My Take: The five biggest misconceptions about secularism
Misunderstandings about secularists and secularism do a disservice to America, says Jacques Berlinerblau.
October 6th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: The five biggest misconceptions about secularism

By Jacques Berlinerblau, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jacques Berlinerblau is associate professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. His book, How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom has just been released.

As far as the Republicans are concerned, President Barack Obama is secularism’s go-to guy in Washington. Newt Gingrich refers to him as a “secular-socialist.” Mitt Romney charges that his opponent advocates a “secular agenda.” And Rick Santorum frets that Obama is imposing “secular values” on “people of faith.”

The president, however, seems not to have received the whole him-being-a-secularist memo. American secularists have thrown up their hands in frustration over his supersizing of George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. They roll their eyes at his God talk. As for his recent call for days of “prayer and remembrance” to commemorate 9/11, well, would the late Rev. Jerry Falwell have done it any differently?

After spending years trying to sequence the genome of American secularism, I have arrived at a sobering conclusion: no -ism is as misunderstood as this one. All of which is bad for secularists, secularism and America. Let’s look at some of the biggest misconceptions out there:

1. Secularist: Just another word for atheist: Not true! But that doesn’t mean there is any thing wrong with nonbelievers. Nor does it mean that secularists and atheists don’t share scads of objectives in common (e.g., opposing religious establishment, securing freedom from religion, defending free expression).

American secularism’s roots can be traced to Christian political philosophy (yes, you read that correctly). Its main architects were Protestant thinkers like Martin Luther, Roger Williams, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.

What evolved was a political worldview deeply suspicious of entanglements between what these gentlemen called “the civil and ecclesiastical authorities.” They asked: “How can we configure our government so that citizens of different religious groups may all live in equality, peace and order?”

Atheists, by contrast, posit the nonexistence of God(s) and proceed to explore the implications of that intriguing premise. Let’s put it this way: While nearly all atheists in America are secularists, not all secularists are atheists. In fact most secularists are not atheists — but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

2. Secularism simply means total separation of church and state: Separationism is, undeniably, a form of secularism. But not the only form. Secularists need to accept this, if only because more and more state and federal governments are giving separationism the old heave-ho.

As conservative Christians like to point out, the Constitution never mentions separationism. That idea surfaces in Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he lauded “a wall of separation between Church & State.” It was not, however, until about a century and a half later that the wall was actually built. This occurred in a series of stunning Supreme Court decisions that briskly evicted religion from public schools and spaces.

The separationist worldview crested in the 1960s and 1970s. When John F. Kennedy talked about a country where the “separation of church and state is absolute,” he articulated post-World War II liberalism’s dream. Or delusion. Even Supreme Court justices whose decisions helped erect  Jefferson’s Wall conceded that total separation is impossible to attain.

That is because the United States is historically and culturally Christian. We rest on Sundays. We close federal offices on Christmas. We put the word “God” on our coinage. Most citizens are believers. The state cannot logically “separate” from them. As Justice William Douglas - no foe of secularism - once remarked, total separation would mandate that, “Municipalities would not be permitted to render police or fire protection to religious groups.”

Government and religious citizenry are entangled. This doesn’t mean we should endorse those entanglements. Rather, we must recognize separationist secularism as something extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

3. Secularism is for Democrats: This was increasingly true with each passing decade from the 1960s forward. But after John Kerry’s debilitating loss to George W. Bush in 2004, all of that changed. Party strategists now recognized the power of the so-called “values voters” — the conservative Christians whose energy and activism propelled the incumbent to his second term.

A few months before Kerry’s defeat, an obscure state senator named Barack Obama blew the roof off the 2004 Democratic National Convention with a speech in which he intoned: “We worship an awesome God in the Blue States.” It was a harbinger of things to come. By the 2006 midterms, stories leaked about Democratic consultants who advised candidates never to say “separation of church and state” on the stump.

By 2008, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton were Bible-thumpin’ with aplomb. Presidential candidate Obama, for his part, was promising to renovate George W. Bush’s faith-based Office. Separationist secularism, long in decline, was about to be rolled. What replaced it? Read on.

4. Secularists don’t make accommodations: Although few have noticed it, the Democrats have pivoted from “separation” to “accommodation.” This means the government can fund or assist religion; it just can’t play favorites. Thus, all religions are equal in the eyes of the faith-friendly state.

