Saturday, July 28, 2012

Anti-theism is not anti-secularism

By Mathew Goldstein

In his recent article and video titled Secularism Is Not Atheism, published 7/28 in the Huffington Post, Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University argued for the assertion appearing in his article's title. This assertion is correct because the secularism he is referring to is a government neutrality that respects religious liberty and civic equality. He completely ignores secularism as it applies to individuals instead of institutions, presumably because he doesn't want to distract from the focus of his argument. That is OK. He cites no individual theists as anti-secularists or atheists as secularists, but in the article he acknowledges many atheists are secularists. This is also OK. However, Jacques Berlinerblau takes another simplification short-cut that is unfair and indefensible.

He cites a number of famous religious people as examples of secularists and two celebrity atheists as examples of anti-secularists. The problem is with his identification of the two anti-secularist atheists as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and with his effort to associate anti-theism with anti-secularism. The video conflates anti-theism with anti-secularism using camera close-ups of anti-theistic books written by the two atheist authors.

Sam Harris advocates for a benign, non-coercive, intolerance of religion, and he has advocated for pro-active action to thwart religious extremists from carrying out violent actions, but he definitely does not advocate against religious liberty or for government to be intolerant of religion. Christopher Hitchens opposed "the untrammeled free exercise of religion", as do all sensible people, while supporting religious liberty, including free exercise. Both Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are (in the case of Hitchens, "was a") secularists in all usages of that word. Not all secularists agree on where government should draw the lines. Hitchens, for example, disagreed with New York Mayor Bloomberg's acceptance, on free exercise grounds, of removing blood from the penis of circumcised babies with the mouth, as done by a few tiny Jewish sects, that resulted in some babies being infected with herpes. In that instance I agree with Hitchens. Other times I find myself disagreeing with what Harris or Hitchens say. But calling them anti-secularists is not accurate.

The fact is that both theism and anti-theism are equally compatible with government secularism. While Jacques Berlinerblau correctly argues that government secularism should not be equated with atheism (it is usually theists, not atheists, who incorrectly equate the two), he falsely labels two atheist secularists as anti-secularists and falsely equates anti-theism with anti-secularism. He re-enforces this false equation with the final sentence of his article: "Yet as long as some celebrities of nonbelief continue to espouse radical anti-theism (in the name of "secularism," no less) the future of secularism is imperiled." Shame on Jacques Berlinerblau for this double standard hypocrisy.

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