In the English-speaking world today, it is very common for the words “atheism” and “secularism” to be used interchangeably. This is unfortunate because far from being synonyms, the two terms have very different intellectual lineages and refer to very different things. The confusion, as we shall see, has been debilitating for those who yearn for secular governance (among whom are atheists and believers alike).
The most recent knotting of “secularism” and “atheism” can be explained by reference to the history, technology, and intellectuals of the new millennium. Historically, the attacks of 9/11 forced many writers to ponder religious extremism with new urgency. Technologically, this was the moment that digital media was coming into its own. Each passing year of the 21st century exponentially magnified the ability of new social movements to spread their message, mobilize members, and grow their ranks.
Which brings us to the new class of atheist intellectuals that emerged in the aftermath of 9/11. These figures were outraged by the violence of militant Islam. They were also stunned by the growing political stature of conservative Christian political movements in the United States. One important voice was the independent scholar Susan Jacoby. Her 2004 book—notice the subtitle—Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism was among a slew of texts that casually tied the knot mentioned above.
Then there were the New Atheists, i.e., Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The so-called “Four Horsemen” published fierce smackdowns of religion—and not just the Fundamentalist variants. In the early aughts, they quickly became digital media sensations. Their books not only sold millions of physical copies around the world, but energized a growing nonbelief community on the internet.
Two themes emerge in New Atheist interventions. First, much of their prose was devoted to proving how senseless, illogical, and violent all forms of religion were. Second, they embraced science as an alternative to faith. Their training in fields like evolutionary biology (Dawkins), neuroscience (Harris), and cognitive science (Dennett) made them worthy ambassadors of one of secularism’s core principles. Namely, the idea that public policy decisions should be based on science, rationality, and data.
Curiously, the New Atheists seldom reflected on political secularism and its many variants. When they did, they showed themselves to be proponents of what is known as “separationism.” As Dawkins approvingly observed in The God Delusion: “The [American] founders most certainly were secularists who believed in keeping religion out of politics.”
The accuracy of that statement notwithstanding, the New Atheists portrayed their activism as defending aggrieved secular people everywhere. “I think it’s us, plus the 82nd Airborne and the 101st,” exclaimed Christopher Hitchens, “who are the real fighters for secularism at the moment, the ones who are really fighting the main enemy.” Joining the fight were countless other nonbelievers, many with digital platforms and training in STEM disciplines.
The result of this intervention, now 20 years on, is that a good deal of the conversation about secularism has been dominated by New Atheist views. This is unfortunate because accusations of Islamophobia, sexism, transphobia, and even a general drift to the alt-right have dogged followers of The Four Horsemen. Yet it is their unyielding animus towards people of faith that has elicited the most anger among religious people across the spectrum. Situated on that spectrum are religious moderates and religious minorities who have traditionally been proponents of secular governance.
The dividend of this all is that, for many, the word “secularism” has become linked with forms of extreme atheism that are hostile to all forms of religion.
How different this is from classical definitions of secularism which center on how a government is to interact with the religious groups under its jurisdiction. In this more traditional understanding, secularism isn’t about metaphysics or anti-metaphysics or God or gods. It’s about how a state is to judiciously govern a polity of diverse believers and, increasingly, non-believers.
Then again, there is no Vatican of secularism. No institution exists which retains the power to decide who is, and who is not, a secularist. If some atheists call themselves secularists, I think there is a moral imperative to respect that self-designation. Media outlets routinely draw this connection, as do conservative religious activists. Accordingly, the equation that prevails in public discourse is “all atheists are secularists,” and vice versa.
For me, the New Atheist embrace of secularism raises an interesting theoretical question: Is there such a thing as a non-secular atheist? I mention this because extreme atheists sometimes advocate ideas that undermine the very secular principles they claimed to be championing.
Toleration has been a staple of secular discourse since the Enlightenment. In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris viewed “the very ideal of religious tolerance,” as “one of the principal forces driving us towards the abyss.” The impression that the New Atheists—and hence secularists—were deeply intolerant was widespread among their critics. It led many to wonder what they might do if their “secular” state came into being.
The sharpest contradiction between New Atheism and political secularism had to do with basic beliefs about religion’s legitimacy. Hitchens’ catchphrase in his 2007 polemic, God is Not Great, was “religion poisons everything.” He warned his readers that “people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction.” Harris averred that religious moderates were every bit as dangerous as a suicide bomber. Moderate religious faith, he insisted, posed a “threat” to our survival.
Few observers of the New Atheists, pro or con, believe that their true intent was to eliminate religion. Yet their rhetoric, performative as it may have been, strongly intimated that goal. This put these champions of secularism in a rather tense relation with the political secularism they claimed to be defending.
The latter has always accorded religion a legitimate place within the social body. Political secularism takes the existence of religion as a given. If there were no religion, there would be no need for secularism!
True, there is no Vatican of Secularism. But there are ways for social scientists to define their terms precisely. Given the New Atheists’ rejection of so many secular principles, they might conceivably be referred to as “non-secular atheists.”
What must be stressed, though, is that their position is extreme among atheists. Most non-believers are not bent on the liquidation of religion even in their rhetoric. They request something entirely different from the secular state. And what they request is basically what religious moderates and religious minorities request as well. All seek freedom from a religion that is not their own.
The secular state is tasked with balancing its citizens’ competing desires for freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The New Atheists had a very different conception of secular governance in mind. That conception disillusioned and even frightened the vast religious mainstream–the very constituency whose support is essential for secularism to persevere in a liberal democracy.
Excerpted from Secularism: The Basics by Jacques Berlinerblau copyright © 2022 Jacques Berlinerblau. Published by Routledge. Used by permission.
Jacques Berlinerblau is a Professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. He has written numerous scholarly books and articles about secularism, his most current is Secularism: The Basics (Routledge). (jberlinerblau.com; Twitter @Berlinerblau)