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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. guest

    Give to Ceasar what is Ceasar's, and to God what is God's.

    October 7, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Not sure

      Wo is supposed to get the croutons?

      October 7, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  2. Grampa

    Ever wonder what life would be like without religion? There's a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle called The Last King. Check it out.

    October 7, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • Luis Wu

      The world would be a MUCH better place.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  3. Chedar

    EVERYTHING THAT EXIST IN THIS MATERIAL WORLD IS EMPTY OF ITS INHERENT EXISTENCE. FROM PARTICLE PHYSICS TO QUANTUM MECHANICS, THE EXISTENCE OF CONSCIOUSNESS IS THE KEY.  WITHOUT CONSCIOUSNESS, WE WON't EXIST. 

    RELIGION IS IMMATERIAL. IT IS HOW YOU CULTIVATE A PROPER LIVELIHOOD AND HOW YOU TREAT YOUR FELLOWMEN (WITH LOVING KINDNESS AND COMPASSION) SO YOU CAN LEAVE THIS WORLD WITH A LASTING LEGACY OF WHO YOU ARE FOR MANKIND TO REMEMBER

    October 7, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Reality

      We would exist without consciousness as said consciousness requires a human brain i.e. the animal and plant kingdoms are alive but the members don't know why or how.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Barry

      WHAT WAS THAT? SAY IT A LITTLE LOUDER NEXT TIME!

      October 7, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  4. Hillcrester

    I favor secularism, separationism, atheism, agnosticism, etc., whatever is needed to remove the dirty hands of deism from the levers of government. It won't happen in my lifetime, but neither will the prevention of other cancers. Nonetheless both are noble goals. Feel free to practice your religion–just don't make me adhere to its precepts.

    October 7, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  5. The_Mick

    People with strong religious beliefs are not necessarily evil as long as they don't believe their religious values must be imposed on you. I've spent a lot of time studying religions, I've spent time in the Holy Land, Egypt, Buddhist monasteries in China, studied Hindu and Inca beliefs, etc. I've come to the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth was an incredibly great man NOT because of his vision of human-god relationships, but because of his vision of human-human relationships: secularism! And his Parable of the Good Samaritan is a strong example that good human-human secular interactions are more important than religious beliefs: Samaritans were considered heretics by his listeners but Jesus ends with the question: "Who is the victim's real neighbor?" and the obvious answer is the Samaritan who helped him and NOT the Jewish priest who ignored a man of his own faith.

    October 7, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  6. Karl

    Such a refreshing article–brilliant, well-written, and well-researched–thank you Mr. Berlinerblau!

    October 7, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  7. catfishjoe

    The author asked, "well, would the late Rev. Jerry Falwell have done it any differently?" But I wonder what the rev. Wright at the church of "god dam America " would do ???

    October 7, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  8. tony

    Religion is harmful in every way possible to children and small animals.

    October 7, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • erica

      agreed

      so do something!

      October 7, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Onetake

      Please explain? Please use objectivity as well.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Yes, that religion of atheism is no good.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • fredkelly

      Exactly. We need more hatchet articles from atheists like this one masquerading as legitimate 'belief' discussions.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Onetake

      Tony–Exactly how is it harmful? Please be specific.

      I doubt you can explain this rather it's simply your opinion which is based on ignorance from the lack of educating yourself in something you don't understand so you do–even if you don't believe in it.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  9. Joe

    I am a conservative, yet I am an agnostic. I haven't found any religion with which I agree, but I don't care if people practice their religions at their own expense. I do acknowledge the cultural history of religious holidays, and I have no objection to manger scenes on public property. I don't understand the history of war between religions here on Earth. Isn't that something that can be definitively settled in the Hereafter?

    October 7, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • who me?

      Fantastic idea.Let god sort them out.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  10. Colin

    Anybody who doubts whether there should be a strict seperation of church and state ought to take a look at this article in Scientific America from Friday.

    In it, Paul Broun, who is also a member of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology of the House of Representatives is recorded saying “There are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young earth, ”

    We're talking creationism!! The whole six days and a talking snake garbage.

