Secularism’s Place in Politics

Greg Laden

The question at hand is, “Does secular humanism have a political agenda?” To address this question, I’d first like to characterize relevant features of what might be called the “secular humanist community”—as distinct from any philosophy of secular humanism—and in so doing reframe the question slightly to focus on secularism and the secular movement. Then, I will define informally what I mean by political, because this term has numerous meanings, some of which would relate to this question in trivial or distracting ways. My conclusion will not support the idea that secularism has a political component or agenda. Rather, I will propose that secularism is an organizing principle in modern political culture and that politics are so deeply inherent in secularism that it is always political. Secularism is as political as concepts such as “freedom” or “democracy” or “self-determination” and should join these and similar basic principles in shaping any progressive political agenda. Secularism can also shape nonprogressive or even antiprogressive agendas. Indeed, the fact that secularism can work as a guiding principle in otherwise contrasting or opposed political orientations accounts for the recent appointment of a lifelong Republican in a key lobbying position in the mostly progressive secular movement. (I refer here to the recent hiring of former Republican advisor-operative Edwina Rogers as executive director of the Secular Coalition of America.)

Political or social entities—political parties, public action committees, public interest groups, and the like—are often defined by a highly determined and widely understood dogma and are made up of people who often have overlapping involvement with other similar entities. These entities often find it useful to work together. For example, the Secular Coalition of America (SCA) includes member groups that are self-defined as atheist, humanist, skeptical, or freethinking. There are distinctions among these terms and ideologies: a skeptic need not be an atheist. A humanist may consider oneself a “dictionary atheist” (someone who is not a theist) but may be uninvolved in atheist activism. Barry Lynn, the current executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a secular organization, is an ordained minister. Making clear-cut distinctions between nonbelievers, atheist activists, dictionary atheists, skeptics, secular humanists, and just plain science-oriented folk is impossible and ignores the true nature of this collection of overlapping and interactive communities. For this reason, it is valuable, and probably necessary, to parse “secular humanism” into “secular” and “humanist.” In so doing, it is apparent that “humanist philosophy and activism” is a more narrowly defined entity than “secular philosophy” simply because between 90 and 100 percent of those involved in all of these communities mentioned so far are “secular” while only some people self-identify primarily as “humanist.”

It might be helpful at this point to consider the concept of the “polythetic set,” introduced by archaeological theorist David Clarke to help make sense of excavated artifacts. (Polythetic sets are similar to “fuzzy sets,” but the former term is simpler and more useful here.) In this way of thinking, a set of traits is used to sort out objects. Something can be made of glass, wood, plastic, ceramic, bone, and so on. Something can be used for architectural purposes, food processing, energy technology, ritual, and other things. Something can be valuated as possessing folk or elite status. A fragment of glass found on an archaeological site could be from a window of an upscale mansion. A fragment of plastic could be from the window of a shanty. A piece of ceramic could be from a tobacco pipe used in a Native American ritual, a telegraph line insulator, or a bottle of beer. In thinking of polythetic sets, there is not a Cartesian relationship between attributes and the identification of an object, nor is there a stable hierarchy (for example, bone things are always for ritual, glass things are always for architecture, ceramic things are always related to food consumption). Rather, the meaning of a particular trait in determining the identity of an object depends on the other traits, and on the object itself. Therefore, Barry Lynn. Therefore, Edwina Rogers.

Secularism is an idea or principle that can be held by Franciscan nuns and “gnu atheists,” progressive Democrats and even Republicans. A person who goes to a secular conference or subscribes to a secular magazine is usually, but not always, imbued with certain traits; another person may possess entirely different traits, yet they may recognize each other as members of the same social or political group.

If we think of secularism as an achievable social norm that some people might prefer and others might abhor—and as a norm that crosscuts a half dozen or so related philosophies—and if we think of “secular” as a measure (some things are more secular than others) and as something that can be ruled in or ruled out by prevailing rules, then it becomes something to fight over. Since secularism is in no way an esoteric concept, this pretty much makes it political.

