Is secularism making a comeback?

Connie Yang Connie Yang Georgetown University hosts a conference on secularism in February. When it comes to not making optimistic, … Continued

Connie Yang

Connie Yang

Georgetown University hosts a conference on secularism in February.

When it comes to not making optimistic, pie-in-the-sky pronouncements about American secularism I have almost unparalleled street cred. For years I have rued and bemoaned and lamented the fate of this poor mangled –ism.

But in the past few months there have been some positive and unexpected developments both here and abroad as well.

The first is far less obvious than it might seem. By far, the best thing that has happened to American secularism in about half a century was that the reactionary 2012 iteration of the Republican party, while not McGovernized, was pretty thoroughly thrashed. To the long list of those in this country who were perplexed and repulsed by this aberrant version of the GOP (e.g., Latinos, African-Americans, gays, women) let us add secular Americans.

If we define the latter, loosely, as those–believers and nonbelievers alike– who are deeply concerned about excessive entanglement between religion and government then it is not hard to understand why the Republicans horrified them. After all this is a party that spent years fighting on behalf of the Defense of Marriage Act, musing about religious tests in relation to Muslims, intimating that school prayer ought be decided by states, endeavoring to make legal abortions increasingly difficult to procure (see almost the entire Republican party) and equating secularism with socialism, godlessness and evil incarnate (see Newt Gingrich), Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and almost the entire Republican Party).

I want to stress that Republicans, historically, have not been anti-secular nor should the same be said about many of their core convictions. The shift occurred with the synergies that developed between Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the late 1970s. In fits and starts the relation between the Christian Right and the Republicans has grown for three decades. Did it crest in 2012? Will a humbled GOP shuck the divisive God-botherers in its midst? That is the question that secularists are eagerly—nay, gleefully—posing.

Of course, there is a second reason for secular hope in that President Obama has been doing a little less of the maddening anti-secular things that he so often does. This past summer more than a few pundits wondered why the incumbent had ceased spouting the campaign God talk that had characterized his oratory in 2008. (His opponent, incidentally, also eased off the holy stuff).

In retrospect, it may be that Obama’s summer of scriptural silence has something to do with another factor contributing to secularism’s grand high spirits. This would be the rise of the “nones” as a potential political force in American politics. Again, there is more to this story than meets the eye.

First off, it may be that the president’s strategists arrived at two crucial realizations. The first being that his experiment in reaching out to the Christian Right was a catastrophic failure (see the HHS contraception mandate/”religious liberty” scrums of 2012). The second was that the “religiously unaffiliated, at nearly 20 percent of the population, hated God talk and voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Why enrage his own base by continuing, for example, to cozy up to serial secular-baiters such as Pastor Rick Warren?

I am a pessimist by nature so let me raise a few caveats about the political potency of the nones. The first is that their Election Day turnout was somewhat underwhelming (they were 12 percent of the electorate though they are nearly 20 percent of the population). They actually gave less of their ballot to Obama in 2012 than they did in 2008 (70 percent down from 75 percent).

Most crucially, they are not an organized, disciplined, well-funded political juggernaut like the Christian Right, but a category on a demographer’s clipboard. The Democrats will need to organize and mobilize them (and perhaps this is why Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast gave them a shout out when he referred to “those of no faith that they can name”).

This is why I want to note, buzzkillingly, that 2012 was more a victory for secularism than a victory by secularism. But a victory nonetheless! Moreover, secularists can’t help but wonder if the pope’s recent resignation signals, at the very least, a set back for the global anti-secular platform.

Let me be clear: there are many secular Catholics in this country—given their defiance of the bishops in the past election we might say that the majority of American Catholics are secular-friendly. Further, the Catholic Church has historically not always been so vehemently opposed to strong church-state boundaries. With the resignation of the pontiff, one very powerful anti-secular voice will no longer be heard.

There are other reasons for cautious optimism, like the specter of rising secular opposition to the stranglehold of ultra-Orthodox parties in the wake of the Israeli elections. I might also note the pending legalization of gay marriage in France demonstrates what the world’s most laïcque nation can accomplish.

