A couple of months ago, I received a request from Sarah Harland-Logan at Harvard Political Review for an interview about my book The End of Secularism . I agreed. Ms. Harland-Logan sent me a sizeable set of questions which I answered in full.
The article is now available . Somewhat to my chagrin, it is primarily about how great secularism is with a couple of statements by me and Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute, suggesting the self-congratulation is not warranted.
Happily, I saved our full email exchange so that those who would like to read the whole thing can do so. Here it is:
-What exactly is secularism about ? Why have so many people turned to this idea/ideology in the last few decades?
Secularism is about removing religion/consideration of God from public life. The desire to do so does not have to be invidious. Those who embrace secularism, including many Christians, often do so because they believe it is a good answer to the problem of religious difference among people in a political community. They think that if they can remove differences among people, especially religious differences, our community will grow stronger. At the same time, secularists tend to see religion as something human beings once needed, but no longer do. They think religion is irrational and extraneous to the things that really matter in life.
On the other hand, some types of secularists are less well intentioned in their efforts to remove religious faith from public life. Secular totalitarians (such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and others) have the desire to marginalize religious belief and institutions because they are potential roadblocks to enforcing the will of the state. They would prefer there be no intermediary institutions between the state and the individual.
-Many secularists seem to fear that we are headed toward an “American theocracy.” In your opinion, how valid is this fear?
It is not a valid concern in the United States. Our national identity, formed and shaped by both devout Christians and Enlightenment philosophers, fully embraces religious liberty and the separation of church and state. In fact, there is a powerful religious argument (well delivered by Martin Luther, by John Locke in his Letter Concerning Toleration , by the Baptists, and by others) that coerced religion is actually offensive to God and merely causes people to sin by lying about their convictions.
You hear conservative Christians complaining about the separation of church and state, but they are actually failing to voice their real concern. In fact, they object to secularization of the public square which they feel goes too far. As an example, it would be silly to argue that the Ten Commandments are not a hugely important part of western culture. They are part of who we are even if we dont all embrace them in their fullness. Some Americans see monuments of that nature taken down and feel that secularists have gone too far. And indeed, they have. Separation of church and state, properly understood, means that the two entities are institutionally separate. It doesnt mean religious faith cant be part of our identity as a public community or that the church has nothing to say to the state about politics.
With regard to concerns about theocracy, I think this is an area where men and women of the left have been inconsistent. They loved having liberal clergy speak truth to power or speak prophetically in the 1960s. But when conservative pastors and priests entered the fray on the part of unborn children in the 1970s and 1980s, they were never given credit for speaking truth to power. Instead, they were accused of being theocrats, despite the fact that you can argue in good faith that they were challenging structures of power on behalf of a vulnerable population. In addition, I recall a situation in Alabama several years ago where a female law professor convinced the Republican governor to make the tax code more progressive because that is how Christ would have it. Her argument was pretty persuasive and highly religious. I never heard the ACLU or People for the American Way complaining about the threat of theocracy then, even though the tax code is the very heart of government policy.
-You argue that the assertions made by secularists routinely fail. Would you be able to provide an “executive summary” of what you see as the principal assertions made by secularists, and why exactly each one fails?
Sure, this is the heart of my book, The End of Secularism , so I encourage people to read it and engage the arguments in fullness. But there are two prongs of argument that I think are very important.
The first is that secularists argue religion should be kept in the private domain because our society will be more socially harmonious as a result. This is an admirable hope, but I think it discounts how important religion is to people. Individuals bring their religious beliefs to the public square because they have integrity. They want to provide their real basis for a stand they take rather than formulate a false one that meets some secular language requirement. And we already have a built-in limit on religious language and philosophical stands. They must be persuasive or they will fail. If someone comes in quoting obscure sections of scripture without building any connection to reason on a public issue, they wont be much listened to. I suspect many secularists think pro-lifers are guilty of doing that, but in fact, they are relentlessly rational in making their argument. You may agree or disagree with it, but it is not some kind of inaccessible argument that you could never understand if you werent religious.
The other problem with the social harmony argument, which is well-exposed by postmodernism, is that secularists are human beings and human beings have all kinds of orthodoxies (religious or not) to which they cling. Secularists are a team on the field of public debate who want to don striped jerseys and call penalties, as well. They cant be neutral even though they claim to be.
