What “Secular” Really Means

J. Brent Walker May/June 2012

Secular” is not a bad word, as many religious people and some politicians believe. In fact, it is a good word and, properly understood, is useful to describe our political culture and church-state configuration.

The December 17, 2011, Metro Section of the Washington Post contained two articles that illustrate what I mean. One was a full-page obituary of Christopher Hitchens. The Brit turned denizen of the United States since 1982 was an acerbic contrarian, proud atheist, “secularist on steroids,” and no-holds-barred critic of all that is religious. The other, on the religion page, was an article about a class on the study of secularism at the Jesuit-controlled Georgetown University, taught by Jacques Berlinerblau (a self-professed “Jewish atheist”) with a focus on church-state relations.

Can the word “secular” carry the weight of how the term is used in both of these contexts? I think it can, but we must always be clear about what we mean. In his helpful book Divided by God, Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, talks about a “strong secularism.” This kind of secularism—atheistic, antireligious, and almost always intolerant—would banish religion to the backwaters of privatized faith. We have seen this form of secularism in the past with people such as Clarence Darrow, Robert Ingersoll, and H. L. Mencken. Their intellectual heirs today would be the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and, yes, Hitchens. These “new atheists” have gained a lot of popularity over the past several years.

Of course, this kind of secularism and those that espouse it are entitled to robust constitutional protection (free speech, free press, etc.) and enjoy the full panoply of rights and privileges associated with living in the United States. They should not have their patriotism questioned or political viability impugned because of their lack of religious conviction. However, this brand of hard-edged secularism is worthy of our stringent critique. It erroneously treats all religion—good religion and bad religion—the same. It thinks that all religion is bad. It often comes off as narrow-minded, intolerant, and intellectually arrogant.

The other kind of secularism, what Feldman calls “legal secularism,” is a friendly form of secularism embraced by many people of faith who simply believe, as I do, that government and our legal institutions should be secular in the sense of being nonreligious or religiously neutral.

Secularism of this ilk is not a threat to religion but an essential mechanism to ensuring its liberty.

This is the way Professor Berlinerblau understands the term and how he teaches his course. According to the Washington Post article, Professor Berlinerblau tells his students his goal is “to disentangle atheism from secularism.” The article points out that he has his students read Martin Luther and John Locke, for whom, according to Berlinerblau, the word “secular” is not about personal religious belief but about the relationship between church and state.

This version of secularism has informed not only the Reformation (Luther) and the Enlightenment (Locke), but Baptist thought, at its best, as well. Indeed, this is what Roger Williams was getting at when he argued that the magistrate had no authority over the souls of his subjects. More recently, J. M. Dawson, the Baptist Joint Committee’s (BJC) first executive director, defended the use of the word in articles, speeches, and even his 1964 autobiography. Although acknowledging “secular” sometimes connotes atheistic humanism and materialism, Dawson argued that “when one says ours is a secular state or that our public schools form a secular system, he means they are outside church control, simply that.”

This is the sense in which we at the BJC continue to employ the word. Using “secular” to mean “religiously neutral” is very much a part of the fabric of our constitutional and political system. The First Amendment’s no establishment and free exercise clauses require the government to be neutral toward religion, not taking sides in matters of faith, but leaving it to voluntary, individual decisions and private religious associations.
One of Berlinerblau’s students, described as a conservative Catholic from Long Island, New York, learned his lesson well. After taking the class, he proudly declared himself a “secularist,” telling the Washington Post: “[Secularism] does not mean abandoning any notion of religiosity; it’s saying you’re in favor of toleration and liberty of conscience and of allowing others to have the same rights in terms of government as you.”

I think this student got it exactly right. Secularism, properly understood, is not a bad word. While our government must not be hostile to religion, it should not try to help it either. Our government must remain religiously neutral and, in that sense, properly be described as “secular.”

J. Brent Walker is executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. He first wrote these works as a reflection in Report From the Capital.

Article Author: J. Brent Walker