Again, it is way too early to tell if secularism is on the comeback trail, but even a curmugeon such as myself can recognize signs of hope.

Secularism on the Edge,” an international conference exploring secularism in the United States, France, and Israel, opens at Georgetown University Wednesday, February 20, through Friday, February 22. All events are free and open to the public. Visit the Web site for more details and follow the conference on Twitter @SecularismEdge for updates and live tweets of the events.

  • WmarkW

    First, don’t over-interpret the results of the fairly narrow 2012 election. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Reagan over Carter is the only time a party was turned out of the White House after only one term. (Note I said “party”; individual Presidents like Bush I and Johnson were.) And Obama is the only President since national popular vote totals are available who was reelected by a smaller margin than he won the first time.

    Religion frequently creeps into politics when voters believe society has fundamentally changed, and no longer has the place for them that they believed was theirs. The 1970-80s Religious Right was a reaction by white Southerners and those of like-minded politics, to the fact that desegregation, sexual liberty and women’s equality weren’t just passing fads and had become permanent fixtures of American life. Chris Hedges has written that Fundamenalism gained in the Rust Belt when young adults couldn’t get the factory jobs that had sustained their parents.

    I suspect we’re on the edge of another tectonic shift, as the Baby Boomers face a much-reduced retirement from the one their parents enjoyed. Their refusal to leave the labor force, is already increasing unemployment among young adults, even those with college degrees. Add the effect illegal immigrants have on low-skill aborers, and a lot of Americans are gonig to be wondering why the economy doesn’t have 40 hours of work for them at the same inflation-adjusted pay their parents got.

    America is pretty soon going to disappoint of a lot of its native-born citizens, some of whom are going to label it Godlessness.

  • FrenchChef

    You seem so desperate to blame everything bad on our not sharing your “beliefs.”

  • PhillyJimi1

    The GOP is getting killed pandering to the religious right. The religious right knows they are right (not wrong) with everything and it is “the others” who are going to burn in hell forever are automatically wrong about everything because they are evil sinners. This kind of closed absolute minded thinking is the engine that drives all religions. The GOP has hitched it’s self to this and it is no longer working.

    Back in the Nixion/Regan era it was the easy low hanging fruit ripe for the picking. Now all of the pandering has created 25% of the world’s prison population in a country with only 5% of the world’s population. Open hatred for gays, minorities and immigrants only exists with the Archie Bunker types.

    This is 2013 and most people laugh at the thought that they were born no good evil sinners just because a rib woman committed a fruit eating crime after getting tricked by a talking snake. Thus your gay neighbor or co-worker is also going to burn forever just because a 2000 year old book of tall tales says so. That demographic is rapidly dying off.

  • PhillyJimi1

    2nd comment hate the title.

    Secularism isn’t making a comeback it is the only choice. Religion explains nothing and it doesn’t do anything. The religious don’t get cured of diseases. They don’t get divorced less. They aren’t richer. They don’t make more sense.

    Openly praising Jesus for finding a dollar bill on the ground has a negative social cost. While society is polite to the faithful deep down many of us look at the “openly religious” as quite suspicious. Or how many Catholic Priest are we going to let run a boy scout troop?

    Logic is taking over. If this loving god created everything they why did he create cancer? The excuses the pastors make to explain why god does what he does make no logical sense. He loves you so much that he will burn you forever if you don’t talk nice about him. It makes god into a crazy jealous boyfriend holding a gun to a women’s head telling her to say “I love you or you’ll make me pull the trigger”. So much for freewill.

    Deep down we all know if we look religion hard enough there are problems. It is very easy to do with other religions that aren’t our own. It is much more difficult when we look at the religion and faith we were raised with.


    One of those tectonic shifts has been the dawning perception that America’s main state religion, free-market capitalism, isn’t there and probably never was. The debacles of 2007 and 2008 has left the majority of Americans extremely bitter and the Religious Right has somewhat successfully transformed that into a simulcrae of its political agenda. Because you can persecute the gays, but no one is ever going to let you prosecute the bankers, that’s why.

