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The Fight for the Soul of Secularism

Why is opposition to religion no longer enough for secularists? For one thing, secularism is now too big for any one, simple message.
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Austin Dacey, the well-known atheist thinker, writes in The Secular Conscience that secularism is in danger of losing its soul to relativism. Dacey is part of new secular wave that is exploring topics that used to be thought of as "religious", such as the objectivity of values, the meaning of order in a universe without God and even the nature of atheist spirituality. In a recent column in the New York Times, Peter Steinfels called this thinking the New, New Atheism.

The "old" New Atheism consists of writers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and, of course, Christopher Hitchens. It was Hitchens' mega-best seller in 2007, God is Not Great, that brought atheism to mass consciousness in a way previously unknown in America. All of the New Atheists placed opposition to religion at the heart of their message. The subtitle of Hitchens' book captured this spirit perfectly: How Religion Poisons Everything.

But according to Steinfels, the New, New Atheism is rediscovering, if not religion, at least religious themes. He quotes Ronald Aronson's claim that atheism must "affirm a secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death and explore what hope might mean today" and also Aronson's complaint about "the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness or emptiness, of today's atheism, agnosticism and secularism."

Why is opposition to religion no longer enough for secularists? For one thing, secularism is now too big for any one, simple message. While one could consider the 2008 Presidential campaign one of the most religiously-oriented in American history -- with the Democrats pursuing the support of religiously-oriented voters, there was not a single national political figure defending a strict separation of church and state -- it was also the most secular. The PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that the religious category of "unaffiliated" may have comprised 12% of this year's electorate.

And even that 12% figure may underestimate the voting power of nonbelievers this year. In one national exit poll, an astounding 16% of voters answered "Never" to the question of how often the voter attends religious services. President Barack Obama symbolically certified the new importance of secularists by the reference in his inaugural address to "nonbelievers" along with the traditional groupings of American religions.

But in addition to numbers, there is a shift -- a growing sense of dissatisfaction within secularism concerning its foundations. This is what Aronson means by secularism's emptiness. Opposition to religion alone is not a basis for living. For secularism to flourish, there needs to be depth of reflection on the human condition.

It is religion that has always asked the fundamental questions about life: who am I, why am I here, what must I do and what can I hope for? Most secularists, in contrast, have fled from those questions. Today, in an increasingly secular age, some secularists have begun to ask those questions anew. The insistence that this must be done marks a split in secularism, a deep disagreement over its future direction.

In asking fundamental questions, secularists cannot afford to ignore the answers that religions have given, at least as a starting point. So, for example, another new, new secularist, Jack Call, entitles his recent book, God is a Symbol of Something True. Certainly, for the secularist there is no supernatural being called God who could intervene in the natural order of things with a specific plan for humankind. Nevertheless, if we ask with the theologian Karl Barth if there is not a fundamental "Yes" directed to humankind from out of the heart of reality, we secularists may come to the same conclusion that Barth did -- that reality answers Yes, to us.

When Jesus was asked by the followers of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew, whether he was the promised one, Jesus answered in notably this-worldly terms. "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them." Allowing for the different rhetorical style of that time, Jesus is telling us about the social, political, economic and emotional content of the Kingdom of God. It is indeed shocking that one man could embody such a vision of social harmony and justice. But it is not supernatural.

What we secularists want to know is what kind of world we can hope for even if we accept every claim science makes and reject every miracle tale. Religious language and symbols, and even religious stories, may help us imagine and hope for a better world. It may eventually happen that the very division between religious and secular, between church and state, will begin to crumble. That would obviously present a difficulty for the current doctrines of American constitutional law. But that is a problem for another day.

My new book, "Hallowed Secularism: Theory, Belief, Practice," is available here.