In asking “Does secular humanism have a political agenda?” I did not define political. Rather than spreading ourselves across a mine-filled rhetorical landscape in search of a perfect definition, I would note that the panel that led to this collection of essays was populated by individuals who were picked to represent specific views with widely heard-of labels: libertarian, Republican, progressive, and radical Left. So political obviously refers to political philosophy, political party, and political movement. We can probably examine several political movements to see if “secularism” is in there somewhere. In some cases we will not easily find it. Secularism is not overtly part of the Occupy movement. One might not see it as an overt part of the environmental movement with its current focus on climate change. Certainly, there are religious people in the Occupy camps, probably some whose religious beliefs determine their own voting pattern. Certainly, there are people who believe that we humans have a spiritual duty to protect the planet and who consider themselves environmentalists for religious reasons.

But if we sort out current U.S. political issues on the basis of the degree to which secularism might be part of them, we immediately find that secularism is central. In the United States at the time of this writing, the most talked-about domestic issue other than the economy is probably same-sex marriage, which alternates on the front pages with articles about women’s reproductive rights and healthcare. These issues do not inherently demand interrogation from a secularist perspective. But they are purely secular issues, simply because efforts to limit, keep illegal, or make unconstitutional both same-sex marriage and women’s personal choices in reproductive health are purely religious initiatives. It turns out that when we look more closely at the Occupy and environmental movements, we find religious vs. secular overtones there too. Based on anecdotal information from friends who are part of my local Occupy campaign (in Minnesota’s Twin Cities), it seems that many of the “usual” non-dogmatic religious groups and individuals are involved. There are Unitarian Universalists in some of those tents. While the Twin Cities is surrounded by evangelical mega-churches, the urban core of Minneapolis is peppered with radical-Left congregations
that engage in politics in part because of a religiously informed sense of moral responsibility.

The connection is similarly clear with environmental issues. One of the most significant current threats to good environmental policy in the United States is the effort to limit or distort teaching about climate change in K–12 schools. These anti–climate science efforts are not usually explicitly religious; often they are funded by very secular entities like Big Oil through nonreligious organizations like the libertarian-leaning Heartland Institute. However, the strategy for affecting the nature of how K–12 climate science is taught comes right out of the religious-Right coalition within the Republican Party. “Academic freedom” bills in state legislatures seem to have been introduced to open the door for legislating science curriculum by some of the same legislators who were formerly busy trying to legislate creationism into the classroom. So the connection between secularism vs. theocracy and climate-change denialism is indirect but important. Meanwhile, remember those overlapping communities of secularism, atheism, skepticism, humanism, and plain-old science supporters. The same people and organizations who have been fighting creationism, a religious doctrine, are now joined in the battle to fight climate change denialism and, more broadly, science denialism. This is best exemplified by the extension of activities by the National Center for Science Education into issues related to climate change, bringing their mission beyond the purview of evolutionary science. It is all one big mess, and secularism is a key part of the polythetic set of activism that opposes antiscience legislation and policy.

The present political landscape pits religion against secularism as components of the Right vs. Left confrontation, even in areas where it is clearly not relevant. Carbon policy is not even a little religious or nonreligious—except for the small detail of recognizing the reality of hundreds of millions of years of Earth history during which carbon has on average been sequestered. This stands opposed to a biblical view in which such deep history is impossible. Nonetheless, the realities of politics confront secularism squarely. Climate policy is in part a fight over religion, and science education policy is a fight over separation of church and state.

I’ve recently been involved in political work for the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party (what Minnesotans call “Democrats”). This has been a very interesting experience. I work with many people who are religious, a number of people who probably aren’t religious but who feel the need (right or wrong) to cry “bless this nation” or “thank God” for this or that in campaign speeches, and an even smaller number of individuals who are a-theistic but quiet about it, yet overtly annoyed at the constant reference to faith and blessings by some of our colleagues. This has led me to recognize what I believe is an entrenched “Democratic denialism.” People who are in a Left-ish party, who are politically progressive, who are in favor of separation of church and state, are often religious if they are traditional Democrats; yet if they are not in favor of church-state separation they tend to keep quiet about it. The very fact that there is a sleeping secularism in the progressive movement makes the role of politics among secular activists both important and potent. This should be developed further in forthcoming activist campaigns. Closeted seculars must be given aid and comfort to help them make their views overt and their muttered annoyances louder and clearer.