    If the political discussions were secular, on the other hand, I think that it would prove easier for both right and left to sensibly conduct the debates that need to be conducted for the very real future of this country, without the fallback of “because god said so.”


    No, secularization of church and state is not making a come back, the results are in and they’re anything but progressive!Turn on the news if ya doubt! Poor morals and ethics are behind most of our social and fiancial problems!
    No brainer!


    Time Magazine interview with Einstein in his 50s:
    To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

    Do you accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

    Do you believe in God? “I’m not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books.”

  • slowe111

    I am not so sure my President has retreated from the seemingly obligatory God talk. and his participatoin at the embarassing National Prayer Breakfast was very offensive to me. What exactly does he mean by “no faith ‘that they can name’ “? like we don’t know how to call it? like we just can’t remember what it’s called? I would rather he just said: ” those of no faith.” His use of not one but TWO Bibles for his oath, and going to St. John’s church before riding to the Capitol for the ceremony. Sorry, but I don’t see much retreat from the politically requisite God talk that now infests American politics.

  • Catken1

    Yep, poor morals and ethics like the lynching of boys whose only crime was to vote, or whistle at a white woman, or the murder of whole cities because they took Communion in the wrong way, or the law that stated that married women were no longer legal persons and had no right to own property – so a woman whose husband left her could work her fingers to the bone trying to feed and shelter her children, and find her husband at the door demanding “his” money to go drinking with.

    Oh, wait, you mean “poor morals and ethics” like gay people getting married and building happy, secure families, or non-Christians being allowed to go to public school without being coerced into praying to someone else’s God. You know, the kind of morals and ethics that don’t let you sneer down your superior nose at people who aren’t members of your religion and don’t like its dogma.

  • Rongoklunk

    Secularism is the trend. The more educated we are the less likely we are to buy into the god hypothesis. And as education slowly expands across the planet – religion is slowly discarded; along with all other superstitions. Christianity is on the rise in Africa which is the least educated part of the world. They still believe in magic, and voodoo and all kinds of superstitions, so believing in a great skygod is no problem. It probably gives them hope. South America is also poor and very superstitious. Good education on both these continents is not general,
    In educated Europe it’s a given among most educated people that gods don’t actually exist, and were created by our reality-challenged ancestors in our specie’s infancy. And many think religion is a big scam which churches keep alive because it beats working for a living; and like the man said – there’s one born every minute.
    Over the eons humans invented more than 3500 Gods; and that naturally must include the present one. Inventing Gods is what we used to do. We’re past that now. We have science to show us the TRUTH about our amazing world – made even more amazing for being godless.

  • Rongoklunk

    Marvelous, Catken, just marvelous. Knock ’em dead!

  • Rongoklunk

    Haven’t you heard the good news? There are no gods! We are free! Turns out they were all in the mind! Would you believe that?
    I guess in their fear and ignorance our ancestors actually made up 3500 of them. It’s a kinda ‘bigdaddy syndrome. But we’re all grown up now and can put aside childish beliefs.

  • Rongoklunk

    Einstein was forever denying his beliefs in a supernatural seldom-seen superman. It nearly drove him nuts. It was a metaphor for whatever is behind existence and the cosmos.
    He actually calls anthropomorphizing the mystery – childish!
    I’ll try to cut and paste a couple of quotes. But this thread doesn’t allow this, so I may have to type them out.

    To posit a person – and it has to be a supernatural one – is absurd because then the big question is – Where did He come from??? That throws logic and commonsense out the window, and drags magic and fantasy into it when, as Stephen Hawking makes clear in his book “The Grand Design” that no God was necessary in figuring how the universe came into existence. It was all about chemistry and eons and eons of time. I guess science does not recognize imaginary gods.

  • jdpetric

    With regards to “secularism” or even “American secularism” making a comeback, believers in what the Bible says on such matters, one might consider 1John 2:15-17 renedring such an observation moot

    “Do not be loving either the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him; because everything in the world—the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the showy display of one’s means of life—does not originate with the Father, but originates with the world.

