Two Concepts of Secularism

By McClay, Wilfred M. | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview
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Two Concepts of Secularism

McClay, Wilfred M., The Wilson Quarterly

Most Americans would likely agree that they live in a secular society. But today, two very different ideas of what it means to be secular are at war.

Whenever one sets out in search of the simple and obvious in American history, one soon comes face to face with a crowd of paradoxes. And none is greater than this: that the vanguard nation of technological and social innovation is also the developed world's principal bastion of religious faith and practice. The United States has managed to sustain remarkably high levels of traditional religious belief and affiliation, even as it careens merrily down the whitewater rapids of modernity.

This was not supposed to happen. Sociologists from Max Weber to Peter Berger were convinced that secularization was one facet of the powerful monolith called "modernization," and trusted that secularization would come along bundled with a comprehensive package of modernizing forces: urbanization, rationalization, professionalization, functional differentiation, bureaucratization, and so on. If by "secularism" we mean a perspective that dismisses the possibility of a transcendent realm of being, or treats the existence (or nonexistence) of such a realm as an irrelevancy, then we should have expected religious beliefs and practices to wither away by now. To be sure, one can grant that the taboos and superstitions of the great religions transmitted a useful kernel of moral teaching. But their supernaturalism and irrationality have to be regarded, in this view, as vestiges of humanity's childhood. Our growing mastery of our material existence enables us to understand and manipulate this world on our own terms, through the exercise of instrumental rationality. Secularity in all its fullness should have arrived as naturally as adulthood.

Yet the world at the dawn of the 21st century remains energetically, even maniacally, religious, in ways large and small. And if the "secularization theory" long promoted by social-scientific students of religion has in fact been discredited, the unanticipated resiliency of religious faith in 20th-century America may well be the single most arresting demonstration of the theory's inadequacy.

But perhaps one should not accept this claim too quickly. Perhaps the religious efflorescence we see today is merely defensive, and fleeting. It could be argued persuasively that the United States has never been more thoroughly under the command of secular ideas than it is today. The nation's elite culture, as it is mirrored in mass media and academe, is committed to a standard of antiseptically secular discourse, in which the ostensibly value-neutral languages of science and therapy have displaced the value-laden language of faith and morals. A steady stream of court decisions since the 1940s has severely circumscribed the public manifestation of traditional religious symbols and sentiments, helping to create what has been called "the naked public square." Perhaps the United States has lagged behind Western Europe in completing the movement toward a purer form of secularity -- but it is getting there just the same. Religious expression has not been stamped out -- but it has been pushed to the margins, confined to a sort of cultural red-light district, along with all the other frailties to which we are liable. The point is to confine such beliefs to the private realm and deny them public exposure. Some who hold to this view offer themselves as friends of religion. Others are skeptics, or enemies. But all are united in the belief that a "naked public square" is the price we must pay for the non-establishment and liberty embodied in the First Amendment.

There is, however, another way of seeing matters. In this view, it is secularism, rather than religion, whose power is ebbing away. In this view, the claim that religious liberty can only be protected by the federal government's imposition of a naked public square has come to seem as absurd as the Vietnam-era tactic of destroying villages in order to save them.

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