Activists hold posters during a March 2005 rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to support separation of church and state. The court heard two cases regarding whether Ten Commandments monuments should be displayed on government properties.
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Christian conservatives who are battling for the right to promote their faith in public or official settings see themselves locked in an epic contest with a rival religion. But that rival isn’t Islam. It’s secularism.
“Secularism and Christianity are distinct, immutable religions,” writes David Lane, founder of the American Renewal Project, a group he organized to promote more political participation by conservative pastors. “Secularism advances the fundamental goodness of human nature, where historic Christianity sets forth a pessimistic view of human nature.”
The notion that secularism can be seen as a religion is ridiculed by many nonreligious people, but Lane and other Christian conservatives have their own Supreme Court hero to back them up: the late Justice Potter Stewart, who served on the court from 1958 to 1981.
The late Justice Potter Stewart, who served on the Supreme Court from 1958 to 1981. Stewart was the lone dissenter in a 1963 decision banning Bible readings in public schools.
The lone dissenter in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, a 1963 Supreme Court decision that banned Bible readings in public schools, Stewart argued that prohibiting such religious exercises put religion in “an artificial and state-created disadvantage.” Such a ban, Stewart said, “is seen, not as the realization of state neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism.”
Defining Secularism And Its Relation To The State
That view of secularism as a religion has since become a key part of the conservative argument against a strict separation of church and state. It suggests that when government authorities ban prayers or Bible readings or Nativity scenes on public property or in official settings, it isn’t avoiding the appearance of state support for religion, it’s unfairly favoring one faith tradition over another.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan cited Stewart’s dissent in arguing for a constitutional amendment authorizing school prayer.
A secular viewpoint is normally understood as one that excludes religious references, so Stewart’s claim is controversial, even among some people of faith.
“Secularism is a way you look at the relation between government and religion,” says Barry Lynn, a Christian minister who also directs Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “If you say religion should keep its hands off government and government should keep its hands off religion, that to me is what a secularist is. You can have any or no theological beliefs backing that up.”
Some scholars nevertheless say some advocates of secularism do have their own worldview and belief system. Among them is Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a leading lay Catholic intellectual.
“I don’t think there really can be any question that there are forms of secularism, including some that are very prominent today in universities and other elite sectors of our society — belief systems that are comprehensive views — that function in people’s lives the way that religions function in the lives of traditional religious believers,” George says.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention, goes further.
“In some virulent forms of secularism, you have a moral code that is being imposed [that] often comes with the force of penalty of law,” he says. “It acts as a religion in terms of demanding conformity and seeking out heretics.”
Recent polling by the Pew Research Center suggests that secular attitudes are gaining strength in the United States, with fewer Americans saying they pray daily or attend church regularly.
But can secularism really be considered a religion?
Unpacking What It Means To Be Secular
No way, says sociology professor Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. He specializes in the study of “nonreligious” people.
“To me, what makes religion religion is the supernatural beliefs,” he says. “So a scientist who is gazing out at the universe and trying to make sense of it by looking at facts, physical properties, material reality, is not engaging in religion. The person who looks out at the universe and thinks there’s a magic deity behind it is engaging in religion.”
Phil Zuckerman speaks to his class at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. Zuckerman specializes in the study of “nonreligious” people.
Scott Phillips/Courtesy of Pitzer College
At Pitzer, Zuckerman has founded an academic program in Secular Studies, the first of its kind in the country.
“We need to unpack what it means to be secular,” Zuckerman tells his students in a recent class on the sociology of secularism. “There is so much diversity and so many ways to be secular.”
One of Zuckerman’s students, Chance Kawar, says in an interview that his “nonreligious” identity stemmed in part from his experience in a Boy Scout troop sponsored by a local Catholic parish in San Diego. As a teenager, Kawar says, he realized he was gay.
“There was a lot of name-calling and bullying, and I actually got kicked out of the organization,” he says. “That was a very traumatic experience for me, not being welcomed by this religious community because of my sexual orientation. It was certainly a big turnoff for me in terms of religion.”
Finding Acceptance Among The Nonreligious
Not all of Zuckerman’s students are anti-religion, however. April Forrest, a 30-year-old single mother who is finishing her college education, notes during a class discussion that not all Christian churches are as judgmental as they are sometimes portrayed to be.
“You do find ones where it is about love and trying to make the world a better place and being more like God,” she says, “which would be like being as good as you can be.”
In a paper she wrote for Zuckerman, Forrest argued that God should not be blamed for bad things that happen.
“I believe in a loving God,” she wrote. “I know that life isn’t perfect. I watched my mother’s battle with drug addiction and depression. I’ve seen my father in and out of jail … I saw my uncle die of AIDS. … At 23, I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. I struggle every day to do regular tasks. But I still believe.”
In a personal note to Zuckerman that she added to the paper, Forrest wrote, “I’m sure you have a lot to say back to this. Actually, I’m a little worried.”
In an interview, she admits to fearing that Zuckerman and her Pitzer classmates might think less of her because of her religious views.
“I guess there was a concern being here, where there is a culture of secularity,” she says. “I am aware that I’m a little different in believing in God.”
But Forrest found Zuckerman to be wholly respectful of her views. In an interview, he says he understands how people with religious convictions may feel out of place in some secular settings.
“I had a Mormon student burst into tears in my own office, saying she felt so alienated, put down, mocked, criticized,” Zuckerman says. “So there’s no question that in really secular enclaves like Pitzer College or Berkeley, if you’re a student of faith, you’re going to be made to feel defensive. You’re going to be made to feel less intelligent, and that’s definitely a problem.”
Secularists Not Dominating Cultural Landscape
Such cultural conflicts are what lead some conservatives to allege the spread of “anti-Christian bigotry” in America. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said in a recent speech that “secular progressives” are among those in America “trying to push God out of our lives.”
But Zuckerman, the author of Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, vigorously disputes such generalizations.
“I can tell you from my research that in certain parts of this country, nonbelievers are certainly not the ones dominating the cultural landscape,” he says. “If someone is not churchgoing, people are suspicious of them. Prayers are said at the Little League games. I’ve interviewed so many [secular] parents in the Bible Belt whose children are teased on the schoolyard and taunted that they’re going to go to hell.”
Zuckerman has data to back up his assertion that secularists are not a favored group. In a 2014 Pew survey where people were asked to rate 23 possible presidential traits,“atheist” came in dead last. The share of respondents who said they were “less likely” to support an atheist for president had declined by 8 points since 2007, but it remained the least attractive trait a candidate could have, ranking far below using marijuana, having had an extramarital affair or being homosexual.