    Furthermore, the world is passing away and so is its desire, but he that does the will of God remains forever.

  • Rongoklunk

    OK Doc. Here’s one from Einstein.

    “I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic. I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”

    From a letter to USNavy veteran Guy H.Raner who corresponded with Einstein. Dated June 14, 1945. Quoted in
    “The Believing Brain” by Michael Shermer. Also quoted in “The Portable Atheist” Ed. Christopher Hitchens.

    I have many others showing his frustration that religious people want to claim him as their champion – when he was a scientist who like all scientists examines the evidence for what he believes, and for god there is no evidence.

  • Rongoklunk

    I just posted one to you that I inserted in the wrong place. If you scroll up a couple of comments. It;s Einstein saying he finds the god belief childish.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    And since you love God unconditionally, your desires are His desires, your repulsions are His repulsions, and you are therefore incapable of doing evil. With God, everything is permitted. Hence secularism.

  • jdpetric

    Not even close XVII. As we are all are capable of evil.

    And your conclusion, “With God, everything is permitted. Hence secularism” is not inline with the above God’s inspired Scripture. But nice try.

  • jdpetric

    Albert Einstein once stated that “a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe, a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.”

  • persiflage

    If I employ the same logic, I’d have the explanation for why 100% of death row convicts suddenly become evangelical converts.

    And should their convictions be miraculously overturned, why they immediately return to their murderous ways when released from prison.

    The fact is, religion does nothing to prevent the heinous acts that humans perpetrate on one another…..and in many cases, only exacerbates their religion-fueled rage.

    BTW, I’m certain that I have a future – just not where that future ends. Still, I have made well thought out retirement plans just in case. Besides, really enlightened souls live in the present moment because they know for sure that’s all they’ve got.

  • persiflage

    Einstein extolled the mysterious wonders of nature on many occasions while completely shunning the idea of gods, supreme creators, and other supernatural nonsense. He was less religious by far than the Founders, many of whom were Deists that brought us our secular government in the first place.

  • persiflage

    ‘America is pretty soon going to disappoint of a lot of its native-born citizens,’

    At least the top 1% will be exempt………..while death is still certain, taxes are less of a problem for this crowd.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    The disgusting innuendo contained in the post below me might be the primary reason that religious people truly frighten me. Edbyronadams genuinely believes that if he were to renounce whatever particular god he believes in, then something like the homicidal shooting spree described below would result. This is a perfect distillation of what it means to be an intellectual slave, someone who engages in willful self-abjection, who thinks that without eternal supervision and the threat of damnation mankind has no recourse except to engage in suicidal behavior.

    I’d like to see religion driven out of the world, but I’m terrified of the damage people like Ed would inflict on it once robbed of their delusions.

  • dcrswm

    And we all know no one has ever done a bad thing in the name of religion……

  • edbyronadams

    “If I employ the same logic, I’d have the explanation for why 100% of death row convicts suddenly become evangelical converts.”

    I’m not following the logical chain here. Is this some kind of hyperbolic supposition. The fact is that dominant secularism as a philosophy has far reaching effects beyond the spectacular that the news story represents. In his rampage one can follow the logic of Mr. Sayed’s rampage. He murders someone he knows and knows he will get caught. “This is my last day”. He still has a bit of ad hoc moralism from his non murder days and doesn’t harm his first carjack victim and then proceeds to the secular logic that not harming anyone no longer has utility for him. But beyond that, a purely secular point of view leads a person to the logic that they should promote the golden rule publicly and cheat on it every chance they get and we see that happen every day in so many ways.

    All religions are not the same. Certainly any that discount the present for some magical reality in the future can and has been used to justify heinous acts, but the lack of belief in eternal cause and effect in the form of some kind undermines society.

  • edbyronadams

    If I harm other people and don’t get caught, where is the bad result?

  • WmarkW

    I agree with Persi that this argument (the one at the top) assumes that because secularists don’t believe in any individual being greater than themselves, that we don’t believe in anything at all that’s greater.

