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


Hard and Soft Secularism
by Peter Steinfels

What 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 authorities.

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 principles.

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 contenders.

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 contender.

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 strengthens religion.

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 matters.

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 from
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 Show.

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 statements.

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 religious terms.

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 Laden.

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 God.


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