The secular best and the worst of 2010

I’ve always tried to avoid engaging in the hoary journalistic practice of filling space at the end of December by … Continued

I’ve always tried to avoid engaging in the hoary journalistic practice of filling space at the end of December by summing up the best and worse news events of the preceding year. But it seems to me that this year, in the United States, two ongoing stories truly did embody the continuing struggle between rigid religious values, rooted in a literal intepretation of supposedly sacred texts, and a secular world view based, to the extent that human beings are capable of transcending their fearful and superstitious past, on reason. Without question, the most important victory for secular values this year, or any other year in recent memory, is the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The repeal of DADT is, of course, a milestone for gays in their struggle for recognition as citizens entitled to the same rights as other citizens. It is an equally important landmark for all who believe that public policy in this country should be made not by some passage in Deuteronomy or Leviticus but by rational discourse based on all we have learned about human biology and emotions in the millennia since human beings first began writing down rules about everything from sexual practices to the kind of art that offends the Lord.

The importance of the repeal –especially since it was accomplished by legislative rather than judicial or executive action–cannot be overstated. This legislation represents a major change of mind and heart on the part of a great many lawmakers, their constituents, and the military, for whom gay rights did not even register as an issue 40 years ago. Most of the credit goes to the gay rights movement, which has exerted an even greater impact on the young than on the various cohorts of the baby boom generation. For the older boomers, born in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it has been a mind-changing experience to understand, over time, that we went to school with and worked with many gay men and lesbians in our youth but never knew it because they concealed their sexual orientation. Every gay person who came out–who must have silently endured anti-homosexual slurs for years–has driven the nail ino the coffin of homophobia for all but those in thrall to far-right religious doctrine. This change of values is evident in the parade of military leaders–nearly all of them older boomers–who stood up and testified in favor of repealing DADT.


Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, left, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favored repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”

But I don’t think the gay rights movement would have been as successful without the growing strength of the secular movement in this country and the emerging relationship between secular values and liberal religious denominations that have rejected biblical literalism and opened the ranks of their clergy to both gays and women. For a secularist and for people of the more inclusive brands of faith, the sexual preference of adults who love other adults is not a moral issue, period. The moral issue is whether the straight majority condemns and forces a double life on those who happen to desire members of their own sex.

The end of DADT will not end homophobia as an issue in this country; what it will do is increasingly marginalize the issue in our politics–and that’s why it is the most important secular American story of 2010. Within the military, the presence of openly gay male and female soldiers is simply going to become a non-issue in the next ten years. When President Harry S. Truman issued his executive order desegregating the military in 1948 –a step he took not because it was popular but because it was right–there were all sorts of dire predictions about whites refusing to serve under black (then called Negro) officers and the violence that would ensue when southern white soldiers, long accustomed to Jim Crow, were required to eat and shower with blacks. Sound familiar? The great virtue of the military as a laboratory for social change is that it is not a democracy. Good soldiers must obey their superior officers.

The acknowledged participation of gays in the military will–and more quickly than anyone thinks–become a talking point confined to bitter old men like John McCain and far-right religious figures living in a biblical cartoon universe in which the Lord smites people (or turns them into pillars of salt) for everything from eating the flesh of an animal with a cloven hoof to turning to look back on the destruction (wrought by the same Lord, of course) of their native city.

The ending of DADT is one of those rare political issues in which morality is more important than any other consideration. It is simply wrong for a government to demand that people lie about who they are in order to enjoy the rights and take on the responsibilities of a citizen.

By contrast, my nominee for the worst anti-secular American news story of the year has little to do with morality–unless one considers sheer stupidity a form of immorality. The Texas State Board of Education, having already altered the state’s biology curriculum to deemphasize evolution, then turned its attention to the way history is taught in Texas classooms.

