Barry A. Kosmin
An American Tradition
The View From the Beltway
Hard and Soft Secularism
Mapping the Territory
David A. Hollinger:
An Alliance with Liberal Religion?
Defusing the War Over Public Science
Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture
Hard and Soft Secularism
by Peter Steinfels
does it mean to become secular? Scholars of the so-called "secularization
thesis" have disentangled at least three meanings. The first is usually
captured under the label "differentiation": the recognition, growing in the
West since the Middle Ages, that different spheres of life are governed by
their own autonomous principles and authorities rather than directly by
sacred scriptures or religious authorities. Science, medicine, law,
economics, art, politics - each has its own governing laws, procedures, and
In this sense, John Roberts presented himself as the very
model of a secular man when, at his confirmation hearings, he testified
again and again that he would carry out his duties on the Supreme Court
strictly in terms of the internal demands of American law and Constitutional
In this sense, we are all secularists, and our numbers -
driven by the three great engines of secularization: science, the state, and
the market - are sure to grow. Indigenous healers will give way to modern
medicine for HIV-positive villagers in Africa. Islam will accommodate modern
economic principles of risk and reward just as Christianity did, whether or
not you consider it taking interest. Religious leaders will fight a losing
battle to prescribe rules for artistic creativity. A variety of ancient
cosmologies and creation myths will adjust to the discoveries of the natural
sciences and the cultural challenges of modern media.
This does not mean that conflicts among the
differentiated spheres of modern life will cease. Is abortion or, better, a
fertility treatment that requires the destruction of human cells, a
medical-scientific issue, a legal issue, a policy issue, a religious issue,
or an economic market issue? (If someone can pay for it, why not provide
it?) Of course, it is all of these, but which has ultimate sway?
In a society that is secular in this sense of
differentiated spheres, religion has not disappeared as a potential force.
In many cases, religion will not abdicate its claims to be the ultimate
judgment over ends or means. It will just do so as one of several shoving
The second meaning of becoming secular, of
secularization, is much more straightforward. It is that religious belief
and practice itself will steadily disappear as societies become genuinely
modern (or enlightened) and humanity outgrows its religious (or, if you
will, superstitious) childhood. In this sense, secularism is a respectable
term for atheism, which was the way that the term emerged in the 19th
century. We can call this hard secularism.
The third meaning falls somewhere between the first two.
Becoming secular does not mean that religion need disappear. It may well
continue as a source of personal meaning and consolation but only as
something thoroughly "privatized" and advancing no claim to influence public
life. In public conflicts over defining the appropriate boundaries of
different spheres of life, religion is ruled out a priori as a legitimate
In this sense, secularism is a set of rules regarding the
limits of religion in public life. Some of these rules are formal, such as
what constitutes discrimination in employment, and some are informal - a
kind of etiquette that treats being publicly religious as akin to belching
or picking your nose. We can call this soft secularism.
Hard secularism has only a marginal place in American
public life. One reason is soft secularism, which discourages that kind of
public attention to religion, at least on a serious level. So hard
secularism usually gets a word in edgewise only as mockery, which probably
Otherwise, it can argue its case in venues addressed to
other hard secularists, just as religious thinkers must largely engage
religious questions at any depth in platforms addressed to believers. All
this is a loss for the culture and, frankly, for religion too. It is no less
appalling that no atheist can be elected president than was the given of my
childhood, that no Catholic could be elected president.
Soft secularism is clearly a much greater force in our
public life, and a much more problematic one. It builds on a real strength
in the American experience. As a nation of multiple and often fiercely
competing Christian groups alongside a growing number of non-Christian ones,
we have, with difficulty, developed a healthy circumspection about religious
In this respect, soft secularism functions to minimize if
not muzzle serious religious discourse in public life. Indeed, soft
secularism is the contemporary counterpart to the broad Protestant hegemony
that reigned over respectable opinion in 19th-century America and still
dominates parts of the country.
If you are a skeptic or an atheist in small-town Texas,
you probably keep your doubts or your disbelief to yourself, unless of
course you are either very subtle or very ornery. If you are an evangelical
or theologically serious practicing Catholic, you maintain a similar low
profile about it in the newsroom of the New York Times or in a great
many Ivy League departments - unless, again, you can be sufficiently subtle
or choose to be ornery.
The New York Times and the New York Review
ignore virtually all works of theology and religious history - a curious
contrast to the attention paid these subjects in the Times Literary
Supplement in Britain or the prestige newspapers of Germany, despite the
much greater secularization of those countries. And although our best art,
drama, film, and literature, now as always, raise profound religious issues,
it is practically unimaginable that anyone would write criticism about them
an explicitly religious standpoint - Christian, Jewish, or simply theistic -
in journals not directed toward particular religious audiences.
