A Statement: In Defense of Secularism

Free Inquiry, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

A Statement: In Defense of Secularism


American democracy draws its special vitality from the First Amendment, which incorporates the principle of a separation of church and state. In essence, the United States is a secular republic; this means that the government cannot establish a religion. It cannot favor religion over non-religion. The unique character of the American experiment is the existence of a wide diversity of creeds, sects, and voluntary organizations, each free to flourish on its own terms without any special encouragement by the state, with tolerance for a wide range of beliefs and values.

We therefore deplore the growing hostility toward secularism that has emerged across the political spectrum. Leaders from the center and left, including President Bill Clinton, have recently joined the familiar voices on the right in scapegoating secular ideals. It is naive to indict secularism for the alleged decline of society. It is divisive to imagine that the moral prescriptions of any single religions faith alone can serve to raise our diverse nation out of a real or imagined malaise. We urge leaders of the American mainstream to resist being co-opted to the polarizing agenda of the religious right.

Secular humanists are committed to the use of reason, compassion, and science to enhance the human condition in this life. Through the use of human faculties we derive ethical values from the world around us. Secular humanism has enabled millions of Americans who are not religious to find meaning and a moral anchor in their lives. A broader secularism has helped a wide spectrum of believers to accept religious diversity and to work cooperatively with adherents of other faiths, or of none, to pursue human betterment.

It is difficult to recognize secularism as we know it in the straw man figure Bill Clinton targeted when he recently decried the alleged "crisis of the spirit that is gripping America today." Clinton cited crime statistics and suggested the answer lay in an "honest reaffirmation of faith" by which Americans might "seek to heal this troubled land." He perpetuates the myth that "the family . . . has been under assault for thirty years," making common cause with ideologues who trace the decline of our nation to the removal of prayer from the public schools in the early 1960s. "Hurray for Bill Clinton," former Vice President Dan Quayle has said of Clinton's apparent conversion to a family values agenda whose true meaning is unclear.

We regret Clinton's repeated statements that "freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion," which seem to defend the propriety of treating the non-religious as second-class citizens. We question his stated preference for spiritual leap-taking in place of "some purely rational solution of a problem." On the contrary, we submit that if America discards rationality we are truly rudderless, helpless against sectarian strife when differing groups may seek to impose their peculiar spiritual visions on American life. …

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