In May, the Texas board gave final approval to a set of revised texbook standards that either imply or explicitly promote the falsehood that the founders were all devout, orthodox Christians who established a Christian government. Thomas Jefferson, because he coined the phrase “wall of separation,” is actually eliminated from a list of writers whose works influenced revolutions. Jefferson was replaced by, among others, Thomas Aquinas. The board jettisoned the word “capitalism” and replaced it with terms like “market economy.” (Apparently the Texas businessmen and housewives who make up the board–even though they approve heartily of capitalism–consider the word verboten because it was also used by Karl Marx in his writings.) At the heart of the board’s changes is the denigration or outright omission of all secular influences in American history.


(Texas school board member and dentist Don McLeroy led the movement to alter Texas curriculum.)

This development, like the Texas board’s earlier efforts to de-emphasize the scientific consensus about evolution, is particularly important because it exemplifies a provincial know-nothingism that has placed American public schools at a disadvantage in comparison to their European and Asian counterparts. Texas is the second largest public school system in the nation: the demands made by Texas board members influence texbooks written for schools throughout the country. “Because the Texas texbook market is so large,” writes Michael Birnbaum of The Washington Post, “books assigned to the state’s 4.7 million students often rocket to the top of the market, decreasing costs for other school districts and leading them to buy the same materials.”

The Texas board’s actions exemplify the anti-intellectualism and contempt for expertise that are so closely linked with anti-secularism in this country. In recent years, there have been victories over anti-secularists of the religious right, most notably Federal District Court Judge John E. Jones’s decision, in the widely publicized Dover, PA, school case that intelligent design was a religious doctrine that could not be taught in science classes.

However, the influence of anti-intellectual school boards over curriculum, at both the state and local level, is unknown in the Asian and European countries whose students regularly outperform Americans in science, mathematics, and history. The Texas school board members who declared Jefferson a revolutionary non-person are of like mind with those who will, when textbook revision time rolls around in 2020, want to write the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” out of the chapter on recent American history. The influence of anti-secular anti-intellectuals on American public education in 2010, precisely because it could easily remain the most important anti-secular story for decades, is my No. 1 pick on the downside.

I wish you all the best in 2011–even those of you in thrall to the the absurd belief that an atheist must possess a heart of stone. If you prick us, do we not bleed…?

Susan Jacoby
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  • DanielintheLionsDen

    Now that Congress has voted to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” there is a controvery within the military about how to implement this “program.”How about this?Just stop mistreating gay people for being gay. Was that so hard?It’s as simple as that.

  • gonnagle

    Happy New Year Susan.

  • Jihadist

    I wish you all the best in 2011–even those of you in thrall to the the absurd belief that an atheist must possess a heart of stone. If you prick us, do we not bleed…?- Susan Jacoby*****************************************Baby boomers (including atheists, secular humanists, agnostics) should know this song by Neil Young then..Heart Of GoldI want to live,I’ve been to HollywoodKeep me searchingHappy New Year Ms. Jacoby

  • Jihadist

    The United States educates every ethnic group as well or better than their ancestral homelands. It’s only the diversity of our population that holds the aggregate score down.******************************************We should all be mostly monocultural, minimally diversified societies then, like China, Japan and South Korea in East Asia. Oh, and to study by rout learning as allegedly done by East Asian students making them know stuff but not being “creative” or “original” in their thinking.By the way, there were reports that some Japanese and Chinese schoolchildren are so pressured to perform well, including by their parents, that when their results are not to expectations, they committed suicide. We’ve heard of American schoolchildren committing suicides because they are gays, but not because they scored less then desired on the SATS. Happy New Year to you too my favourite self-designated “cultural Christian”. πŸ™‚

  • WmarkW

    Most secularists in the West are cultural Christians, whether they use the term or not. Dinesh D’Souza makes this point that Christianity has become so internalized to everyone in our culture that we practice it constantly, even when not being religious.Christianity was a good idea for its time. Up until then, just about all religion was nationalistic and/or tribal. Jesus taught that you can do religion yourself without a state or temple infrastructure to support you, which emerged 1800 years later as the separation of church and state, practiced today in most of the West. The doctrine of original sin and hellfire makes some sense AS METAPHOR. Original sin means that being human we’re all imperfect. But we don’t need to beat ourselves up over this, because we also have a divine part that can forgive other people their transgressions, so ours can be forgiven too. Contrast this outlook to Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man.BTW, my closest believing blood relative thinks that Christianity is not a code of conduct. All those rules the televangelists quote are mostly from the Hebrew scriptures. Christianity is about acknowleging that everyone sins. Deciding WHAT a sin is, is a matter for secular study.

