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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. Dave Harris

    Americans aren't really very religious, they just like to pretend that they are in case there actually turns out to be some God who punishes non-believers. They'll spend three hours a week in church, pretending to be pious, and the rest of their waking hours breaking every one of their own sacred Ten Commandments. They think that as long as they make a big showey deal about how holy they are, Jesus will be fooled. Maybe they can fool their ignorant God, but they're not fooling anybody else.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • a dose of reality

      NICE!

      October 7, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • centeredpiece

      Yours is a cynical explanation. Perhaps you are able to consider other explanations: Christianity and Judaism posit ethical standards that are very, very hard to meet in everyday life. We are supposed to be honest, kind, hardworking, peaceful; we aren't supposed to gossip, steal, lie. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves and to act towards others as we would have them act towards us. No wonder we fail so very often! These are high ethical standards and, as human beings, we often fail miserably to live them. But tell me this, would the world be a better place without these idealistic goals of behavior? I know some say that religious ethics could have been derived without religion, but really, is that likely? Given how difficult it is to live by them, why would anyone even try if not because they believed that there was a higher power who embraces all of humanity as one family? Like it or not, the standards of ethical behavior in the modern western world derived, not from some incubated philosophy of "enlightenment" that sprang full-formed from the forehead of a secular Renaissance man, but from the very Judeo-Christian ethics that too many secularists want to throw out with what they consider to be the dirty bathwater of religion.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • kindainformedvoter

      @centeredpiece

      You're missing the point of what Dave is trying to say. Yes, religious standards are very hard to live by. However, the average American who claims themselves to be religious does a very bad job at living by those standards. Compare a typical American Christian to a strict Orthodox Jew or a devoted Muslim or an Amish minister. REAL religious people incorporate all those strict standards into EVERYTHING in their lives; into their politics, into their relationships, into where they go and what they eat, into every single choice and action they make. American's just don't do that. They wear religion as a pin-on button that they take off at their leisure. Before you reply with examples of American Christian devotion and faith, I acknowledge up front that there ARE religious people in this country. But you have to admit, on average, for most their faith starts and ends on Sunday morning, and during debates with non-beleivers.

      October 7, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • The Justice

      @centeredpiece
      Your post speaks for about 2 billion people on our little planet, please address the other 5 billion or don't they count. BTW, I think Dave is quite correct in his post.

      October 7, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Zach

      Dave- I don't think most of them going to church on Sunday and then sinning the rest of the week (according to their teachings) is that predicated on post life insurance, hoping they will fool Jesus. Most really don't honestly believe in their teachings and are there more as a social obligation. I know a number of people who always went to church, because their parents went to church. Once the parents died, they quit going. So the social obligation can be from parental or family pressure or from ensuring your job is secure because the boss is "religious" and expects you to go to church. Or you are running for office or some social position within the community.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  2. Astra Navigo

    Several things leap out regarding this article: (1) The fellow who wrote this piece didn't begin by defining 'secularism', 'humanism' and 'atheist philosophy' (note I didn't say 'atheism', because quite properly there's no such thing; it's not a belief system) – those are three very separate things. It would have gone a long way toward eliminating most of the comments here; (2) the comments from the variant Fundie trolls here are, it appears intended to simply spark fights (I'm thinking most of them are twenty year old guys who've never been in a church, but who know a few buzzwords and like to stir the pot; (3) most people really don't know much about this subject, but like to spout-off, anyway.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • snowboarder

      astra – the writer probably assumes that everyone here has access to google for any term they feel they are not familiar enough.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  3. Barrie hunter

    Thank god I'm an atheist!

    October 7, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • a dose of reality

      Me TOO!

      October 7, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Malcolm

      LMAO...Yes, "thank god" you're an atheist.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  4. Richard Fore

    Jesus has a wh0re for a mom, the dudes dad was a fisherman from Greece.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • rodboy

      Ricky, only the guilty flee when no one is chasing, get the point.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • snowboarder

      dick – even as an atheist i find that offensive. you sound like so many of the christians talking about mohammad.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  5. Skeptimist

    Having explored many others, I've settled on the Church of Minding My Own Business (a very small congregation with no material assets).
    Our theology centers about two endeavors:
    1. Exploring the vast expanse of our ignorance
    2. An inquiry into the least considered of spiritual topics: the Divine Sense of Humor. We suspect this may provide some insight into why we take ourselves and our opinions so seriously while God, obviously, does not. Fascinating how Grace, Mercy and theoretical physics keep popping up.
    Otherwise, we're very tolerant, based on a benign lack of concern for any rule but kindness. And that's how we stay out of trouble.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • tom LI

      nicely put.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:46 am |
  6. Matt Dante

    It's Sunday, surely god will be by the phone waiting for prayers from football fanatics. He'll be too busy to assist starving children.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • NY Jets

      @Matt Dante
      Despite Tim Tebow's prayers we still suck. Take Houston, give the points.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  7. hannah1

    Church and State have no business being together in any way, shape or form. Period.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Me!

