Birds do it, bees do it, now the secularese do it

No, I am not referring to falling in love as Cole Porter might have written, though secular folk do that … Continued

No, I am not referring to falling in love as Cole Porter might have written, though secular folk do that too. I refer to the fact that just as the famous song claimed that many species fall in love, we now see that secularists, atheists really, are following other ethnic and religious identity groups in using academia to create and/or shore up a particular cultural identity.

Jews, African-Americans and Hispanics have all used academic studies for just that purpose and now atheist secularists are following suit. In doing so, they must also admit that despite claiming otherwise, theirs is every bit as much an identity claim as it is a supposedly neutral approach to a bunch of cold facts.

Like their predecessors in this process, these atheist secularists seek recognition of a particular identity, in this case a sort of anti-theistic religious identity. That claim will disturb the many secularists who take great umbrage at having their secularism described as a faith, but what else could it be?

The kind of secularism advocated by people like Professor Grayling, is not determined by race, ethnicity, or by geography. It is determined by commitment to a premise for which there is no proof i.e. the absence of God. While I don’t share their conclusion, there is no reason why either that claim, or the work of those who espouse it, should be any less worthy of exploration than Judaism or Buddhism, which already have their place in the academy.

Like other so-called area studies advocates however, secularists now also run the risk of becoming myopic defenders of an intellectual fiefdom whose value is inversely proportional to its ability to interact with and be informed by other disciplines. And based on the number of statements and publications which are more concerned with explaining the “foolishness” of faith and the threat of religious domination, which come from this community, it seems that they may be traveling down just that road.

The issue for any identity group is the degree to which it can maintain its particular identity while also remaining engaged with the larger community — both learning from it and contributing to it. There is no doubt that many religious and ethnic groups have done, and continue to do a remarkably bad job in that regard. There is now increasing evidence that secularists will continue that tradition rather than help correct it. I hope that I am wrong, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Of course, it may just be a matter of time. The early generations of Jewish studies programs were mostly for Jewish men, and they were none-too-friendly for others. The early generations of African-American and women’s studies programs were famously hostile to whites and to men, respectively. Perhaps, just as there has been improvement in those fields, we will see the same evolutionary process in secular studies. One can hope.

And hopefully, those pursuing this field will begin that process by acknowledging how remarkably like those they most oppose they really are. That is the recognition which accompanies most great leaps in personal awareness and intellectual growth — the kind, presumably, to which Professor Grayling and his supporters are most deeply committed.

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Brad Hirschfield
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  • preach_humanism

    Hmmmm. You don’t exactly flesh out your case with specific facts to support your argument. A. C. Grayling’s name is tossed out a couple of times but without offering up what exactly he’s doing to stoke your ire.

    So let’s just take your basic idea, that atheists/secularists are building our own culture and not interested in how we fit into society. We are pan-cultural. People who follow reason and logic come from all cultures and societies. We claim no rites of admission other than acceptance of fact. No foreskin, no baptism, no abasement, no tithes. Damn simple if you ask me.

    You claim that we engage in a faith. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of the word “faith” is that it is what people do when they want to believe in something for which they have no evidence. That is exactly the opposite of atheism/secularism, which only subscribes to that which it can prove.

    You claim we cannot prove God doesn’t exist. To be sure, which of the thousands of claimed deities are we supposed to disprove, anyway? Not that it’s our burden. You assert a god, you prove it. Simple. Your idea of a god comes from “holy” texts. A succinct quote from Sam Harris in an open letter to David Eagleman:

    “A glance at the books reveals this claim to be manifestly insane, as each is barren of scientific insights and bursting with logical, factual, and moral errors. You know this to be true—you say as much in your talk—and yet this knowledge constitutes nothing more, nor less, than atheism.”

    And you conclude by whining that we are so caught up in our facts that we’re not playing nice by respecting those who believe in sky fairies.

    Get over yourself, man, and look around. Look at the very basis of you premise, that there IS a god, and it’s yours and it’s the right and only god. Once you open your eyes to the idea that that cannot be true, the rest will logically fall into place.

    In Humanist Love…

  • haveaheart

    What is disconcerting in this otherwise reasonable essay is the repeated equivalence of secularism with atheism. No, Rabbi Hirschfield doesn’t say they’re one and the same, but continually pairing them syntactically reinforces a widespread misunderstanding.

    A secular society is simply one that is not predicated upon and does not revolve around religious ideas or principles but which accommodates them broadly for those who wish to believe. There is nothing even remotely atheistic about secularism, although from the squealings of the religious right, one could conclude that both “secular” and “atheist” are obscene words.

    Reasonable thinkers of all stripes must take care in choosing their words in this context, as reinforcing misinformation is always a risk.

