Secularism is growing in America – beyond atheism and non-religion
Today, a new generation of books delves into the many shades of gray of growing secularism and its far-reaching ramifications.
Deploying new research and theories, these authors go beyond high-level data and argue that many Americans are, in fact, a mixture. Someone may be personally devout, for example, but firmly believe in the separation of church and state and in the primacy of science and observable facts. They can be completely non-religious but also agnostic about the role of religion in public life.
The 2021 book “Secular Surge,” by a trio of eminent political scientists, argues that core “secular” values include free thought, logic, and reason—rather than received authority—human experience and the laws of nature. Secularism, in particular, is not defined in opposition to religious identity or practices. By that definition, a quarter of Americans now have a secular worldview, scholars argue, and events such as the pandemic could hasten the birth of a secular political left, much like the early days of the religious right.
Another book, “Secularism: The Basics,” published this month by Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau, focuses on political secularism and argues that if Americans become less religious, their government and courts become less secular. The discrepancy, he says, is inflaming culture war debates in areas such as vaccine exemptions, LGBTQ rights and government funding of religious schools. The uncontrolled free exercise of religion, according to Berlinerblau, deprives religious minorities of equal protection under the law.
And the United States, he says, is way behind in developing a secularism for the current era.
“There has been no innovation in secular thought in 50 years, few new political ideas,” Berlinerblau said in an interview. “There is no consistency, no leadership, no central movement. They can’t express what they want him to do.
Berlinerblau’s book and other recent ones examine different parts of personal and public secularism, but they agree that the contemporary terminology is inadequate.
Emma Koonse Wenner, editor of religion for Publishers Weekly, said there was a bit of a boom on the subject. There are so many people who have left traditional religious structures but are still interested in the “spiritual but not religious” genre, she said, that PW now regularly reports on the topic of “nones” – those Americans who tell pollsters they have “no religion”. This group has fallen from 16% of the country in 2007 to 29% today, Pew Research said last month.
Secular scholars sometimes call this era the “third wave” of secularism. The first free thinkers were the first and then the “new atheists“, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who were defined by their angry and direct criticism of religion.
In “Secular Surge,” the authors say that the existence of a now huge group of Americans who share secular values is potentially one of the greatest political forces of the near future. This group is increasingly organized around liberal priorities on climate change, environmental protection, immigration and social welfare.
The authors say that this is an important bloc within the Democratic Party, which could be powerful if it were well organized – and could also, depending on its approach, cause friction with the more religious segments, in largely non-white, party. The authors say a growing slice of the Republican Party is also defined as secular and needs to be engaged as well.
“Secularism is at the very heart of the battles for the soul of the Democratic Party,” write the authors, political scientists John C. Green of the University of Akron and David E. Campbell and Geoffrey C. Layman, both of the University of Notre Dame.
All three agree with Berlinerblau that the big challenge to secular political impact is the lack of a perceived movement: people can fit into the secular camp but not realize it. Some experts postulate that the pandemic, and even potentially a reversal Roe vs. Wadecould galvanize secular Americans as abortion did for the religious right.
Berlinerblau sees the secular organization as a bulwark against what he calls growing religious fundamentalism in Turkey, Israel and the United States.
But Ryan P. Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University who last year published “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They’re Going,”” thinks that Berlinblau exaggerates this possibility. He looks at atheists and sees their antagonism with religion as out of place for the country.
Burge’s book focuses on noes in general and the significant differences in beliefs and attitudes between noes who are anti-religious and noes who are ambivalent. The majority of no’s are in the latter camp, Burge says, and that same dynamic is at play with secular Americans: the majority is in the middle.
“Now we see religious polarization and political polarization overlapping,” Burge said. “Religious polarization is just as real, but we don’t talk about it as much because no one has articulated it in a way that makes sense.”