Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics

Wayne L. Trotta

American Secularism: The Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems, by Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith New York: New York University Press, 2015, IBN 978-1-4798-7372-2) 293 pp. Paperback, $27.00.

Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Reigion in American Politics, b arc A. Smith
Ciago: University of Chicago Press, 2015, IB-3: 978-0-226-27506-2) 287 pp. Hardcover, $25.00.

If the titles of these two books are any indication, then the word secular is getting some extended play these days. American Secularism, by sociologists Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith, and Secular Faith, by political scientist Marc A. Smith, could almost be considered companion books as they intersect at crucial points in the history and development of secularity in America.

American Secularism, with its subtitle Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems, is a study of the many shapes and sizes that secular identity has come to take in modern America. Baker and Smith are professors of sociology at Eastern Tennessee University and Catawba College respectively, while Baker is also senior research associate for the Association of Religion Data Archives. They define secularists as those who belong to any one of four categories: atheists, agnostics, nonaffiliated believers (“Nones”), and affiliated but nonobservant believers. Much of their data is drawn from wide-ranging surveys such as the World Values Survey (WVS), General Social Surveys (GSS), and the Pew Religious Landscape Survey (PRLS). The numbers they cite can be overwhelming at times, but they also produce more than a few surprises.

The first sentence of American Secularism opens the book with a bit of a shocker. According to the WVS, the United States now has more individuals who consider themselves nonreligious than any other nation in the world except China. While it is true, of course, that proportionally speaking the current U.S. rate of secularity (28 percent) falls far short of that of nations such as Australia (56 percent), Japan (70 percent), France (52 percent), and China (87 percent), we should not let proponents of the Christian-nation mythology use this data to blur the fact that some ninety million Americans today are religiously unaffiliated.

Another perhaps underappreciated fact is that the remarkable growth in secularity over the past few decades has occurred in spite of severe demographic disadvantages, including the much lower birthrate found among seculars. Immigration has been proposed as one source of increasing secularity, but the PRLS numbers suggest that immigrants as a group are neither more nor less religious than native-born Americans. As Baker and Smith indicate, “Seculars can come from only one of two sources: apostasy or socialized secularity,” and based on their data, “apostasy is where the action is.”

Rates of households in which individuals are socialized to a nonreligious worldview have been increasing, and the rate of those who retain their secularity throughout their lifetimes has also been rising gradually. But retention rates for major organized religions have dropped significantly over the last century. At one time, something like thirty to forty adherents retained their religious beliefs for every one person who dropped out. Today, retention-to-apostasy rates run about five to one and are probably even lower for Americans under thirty. According to the authors, based on such ratios, about 17 percent of the American population would be religiously unaffiliated “even if every American were raised in a religious tradition” (emphasis in the original).

In a somewhat bizarre passage, the authors suggest that a lack of empathy may be one pathway to secularity, and they cite as evidence research indicating that autistic individuals show a tendency toward atheism. Secularity, they say, may be related to an “inability to mentally project the ‘minds’ of supernatural agents.” It may be true that a deficit in perspective-taking leads some to become atheists, but this tells us nothing about the vast majority of nonbelievers, much less about dedicated secular humanists. More often than not, one adopts secular humanism at the end of a long struggle for intellectual integrity. In spite of their exhaustive research and enlightening analysis, I began to fear when I read this that, when it comes to secular humanists, Baker and Smith just don’t get us.

Not to worry. Their book also includes fascinating interviews with some of the most engaged secular activists currently working in the field. David Tomayo, for example, is founder of the nonprofit Hispanic American Freethinkers (HAFree), and Baker and Smith sought his help in understanding the interrelationship between ethnicity and secularity. In a subchapter titled “Ripe for Political Action,” the authors interview lawyer, teacher, and former state senator Lori Lipman Brown, founding director of the Secular Coalition of American (SCA), whose insights on secular political activism are valuable and at times controversial.

As the authors of American Secular­ism suggest, religion today seems at times to be its own worst enemy. The more doctrinally and politically conservative religion becomes, the greater the numbers of those who want out. The right-wing Christian stance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, for example, seems to have caused numbers of more liberal-minded believers to disassociate altogether, concluding that “If that’s religion, then I’m not religious.”