  • gladerunner

    “a premise for which there is no proof i.e. the absence of God.”
    Other ‘absences’ of which there is ‘no proof’:
    Wood Nymphs
    The Phoenix
    Fire breathing Dragons
    Mr. Ed

    There is no ‘proof’ for the absence of any of these things.
    I am very disappointed rabbi, surely a man of your education would understand basic, common logical fallacies. Chief among them an understanding of the near-impossibility of ‘proving’ the absence/non-existence of anything.
    There are many, many gods that you simply do not believe in, where is your ‘proof’ of their absence?
    P.S. as it has already been pointed out sir, atheism is not the same as secularism.
    Bowling is generally a ‘secular’ endeavor. It does not require a spiritual/religious underpinning or result. It’s just a game played to knock down pins. In it’s purist form it is completely secular. Read the rule books, not a single unisonic creed chanted to a god or spirit, not a single ritual or psalm of mercy, praise or forgiveness. Bicycle assembly instructions are also secular. this does not mean that those who enjoy bowling or who assemble bicycles are themselves atheists. Likewise professors teaching cold, secular mathematics or chemistry need not be atheists, nor do they need to teach atheism.
    Your arrogant/ignorant equating of the two terms detracts from any subsequent points you may be trying to make.

  • justillthennow

    I agree with some of the suggestions that you make, not least being that secularists, creating institutions of secular learning, are seeking to enforce their own identity as a group and validate it more in the mainstream. It is an aspect of tribal identity, which you a bit harshly, though perhaps appropriately, call egoism.
    Your assumed end result of this endeavor is a bit fatalistic.
    Certainly they are seeking, (indeed have had and are reinforcing), an “anti-theistic identity”. You leap much too far to your conclusion that self-identification makes it a faith. No, it does not. You appear to be seeking to equate religious belief and secular/atheistic posture. They are not the same. Faith believes in something to which there is no current proof. Belief in the non-existence of the immaterial deity is, well, immaterial.
    And that is more the atheistic stance, though many of them would temper it with openness to embracing God if there were any real evidence of the existence of God.
    Atheism is not a faith.
    Neither is secularism.
    Trying to call them the same as faith based belief systems is a bit immature. And equating secularism and atheism is an insult!
    I am a secularist, not an atheist, though my belief in the ‘supernatural’ or ‘spiritual’ is more down the Buddhist perception than the Father in Heaven, there shall be only One, singular version of deity.
    I believe deeply in secularism as is most commonly defined. The position that religious belief and intention should be kept out of civic affairs. It is fine, indeed good in my view, to have religious beliefs and practices openly allowed for in a free society. But it is a disease to give them foothold and power in government, legislation, and policy making.
    Look at the outcome of the last presidency in America. Very polarizing and destructive, to this day.
    Look at the divisive effect active, radicalized religious belief has in the societies in the middle east, both Muslim and Jewish.
    Not good.
    I have no doubt that these

  • YEAL9

    After millennia of religious studies, is it time for universities also embrace secular studies?”

    A recommended statement for the first day of class:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians during the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


  • rabbibrad

    While I do not normally respond to comments, “haveaheart” seeks a clarification, and it is one well worth supplying, especially because we agree about the very issue which is apparently unclear. It may be that the commenter already knows this, which is why they note that I never claimed that secularism and atheism are the same. They are not.
    In fact, I linked them, not to equate them but to allow one to modify the other. There are secularists who are atheists and there are those who are not. Both the panel question as posed, and Prof. Grayling to whom it referred, are atheist secularists, and that is why I addressed the issue as such.

  • justillthennow

    I appreciate the clarification that you offer. It was not so clear in the original piece, but I can see the distinction. Close shave, but understood.

  • morphex

    “Jews, African-Americans, and Hispanics have all used academic studies…” you write. Oh? And why do you not mention American Studies? They began, I believe (if I may use that word on this page without being misunderstand as trying to start a controversy, or to trivialize one ongoig), at Harvard in the late thirties, way back when you could not get a Ph.D in American LIterature from an American university, though you could from an English, French, German, and maybe even a Russian U. The model for Amercan Studies at Harvard was Classical studies (Greece and Rome, for those who have never heard of the academic study of Classics). The effort was a worthy one, a successful one, and it helped to put American culture onto the world stage as a peer, at least, perhaps at most, to the world cultural traditions generated in western Europe on the shoulders of ancient Greco-Roman Civilization. What has identity to do with this? Nothing. It’s just some American students wanted their doctorates in American literature and did not want to take Latin and Greek and slog through Beowulf, Piers Ploughman, or even Chaucer. They had their way.
    But in the sixties graduates, of American Studies programs, many of them by then members of university faculties, began to notice that the American Studies programs, which were still new, that they had put themselves through, often with a year or more on sabbatical while they fought in combat in the Second World War (the one that follwed the First World War, in case you don’t remember or never even heard of it), they noticed, I say, that the canon used was rather narrow and biased. Efforts to broaden it were resisted, vigorously by conservatives who had yet to agree even to granting a Ph.D in American Literature at many of our universities, and equally narrow replicas of Americas Studies were therefore advanced to correct the bias: African American, Hispanic, Gay, but not yet Confederate. Give it time, and stop complaining: you conservatives b