  • Jihadist

    “Most secularists in the West are cultural Christians, whether they use the term or not.”*******************************************There are “cultural Muslims”, those who don’t care to practice the faith as in prayers, fasting, belief in God etc, but celebrates Muslim holidays with equal zest as do practicing Muslims. And there are “political Muslims” who write more stinging pieces against the “west” even if they are agnostics or atheists. Interesting that your closest “believing blood relative” thinks that Christianity is NOT a code of conduct – as in not committing the deadly sins, being charitable in words and deeds, loving thy neighbours etc. For most traditional and conservative Muslims, the Sharia is a code of conduct for the individual and community. And therein lies the problem – whose interpretation and whose implementation of such “code of conduct”. Deciding WHAT a “sin” is, is a NOT a matter for just secular study. “Sin” is another word is for what is not as crimes and transgressions (by consensus and law) in a particular group or society as per its extant ethics, morals and values. Deciding and determining what is “sin”, and its impact should cover the whole sphere of social studies, history and culture, including beliefs. It does makes a difference in regarding everyone is born sinless, commit and are personally accountable for their sins; and in considering there is original sin, everyone is born in sin and/or others died for their sins. It makes me wonder if such “cultural Christian” values coloured the consistent and persistent “western” refrain that all Muslims are in “sin” and be held accountable for the actions of Muslim terrorists, while Muslims held those terrorists to be personally responsible and accountable for their own actions. And then, there is the “sins” of the fathers, or the forefathers, or the founding fathers. Say, a group of Baptists against the American natives in tales of “how the west was worn” and “trials of tears” etc being leveled against the descendants as THEIR sins to bear. That an “original sin” of one’s ancestors one has to bear for generations too? This is the sort of “original sin”, the first “sins”, the crimes that is constantly invoked and leveled against groups one loath – due to such sins/crimes or due to digging up such historical sins/crimes for contemporary reasons to loath.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    WmarkW “The United States educates every ethnic group as well or better than their ancestral homelands. It’s only the diversity of our population that holds the aggregate score down.”I am not sure what your point is, unless it is to say that all these ethnic groups are holding “us” back. (I use quotes, because “the” are part of “us”). The diversity of our population is what defines America, and if the “aggregate score” is down compared to other countries, then that is THE score that counts. Actually, sorting out the many different scores, according to ethnic group, is an appeal to political correctness that you seem to hate so much, that America is not really doing such a bad job at educating people, if you don’t count everyone.

  • Carstonio

    I don’t think the gay rights movement would have been as successful without the growing strength of the secular movement in this country and the emerging relationship between secular values and liberal religious denominations that have rejected biblical literalism and opened the ranks of their clergy to both gays and women.Jacoby is right to emphasize this. I would add that some denominations that oppose homosexuality, like Catholicism, aren’t relying strictly on literal readings of Leviticus but on teachings about what they believe to be the designated purpose of human sexuality. While I disagree with the premises of the teachings, I can appreciate their internal logic. That’s not the case with fundamentalist churches that claim to be biblically literalist. Their readings are no less interpretive than anyone else’s, and much more selective and inconsistent. They disregard explicit statements about the poor while insisting they know who will be saved and who won’t.

  • Carstonio

    The idea of “culturally Christian” or “culturally Muslim” is misleading since such religions can be found in many different cultures. Those terms sound like euphemisms for “Western European culture” and “Arab culture,” or attempts to characterize other cultures as less authentically Christian or Muslim. An Christian Arab in Lebanon or the West Bank has more in common culturally with other Arabs than with non-Arab Christians.