Is this approach secular? The jury is still out. Accommodation does respect the First Amendment principle of refraining from federal establishment of religion.

Consider the White House faith-based office. In theory, it funds all religious groups who provide social services (hence no establishment). In practice, however, things have not worked out so well (see complaints against both the Bush and Obama offices). Further, accommodation doesn’t really accommodate or take into account nonbelieving citizens.

5. Secularists are anti-religious: In recent years some have made secularism into a synonym for godlessness, possibly because a few extreme atheist groups have taken to calling themselves “secular.” Yet the idea that believers cannot be secular is incorrect and politically disastrous.

Secularism, as noted above, was born of Christian thought. Historically, its greatest champions have been those opposed to state support of one church or religious institution, such as Baptists, Protestant dissenters, and minorities including Jews, Catholics, Sikhs and others.

Secularism’s mission is to maximize freedom of and freedom from religion. But unless we start speaking of it in precise terms, and bringing secular believers and nonbelievers into coalition, it won’t be able to render this service to America.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jacques Berlinerblau.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Church and state • Courts • Politics

soundoff (1,517 Responses)
  1. cacique


    A secular person admits that many will continue to need the guidance of religion, that others will see any sign of religion as if it were vomit on their fancy shirt...
    A secular person has lost any and all fear of hell, and does not see heaven as a required reward to improve on his personal behavior. No one else is responsible for my actions, but I can see that my actions can help others if I want them to.
    Actually, being a secuar man has many positive aspects as it all depends on the exercise that I make of my free will and through my freedom of choice.

    October 7, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse

    October 7, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  2. Michael

    So we're paganists now, are we? Maybe we should cast a spell to summon a goat that will chase you back to your bridge.

    October 7, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  3. ghostdansing

    Test. I've tried twice to comment can it didn't go.

    October 7, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      Any word that has a "dirty" word in it like "conti.tution" has t.it in it has to be broken up. It is a program there is no moderation

      Docu.ment has c.um in it.

      It can be frustrating..

      October 7, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Helpful Hints


      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters or some html tricks to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
      co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, etc.
      co-on.....as in racc-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, drift-wood, etc.
      ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, sopho-more, etc.
      ho-oters…as in sho-oters
      ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
      hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-oon… as in sp-oon, lamp-oon, harp-oon
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
      pr-ick....as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
      ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
      se-x......as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
      sm-ut…..as in transm-utation
      sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, t-itle, ent-ity, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, salt-water, etc.
      va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!
      There's another phrase that someone found, "wo-nderful us" (have no idea what sets that one off).

      October 7, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • ghostdansing

      What a bunch of nonsense. And poorly engineered censor to boot.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • ghostdansing

      Dear CNN. Your Comment Bot Is Lame. Fire Whoever Developed It and Get Someone who Knows What They Are Doing.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Dippy

      Or just use those words as is, but you have to know how.

      arse.....as in arsenic.
cock.....as in cockatiel, cockatrice, cockleshell, cockles, etc.
coon.....as in raccoon, cocoon, etc.
cum......as in document, accumulate, circumnavigate, circumstances, cumbersome, cucumber, etc.
effing...as in effing filter
ftw......as in software, delftware, swiftwater, driftwood, etc.
homo.....as in homo sapiens or homosexual, homogenous, sophomore, etc.
hooters…as in shooters
horny....as in thorny, etc.
hump… as in thump, thumper, thumping
jackass...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
jap......as in japanese, japan, jape, etc.
kooch....as in koochie koo..!
orgy….as in porgy, zorgy, etc.
pis......as in pistol, lapis, pissed, therapist, etc.
poon… as in spoon, lampoon, harpoon
porn… as in pornography
prick....as in prickling, prickles, etc.
rape.....as in scrape, trapeze, grape, therapeutic, sarape, etc.
sex......as in Essex, sexual, etc.
smut…..as in transmutation
spic.....as in despicable, hospice, conspicuous, suspicious, spicule, spice, etc.
spook… as in spooky, spooked
tit......as in constitution, attitude, title, entity, altitude, beatitude, etc.
twat.....as in wristwatch, nightwatchman, saltwater, etc.
vag......as in extravagant, vagina, vagrant, vague, savage, etc.

      October 7, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  4. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    "I have examined all the known superstítions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstítion of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology."

    “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the efḟect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.”

    “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”

    These are the words of Thomas Jefḟerson so clearly the author is wrong in using him as a "Christian" reference.