      Some people love the idea of becoming the first middle eastern country in the west.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • centeredpiece

      Yes, indeed, those bothersome Quakers should have kept their mouths shut about slavery. It wasn't any of their business, those interfering bible thumpers. And speaking of such, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. should have shut his trap, too. I mean, really, the nerve of a Baptist minister spouting such nonsense about equality and freedom for all God's children. It was a positive revival meeting – and I mean that in the worst sense of the word. He should have kept his religious views out of politics.
      I mean – really? Do you actually believe we would be a better country if brave religious people – like the abolitionist Quakers and Dr. King – weren't willing to speak up for what is right based on their deeply held religious beliefs?

      October 7, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • brooke

      @centered- Not only do I certainly believe that, I think a lot of those things you mentioned would have happened a lot SOONER, if not for religion interfering. Just look at the debate going on now about gay marriage; in the next 10 years, it will be legal all over the country, there is absolutely NO DOUBT about that, but who are the people who are so against it? Oh that's right, the religious. And they will be the ones (again) that history mocks and grandchildren will ask their grandparents how they could have been so cruel and backwards opposing it. It is the same with nearly every single civil rights issue this country has ever had. Aren't you people embarrassed enough yet?

      October 7, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  8. NoTheism

    "That is because the United States is historically and culturally Christian."
    Very, very untrue!

    October 7, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Elliot Carlin

      and therefore, it isn't true. thanks for the enlightenment

      October 7, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • NoTheism

      @Elliot, I threw the bait out but no fish are biting.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • jensens1

      How is that not true?

      October 7, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • NoTheism

      @jensens1, where to begin?
      Let's start with "We put the word “God” on our coinage" When did this happen and who is the "we" he is talking about?
      Also, we rest on Sundays... also not true.. of course you can go to the mall and see many people not "resting" and so on.
      "We close federal offices on Christmas" Yep, but it is not because of Christmas (remember the separation of church and state?????), at least, not officially, but it is the same problem with the coinage thing... certain individuals hijacking the government to further their personal, religious agendas

      October 7, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • snowboarder

      notheism – there is definitely a majority christian culture in america. that is quite obvious.

      though, america is not and has never been of one h0m0geneous religion or denomination.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  9. Tim

    Glad to see this article on a prominent website. As Dr. Carl Sagan said, it's a candle in the darkness.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  10. Mennosecularist

    When it comes to breaking down the separation of church and state the assumption is that the Christians will run in and take over. Maybe this is true, or maybe not. What I would like to include is, there are many faiths and I would advise those who wish their faith to be expressed in school prayers, moments of silence and the like, your child could be standing next to someone kneeing on a prayer rug, doing a pagan dance or drinking milk blood. Be careful what you wish for, you may just get it.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • centeredpiece

      I think a moment of silence is a great compromise. If someone wants to whip out a prayer rug, rosary beads or liturgical dance, I have no problems with it. THAT is freedom of religion. If people don't want to say "under God" in the pledge of allegiance – or they don't want to say it at all, fine with me. On the other hand, forcing me to keep my mouth shut because it might offend your ears isn't freedom at all!

      October 7, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  11. Caesar

    In the past week the Jesus freaks have taken over CNN and are using it as a platform to continue their fascist attacks on reality. There is no God, Jesus was a hoax, and your bible should be used as toilet paper!

    October 7, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • kdliz

      And that Caesar, is a [religious/non-religious] opinion, which you are free to express; and I am thanking G-d, right now, for your "right" to do so. I find myself truly feeling like a minority in all this secular/religious debate. The Christians tell me to be quiet about the "Old Testament," much of Judaism is not welcoming my embrace of Messiah, and the secular seem to truly be the most devout in their views of opposition toward any other views.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  12. Jerry Bullock of Columbus Ohio

    Believers are never happy unless they can balkanize their environments’. Religious leaders have used this divide and conquering tactic for millennia. Humans need to mature to survive.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Me!

      From my home state, I'm glad to read your comment and I agree 100%!

      October 7, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • Barry

      Did you read the article? There are many devout believers who have no wish to "balkanize" anything. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson do not speak for all of us.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  13. Mike

    Treaty of Tripoli. Oh and by the way, God doesn't exist. Grow up. As a country we need to move past the acient fairytails. Religion just preys on the stupid.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  14. Harvey

    Zack, you believe the Bible is the word of God. I am curious; how do you know this is true?

    October 7, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Skeeve

      He doesn't KNOW that it is true, he BELIEVES that it is true. Knowledge requires testable evidence to support the statement, believe does not. See the difference?

      October 7, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  15. Mike

    I agree that "Secularism’s mission is to maximize freedom of and freedom from religion." It's a tragic the evangelicals, mormons, catholics, and muslims around the world cannot agree with that and want to impose their beliefs on everyone. We can see this in the US, where Mormons, Catholics & Evangelicals spend millions to impose their will on our country (Proposition 8, the abortion debate, etc), and in the middle east where hard line muslims want their governments to follow strict islamic law. Look at the riots over a stupid anti-islamic video, or even 9-11. All caused my islamic terrorists/zealots who hate the West due to mostly religious issues. Religion has caused more murders, violence, destruction and harm to society than any other cause. Until we solve this problem and have true "freedom FROM religion", the world will never be at peace.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  16. John Stefanyszyn

    ...in other words, freedom of all "religions" ABOVE the One Creator God.
    ...XES: To serve and magnify oneself

    But our existence is due to the One Creator, AND CHRIST WILL RULE!