  • bpai_99

    Ms. Jacoby, you should not forget that when most religious people talk about their compassion, tolerance and regard for others, that applies only to members of the same congregation. They are typically quite willing to attack and hate those who don’t believe in the same God of Peace and Love.

  • areyousaying

    Meanwhile mostly Christians continually cherry-pick their ancient scriptures or those of their enemies to look for huge globs of poop to through at the other.They deny a relationship with the other through Abraham but by their actions ye shall know they are the same evil spawn.

  • LeeH1

    Ha! Ha! Ha! So, Susan Jacoby doesn’t think atheists are bigoted, homophobic or tribalistic? Think again.While relgious people can quote scripture and God’s word as the basis of their belief, the atheist has nothing to go on but their own belief, which can be just as rationalizing and just as narrow minded as anyone else.The major difference is that religious thinkers can also reconcile scripture to be more inclusive, and to make mankind better. Wilberforce, for example, fought against the current belief that slavery was correct and that trade unions were wrong. Martin King decided that inspite of many passages in the Bible, that all people were equal and should be equal under law.Atheists, however, have no set ideas to go back to and check out and to re-interpet. Logic does not help in dealing with emotional issues- I have never met an atheist who can win an argument with their teenaged daughter using only logic and common sense.Once an atheist accepts a bigoted concept, it is really, really hard to make them change their mind. There is simply no authority they will accept to test their belief against.

  • Carstonio

    There is simply no authority they will accept to test their belief against.That’s a false dichotomy that wrongly assumes that the only alternative to authority is narrow-minded belief. Testing belief against authority is not testing at all. In the case of any particular religion’s scripture, it’s not even authority but claimed authority, where believers ask everyone to accept that the scripture was authored or inspired by deities. There’s no reason to take the believers’ word for it.Real testing of belief is done using evidence, and that’s not unique to either religion or skepticism. Even John Wesley acknowledged the importance of reason and experience in theological reflection. Obviously, using evidence as the standard for one’s positions doesn’t make one immune to irrationality. It’s really about setting a goal of having one’s positions confirmed by evidence and then doing one’s best to live up to that goal. As a matter of principle, everything should be questioned and nothing taken for granted, including the truth of one’s positions.

  • Susan_Jacoby

    Is winning an argument with a teenager the measure of one’s effectiveness as a thinker, a person, or a parent? I suspect that most parents, whether theists or atheists, are resigned to not “winning” any arguments until their teenaged children turn into adults.

  • wiki-truth

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  • wiki-truth

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  • mrbradwii

    The idea of “culturally Christian” or “culturally Muslim” is misleading since such religions can be found in many different cultures. I think it is understood that it reflects the culture in which it is found. My experience of christianity is purely midwestern and I’m sure that is fairly different than the experience of it in, say, the southern states, even South America. I would speculate that every christian on every continent has some element of its dogma rooted in the gospels of the new testament and that would be, perhaps, the only familiar “constant”. For example, I have no idea what eastern orthodox christianity is like in terms of its beliefs, habits, or calendar, or liturgy. But I think it’s a safe bet to say that they believe the christ was god’s sacrifice for Man’s salvation. Anyway, thread seems dead, so I’ll waste some time and space.As far as secular wins and losses, repeal of DADT seems underwhelming, especially when you consider how hard Clinton had to fight to get it enacted in the first place. The school board thing is most troubling because it ruins the dialectic approach to knowledge. How can you discredit Marx without teaching Marx? How can you appreciate the deist founders without contrasting with the religious ones? The agenda of christian homogenization is just plain bad science, bad history, and bad for our future.As for as secular politics, we are stuck in the middle of a spectacular epic fail. The right has gone off the rails with its dancing Palins and Huckleberry Romneys leading the pack for 2012. The left, with Obama spouting god and faith at every turn, appears so insecure that it can’t find any actual *reason* to support his agenda.But hey, at least we know God won’t let us destroy the world, before He does. Some jag jonesing for government power actually said that in front of a committee.There must be some comfort in that.