Winter 2006, Vol. 8, No. 3

Symposium articles:

Barry A. Kosmin
Ariela Keysar:

A New Academic Enterprise

Susan Jacoby:
An American Tradition

Christopher Hitchens:
The View From the Beltway

Peter Steinfels:
Hard and Soft Secularism

Eileen Barker:
Mapping the Territory

David A. Hollinger:
An Alliance with Liberal Religion?

Michael Ruse:
Defusing the War Over Public Science


ISSSC website

Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture


An American Tradition
by Susan Jacoby


Not long ago, I spoke on a panel with the cheerful title, "Is Secularism Dead?" I do not think that secularism is any more dead today than God was when His (or Her) death was prematurely trumpeted in the press some four decades ago. But in recent years, the press has predictably jumped on the bandwagon moving in the opposite direction. A recent Newsweek cover story on spirituality in America, for example, quoted Druids and Wiccans in a paean to all sorts of religions, from the Dark Ages to New Age - but the article included not one secular, skeptical voice.

I must point out that in any country in the developed world but the United States, the idea that secularism is dead would be considered ridiculous. Not all of the inveighing of popes against the evils of secularism and modernism has managed to instill the fear in Italians or Spaniards that the dreaded "S" word seems to elicit in American politicians. An inquiry into why that is so might be a good research project.

We have a very unusual situation in this country. On the one hand, there has been growth not only in the numbers of religious fundamentalists but also in the intensity of activism on the part of the Christian, mainly Protestant, Right. On the other hand, the proportion of Americans who belong to no church and who identify their outlook on public affairs as wholly or predominantly secular has roughly doubled since 1990, to nearly 15 percent. This is a minority but not nearly so small a minority as to justify the marginalization - self-marginalization as well as external marginalization by the fervidly religious - of secularists in American culture.

But there is no question that secularism and rationalism are in trouble in the United States, and it is most ironic that this should be so in the nation that gave the world its first secular government, by way of a Constitution that deliberately omitted any mention of God and instead ceded supreme authority to "We the People." That the Constitution never mentions God comes as news to many of the college students who have attended my lectures, and this suggests to me that that one reason - arguably the main reason - why the secular side of American tradition is so little known is that it has been omitted, as a result of both ignorance and intimidation, from the teaching of history in our elementary and secondary schools. A 1998 survey by the National Constitution Center found that only one-third of American high school students know that the Constitution begins with the words 'We the People,' so it is hardly surprising that some of them might think the Constitution was actually written by Irving Berlin and begins with "God bless America."

I can't tell you how frequently I've been told that secularists marginalize themselves by talking so much about the fuddy-duddy, "legalistic" issue of separation of church and state. Whenever I hear the word "legalistic" used in a pejorative way, I know that it is being employed by those who understand very well that the "legalistic" separation of church and state is all that stands between them and their goal of imposing their brand of religion on the rest of us. Church-state separation is not a side issue when we talk about secularism in America, because it is one of the core commitments that make a secularist a secularist. But a larger definition of secularism is much more elusive.

The question I'm asked most frequently in interviews - since the subtitle of my book Freethinkers is "a history of American secularism" - is whether secularism is a religion. My answer to that is an emphatic no, even though secularism has often been called a religion by both its defenders and its denigrators.

Religious faith, of whatever kind, is based on a belief in something for which there can be no concrete evidence, as evidence is understood, for example, by medical researchers and police detectives. This faith may be as general as the deist position that there is a Supreme Being who stepped out of the picture after creating the first bit of matter and left human beings to fend for themselves (though I have no idea of why a being who was truly supreme would want to do that), or as specific as the fundamentalist Christian's, Jew's, or Muslim's conviction that every word in one's holy book is literally true. For most religious believers, faith probably lies somewhere between a vague deism and religious fundamentalism.

