.) The category may be useful, however, by way of recognizing that it actually exists solely in the imaginations of Christian right ideologues and folks who watch too much Glenn Beck. Other than that, does it have real-world referents I’ve overlooked?

#7 jean nutson (Guest) on Wednesday March 23, 2011 at 12:57pm

yeah, folks thanks for discussion my essay or our essays,on the topic of secular humanism,atheism and religion,i personally think we should just forget about this discussion and get straight to work now, you all know we are basically scientists and technologists and politicians by birth rights and republicans most importantly so just get to work straight and forget about that little poor black boy called obama he just doesn’t know enough i think i prefer cameron to him in terms of knowledge in the academic field.

#8 jerrys on Wednesday March 23, 2011 at 5:51pm

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

  For me the ultimate goal is for everyone to realize that there are no gods.  But I am a strong supporter of civil liberties and what you are calling “Atheist Secularism” sounds so repressive and toltalitarian that I would be adamantly opposed to it.
 
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If advocacy for Atheism doesn’t really aim at State Secularism or Atheist Secularism, how would atheists reassure the overblown fears of religious believers?

  By demonstrating that we are principaled opponents of repression and intolerance.  Join the ACLU (or other civil liberty organizations) as well as atheist organizations.  (Full disclosure: I don’t really expect to convince people who want to impose their religion on me that I don’t want to impose my ahteism on them.)

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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?

  I don’t accept the premise.

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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?

  I don’t know what is meant by “political help”.  If you mean things like keeping creationism out of schools then I see that as a matter of civil liberties (not to allow anyone to impose their religion on others). Advocating for Church/State separation is not the same as advocating for Atheism. 

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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)?

  The former.  “diminishing toleration” isn’t just a low priority for me; it is something I strongly oppose.  Deconversion via persuasion is something I would support.

#9 christystockman on Thursday March 24, 2011 at 8:14am

Humility is the antidote we seek.

For those of you who think “religion” is bullshit, I’d have to ask you if you’ve visited a Unitarian Universalist church?

We strict atheists (I count myself as one)—strict atheism being my own made up term because I’ve met as many intolerable atheists as I have fundamentalists—can take a cure from a recent ruling of the SCOTUS.  In the recent case of the “God Hates Fags” church vs. the father of a dead solider, the majority opinion (8-1) firmly stood on the side of free speech.  They said regardless of how painful and ignorant certain speech is we, if we are to call ourselves a free society, must tolerate it.  And so, we must defend the right of the most ignorant and fanciful mythologists to say whatever they like forever.  Our job is to counter ignorance with truth and reason.

We are unlikely to persuade many by denigrating the ideas the ignorant have been taught to revere since birth.  But if we can approach truth and justice from a perspective of humility, we will give courage to all those “closet” atheists who are afraid to question the teachings of childhood.  With enough courage, I think, even the most oppressed human spirit can overcome anything, including the fires of hell.

#10 Jim, Religion is Bullshit on Monday March 28, 2011 at 1:48pm

@christy:

I think I like Jefferson’s attitude better, which I paraphrase:

Treat the ridiculous with ridicule.

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