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Where is the line between atheism and secularism?

Date:13 November 2012
Author:Religion Factor
John T. Scopes, a teacher who was tried and convicted by the state of Tennessee in 1925 for teaching evolution rather than creationism. Nearly 100 years later and the tensions between religionists and atheists on this and other issues are still as potent as ever.
John T. Scopes, a teacher who was tried and convicted by the state of Tennessee in 1925 for teaching evolution rather than creationism. Nearly 100 years later and the tensions between religionists and atheists on this and other issues are still as potent as ever.

In the lead-up to his seminar at the University of Groningen next week, guest contributor Terrell Carver from the University of Bristol explores the tensions between atheism, secularism and religious freedom. [i]

Until recently atheism seemed to be a relatively lonely, unprovocative and unorganised ‘private’ activity. The anti-religious propaganda and overt policies of repression that went on ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ have almost entirely vanished. But lately aggressive and provocative atheism has come on stage, challenging all religious belief directly and dismissing it as irrational. This makes atheism seem extreme and intolerant, threatening and provocative, the kind of prejudice that should be kept to oneself, rather than publicly aired on TV (and indeed on publicly-funded TV). Militant atheism pits rationality, science and reason against spirituality, faith and religiosity.

For some commentators and particularly some religionists, the line between atheism and secularism is often blurred, perceiving the former as the more aggressive expression of the latter. Thus, actions by the secular state that seemingly restrict religious practices are sometimes interpreted as a value judgement on religion and religious belief itself, rather than as an attempt to ensure constitutional rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech and conscience, for all members of society, religious and non-religious alike.

Yet such a characterisation seems to misunderstand the natures of both atheism and secularism. Atheism is not about the persecution of believers, neither is secularism about the destruction of religion. Atheism is itself a belief system, whereas secularism is a political doctrine. As a doctrine it is supposed to ensure that all perspectives on belief and non-belief can be freely expressed in public life, and indeed that the state is not actively promoting one belief, rather than another, or indeed none at all. Similarly, it is supposed to ensure that state requirements and regulations do not interfere unduly with religious practices and ‘the free exercise thereof’, and indeed that states recognize that religion has a place in public life over and above its importance in a realm of ‘private’ conscience and belief.

Take the example of two famous atheists. Very early on in the Young Hegelian movement of the early 1840s, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx[ii] positioned themselves on the political left by virtue of their avowed atheism.

‘[Religion] is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

‘… Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature … It is the opium of the people.’
Karl Marx (1844), Collected Works, vol. 3, p. 175 (emphasis in original).

The two targeted the religious establishment and its political role in supporting authoritarian monarchies and anti-rational ‘teachings’, despite the personal consequences, which were considerable. This was of course an age when religious tests and civil status – indeed human status – went together, and pulling these things apart was not merely impolite and anti-social, it was threatening and only somewhat decriminalised. For Engels and Marx this merely proved their point, that rationality – knowledge and science, reason and free-thinking – could and should triumph over ignorance and superstition, authoritarianism and status-inequality. But in a sense, theirs was a political atheism, rather than a ‘religious’ or existential atheism – their concern was primarily with the role of organised and state-sponsored religion in oppression and exclusion, and secondarily with its ultimate truth or validity.

Secularism is often miscast as a doctrine that creates a barrier between ‘church and state’, provided of course that religion is defined as a quintessentially ‘private’ activity rather than as a ‘public’ or state function, and thus a matter of individual ‘conscience’. The framers of the U.S. Bill of Rights wrote in the first amendment to the Constitution that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’ – a clear prohibition on enshrining (literally) one or more religions (or versions of a religion) as ‘official’. Wisely they did not promise that religion could be ‘kept out of politics’ because self-evidently it cannot be. Nothing is ‘private’ in the sense of total sequestration from public view, and anything at all can be a religious matter – clothes, bodies, thoughts, food, hair, dance, art, animals, the sun, moon and stars … an endless list. Unsurprisingly there are religious views on everything, all of them public, one way or another.

Lately some prominent atheists have been intentionally provocative, as is their right in a liberal, secular society. Darwinian science versus divine ‘creationism’ (or at least ‘intelligent design’) is the current battleground in children’s education, but there are numerous other conflicts over practices such as circumcision of infant males, not to mention legalised abortion. The latter examples seem less clear-cut than the stark contrast between scientific progress in Darwinian biology, on the one hand, and the apparent retrogression to Biblical texts and interpretive fundamentalisms, on the other. Why is this?

The language and reasoning that counts as ethical, in the most general sense, is already derived from some religion or other (or indeed from some philosopher or other – e.g. Confucius – who has been ‘religionised’). As a militant atheist Richard Dawkins can be quite categorical about Darwinian biology as a realm of science and rationality precisely because it does not address the world of human relationships, ethics and values (or when it has done so, it is now discredited, or at least it is having to work hard for traction). The ethical and moral questions that are the stuff of ethics and politics are so far immune from a similarly hermetic treatment, simply because we do not have the words and concepts to do these things with ‘scientifically’. In our moral discourse and even philosophy we can leave out overt references to whatever religious text or enlightened spiritual source we owe the credit, but the traces of these conceptualisations will never wash clean of religion, and it would look odd to try to do this. When Kantians universalise they are rightly rebuked for their blindness not just to their Euro-centricity but their Christian-centricity, disclaimers notwithstanding.

Contrary to the wilder allegations of some, Engels and Marx were not militant atheists, and frankly said little about religion of any kind after the 1840s, and even less about secularism. They took it as read that no one with whom they were associated (and they did not have many associates) would be caught dead in a church or synagogue, and that those who frequented such places were not a worthy target for their critical efforts to promote popular, democratic and socialist regime-change, by force if necessary. They were aloof from Christian socialists, and one gets the feeling that coalition-building in that direction spelled contamination and backsliding.

I am not arguing that this was an admirable line, or one that was politically wise. I am merely suggesting that atheism is not necessarily persecution, even for militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, whose political strategy is notably more aggressive than that of Engels and Marx. Dawkins’ intellectual mistake, however, is that he projects a supposed science/superstition distinction – itself famously questioned from a postmodern perspective – onto society as a whole, and onto political practice in particular. Ethical language and issues are always already religious, not just in origin and resonance but in argumentation and reasoning, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, even when God is assumed to be ‘dead’. Likewise these issues and the language through which we understand and debate them are always and already immune to treatment that is ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’, precisely because our ethical vocabulary isn’t – and can’t be – constituted in this way. The public in most secular states prefers a blurry line of compromise ‘between church and state’ rather than a sharp line of militant ‘separation’ as Dawkins and others recommend or imply. As Churchill said, ‘To jaw jaw is better than to war-war’.

Terrell Carver is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, UK. Next Tuesday, 20 November, Prof Carver will give a seminar at the University of Groningen on “What does the secular look like?”. Further details can be found at 

[i] I am grateful to Erin K. Wilson for suggestions and advice on earlier drafts that substantially improved my thinking.

[ii] In that order. In the early 1840s Engels was much better known than Marx, owing to his prolific and popular journalism for Continental and English outlets.


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