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Set a Place for Islam

by Vern L. Bullough


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 2.


Perhaps inadvertently, certainly unwisely, President George W. Bush initially called his campaign against Usama bin Laden and terrorism a “crusade.” Given its history, that term was certain to antagonize Muslims and many others. In addition, it played into the hands of the Christian Right. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson had already intoned that the terrorist attacks were a punishment from God because America had strayed from the path of true Christianity and fallen under the sway of secular humanists, homosexuals, civil libertarians, and secularists in general. In this view they were simply echoing the attack of Tim LaHaye and David Noebel, who in their book Mind Siege: The Battle for Truth in the New Millennium, issued a call to arms against secular humanism and secular society in general. What these men visualized as a response to September 11 was a veritable Christian crusade—not only against bin Laden, but against non-Christians in general, within and outside the United States.

Fortunately, Bush quickly backtracked from his initial rhetoric. As he focused more clearly on what was necessary to combat terrorism, the word crusade disappeared from his lexicon. He realized that the United States could not afford to antagonize the whole Islamic world, because he needed Muslim support (or at least toleration) for his war. During the Afghan campaign the United States government and most of the American press continually emphasized that this was not a war with Islam per se, and that we had many Muslim allies. On the domestic front, ever since September 11 the U.S. government has issued continual pleas for tolerance of non-Christian believers in the United States, especially Muslims.

The American people responded with an unprecedented interest in Islam. Newspapers devoted special articles to Ramadan. Newspapers and magazines featured Ramadan recipes along with special reports on Islamic leaders (local or national), mosques, or believers. President Bush invited Muslim children to the White House to mark the end of Ramadan. As a humanist I was pleased by all of this, because I believe it will have long-term effects on America’s religious self-image, in the end further underscoring the importance of the United States being a secular country. Fundamentalist Christians have many attitudes in common with fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Jews, including the importance they attach to religion in their lives. But they also have significant differences, and it is these differences that will ultimately outweigh the similarities, lending momentum to help maintain a secular United States.

Consider that for much of its early history, the United States was dominated by Protestant Christians. Though there were just enough enlightened secularists and freethinkers to ensure that church-state separation would be written into the Constitution, constitutional separation was not always observed. Countless civil liberties battles were required to more firmly establish, maintain, and extend it.

During much of the nineteenth century, the majority of Americans regarded the United States as a Christian nation. In the schools, the Protestant Bible was often the textbook, and so dominant was this Protestant-centered ideology that the Catholic Church established its parochial school system to counter it. As Catholic immigration swelled, U.S. Protestantism came gradually (if not entirely) to terms with Catholicism, though the animosities between the two traditions took many years to wither. But it was not only Catholic immigrants who came in great numbers. Jewish immigrants did too, and for a time anti-Semitism seemed to be the only thing Protestant and Catholic Americans had in common.

The years just after World War II saw increasing integration of Jews and Catholics into the American power structure, driven in part by the harrowing example of the Holocaust. In subsequent decades the civil rights struggle cemented this inclusive trend, breaking down many of the barriers facing people of color. By the 1980s, educators began to emphasize multiculturalism and its vision of an America defined by diversity of creeds, races, and cultural backgrounds. The United States was now seen as having been strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian (no longer solely “Christian”) culture, and even this was tempered by the recognition and celebration of differences.

Others strongly opposed this growing smorgasbord because they feared it would lead to secularism. Christian groups coalesced around Robertson, Falwell, LaHaye, and similar leaders, often under such labels as “evangelical fundamentalist.” Clearly not all evangelical fundamentalists belonged to this grouping, and some members of the coalition were neither evangelical nor fundamentalist Protestant; but they sounded the same refrain: a plea to make the United States a Christian nation. Recently some have defected from the hard-line mission of these groups or at least tried to speak more cautiously. Billy Graham, for example, said he had dropped the term “Crusade for Christ” because he believes, as Bush came to do, that crusade was too antagonistic a term.

One major change brought about by the terrorist attacks of September 11, has been to inject a new group into the religious equation—the Muslims; this will strengthen multiculturalism and further weaken the influence of groups that hold that the United States is or must become a Christian nation. In order not to alienate our potential Islamic allies the president, most of the press, and the U.S. political establishment have encouraged mass education about Islam. Large numbers of American Muslims who had more or less deliberately kept a low profile have emerged to claim their place in the religious pantheon. We are quite clearly no longer a Christian or even a Judeo-Christian country, but a multireligious one in which Muslims have an important place. In the process, other groups—Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Parsees, Orthodox Christians, and others who have also long been silent—have also emerged to national prominence and are insisting on their rights. Quite clearly, most U.S. citizens still belong to one religion or another, but the only way disparate groups can be held together is in a tolerant secular state, something humanists very much want. It is also the only way the United States can defeat terrorism.


Vern Bullough is a visiting professor in the Department of Nursing at the University of Southern California and an FI senior editor.


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