In a nation of religious believers, religion will, of
course, boil up all over the place: Christian rock and rap, inspirational
books of all sorts, the hugely best-selling Purpose-Driven Life, the
similarly best-selling Left Behind series, Scientology on the talk shows,
and so on. It is revelatory, however, that those interested in earning a
monetary return on such efforts, like the producers of the new Narnia
movie, typically use the language of whether they can "break out." It is an
achievement against the odds to "break out" on, say, the Today Show or Good
Morning America, though one might have a better chance on the Oprah Winfrey
Does soft secularism prevent news cover-age of religion?
No, but it does somewhat shape it. Years ago, Paul Moses, at one point a
religion reporter and later New York City news editor for Newsday,
described media attention to religion as emerging at the points where
religion "intersects with the liberal social agenda" - in other words, "on
the continuing cultural war over such topics as homosexuality, abortion,
AIDS and contraception (and dissent from church authorities on these
issues)." He compared this focus to "covering major league baseball only
when there was a dispute about allowing women to be umpires."
Of course, nothing alters this picture like the death and
then election of a pope. Coverage goes 24/7, with even some serious talk
amid the repetitive and uncritical noise. But then things go silent until
another liberal social-agenda issue hits the headlines or lights up the
screen. Meanwhile, soft secularism, by fortifying a kind of "two cultures"
in regard to religion, hamstrings the intellectual pressure that might be
brought from within religious traditions on their more extravagant,
occasionally dangerous, expressions.
I have been talking about public life broadly without
talking about political life. Here let me limit myself to a few provocative
First, a great deal of alarm about the religious right is
misplaced. The religious right has become a crucial element in the
conservative coalition, but it should not be equated with the larger
reinvigorated evangelical electorate, drawn to the Republican Party by the
shrewd moves of conservative operatives and driven there first by the long
overdue struggle for civil rights and then by more debatable choices within
the Democratic Party.
In 1960, white evangelicals supported Democrats by a
two-to-one margin. Now they identify themselves as Republicans by more than
a two-to-one margin. Of at least equal significance, they now vote in higher
numbers than most other groups. But the defining positions of the
administration they have brought to power are not their own.
Tax cuts, starving government, an aggressive and
unilateral foreign policy, environmental and economic deregulation - these
are the dreams of conservative beltway think tanks and K Street lobbyists,
and the work of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul
Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, I. Lewis Libby, Colin Powell, and George Tenet,
who have nothing to do with the religious right, and of a president whose
rhetoric seldom goes beyond Rotarian religion and is probably actually less
religious than Bill Clinton's or Franklin Roosevelt's.
I am among those dismayed by the rise of the religious
right, the shift in evangelical political allegiance, and even more by the
independently grounded policies of the current administration. But with some
exceptions I do not think that opposition to these developments should take
the form of soft secularism - in effect, trying to short-circuit debate on
the merits of specific policies by discrediting them on the grounds that
some of their advocates are religiously motivated or pose their arguments in
This approach is not, again with some exceptions,
consistent or believable: Would we want our own favored policies and
movements dismissed because they marshal explicitly religious supporters?
And it is not democratic. It excludes from the political process the larger
number of citizens who couch their concerns in religious terms.
One challenge for soft secularism is to draw finer lines
on what is permissible under the First Amendment and to defend that
territory strongly while opening up both political and other public
discourse to intelligent religious discussion, including from the standpoint
of hard secularism.
Another challenge, for both soft and hard secularism, is
to offer critiques of religion that do not mirror a tendency found in many
defenses of religion; namely, to compare the best of one's own tradition
with the worst of the other's. As in: The true personification of secularism
is George Orwell and the true personification of religion is Osama bin
Religion, like secularism, comes in many varieties and
degrees of sophistication and simple-mindedness. Contemporary secularism
gravitates toward a few canonical images, largely unchanged from the 19th
century, when it should be attending to the data and asking questions about
differences among religious groups as well as about race, gender, and class.
Why, for example, are seculars so disproportionately
male, especially compared to the disproportionately female makeup of
committed mainline and African-American Protestants? Why do less committed
religious believers express more racial prejudice than non-believers but
also more than more committed believers? Why do non-worshippers contribute
so much less to charity and spend so much less time in service to the needy
than the religious, and especially the highly religious?
In a recent sympathetic review of new books on atheism,
the Camus scholar Ronald Aronson offered a kind of state of secularism
report, ending on the note that a "new atheism must absorb the experience of
the twentieth century and the issues of the twenty-first. It must answer
questions about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our
control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of thinking
about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a secular basis for
morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death, and explore what hope
might mean today."
If the new institute at Trinity College advances these
tasks in any degree whatsoever, well, as a religious believer, I say thank