Church leaders, however, will eventually do what they have to do. As Marc Smith observes throughout the pages of Secular Faith, religious doctrine over the years has been variously ignored, revised, and even rejected, if that’s what was necessary to keep people in pews. Secular Faith traces the history of organized religion’s repeated acquiescence in the face of changing societal norms on issues such as divorce, slavery, homosexuality, and women’s rights. As such, Smith’s book is the story of timeless truths forever changing with the times.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, Secular Faith documents “how culture has trumped religion in American politics.” Smith, a professor of Political Science and Comparative Religion at the University of Washington, shows how religion has not led but rather followed and conformed itself to public opinion on every important cultural issue in the nation’s history. Secular humanists who are aware of this history, and who have long been calling religion out for its doctrinal equivocations, will nevertheless agree, I think, that this is a history that needed to be given a volume of its own. While it is true that one knows from the book’s very title where each chapter is headed, Smith’s lucid writing, thorough research, and insightful analysis make the journey pleasant and rewarding.

In these days, when abortion providers are being murdered by deranged, middle-aged, white males with assault weapons, it is difficult to imagine that there was ever a time when abortion was not at the forefront of American consciousness. In fact, though, abortion did not become an issue until the 1850s, when physicians, mostly for economic reasons, sought to impose tighter controls on the procedure. Amazingly, conservative Protestant religious leaders refused to join them in this effort. As Smith tells us, no scholar has yet found a single instance of a Protestant clergyman denouncing or even advocating restrictions on abortion between 1776 and 1857.

The same seems to have been true of slavery. According to Smith, when the colonies began the practice in the 1600s, Christian resistance was nowhere to be found and would not be found until the animating, and thoroughly secular, ideals associated with the American Revolution showed the peculiar institution to be incompatible with the country’s future. Suddenly, Christian leaders discovered that they had a religious objection to slavery. But, as Smith asks, if there was some “inherent contradiction between Christianity and slavery, why did the conflict take so long to emerge?”

Indeed, most of the defenders of slavery mounted their case on the Bible. In the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, one can easily find passages condoning slavery and even teaching how the god-fearing slave master should behave. What, though, does the Bible say about abortion?

Nothing. Unless you count a rather odd and idiosyncratic passage from Exodus (21:22–25), the Bible has nothing to offer on the matter. However, the Exodus passage has been made to count for a lot. The passage has to do with what must be the exceedingly rare occurrence of a pregnant woman inadvertently injured by two men fighting each other. If the woman dies, the two men must be executed. However, if the injury causes a miscarriage, then the men are to pay a fine to the woman’s husband. It would seem from this that a fetus is not to be considered a person from conception, otherwise the two men would be punished for the stillbirth no differently than from the killing of the mother.

However, the King James Bible’s wording of the passage—“her fruit come out from her”—can be read to mean that the two men have caused not a miscarriage but a premature birth. According to the biblical author, should the baby—born alive—subsequently die from injury caused by the two men, then the men must be punished by death, just as they would if they had caused, directly or indirectly, the death of the mother. Thus, the passage has been used to support a pro-life stance on abortion.

As Smith points out, though, the chances of such an injury producing a miscarriage are far greater than those favoring a premature birth. Further, over many centuries, numerous editions of the Bible, differing from one another in philosophy and translation methods, refer to Exodus 22:21–25 as describing a miscarriage, not a premature birth. In 1978, though, the New International Version, published by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, broke with six centuries of tradition and changed the wording to specifically indicate a premature birth. Going beyond reinterpretation, this retranslation of a crucial passage has, naturally, come into favor with conservative Christians, as it allows them to believe what they wanted to believe anyway. It is interesting, though, that the Catholic Church, not known for leniency on the issue of abortion, has declined to endow its Bibles with this more explicitly pro-life language.

Given the stability of attitudes on abortion in our society, the issue is likely to be with us for some time to come. Whatever the future, the history of this issue presents yet another example of religion’s continual reliance on secular forces to show it the way.

American Secularism and Secular Faith are both excellent examples of what someone once called that happy confluence of scholarship and readability. You will not agree with everything you find in these books, but as I’ve tried to show in the meager examples above, you will find much to be intrigued and even fascinated by.

Wayne L. Trotta

Wayne L. Trotta is a psychologist and frequent  reviewer for Free Inquiry.

Whatever the future, the history of this issue presents yet another example of religion’s continual reliance on secular forces to show it the way.

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