Sunday, September 09, 2012

Theism is not secularism

By Mathew Goldstein

Jacques Berlinerblau has written another article that was published with the title Atheists Are Not Secularists, this time his article was published Sept. 9 in Salon (previously it was published in the Huffington Post). It makes similar arguments as before, but with some additional details, and it adds a historical section on Englishman George Jacob Holyoake who coined the term secularism. His first argument is that secularism is being confused with atheism, his second argument is that atheists who criticize religion generally are extremists.

Mr. Berlinerblau begins by complaining that "the equation secularism = atheism ... is increasingly employed in popular usage". He cites the Secular Coalition of America for making this association because it claims to advocate on behalf of "the non-theistic community". Berlinerblau asks "why must so-called secular organizations be focused exclusively on nonbelievers?"

But on closer inspection it turns out that the otherwise diverse groups that "from the 1940s ... mobilized on behalf of secular causes" have an incomplete commitment to secularism and non-establishment of religion. They have focused on protecting minority theistic religious beliefs from majority theistic religious beliefs when the two conflict. Non-theism was, and continues to be, beyond the scope of their otherwise secularist agenda. The result is that the general principle has been compromised. So non-theists did what we had to do to defend the principle of secularism, we formed our own secularist group.

Berlinerblau is adopting a blame the unpopular victim argument here. Instead of holding the secularist movement responsible for dividing secularists by excluding atheists, he wants to hold atheists responsible for dividing the movement by adding their voice to the movement. This division will end with a change in position among the theistic secularists. When the rest of the secularist movement is willing to assert that the theistic national motto, pledge of allegiance, oaths of office, etc. are neither secular nor in compliance with the EC, regardless of poorly justified judicial decisions asserting otherwise, this internal division will wither away.

Berlinerblau complains that "the equation secularism = atheism", an equation which the Secular Coalition of America does not make, "leaves people of faith with little incentive to buy in". The Secular Coalition of America advocates for an inclusive government secularism that all secularists can share. The Secular Coalition of America states on its web site that they "enthusiastically welcome the participation of religious individuals who share our view that freedom of conscience must extend to people of all faiths and of none. Accordingly, our staff works in cooperation with a variety of other organizations and coalitions where common ground exists on specific issues...". If there is any advocacy that the Secular Coalition of America is engaged in which doesn't uphold civic equality for people of faith then Berlinerblau should identify it. That some theists prefer to have no association with atheists may be true, but that fact doesn't impose on atheists any obligation to be content with not having a public voice in civic affairs.

Government secularism is compatible with theists publicly advocating for theism on both religious and secular grounds. Numerous theists do this, and Berlinerblau evidently has no problem with this, nor should he. Similarly, government secularism is compatible with atheists publicly arguing for atheism. Berlinerblau, however, mistakenly thinks that atheists should not criticize "religion in general" and, if they do, they are "catastrophically" promoting a "creed" that is "dangerous", "misguided", and "extremist". As an example of this he cites Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins for their statements that people who defend religious faith, despite being well-intentioned, are facilitating religious extremism. Berlinerblau somehow concludes from such statements that they "can’t distinguish between a member of the Taliban beheading a journalist and a Methodist running a soup kitchen". Berlinerblau is wrong. They can and they do make this distinction.

It is a distinction between how we justify our beliefs and what beliefs we adopt and how the two are related. If the method deployed for justifying beliefs does not place substantial constraints on which beliefs can be viable, then we will tend to adopt more parochial and arbitrary beliefs. That is the problem with religious faith that the "New Atheists" quoted by Berlinerblau are pointing out. Choosing between religious faiths is too much like choosing between shirt colors, it is too non-empirical to allow for a logically right versus wrong choice. But unlike choosing shirt colors, choosing holy book literalism has implications for civil and human rights. Accordingly, an empirically constrained, evidence first approach to justifying beliefs is arguably a stronger and longer lasting antidote to religious intolerance than is tolerant religion which shares with intolerant religion the same fatally flawed, promiscuous, faith based approach to belief justification.

Which beliefs we adopt is important. For example, beliefs that deny freedom of expression with violence are not equal with beliefs that respect freedom of expression. Atheists who argue that the range of beliefs that are justifiable is related to the belief justification method are being reasonable and are doing nothing wrong. Children are taught to hold a religious belief on the authorities of tribal identity, tradition, holy book, theology, and faith instead of by overall currently available evidences. They are then arguably ill-equipped as adults to dispute religious extremists who cite the same authorities. If Berlinerblau wants to dispute this argument then he should engage the argument. Instead he throws negative adjectives at two people for daring to make this argument, and falsely caricatures their argument.

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