The other key assertion is that secularists think they have a corner on the use of reason. Secularists sidle up next to science and say, Were the natural allies of science. Religious people are the enemies of scientific rationality. Thats a publicity campaign, not the truth. Christians, for example, want scientific knowledge everywhere they can get it. Its the best kind of knowledge we can have in many areas of life and we would be foolish not to rely upon it. Augustine made that argument many centuries ago. Too often religious opposition to some use of science (such as embryonic stem cell research) is confused with an opposition to science, itself, as a way of knowing. The reason for the somewhat insincere publicity campaign is that it is an effective way of marginalizing religious people. If an audience can be made to believe that Christians reject science, then they must not be rational people. And if people arent rational, then there is no need to listen to them. In fact, they may need their children taken from them, as some secularists have semi-seriously suggested.
Theres another critical point to think about. Secularism mostly has to do with separating politics and religion. Ive already suggested that the separation of church and state is adequate and that separating politics and religion goes too far. Part of why secularists are wrong to attempt this isolation of politics from religion is because we cannot justify our basic political commitments without going beyond pure scientific rationality. For example, consider the idea of equality. How are we equal? The Federalist Papers point out that we could drag everyone back to the starting line of life and eventually people would sort back out in low, middle, and high because they have different gifts, talents, interests, etc. But we are committed to equality. In the western world, where we value equality more highly, the basis of this idea is equality before God. You can try to create another foundation for it, but I think even John Rawls version sounds like a conversation in heaven at the beginning of the world.
-More broadly, why do you believe that people need, and will ultimately never move away from, religious faith? (Explanations that I’ve run across range from “because God created us with faith,” to “because in our evolutionary past, it was useful for survival to ascribe causality to things like tree branches falling on us,” to “because we are terrified of death” . . . )
I think religious faith will remain viable because, contrary to what many think, it is about the search for truth. That is why religious liberty is so important. We all know we are going to die and yet we feel some connection to eternity. Why are we here? Who created us, if we were created? What will happen when we die? It may be the end, but maybe not. We discover things all the time that we never knew existed before. Maybe there is a whole new reality waiting to be discovered that we lack the instruments to detect. We want to know if there are first things and last things. Religion is about that quest and we wont tire of that.
-If secularism actually damaging to the culture/the individual (as opposed to merely unpersuasive and/or unsustainable)?
I think the small threat of secularism is that it marginalizes religious people and groups and causes them to feel resentment. The bigger threat of secularism is that it removes the church as an effective counter to the state. Rousseau complained that the church caused people to have a conflict between two masters which are the church and the state. But he failed to consider that having a counter to the government can be freedom-enhancing and protect against the development of totalitarianism. That is why Hitler was so keen to gain control of the church in Germany. He knew it could stand in his way. Of course, the part of the church that did, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were killed. Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, was part of a Polish church which worked for the freedom of the Polish people against the secular Soviet-sponsored state.
-Do you think that the secularist movement has in fact accomplished anything useful, either ideologically or in the realm of policy/social issues?
Yes, I do. They certainly raise awareness of the fact that, hey, not everybody on this bus feels like the people in the dominant faith do. Their difference has to be accounted for and that is a good thing to check excessive confidence and ambition on the part of the church. Madison hoped factions would check factions and thus help protect freedom. I think that kind of thing is healthy in American society.
-And similarly, are there any lessons from the secular “side of the fence” that religious people and institutions could learn from?
The answer here is similar. Secularists deliver a nice, heaping dose of skepticism which is very good for religious people to have to deal with. Without that, people get lazy and just kind of assume things are true without thinking about it. I do wish, though, that secularists would differentiate better between religions. There are a number of critical differences. When Paul spoke to the men of Athens (the philosophers) at the Areopagus, he defended Christianity on the basis of the resurrection of Christ as a public event in time, space, and history. He said God furnished evidence. Thats a different from pure revelation. So, theres the issue of different levels of credibility between religions. And secondly, of course, they have different track records. I am often shocked that many American secularists resort to the type of hyperbole where they compare conservative Christians to members of the Taliban. How can I take someone who says something like that seriously?