Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On Secular and Sectarian Societies

One of the recurring themes in this blog has been the relationship between meaning and marketing. I wrote about it most recently in discussing Sam Harris’ proposal to do away with the term ‘atheist’. I argued against it because, as it stands now, the term ‘atheist’ – burden as it is with strong public disapproval – is a useful marketing tool. Marketers know that if they want to enhance public disapproval of some policy or program, all they need to do is tie whatever it is they do not like to ‘atheism’, and they can ratchet up the public disapproval.

One case study illustrating this policy has to do with the term ‘secular’. People who do not like the idea of a secular society have come to realize that if they make enough noise linking the term ‘secular’ to ‘atheist’ in the public mind, they can ratchet up public disapproval for ‘secular’ policies, leading people to the only logical alternative to such a society, which is a ‘sectarian’ society (a.k.a. ‘theocracy’).

Not long ago even an extremely religious person could be ‘secular’. This simply meant that, whatever his religious beliefs happen to be, when it comes to government actions, those actions had to be grounded on real-world evidence. They could not be grounded on scripture. In other words, one option that was strictly prohibited was for the members of any religion to use the government to make it illegal for somebody to break commandments that had a strictly religious foundation, without a corresponding secular argument in its defense.

In this way of thinking, the government can pass laws against murder, rape, theft, fraud, counterfeiting, and the like because these laws had a secular justification. We may assume that even atheists would want protection from being murdered, raped, robbed, defrauded, and the like. However, the state could not be used to tell the people when to pray, where to pray, what to say during prayer, when to fast or whether to fast, what to eat, what to wear, and the like, because these had a strictly religious foundation.

The most devout Protestant could use the principle of a secular society to condemn any use of the government to force allegiance to the Catholic Pope. Similarly, even a strong Catholic could appeal to these principles of secularism to protest any attempt to inflict additional taxes or burdens on Catholics, or prohibiting their rituals.

There was no conflict between being religious and being secular. In fact, many of the most secular individuals in society were religious, simply because they were worried about the state imposing restrictions on their practice of religion.

However, for somebody who wants to create a theocracy – to institute Sharia law or the Christian equivalent or orthodox Jewish equivalent – secularism is a major obstacle. Before this can happen, people have to be made to hate secularism – to reject it – to deny any person who appeals to the concept of a ‘secular’ government any place of political or social influence.

We know that atheists are the least trusted group in America. They are the group that people identify the most as ‘people who do not share our values’. Somebody with a talent for marketing can easily draw the connection that if they can link the concept of ‘secular’ with the concept of ‘atheist’, that ‘secularism’ itself will become something that people dislike – something that is seen as being at odds with American values.

What it takes to make a language change like this is a willingness to spend enough time and enough money making sure that enough people hear the term in this new context enough times that they adopt the new usage.

This is why I find Harris’ claim that we should rid the language of the term ‘atheist’ to be so na├»ve – because the people that Harris was talking to are not in the habit of making substantial contributions for the purpose of selling his idea to all English speakers. The people who are willing to spend the most money to talk to the most people and to speak the loudest are those who will dictate how a term be used. It is not within the power of the weak and timid to change the language.

On the other hand, the religious right have the power of conservative talk-shows and other evangelical organizations which will be immediately receptive to this new usage.

Ultimately, this does not require anything like a huge, secret conspiracy theory where people whisper behind closed doors, “Here is a part of our grand plan to defeat secularism.” There are a number of ‘invisible hand’ forces at play supporting such a strategy. Once the idea appears in the policy of any one group, others can immediately see the power of it, and pick it up themselves. All it takes is a sufficient number of people who can see a way to increase their own power and influence (by denigrating and degrading alternatives) by adopting the new way of speaking.

Some evolutionists would explain its growth in terms of ‘meme’ theory, requiring little conscious direction or intelligent design. We look only at whether the environment is one in which a particular meme has what it needs to replicate and spread and, in a highly religious society united against a common and widely despised enemy (atheism), this type of environment exists.

Now, I even read passages in which atheists equate ‘secular’ with ‘atheist’. In all likelihood, they have seen the equation so many times in their young lives that they could not imagine it having a different meaning. They are simply adopting the convention that those who are willing to spend the time and money in control of the media are encouraging them to adopt.

There are still some places in which the term ‘secular’ retains its original meaning. Specifically, whenever Christians talk about keeping a government free of Muslim influence among a population that is heavily Muslim, they will use the term ‘secular’ in its traditional sense. So, the fact that Turkey has a ‘secular’ government, and attempts to establish a ‘secular’ government in Iraq and Afghanistan, are (weakly) praised. To a Christian, it can easily be understood as the lesser of two evils. Of course, a sectarian-Christian society is best. However, if the option is between a secular society and a sectarian-Muslim society, it is better to argue for sectarian society. At least in such a society the Christians will be free to grow their religion without imposition from the state.

Yet, it is quite reasonable to expect that if those Christians should become the new majority, that ‘sectarianism’ will become the new enemy, with sectarian-Christian (theocracy) becoming the preferred form of government. That is when ‘sectarian’ will change its meaning from, ‘A form of government where religious minorities are not oppressed’ to ‘An atheist form of government that tries to rid the state of all reference to God.”

So, what is the moral of this story? What should good people do to defend against this strategy for bringing about the shift from a secular America to a sectarian America?

It will require making noise. It will require people who care enough about the theocratization of America that they are willing to devote resources – time and money – to reach people who do not visit atheist web sites and blogs. It will require funding organizations that oppose the theocratization of America at least as well as the megachurches and forces advocating theocratization are funded.

People may lament the degree to which marketing and campaigning influences people’s opinion, but the world has a lamentable way of being indifferent to what we want the world to be. The answer is to make sure that the people know when an abuse of language is taking place, the type of people who would abuse language in this way, and that such people deserve condemnation because they are nothing more than people obtaining their own benefit (political, social, and economic power) by convincing others to act in ways harmful to themselves.


Tom Freeman said...

You are quite right.

In terms of word association and US politics, I think 'atheism' can come across as theoretical and ideological (not helped by the '-ism'), and doubtless there are still some negative connotations of 'godless communism' left over from the Cold War.

While I believe firmly in both, I think the promotion of secularism is vastly more important (and also more feasible) than the promotion of atheism.

I'd guess that ways of safeguarding secular government (dropping the 'ism' wherever possible) would involve pairing it with that guiding American ideal, freedom. It's about freedom of faith - a notion that sounds like it'll be good for the religious believers as well. Which it is.

It's about living in a country where 'big government' doesn't take sides and tell you what to believe.

(There's the obvious first amendment backing to quote, as well as the scriptural "render unto Caesar".)

My main reason for being a secularist is that I don't want ancient, inflexible superstitious dogma getting its hands on the levers of state control. But maybe the flip side would be a better benefit to sell: that political power tends to corrupt, and faith is better off staying out of that fray.

Does Christian America really want to turn its priests into politicians - spin-doctors, poll-watchers, vote-grabbers?

But, as you say, there are some very strong countervailing voices to shout against.

Kellygorski said...

Do you think it's the actual word, "atheist," which poses the problem?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


See On Calling Oneself 'Atheist' from two weeks ago.