Andrew Fiala

Is secularism a danger or an opportunity?

The Rev. Franklin Graham recently complained, “Secularism and communism are one and the same. Secularism is godless. Secularism is taking over our country.”
The Rev. Franklin Graham recently complained, “Secularism and communism are one and the same. Secularism is godless. Secularism is taking over our country.” Associated Press file

Nonbelievers are coming out of the closet. The number of admitted atheists and agnostics in the U.S. has nearly doubled in recent years – from 4 percent of the population in 2007 to 7 percent in 2014. Roughly one-fourth of Americans do not have a religious affiliation. In England, non-religious folk now outnumber Christians.

This is seen as a sign of a robust secular system in which nonbelievers are free to express themselves. But some view secularism as a danger. The Rev. Franklin Graham recently complained, “Secularism and communism are one and the same. Secularism is godless. Secularism is taking over our country.” Pope Francis has warned that secularism “has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism.”

Secularism is not relativism. Secularism is a political system grounded on basic principles of liberty and toleration. These principles allow for a free choice of religious belief – or disbelief. But secular principles are not weak or relative. Secular political life rests upon fundamental claims about the human right to freedom of conscience.

Graham is right that secularism has taken over our country. Secularism became the law of the land when the First Amendment was ratified in 1791. In the subsequent two centuries, we have worked out the details of a political system in which the law states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Graham is wrong to suggest that secularism is necessarily godless or to equate it with communism. Communist governments sought to eradicate religion. But our secular system protects the freedom to worship God, so long as religion does not become entangled with political power.

God-fearing people should support secularism, since secularism allows them to pursue their faith in their own way. Public religious power is curtailed in our system. But individual citizens are free to practice any faith they want – or no faith at all.

Robust secularism does allow non-religious people to be more vocal. Rationalists and agnostics are finding their voices. One example was the recent call for a “National Day of Reason” on May 5. The Day of Reason idea was initiated by a congressman from Silicon Valley, Rep. Mike Honda, as a response to the National Day of Prayer. In defense of the idea, Honda explained that the success of Silicon Valley was based on “the scientific method and the application of reason.”

Honda has a point. The innovative spirit and technological prowess of Silicon Valley is related to our secular system. Many of the scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley are immigrants who come from diverse religious traditions but who share the common language of science. It is difficult to imagine the same sort of entrepreneurial efflorescence and technological prowess developing in non-secular nations such as Saudi Arabia.

Atheists are more vocal under robust secularism. They are displaying growing social power. An atheist donor gave the University of Miami a $2.2 million endowment for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics. The donor, Louis J. Appignani, stated that he wanted to “eliminate discrimination against atheists.”

That’s an important cause in a country where several states have constitutional language preventing atheists from holding office. For example, the Constitution of Tennessee stipulates, “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishment, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.” Laws like this remain on the books in Tennessee and seven other states, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled over 50 years ago that such laws violate the secular spirit of the Constitution.

Atheists obviously benefit from an inclusive secular society. But the same is true for a wide variety of faiths that have been discriminated against in the past and which suffer discrimination today.

Secularism is opposed to discrimination. It allows for the peaceful coexistence of diverse religious and non-religious people. The fear that secularism is relativist or communistic is misplaced. Secularism rests on the bedrock of liberty. It permits religion and non-religion to flourish. And it celebrates the fact that in a free society the faithful and the faithless can work together, as they do in places like Silicon Valley.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: fiala.andrew@gmail.com

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