How to be Secular

I just read Jacques Berlinerblau’s How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. It’s a good book and well worth reading, precisely because it will rub a lot of atheists the wrong way.

I see little to object to in Berlinerblau’s description of the poor state of secularism in the United States. I’d be even more blunt: secularism has not just faded, it has been defeated, and any attempt to resuscitate it must start from the fact of defeat. I also tend to agree with his description of atheism (particularly “movement atheism” and New Atheism) as political irrelevancies except to the extent of the damage they do to the secularist cause.

There are a few things I didn’t understand—though I’m not sure these add up to any real criticisms.

First, I didn’t see why, given their insignificance, Berlinerblau paid attention to activist atheist groups and their foibles in the book. He makes a strong case that secularism stands or falls almost entirely due to whether moderate religious people and religious minorities respond to Christian Right progress toward bringing back an informal Protestant establishment. He makes an intriguing argument that secularists should abandon church-state separation and see what they can get in the present accommodationist climate instead. Fair enough, but then the overall argument should be more directly addressed to moderate religious people. Why even involve atheists? Parts of the book read like Berlinerblau is too close to, even invested in, atheist infighting.

Second, I found his expressed motivation for secularism very conventional and indeed quite weak. Berlinerblau does a good job of telling the reader about historical and legal scholarship that expose how standard secularist stories about the alleged secular legal framework of the United States is in no small part mythical. But other than a few citations in passing, he doesn’t address the weighty political thought that criticizes secularism as a nondemocratic, even oppressive idea. Secularists need new arguments, not just a repetition of pieties about preventing religious strife and establishing order—notions that carry some dubious historical baggage in their own right.

Third, the wider context for the recent struggle over secularism is overlooked in the book. The Religious Right didn’t succeed on its own; it has worked in close alliance with other American right wing currents. Religious populism has fitted very well with plutocratic and market fundamentalist aspects of American conservatism; it’s misleading to treat the defeat of secularism in isolation from a broader defeat of liberal political views in the United States.

But these aside—and my lack of understanding here may well say more about me than anything else—this book should, if all goes well, start some interesting arguments. I can only hope that nonbelievers who read it will use it to start some substantial discussions, and not just get pissed off and leave it there.