Secularism, by contrast, has - or should have - no beliefs unsupported by and unchallengeable by evidence. This is not to say that perverted secularists, like all human beings, are not perfectly capable of turning their supposedly evidence-based convictions into a fanatical, evidence-denying religion. Just such a religion was practiced during the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union.

In 1969, I was living in Moscow and, since that year was the centenary of Lenin's birth, one of the ways in which the government's press department tortured foreign correspondents was by making them visit virtually every place where Lenin ever set foot. When we toured the home where Lenin grew up in Ulynaovsk, we were taken up the stairs to the turret bedroom where little Vladmir Ilyich supposedly pored over his schoolbooks. All of the windows in the holy bedroom were made of stained glass. The correspondent for the French communist newspaper L'Humanit bowed his head and aptly remarked, "I respect all faiths."

What the Soviets did to earlier socialist and communist ideas - some of which proved to have a basis in reality and others to be impervious to reality - was exactly what the 19th- and early 20th-century social Darwinists tried to do to Darwin's great theory of evolution by means of natural selection (though Darwin took great pains to make clear that his theory applied to man in a state of nature, not man in a state of civilization). Moreover, Darwin never expressed any opinion about a "First Cause" - how the natural world came to be "in the beginning"- for the very good reason that there was and is no evidence on that point. But both the old social Darwinists and today's religious right, for very different reasons, need to portray Darwinism as a secular religion so that they can place their religious views on an equal footing with evolution in science classes.

So what is secularism? I cannot supply any definition better than the one offered in 1888 by Robert Green Ingersoll, known as The Great Agnostic and the most famous orator in late 19th-century America. "Secularism teaches us to be good here and now," Ingersoll said. "I know nothing better than goodness. Secularism teaches us to be just here and now. It is impossible to be juster than just. Man can be as just in this world as in any other, and justice must be the same in all worlds. Secularism teaches a man to be generous, and generosity is certainly as good here as it can be anywhere else. Secularism teaches a man to be charitable, and certainly charity is as beautiful in this world as it could be if man were immortal."

I really prefer the old-fashioned "free-thought" to secularism, because it seems to me that the combination of the words "free" and "thought" requires no definition and embodies the hope of a society founded not on dreams of justice in heaven but on the best human, rational possibilities for a more just earth. And one of the great weaknesses of secularism in America today is that there is no one who speaks to Americans with the combination of passion and rationalism that characterized the great 19th-century freethinkers.

I could not disagree more with Democrats who are jumping on the faith-based bandwagon and who argue that the only way to defeat the religious right is by countering with the values of the "religious left." What a horror - the idea that our campaigns should become duels of theologies, with the religious right citing the Jesus who declared "I am come not to bring peace but a sword" and the religious left citing the Jesus who declared, "Blessed are the peacemakers!"

I would like to hear a politician use words like "reason" and "rational" instead of invoking divine authority for whatever he or she wants to do. Most of us have become so unaccustomed to these Enlightenment terms that we can't remember the last time we heard a politician use them.

On June 10, 1963, John F. Kennedy delivered a commencement speech at the American University and announced a policy that is now regarded as the beginning of dtente with the Soviet Union. He spoke of the need to reduce Cold War tensions and bring an end to nuclear terror because "we all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children. And we are all mortal."

Describing peace as "the necessary rational end of rational men," Kennedy went on to say, "Our problems are manmade - therefore they can be solved by man. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit often solved the seemingly unsolvable - and we believe they can do it again." I have rarely heard a better statement of secular moral values - that we owe it to one another to strive for peace not because we are immortal, not because some god has promised us a reward in heaven, but because we are mortaI.

For those who deny the importance of the secularist and rationalist tradition in American history, I offer the following letter, written in 1813, from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson. "We can never be so certain of any Prophecy," Adams wrote, "or the fulfillment of any Prophecy or of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature i.e. natures God that two and two are equal to four. Miracles or Prophecies might frighten Us out of our Witts; might scare us to death; might induce us to lie, to say that we believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But We should not believe it. We should know the contrary."

Indeed we should.



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