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2012/10/05/house-science-member-says-earth-is-9000-years-old/

    October 7, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Onetake

      One point though, how are you defining one day versus how long is the Bible's one day? The definition of time is relevant here.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Colin

      Onetake, oh spare me that apologist nonsense. The Bible contemplates a week – that's why Jews respect the Sabbath as a day of rest.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Incredulus

      @Onetake In this case he means 24 hours.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Jeff Williams

      I saw the video of his speech.

      In this case we have Broun and Akin serving on the House SCIENCE committee. These clowns are doing their best to SUBVERT science.

      Yet more evidence that we have a major problem with our gov't legislative branch, on ALL levels. And it's worse then we could imagine.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • youcancallmeray

      Science is not exact. For science to claim the Earth is young is as laughable as when science fact at one time believed the Earth was flat. Therefore give it another hundred years and science will prove what we now know is wrong in some way.

      October 7, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Bob Bales

      What does scientific data have to do with the separation of church and state?

      October 8, 2012 at 4:23 am |
  11. Sunny Raja

    I wonder where the professor would put the teachings of Budhdha (the first). While advocating the three jewels, four noble truths, and the eight-fold path, Budhdha neither speaks for nor against God. Is Budhdha secular or atheist as many Americans call him

    October 7, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Luis Wu

      Buddhist are not deist, nor atheists, nor theists. The way I understand the teachings of Buddhism, they're basically agnostics.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  12. ScienceLives

    Thank you Jacques, THANK YOU. Ir doesn't matter if there is or is not a "god". Get all religious poison OUT of government- by doing so we give license to use non-logic, as law. a really Big problem.... And. to be forced to subsidize such via taxation is....., un-American. Tax the pope, but keep your greedy insane hands out my pocket, and your insanity out of my government. Yes, I will burn in hell. Drop me a turd from above, into the lake of fire. I'll be certain to know it's from all of you nice christian folks.

    October 7, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  13. mitt

    Americans are i. d. i. o. t. s.

    October 7, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  14. JOregon

    I found this to be a well written article.
    It was short, simple and clear.
    I also find it amazing the number of people that didn't "get it".

    October 7, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Kirstyn

      Agree, JOregon. It was concise and appealed for a clearer, common definition of secularism (it seems like there are so many ongoing arguments on many topics that could be nullified if we just got better about definitions). Also, seems like some of the people responding didn't read the article, just the headline.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Barry

      You can say that again. There are way too many ideologues on both sides of this issue to suit me.

      October 7, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  15. mre2

    This is a great and enlightening piece. However it glosses over what what secularism is by telling you what is isn't.

    Reading the previous comments, I am more than a bit surprised at how many people want to use their religious belief, whatever it is, to attack or defend secularism. The true foundation of secularism isn't religious. It is philosophical. The core of secularism is that belief or disbelief in God or any supreme, divine Deity, and life beyond the present, is a matter of pure speculation, cannot be proven wither way, and that the order of a society should not derive from such speculative belief.

    The central belief of secularism leads to the separation of church and state as a consequence. It leads to freedom of religious belief and choice for all without intrusion by governments and society, or others as a matter of social order.

    October 7, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • snowboarder

      mre – that may be the philosophical argument today, but at its inception, secularism was a method to allow adherents to all religions live as harmoniously as possible in civil society.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • mre2

      @snowboarder

      Please read the very last sentence of my comment. Is that not what I indicated ?

      October 7, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • snowboarder

      mre – not clearly. you stated the "foundation", but honestly the foundation of secularism is pragmatism.

      secularism as a philosophy is a result.

      still, close enough. i withdraw my comment.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • mre2

      @snowboarder

      I believe we agree. Just to be clear, in my last sentence I did not say the "foundation". As a carry over from the previous sentence I said, or meant to say, that the central belied of secularism "leads to freedom of religious belief and choice for all without intrusion by governments and society, or others as a matter of social order".

      As I see it, the degree of harmony derives from the degree of tolerance that members of society have or don't for each other.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  16. Lobelia

    American secularism? What a joke. By and large, Americans love their religions. True secularists are such a minority that it's hardly worth discussing. Now, take Europe. THAT's secularism. Or at least it has been in the post-WWII period. We will see what happens when Europe has a muslim majority.

    October 7, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • mre2

      "Now, take Europe. THAT's secularism"

      Oh ? Spend much time in Italy, or Belgium?

