In today’s English-speaking world, the words “atheism” and “secularism” are very commonly used interchangeably. This is unfortunate because not being synonyms, the two terms have very different intellectual lineages and refer to very different things. Confusion, as we shall see, has been debilitating for those who aspire to secular governance (among them atheists and also believers).
The most recent knot of “secularism” and “atheism” can be explained by referencing the history, technology, and intellectuals of the new millennium. Historically, the 9/11 attacks have forced many writers to reflect on religious extremism with new urgency. In terms of technology, this is where digital media comes in. Each passing year of the 21st century has exponentially increased the capacity of new social movements to spread messages, mobilize members, and grow the ranks of new social movements.
Which brings us to the new class of atheist intellectuals that emerged after 9/11. These numbers have been outraged by the violence of Muslim militants. They were also taken aback by the growing political stature of conservative Christian political movements in the United States. An important voice is independent scholar Susan Jacoby. Her 2004 book — look out for the subtitles—Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism among a series of accidental knotted texts mentioned above.
Then came the new Atheists, i.e. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The so-called “Four Horsemen” published ferocious attacks on religion – and not just variations on fundamentalism. In their early years, they quickly became digital media sensations. Not only have their books sold millions of copies in print around the world, but they have also empowered a growing community of distrust on the internet.
Two themes emerged in the New Atheist interventions. First, much of their prose is devoted to demonstrating how meaningless, illogical, and violent every form of religion is. Second, they accept science as an alternative to faith. Their training in areas such as evolutionary biology (Dawkins), neuroscience (Harris) and cognitive science (Dennett) have made them worthy ambassadors of one of the core principles. core of secularism. Specifically, the idea that public policy decisions should be based on science, logic, and data.
Curiously, New Atheists rarely reflect on political secularism and its many variations. When they do, they present themselves as supporters of what is known as “separatism”. As Dawkins agreed to observe in God of Illusion: “The [American] the founders were most certainly secularists, who believed in keeping religion out of politics. “
The accuracy of that claim, though, is that the New Atheists have described their activism as defending miserable secular people everywhere. Christopher Hitchens exclaimed: “I think it is us, plus the 82nd and 101st,” who are really fighting for secularism at the moment, who are actually fighting the main enemy. “. Joining the fray are countless other disbelievers, many with digital backgrounds and training in STEM fields.
The result of this intervention, 20 years on, is that much of the conversation about secularism has been dominated by New Atheism views. This is unfortunate because accusations of Islamophobia, sexism, agoraphobia, and even a general diversion to the right all have followers of The Four Horsemen. However, it is their indomitable hatred of people of faith that has caused the most fury among religious followers across the country. Within that range are religious moderates and religious minorities, who are traditionally advocates of secular governance.
The highlight of all this is that, for many people, the word “secularism” has been associated with forms of extreme atheism hostile to all forms of religion.
How does this differ from classical definitions of secularism that focus on how a government interacts with religious groups under it. In this more traditional understanding, secularism is not about metaphysics or anti-metaphysics or God or gods. It’s about how a state judiciously manages a polity of diverse believers and increasing numbers of non-believers.
Again, there is no Vatican of secularism. No institution exists to decide who is a secularist. If some atheists call themselves secularists, I think there is a moral imperative to respect that self-designation. The media frequently draw on this connection, as do conservative religious activists. Accordingly, the prevailing equation in public discourse is that “all atheists are secularists,” and vice versa.
To me, the new secularism atheism raises an interesting theoretical question: Is there such a thing as non-secular atheism? I mention this because extreme atheists sometimes support ideas that undermine secular principles they claim to be championed.
“Harris denies that religious moderates are as dangerous as a suicide bomber.”
Tolerance has been an important element of secular discourse since the Enlightenment. In The End of Belief: Religion, Terror, and the Future Reason, Sam Harris considers “the ideal of religious tolerance” as “one of the main driving forces that propel us to the abyss.” The impression that the New Atheists – and thus the secularists – had become deeply intolerant among their critics. It leaves many people wondering what they might do if their “secular” state was born.
The most acute contradiction between New Atheism and political secularism concerns fundamental beliefs about the legitimacy of religion. Hitchens’ catchphrase in his 2007 polemic, God is not great, is “religion poisons everything.” He warned his readers that “people of faith are planning in different ways to destroy you and me.” Harris denies that religious moderates are as dangerous as a suicide bomber. He stressed that moderate religious faith poses a “threat” to our very survival.
Few observe that the New Atheists, whether advocating or deceiving, believe that their real aim is to eliminate religion. Yet their rhetoric, as expressive as it could have been, made that goal clear. This puts these champions of secularism in a rather strained relationship with the political secularism they claim to defend.
The latter has always given religion a legitimate place in the social body. Political secularism regards the existence of religion as a given. If there were no religion, there would be no need for secularism!
Yes, there is no Vatican of Secularism. But there are ways for social scientists to define their terms correctly. Given the neo-atheists’ rejection of too many secular principles, they can be seen as “non-secular atheists”.
However, it must be emphasized that their position is extreme among atheists. Most non-believers are not inclined to liquidate religion even in their rhetoric. They ask for something completely different from the secular state. And what they ask is essentially what religious moderates and religious minorities also ask. All seek freedom from a religion that is not their own.
The secular state has the duty of balancing the competing desires of its citizens for religious freedom with the right to religious freedom. The New Atheists have a very different conception of secular governance in mind. That notion has disillusioned and even frightened the broader religious mainstream—the very constituency for whom secular support is necessary to persist in a liberal democracy.
Taken from Secularism: Basics by Jacques Berlinerblau Copyright © 2022 Jacques Berlinerblau. Published by Routledge. Used by permission.
Jacques Berlinerblau is Professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. He has written numerous books and scholarly articles on secularism, his current book being Secularism: Basics (Routledge). (jberlinerblau.com; Twitter @Berlinerblau)
https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-the-new-atheists-hijacked-secularism-after-911?source=articles&via=rss How new atheists usurped secularism after 9/11