Friday, April 20, 2012

Secularism and Belief in God

Secularism is not about belief in God.

Secularism was invented by people who believe in God.

They invented secularism to end centuries of religious violence. This violence routinely saw the slaughter of whole people -men, women, and children - for the crime of belonging to the wrong church. The Thirty Years War saw whole regions of Europe entirely depopulated as each side sought to kill everybody belonging to the wrong church.

In some cases, everybody in a town was killed simply because "the wrong religious faction" had a strong presence in that town. "Kill them all. God will know his own," was the rationalization for these mass murders.

Tired of the slaughter, the survivors finally said, "Enough! Henceforth, religion will not justify violence. From now on, no religion will impose its religious practices on others, nor will they interfere with the peaceful practices of others."

In one country, it took the form, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

And that brought peace.

Secularism is not about belief in God.

It is about giving peace a chance.

It did not bring perfect peace. Religious leaders chaffed under the restriction and, from time to time, religious differences turned violent. Because it began as a peace treaty among the most powerful religious factions who ultimately gave up on their efforts to exterminate each other, those factions often did not apply its principles to weaker groups. Jews, the heathens of the New World and Africa, atheists, all were fair game. In a sense, it was much like two schoolyard bullies saying, "Let's stop fighting each other and attack everybody else instead!"

Woe be to everybody else.

However, as a moral principle, it came to be universalized and applied even to weaker groups - slowly, over time.

It is a work in progress.

However, religious leaders - particularly those who want power for themselves - chafe against the bindings of secularism. It is a limit on how much power they can accumulate. They have a strong interest in returning to the days when the church controlled the state, and the state controlled the people.

However, this means getting rid of secularism.

To do this, they need to tarnish it - to discredit it - convince the people to do away with it.

If you went to any competent public relations firm and said that you want to tear down - attack - denigrate - discredit some person, organization, practice, or institution, they will tell you to associate it with something people already hate. Get the word out - through newsletters, through advertisements, through radio and television commentators, through blogs and through speeches to your congregation - that this institution you want them to hate is related to something they already hate.

What can we tie secularism to in order to get people to hate secularism and release religion from these bindings?


A person with a feeling for these types of things will already sense the public animosity towards atheism and be ready to hitch secularism to this most unpopular mule. A professional public relations firm will likely be able to back up this intuition with data gained through focus groups and surveys, but that is not necessary.

It is important to remember that, in public relations, truth does not matter. You get the effect you want by people believing that a certain relationship exists - regardless of whether or not it is true.

Secularism has nothing to do with belief in God. However, there is a political faction in the world that has a strong incentive to make people think that secularism has to do with belief in God - or with belief that there is no God. These are people who wish to be free of the bindings that secularism imposes, so that church can once again control the state and, through the state, control the people.

As it turns out, atheists have done a wonderful job of contributing to this project of linking atheism with secularism in the public mind. Many atheist organizations use "secularism" in their title. They speak of atheism and secularism as almost as if they are synonymous. The anti-secularist looks at this and smiles.

This does not imply that atheists are wrong to feed this association between atheism and secularism in the public mind. Far from it. I have just spent three weeks defending secularism. I certainly am happy to be associated with it - in spite of the fact that it was invented by theists. I am not one who has ever said that theists can do nothing right.

However, I think that the public defense of secularism - defending secularism in the press and in the public square, on blogs and in speeches, requires telling people what is going on.

Secularism was not forced on religious people by the all-powerful atheist community. It was invented and adopted by religious people to end centuries of religious violence. However, there are now powerful religious factions who want to discredit secularism so that they can once again create a nation where religious institutions control the government, and the government controls the people. To discredit secularism they like to link secularism to something the people hate - atheism. Just for good measure, they like to promote a strong dislike for atheism at the same time, branding them anti-American, immoral, and a threat to civilization."

If they succeed, there will come a time when the debate will shift. Instead of debating WHETHER the church should control the state - once the bindings of secularism have been removed and church again has permission to control the state - the next question to come up will be WHICH religious leaders get to control the state.

If history is any guide at all, we can expect this to be a very . . . unpleasant . . . debate.

Unless, of course, the answer to the first question of whether the church should control the state remains a resounding, "NO!"


Peter White said...

Thank you for an enlightening article. I wasn't aware (or else had forgotten) the history of secularism. This is great information to have to oppose those attempting to reverse the tide of progress toward a more secular and egalitarian world.

Reminding those who wish for theocracy that their religion could well be one of the many losers in the battle should cause them some sober reflection.

Anonymous said...

Humm... thought atheism was a religion of sorts - you do believe in belief - your belief there is no God.

Anonymous said...

Dictionary say religion is a belief system which can include worship. So atheism has its organizations, has a belief system (that there is no God) and some religiously believe it to the point of worshipping it. They also promote it. So is it not also a religion of sorts? Would you call it a philosophy? If so many other philosophies may not agree. LOL! You are all too funny! Namaste!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

If you define "cat" as having a belief system whereby one holds that the proposition that a god exists is certainly or almost certainly false, then all atheists are cats.

Certainly, you can create definitions of "religion" in which case atheism is a religion, just sa you can create definitions of "cat" such that all atheists are cats.

However, this does not contribute much to the conversation.

Secularism is a prohibition on claims that harms done to others are justified because some supernatural divine being says "It is okay for me to harm these people." Atheists do not employ this form of justification.

Tim Brown said...

Please anonymous, try to get your head around that not believing in something is not the same as believing in something else.

If you don't believe in Zeus does that mean you believe in azeusism?

Emlyn said...

Secularism is to religion as Independent is to politics: neither wants to be seen to identify with a group (even if they do) and so the label imparts the impression of separateness, individuality and free thought.

But actually it's just the same old human bias trying its best to gain some respect with clever semantics.