    October 7, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Astra Navigo

      ...and you're free to believe that. Go ahead. It doesn't hurt me.

      Just don't try to force me to believe it. Or anyone else. Enjoy it in private. If you try to make it law, we'll have words....

      October 7, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • NoTheism

      "But our existence is due to the One Creator" , care to support your claim?
      "CHRIST WILL RULE!", same, care to support your claim?
      Also, if Christ will rule, (and you seem to be happy about this kind of dictatorship system) is it because he is a god, he is a demi-god, he's just your god's favorite or what?

      October 7, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  17. Bostontola

    "Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life: if it has been honest and dutiful to society the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one." Thomas Jefferson

    October 7, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  18. Skeptimist

    Vanilla is the one true ice cream. Thou shalt have no other flavors before me. Chocolate eaters are terrorists.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • Mike

      LOL

      October 7, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  19. a dose of reality

    Rather than inculcating our children with the primary-color simple Sunday school legends and myths most people do, might I suggest the following ten comandments to enable them to think for themselves.
    1. DO NOT automatically believe something just because a parent, priest, rabbi or minister tells you that you must.
    2. DO NOT think that claims about magic and the supernatural are more likely true because they are written in old books. That makes them less likely true.
    3. DO analyze claims about religion with the same critical eye that you would claims about money, political positions or social issues.
    4. DO NOT accept it when religious leaders tell you it is wrong to question, doubt or think for yourself. It never is. Only those selling junk cars get frightened when you want to "look under the hood".
    5. DO decouple morality from a belief in the supernatural, in any of its formulations (Christianity, Judaism, Islam etc.). One can be moral without believing in gods, ghosts and goblins and believing in any of them does not make one moral.
    6. DO a bit of independent research into whatever book you were brought up to believe in. Who are its authors and why should I believe them in what they say? How many translations has it gone through? Do we have originals, or only edited copies of copies of copies– the latter is certainly true for every single book in the Bible.
    7. DO realize that you are only a Christian (or Hindu or Jew) because of where you were born. Were you lucky enough to be born in the one part of the World that “got it right”?
    8. DO NOT be an apologist or accept the explanation “your mind is too small to understand the greatness of god” or “god moves in mysterious ways” when you come upon logical inconsistencies in your belief. A retreat to mysticism is the first refuge of the cornered wrong.
    9. DO understand where your religion came from and how it evolved from earlier beliefs to the point you were taught it. Are you lucky enough to be living at that one point in history where we “got it right”?
    10. DO educate yourself on the natural Universe, human history and the history of life on Earth, so as to be able to properly evaluate claims that a benevolent, mind-reading god is behind the whole thing.
    I sometimes think that, if we first taught our children these simple guidelines, any religion or other supernatural belief would be quickly dismissed by them as quaint nostalgia from a bygone era. I hope we get there as a species.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Mike

      Excellent points, thank you...

      October 7, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      Nicely worded.

      I think that the primary motivation behind refusing to reject a religion despite its obvious falsehoods when exposed to the light of day, is FEAR of DEATH. Especially where Islam and Christianity are concerned.

      How else can you explain their reluctance to die even though heaven and eternal life are assumed to await them? Life can be brutal, so why wait for eternal bliss?

      October 7, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Dana

      @a dose of reality –

      If I could 'like' this ala FB, I would.
      May I post it there? This is exactly the kind of take-home message I want to share with my children as they explore the quagmire of religious thought and philosophy. Giving your child the tools and permission to think for him/herself is the greatest of gifts. Thank you for the thoughtful summary.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  20. Hugh Mann

    This is a little bit silly...
    Wishing for something to be true and changing ones viewpoint of history to make it so is still just wishful thinking. The Disney version of world history is still just the Disney version.
    There was a whole bunch of "Christians" after the Second World War, and they changed the E Pluribus Unum to In God We Trust, but it was over 170 years that we had "Progress and Science" as our national byword.

    October 7, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • SS

      E Pluribus Unum means "out of many, one." It has nothing to do with "Progress and Science." You should check your facts before making silly statements.

      October 7, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Jimmy Wilson

      E Pluribus Unum actually means "out of many, one".

      October 7, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Chris

      Minus the "bunch of Christians" part, you are partially correct. However, "In God We Trust" has roots that go back as far as the early 1800's. It was believed to be pulled from the Star Spangled Banner and was a popular saying among the American public. Our forefathers believed in religious tolerance, NOT the absence of religion. That is what the separation of church and state was meant to accomplish. Ensure laws were created that hurt a particular religion or group. You need the influence of different religions to make our government compassionate toward people. There is good and bad in all religions but if you remove religion from government entirely, that is a scary thought.

      October 7, 2012 at 9:50 am |
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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.