    October 7, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  5. Joseph Price

    Thomas Jefferson may have been born into a Protestant family and raised as one but he was anything but a Protestant in his final years.

    "The Christian god can easily be pictured as virtually the same god as the many ancient gods of past civilizations. The Christian god is a three headed monster; cruel, vengeful and capricious. If one wishes to know more of this raging, three headed beast-like god, one only needs to look at the caliber of people who say they serve him. They are always of two classes: fools and hypocrites." – Thomas Jefferso

    October 7, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  6. Just Plain Puzzled

    I find it absolutely fascinating that a previous serious comment that I made was never published, but that a number of obvious troll dialogues have been published, and remain up, hours after they were first published, and, I am quite sure, dozens of abuse reports.

    I guess the CNN "moderators" take that whole "Sunday is a day of rest" thing seriously, huh?

    The trolls have figured out how to get around your auto-filter. You put way too much faith in it.

    October 7, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • Just the way it is

      Just Plain Puzzled,

      You can work your way around the auto-filter too, you know.

      There are no live moderators on these blogs, and apparently the "Report abuse" button is not hooked up to anything. We adapt to it...

      October 7, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Just Plain Puzzled

      Heh. Even though I am not much of a fan of trolling, I can't help but think that CNN is getting exactly what it deserves.

      They have a red banner, which makes them a "redtop."

      Keep it up. They'll wise up, sooner or later (looks like "later"). Until then, you guys make them look like the j rks that they are.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Inigo Montoya's mother

      Did you have something worthwhile to post? It doesn't look like it.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Just Plain Puzzled

      Not in this place. Have fun, guys.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  7. 54StaryNights

    This is the best piece I've seen in today's media on this topic and one that has been needed for a very long time.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  8. Michael

    Nice article. From my experience, the only people who oppose secularism are the misinformed and theocrats.

    "It is error alone which needs the support of Government. Truth can stand by itself." – Thomas Jefferson

    October 7, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  9. My Take: 5 biggest misconception of secularists

    1. Calling yourself spiritual without a focus on the one true God
    2. Definition of 'morals' can be loosley defined and not tied to the scriptures
    3. That , somehow, attacking the evangelicals makes you more tolerant
    4. Evolution is a given as it relates to the origins of life on planet earth
    5. Misguided anger toward prayer and display of the 10 commandments.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Michael

      Ah, a wild theocrat has appeared. This person has more in common with Iran's Ayatollah than with the Jesus that they supposedly worship.

      October 7, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • 54StaryNights

      Did you even bother to read the article?

      October 7, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Secularism is a cop out for the paganists


      October 7, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • myweightinwords

      @Secularism is a cop out for the paganists

      What, exactly, is a "paganist"?

      A person who follows Paganism is a Pagan. Paganist sounds vaguely like a medical condition. "What's wrong with him?" "Oh, he's got an ist. He thinks it's a panagist." "Sounds painful. He should have it removed."

      October 7, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    October 7, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      actions cause change; prayer wastes valuable time...

      October 7, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Wren

      Did you even read the article?

      October 7, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • D Rufus Onfyre

      It is not prayer that has power, but faith. The conviction that one can effect change, makes it true.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  11. Brian

    “people of faith.”..................

    When I see this term it reminds me of a comment by Dostoyevsky in the Brothers Karamazov: "About one percent of religious people are sincere in their religion." These churchy people should try reading their Bible to see what's in it. Religion in this country is a mile wide and an inch deep.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Anon

      If Christians actually read their bibles with reading comprehension and critical thinking, there would be more non-believers.

      October 7, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  12. hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

    Conscience is a natural state, dependent on person's decision's, to be in following of truth absolute or be hindu, denier of truth absolute to please hindu soul, filthy desire, depending on person's choice, not necessarily right. A indefinite state.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  13. BigSkyHumanist

    There is one very important piece of the puzzle missing from this discussion. It's called the freedom of conscience. It seems we American's focus only on our freedom of religion or freedom from religion. It's true, secularists can be either a theist or non theist. Both should agree that the freedom of conscience is the cornerstone of our secular society.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Anon

      Here's the thing, Christians are literally mandated to spread their nonsense due to the great commission.
      In their screwed up heads secularism means going against the word of their imaginary desert god.

