Secularism and Atheism: A Shared Foundation

David Rand

Among those who promote secularism, or at least purport to promote it, a frequently expressed opinion is to draw a very hard distinction between secularism and atheism, as if the two had little or nothing in common. This is usually accompanied by two related ideas: that secularism is not anti-religious, and that secularists must tone down criticism of religion in order not to alienate so-called moderate believers. Indeed, these three ideas constitute what is probably the majority opinion. If so, then the majority is wrong, because, as I will argue in this article, their approach is counterproductive, unprincipled and seriously undermines the goal of secularism.

As an example of this approach, in a recent article published in the Huffington Post, Jacques Berlinerblau does a great disservice to secularism by repeating these old clichés and half-truths whose apparent purpose is to make sure that the status quo remains unchallenged. Berlinerblau’s title says it all: “Secularism is Not Atheism.”

In reality, to say that secularism “is” or “is not” atheism is simplistic and inaccurate in either case. The two terms are neither synonyms nor antonyms. That being said, the commonalities between secularism and atheism are nevertheless more important than their differences, and Berlinerblau’s approach conceals their important shared foundation.

Secularism is a political programme in which the state avoids all religious (i.e. supernatural) principles in its constitution, legislation and operations and adopts a neutral attitude to the various competing religions, adopting a hands-off attitude to all of them.

Atheism is often defined – usually by its detractors – as the active assertion of the non-existence of god(s). However, that definition is unnecessarily strong. As the burden of proof must rest on the shoulders of those making an extraordinary assertion, it is theists who must justify their gratuitous god-hypothesis, whereas atheists need only refuse to accept it. Thus atheism is simply the absence of theism, the decision not to accept it in the absence of evidence. Consequently the atheist rejects the theist’s moral system, its meta-ethics, which is supernaturally-based and commonly known as Divine Command Theory. The atheist prefers a reality-based meta-ethics known as humanism.

In light of the above, the commonality of secularism and atheism is obvious. Just as the atheist rejects supernatural principles when establishing his or her personal moral code, the secular state rejects these same principles in its functioning. This of course does not mean that religious believers are in any way excluded from public institutions, but it does imply that they must appeal to real non-supernatural considerations when debating legislation or policy. If anyone, believer or not, wishes to promote a particular public policy with respect to, say, sexuality or environmentalism or any other issue, then they must use real-world arguments to argue their position. Invoking the will of “God” will simply not do.

Thus, the secular state is areligious, and whatever is areligious is implicitly atheistic. The atheism of the secular state is passive, so to speak: it does not promote atheism, but it avoids theism (and all supernaturalism) in all its operations.

Who was it who said that a half-truth may be the most effective lie? The idea that secularism and atheism are completely distinct concepts is at best a half-truth. When a simplistic and dubious half-truth is repeated out of context, like a mantra, in an attempt to hide an inconvenient truth – that secularism and atheism have much in common – then it becomes dishonest.

The same must be said of the dubious assertion that “secularism is not anti-religious.” Religious apologists general give a draconian definition of the term “anti-religious,” associating it with totalitarian repression. But our definition is quite different. We mean having the intellectual integrity to examine and criticize supernatural religious hypotheses and to draw the inevitable conclusions: that they are irrational, baseless and potentially dangerous. While the secular State may not be anti-religious, those who work for that goal have a duty to be anti-religious in this limited sense of the word. Secularism is necessary because religion and statehood make a very bad combination and to explain this, principled criticism of religion is required. Otherwise it becomes difficult or impossible to justify keeping religious interference out of public institutions, and the secular goal risks risks degenerating into a pale shadow of what is required, a sort of “open” secularism in which religious institutions are allowed to intervene in state affairs in proportion to their demographic weight. Indeed, the notorious Ethics and Religious Culture programme in Quebec schools is a perfect example of this corrupted form of secularism.

Secularist activists must oppose religion in order to keep public policy free of supernatural principles and public institutions free of religious privilege. In other spheres of activity, i.e. the private sphere as well as in public outside of public institutions, the secular state actively supports religious freedom by protecting the right of citizens to practice the religion of their choice or no religion at all. Indeed, the goal of secularism is to maximize freedom of conscience. That is why religion must be kept out of state institutions, because such interference would itself compromise freedom of conscience.

Berlinerblau does get one thing right. He states, “Most atheists, of course, are tolerant to a fault…” Indeed! But his approach to secularism would increase that fault, not decrease it. We atheists have only begun to affirm our existence and our point of view, and we must continue to do so, forcefully and effectively. Berlinerblau’s proposals would amount to turning back the clock and returning to the closet.

Requiring that atheists and secularists (two groups which overlap enormously) tone down our criticism of religion so as not to offend or alienate so-called moderate believers is like asking critics of astrology to censor themselves so as not to offend “moderate” astrology believers. The reason often given is that we need the cooperation of moderates in order to oppose fundamentalism. Although alliances may be useful, calling for censorship of anti-religious criticism as a precondition for them is disingenuous and unprincipled. Moderates and fundamentalists share some characteristics which we must continue to criticize: both base their beliefs on unsubstantiated faith and both insist the such faith itself be respected. This we must not do. We must respect the right to hold and practice one’s beliefs, but not respect the beliefs themselves.

I would suggest the following precondition before secularists would accept a given religious group as allies: the group must explicitly renounce the idea that morality is impossible without belief in god. Any believer who fails to reject atheophobia is not a true supporter of secularism. In particular, John Locke – whom Berlinerblau cites as an early theorist of secularism – is in fact a very bad model because Locke explicitly condemned atheists, writing that “those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God.”

Consider the example of Turkey where secularism is currently threatened by the rise of Islamism. Despite the constitutional secularism of the Turkish state, the vast majority of the population is strongly attached to the idea that theism, and in particular Islam, is necessary for social order and morality. Creationism is very strong in Turkey, and its strength resides in the same mythology: that one cannot be good without Allah. Those who promote creationism obviously do not give a damn about the scientific arguments for evolution; their key weapon is the following argument: Darwinism = atheism (not completely false) and atheism = immorality/amorality (an odious prejudice). Thus, atheophobia, that ancient prejudice which claims that morals originate in the divinity, is at the heart of the problem. Secularism cannot be complete and stable without having addressed the question of atheism, without the participation of atheists, or without refuting atheophobia

If some religious believers are disturbed by the fact that secularism and atheism are closely related, the worst response that secularists could make is to deny that relationship because that denial implicitly validates atheophobia by suggesting that even secularists see atheism as problematic! Rather than avoiding the issue of atheophobia, secularists have a duty to confront and debunk it.

We atheists are in the vanguard of defenders of freedom of conscience because we have been denied it for so long by so many religions, in particular by the hugely powerful monotheisms. The myth of the moral degradation of atheism has caused much suffering, and continues to do so, and not just to atheists but to all, because everyone is an infidel with respect to someone else’s god.

References and Further Reading


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