It need not have been this way. I can imagine that if the history of politics in the United States had been different, the laundry list of positions adhered to and promoted by each of the two major political parties could have been different, and religiosity could have become a virtue of the same party that promoted the environment and policies normally considered socially progressive. This has, after all, been the case at other times and places. Modern-day American conservatives have little to say about slave labor resulting from globalization of industry, while the more secular progressives have a great deal to say about it. Yet it was the equivalent of, essentially, the religious Right in nineteenth-century Britain that fought so valiantly, and sometimes effectively, against slavery while at the same time denying Darwinism.

In present-day American politics, we see party-line reactionism on both sides of the literal or metaphorical aisle, so that one’s position on a given issue is often determined by the letter next to your candidate’s name (D or R), and not so much because of any underlying or consistent philosophy. This is why it is possible that the SCA’s plan for across-the-aisle lobbying on behalf of secular issues may have a chance.


So that is my argument: secularism is central to many political fights—and a key feature of many political positions—mainly but not entirely as a reaction to religion’s having become an organizing principle for the politics of about half the people in the United States. However, the degree to which this needs to be true depends on historical accident as much as philosophy. But then, historical accident, not rational and careful thinking, is the primary determinant of our extant political and social landscape.

There is one more point of a different form that I would like to make regarding politics within the secular movement. We are mostly a progressive movement, even though we also reach out to more conservative factions and there are plenty of Republicans, libertarians, and other nonprogressives in the movement. But, ironically, many progressive features are not well inculcated into modern secularism and the related communities of atheism and skepticism. This is illustrated by a major event that occurred some weeks after the “Moving Secularism Forward” conference at which our panel was held. As the outcome of the Center for Inquiry’s first “Women in Secularism” conference and conversations that occurred there, every atheist, secular, and skeptic organization that has conferences or conventions that I can think of has either created an anti–sexual-harassment policy, upgraded or modified an existing policy, or dusted off a preexisting policy to give it more exposure. This is a sign of progressive thinking coming to the fore and becoming normal, though not without pushback. And that is a good thing. But it is also a little surprising that this feminist awakening is coming in the second decade of the twenty-first century. It has been said that feminism is the longest battle ever fought. Feminism was old when Juliet Mitchell called it the longest revolution in 1966. Gloria Steinem used this phrase, still accurately, in a recent lecture tour. The overlapping and related communities of secularism, activist atheism, and skepticism are supposed to be thoughtful. It is good that addressing sexism at public gatherings is being done, but it is disconcerting that this has taken so long. Similarly, secularism, atheism, and skepticism are mainly white activities. Organizations that explicitly seek to involve existing African American and other nonwhite groups and to develop new groups in these movements have recently reemerged or are forming as we speak, and this is probably the next great dynamic in our shared and overlapping spheres of activity. This is all enigmatically late, but at least it is happening.

As promised, I have not spoken about humanism at all. But let me briefly note that it is a philosophy having a lot to do with social justice, which is political. In modern America, the secularist is required to be not only political but actively political and, I would say, even aggressively political. Without such a commitment, secularism has little meaning in the current social and political climate. Secular humanism is political, or it is nothing.

Greg Laden

Greg Laden blogs on and writes for other websites. He frequently appears as both an interviewer and guest for Minnesota Atheists Talk Radio.

The question at hand is, “Does secular humanism have a political agenda?” To address this question, I’d first like to characterize relevant features of what might be called the “secular humanist community”—as distinct from any philosophy of secular humanism—and in so doing reframe the question slightly to focus on secularism and the secular movement. Then, …

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