    I believe in something seven billion times as great as myself — a whole world of people who deserve the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as much as I do. I know that if I learned I was dying tomorrow, that I have no desire to take anyone with me.

  • edbyronadams

    Words are less powerful than actions and we see everyday that people see themselves as more important than those around them. We need a philosophical counter to that egoism and secularism does not provide.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Believe it or not the harm you inflict on others is, in fact, the bad result.

    Real empathy begins with recognizing that you as an individual are not special (a notion that is entirely foreign to monotheists). It then follows logically that your life is no more or less precious than any other life. I pity you if you really needed this to be explained.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    It is in this fearful and ultimately misguided line of reasoning that we can see the impetus behind all supernatural belief. It is our fear of the dark and our fear of each other that lead our ancestors to create gods in our image.

  • edbyronadams

    I am a practicing Buddihist and Buddhist philosophy has a mystic element that is distinct from secularism.

  • Madtown

    God’s inspired Scripture
    The word of man. The notions and writings of human beings.

  • twmatthews

    “Words are less powerful than actions and we see everyday that people see themselves as more important than those around them. We need a philosophical counter to that egoism and secularism does not provide.”

    We actually see more instances of where people treat each other equally. Travel down a road that merges, like going into the Holland Tunnel and you’ll see people alternating without any police or guiding external force. Now why are these people being considerate of others?

    For all the crime we have, the vast majority of people obey the law, are considerate to one another and all without a God.

    You can watch how people treat each other and based on their actions I bet you can’t tell whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Atheist. There is no relationship to how people behave toward each other and their religious affiliation except for some religions (Catholic and Muslim) have a bias against women and most religions label gays as sinners.

  • ThomasBaum


    1. secular spirit or tendency, especially a system of political or social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship.

    2. the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the introduction of a religious element.

    Seems to me that secularism needs a specific definition before any meaningful discussion can be made concerning it’s “comeback” or anything else concerning it.

    Is secularism a rejection of “all forms of religious faith and worship” as the 1 definition above seems to clearly say?

    Is this “rejection” a personal thing or something that is imposed on others as some of the posters seem to want?

    Is it that anyone can have whatever faith they want and practice it with at least the qualification that they bring no harm to anyone else in their practicing and may not force their faith on others and that others have the right to accept or reject faith, any faith.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    Secularism is making a comeback? When did it leave?

  • efavorite

    Berlinerblau references one of his earlier On Faith posts in which he “rued” how the concept of secularism is misunderstood. I remember that discussion from 2007 quite well because many non-believers who commented there were put off by his insulting, demeaning tone and didn’t realize that Berlinerblau himself was an atheist. [He acknowledged his non-belief in a subsequent post.]

    Clicking on the “rued” link above , I notice that some of the original commentary has been excised. Particularly missing are all comments by “Prasheel” who was very defensive of Berlinerblau and sounded a lot like him. My memory is confirmed by the screen copies I saved of the whole thread.

    While I’m suspicious about the Washington Post’s motives for removing these comments, I’m relieved to see that Berlinerblau’s attitude seems to have changed for the better. He’s no longer insulting non-believers.

    Perhaps he took to heart a comment of mine back then that was not among the excised material:
    “I think for a worthwhile conversation on secularism, or any serious subject, for that matter, to begin, it’s important to learn the facts, to speak with respect for facts and to separate fact from anecdote, opinion and fiction (and in the case of the religion – dogma, legend, myth and tradition). I hope if Berlinerblau is reading this, he is able to do that and move the conversation forward.”

  • larryclyons

    I prefer Epicurus:

    Is Go willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.

    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.

    Is he both able and willing?
    Then from where does evil come from?

    Is he neither able or willing?
    Then why call him God.

    – Epicurus [341-270 B.C]

  • larryclyons

    Narrow election? With a very decisive electoral victory and a majority of the popular vote, that some narrow election. When you add in the facts that the Republican party lost 22 seats in the house and 4 in the Senate then that is not a narrow election. It was only narrow between your partisan ears.