      October 7, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  14. RichardSRussell

    The author should have mentioned that secularism in America traces its roots not to atheists (who were practically unknown in the 18th Century) but to religious minorities like Jews, Quakers, and Catholics. To this day, it is RELIGION that benefits most from having the government not playing favorites.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Wren

      Unless you are reading an earlier version of the article that I read, he did mention it...

      October 7, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  15. sqeptiq

    The only widely-held philosophy that is absolutely disqualifying for a candidate for president in modern America is secularism.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      sadly, that's true. rational thought isn't as highly valued as irrational obedience. sad.

      October 7, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  16. secularism is a cop out for the pantheists
    October 7, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Secularism, hindu Judaism, criminal self center ism is way of hindu's, criminal's and no one ever desire to oppose truth absolute , but hindu's, criminal's to please their hindu soul, filthy desire.

      October 7, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  17. cacique

    A secular person has been given the opportunity to use god's given freedom of choice and its source, free will. These two qualities of a human being are the most important of the creation. Even more so than many religion pushed requirements like baptism, faith, trintiy, the saints, and any of the holy symbols. The most difficult factor for us is to be able to guide our own steps in the right direction, to help others, and to improve our selves. Not because there is a hell at the end of the line, or a heaven as a reward. But because we are made in the image of god and we carry with us all of his power.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • hinduMithraism Christianity baseofhindufilthyracism.

      Following of truth absolute is heaven and hinduism, denial of truth absolute is hind, hell, way of hindu's criminals to make life of living people hind, hell, way of hindu Jew's, criminal secular's to keep hind, fire of hind, hell continue among humanity. please visit limitisthetruth.com and click on word Choice on website to open file.

      October 7, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      "we are made in the image of god and we carry with us all of his power."

      god has a p.enis? and a b.utthole?

      October 7, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Anon

      Fu*k your piece of $#it god.

      October 7, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • cacique

      Only if you need him to.
      Although, our thinking capacity and our capacity to make decisions, to plan for our future actions, to make possible improvements, and to seek out a more understandable truth by studying our own experiences are a few conditions of becoming more of a secular human. That means to take charge of our humanity...

      October 7, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • cacique

      A secular person admits that many will continue to need the guidance of religion, that others will see any sign of religion as if it were vomit on their fancy shirt...
      A secular person has lost any and all fear of hell, and does not see heaven as a required reward to improve on his personal behavior. No one else is responsible for my actions, but I can see that my actions can help others if I want them to.
      Actually, being a secuar man has many positive aspects as it all depends on the exercise that I make of my free will and through my freedom of choice.

      October 7, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  18. test

    wōnderful us

    October 7, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      I also use
       • const¡tution
       • accµmulate
       • s¢x
      for variety.

      October 7, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • 54StaryNights

      Look! This kid just discovered naughty words.

      October 7, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • test

      54StaryNights (sic): No dumbaŕse, I just wrote a fůcking program to automatically convert my lower-ASCII "naughty" words into acceptable alternatives, so I don't have to worry about it any more.

      October 7, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • Butthead

      huh huh huh... he said h00ters huh huh huh

      October 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  19. Blatant Atheist

    Hats off to the author for a very well written article! Secularism is as important to atheists as it is to those of deep faith in America, as it should be. I can respect your christian values if you can respect my freedom to have my own. The volumes of dialogue this allows for in America between people of vastly different views is one of the things I love about our country.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • .


      October 7, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • fritz

      I agree, a very good article. But it really bugs me that the government is pandering to these christian people while they complain they are being persecuted by the secularists and atheists who are not represented by government at all. I can't drive five miles in any direction without passing a christian church of some sort and they have the nerve to scream 'persecution' from us humanists, atheists,agnostics and seularists. They are a bunch of whining hypocrites.

      October 7, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  20. FillaTX

    The best simple definition of secularism is “keeping government from being used to promote a religion (or religion in general)” The worst simple definition that I’ve encountered is “using government to fight my religion”, but that is how many people define it.

    October 7, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • toydrum

      Excellent definition, FillaTX. The problem that the anti-secularists refuse to see with their view is that each one thinks that THEIR religion should be the exception, while the secularists recognize that others have a right to their own beliefs. This is not even a question of Christian vs Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, etc. There are many Christian sects in this country and they do not all practice their faith the same way. It is completely inappropriate for the government to single out any specific religion or religious sect as "the" American faith.

      October 7, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • .


      October 7, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.