Secularists have a bad reputation in America, and we don’t deserve it. While we strive to uphold our Nation’s founding principle of government neutrality toward religion, we’re attacked by those who ignore America’s secular heritage. Enemies of secularism will say anything to slander us.
A few years ago, I caught this comment from Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly in reference to bad behavior in popular culture: “Now we are more progressive, but all the secularism is redefining the country. And I think it’s dangerous. The society of 300 million Americans without discipline or standards will fall apart, period.”
Secularism is dangerous? Secularism’s “redefinition of America” will result in indiscipline, lack of morality, and anarchy? America was founded on secular principles. “Secular” means “nonsectarian” and implies neutrality, not hostility, toward religion. Our godless Constitution created a government that should be neutral on religion, neither endorsing nor suppressing it. As a result of our secular government, America has become one of the most religious nations on Earth.
But that’s not what the enemies of secularism say. They don’t recognize our role in their religious freedom.
Secularists are constantly slandered in both the media and the pulpit. Disinformation such as O’Reilly’s does a disservice to all Americans, spreading mistrust rather than encouraging understanding. This creates an internalized dislike for the very word that accurately describes us, both those who live secular lives and those who work to ensure a secular government. How many of our peers call themselves “secularists”? As with the word “atheist,” those to whom the label applies have become reluctant to claim the word that describes them. The term “secularism” is tainted by misuse and fallacious arguments from our enemies.
This unfair wordplay fosters an atmosphere of confusion regarding such subjects as religious liberties, Constitutional rights, and separation of church and state, as well as loftier ideals such as a materialist life stance. We can attribute the distorted image of secularism to the lies told by our enemies. Some media personalities and political leaders have been publicly attacking secularists for so long that the stereotypes are taken for granted, and the anti-secular myths are believed.
Enemies of secularism are everywhere. In addition to right-wing rhetoric in the press, dogmatic church leaders instruct the followers of their religions to hate and fear anything “secular.” Take, for example, the tradition of fierce opposition to secularism in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church’s stance is that it will not admit that religion is simply a private affair. To them, God is the Creator and Ruler, of both individuals and societies, and therefore the State should not be indifferent to religious matters.
The Church says, “The complete secularization of all public institutions in a Christian nation is inadmissible.” It fails to distinguish between religious law and state and federal law. Catholics are taught that “there is no possible compromise between the Church and Secularism,” as this life is merely a transition to the afterworld.
When a Greek Orthodox priest decrees that “Secularism is the loss of true life in the church,” and claims that secularism alienates church members, how can we compete? Sweeping generalizations made by the enemies of secularism serve to demonize us all. Apparently, they do not understand that the work of secular activists protects their right to hold whatever religious beliefs they wish.
Despite the fact that secularism in government serves to protect religious thought, some groups which benefit from State neutrality toward religion are prone to spreading biased falsehoods against it. In the state of Pennsylvania is a small Catholic high school sports team called the “Crusaders.” They refer to their crest as “the shield of a Crusader, which serves to protect us from the secularism of the world, while inspiring us to maintain our search for the wonders of God’s knowledge in our beloved ___ High School.” No wonder people remain misinformed about the role of secularism in today’s society: anti-secular sentiment is nothing new in the conservative religions such as Catholicism.
The Catholic Church is not a new enemy of secularism; they’ve been at it for years. An early pioneer of secularism, Charles Bradlaugh, said in his 1890 farewell speech to England’s national Secular Society, “One element of danger in Europe is the approach of the Roman Catholic Church toward meddling in political life.” Bradlaugh’s foresight is remarkable. Decades after these words were spoken, agitation from the Catholic group Knights of Columbus during the 1950s “Red Scare” caused Congress to violate the First Amendment by adding the words “under God” after “Nation” in our Pledge of Allegiance.
Fifty years later, activists like Michael Newdow and groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are challenging violations of the Establishment Clause, while being demonized by the theocratic opposition. It’s time for us to challenge negative, incorrect stereotypes in the media. It’s time for us to reclaim secularism, to educate the public about our position, and to ensure that the wall of separation between religion and government never falls.
Note: This post originally appeared on the Dangerous Talk blog in 2006. Reposted with permission.