      October 7, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • drew

      Americans love their religion as much as the muslim world loves theirs. There is no difference. Maybe this is why the US and the muslim world are full of psychos

      October 7, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  17. El Flaco

    People with strong religious beliefs seem to be mean-hearted, mean-spirited, hate-filled human beings. When they become involved in the political system, they want to control the thoughts and expressions of others and censor art and literature.

    I see nothing about people with strong religious beliefs that is admirable or special.

    October 7, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • erica

      OK

      and what are you going to do about it??

      October 7, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • nepawoods

      What would you possibly base that belief on? You think you can spot the people who have strong religious beliefs? Or do you assume they're all outspoken about their beliefs?

      October 7, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • J in FL

      I think you forgot war-mongering also. Obama is not a muslim, but so what if he was, as long as he keeps doing his job for all the people as he is, and not just the muslims.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Karmarules

      Anti-religion groups are "mean-hearted, mean-spirited, hate-filled human beings". Anti-religion groups are known to attack religious groups. People should believe in helping and respecting others and not discriminate or advocate violence against persons of any religion. There are extremist on both ends of the spectrum.......

      October 7, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  18. TheBob

    God is an atheist.

    October 7, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • snowboarder

      which one?

      October 7, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • TheBob

      All of them. And therein lies the delicious irony.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  19. Kate

    "Complete separation of church and state"... except where the state feels the need to tell the church what to do.... ie pay for birth control.

    October 7, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • midwest rail

      Nonsense, the church is paying for no such thing. More disingenuous misdirection.

      October 7, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • joe

      >except where the state feels the need to tell the church what to do.... ie pay for birth control.

      Except the state never did that. Churches were always exempt from that rule.

      October 7, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      The state is not telling the church to pay for birth control, the state is telling the insurance companies to pay for birth control. The church is misconstruing this and making it like it is their business what people do with their own bodies. What is your issue with birth control? How does another person using it affect your life directly? No-one is forcing you to use it, although based on your lack of understanding of the issue, it is best advised you do!

      October 7, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      By that reasoning, the federal government should allow churches to murder anyone they wish. When the church opens a day care, they have to abide by the laws that cover how child care is administered; when they get into the insurance business, they have to abide by the laws that cover how insurance is adminsitered.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • NoTheism

      Pete, you're an atheist too, actually. Do you believe that Zeus is a god? No? You're an atheist.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • TheBob

      More delusions from a misinformed, uneducated clueless faithful.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • bc

      The church was never told to pay for birth control, health insurance companies where told to cover women no matter who they work for. But how about the church dictating to the state to take away women's right to abortion even if it means the women would die if they continued their pregnancy. What is your opinion on that? Does the church have the right to demand that all Americans submit to the rule of the church even if they are not members of the church?

      October 7, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Marc

      Yes, and to ensure that public moneys collected (and taxes not paid) by the shysters running religious organizations go to promoting liberty and equality rather than their respective cults.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • LesT

      And I have to pay for your church and your evangelizing work via tax breaks. True charity work of religious organization should be tax deductible, but spreading the gospel or the cost of the buildings used for religious services should not.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • who me?

      You have no problem with this TAX- exempt cult promoting the spread of AIDS in Africa,and hiding pedophiles from justice?Not to mention the centuries of mental torture and fear-mongering.Perhaps the priorities of this church are a little skewed

      October 7, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Chen Beiren

      But most churches aren't taxed (if they don't engage in political activity, they aren't taxed), so how would the churches pay for it...?

      October 7, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • Bob Bales

      Insurers pay for birth control, so it is a cost to them and, as such, is passed on to those who buy insurance. Thus, religious organizations pay for something that goes against their beliefs. Either that, or others are paying for this part of insurance for religious organizationsm which would have the religious up in arms.

      October 8, 2012 at 4:37 am |
  20. Pete

    Well, I believe in a living, creating, miraculous God and forgiveness of sins through Jesus. I'm not fussy on established religions of any kind. I didn't know until I read the article that I'm a secularist! I guess we just can't get away from labels.

    October 7, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • snowboarder

      the interesting thing about labels is that many more than one applies to everyone.

      October 7, 2012 at 10:01 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.