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Where Are the Secularists?

by Paul Kurtz


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 1.


An all-pervasive religiosity has descended on the United States. This past year the editors of Free Inquiry have traveled all over North America meeting thousands of readers. From Boston and Los Angeles to St. Petersburg and Mobile, we got similar reports of an oppressive spirituality. Many secularists, humanists, and freethinkers feel besieged, isolated, and alone.

Free Inquiry was launched 18 years ago, at the peak of the fundamentalist revival. At that time right-wing religionists were attacking secular humanism. Few Americans would admit that they were secular humanists, let alone defend it openly. In the first issue of Free Inquiry we asserted that we were secular humanists and proud of it; that is, we were committed to free inquiry in all areas of human interest, that we were skeptical about religious claims; that we believed in the secular society and the separation of church and state, and that we maintained that the good life and the humanist alternative could be lived fully here and now.

Since then, many disturbing changes have occurred in the United States. Indeed, there is now a concerted effort underway to repeal the secular society. The Moral Majority at first was widely opposed, later it was replaced by the Christian Coalition. What was considered to be a right-wing, fringe phenomenon has become part of the mainstream. It dominates the Republican Party. Even the Democrats have adopted large parts of the conservative social-religious agenda as their own. The former "naked public square" that conservatives complained about is rapidly being filled with professions of religious piety.

Apparently, belonging to a religion, whatever it is, is considered a mark of moral character and patriotism. Those who do not profess a religion are considered pariahs. No politician will admit to being an unbeliever. Similarly for leaders in business, industry, the media, and academia. The official religion is "Caprew" (Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish), though this is now being supplemented by "Himubu" (Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist) and New Age mishmash. It makes no difference which sect a person belongs to so long as one believes in a vague, amorphous, spiritual universe. Even John Travolta and Tom Cruise, proponents of the Church of Scientology, have a place in the new American spirituality because at least they belong to a church, however nutty its doctrines.

The paradigm shift toward religiosity now occurring in America is both subtle and widespread. On the extreme end we witness the sudden appearance of the Promise Keepers, which attracts tens of thousands of men in city after city, and Louis Farrakhan's Million-Man and the Million-Woman marches. On the other end of the spectrum, mainline churches have declined in membership by 25% in the past 25 years, at the same time that Pentecostal churches and fundamentalist denominations have increased in adherents.

One factor in the growth of this religiosity is the growing power of the mass media. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 exacerbated the trends toward media concentration. We have become a "medi-ocracy," an entertainment society focused primarily on selling products, entertainment rather than education, feeling rather than thought, fiction rather than truth. This has led to daily doses of spiritual-paranormal programming.

The Telecommunications Act has had another ominous fallout. It has led to the growth of religious radio stations. There are now 1,648 such stations, an increase of 500 in the past five years! Religious programming is now the third-largest radio format in the country. There is not one station in America devoted exclusively to atheism or skepticism, or, indeed, few programs that express the secular humanist viewpoint.

Perhaps a far more serious phenomenon in the long run is that intellectual criticism of religion in America, particularly by liberal secularists and rationalists, has become muted. It is considered bad taste to attack religion. The last oppressed minority that needs the courage to come out of the closet are the secular atheists!

Historically, small intellectual magazines have been on the cutting edge of thought, providing alternative viewpoints so essential to a free market of ideas. Alas, today there are few if any magazines devoted to secular rationalism. The left-wing Nation and libertarian Reason attack religion from time to time, but they are notable exceptions, and their interests primarily are political. On the other side is a vast array of conservative religiously oriented journals - First Things, Public Interest, National Review, Weekly Standard, Commentary - all part of the renascent hallelujah chorus. Among so-called liberal journals, the New Republic is enigmatic, the liberal Jewish-American magazine Tikkun is clearly religious, and Utne Reader, Mother Jones, the Village Voice, and others are all committed to the new spirituality. Free Inquiry often stands alone in defending a consistent nonreligious skeptical and humanist point of view.

One last bastion of secularism is colleges and universities. The battle between faith and free inquiry was won two generations ago, or so we thought. Committed to modern science and high standards of scholarship, these institutions have respected academic freedom, skepticism, and free inquiry. But we should not take it for granted that the colleges and universities will continue to be hospitable to secularism, and that religion in the larger culture will not undermine their autonomy.

Unfortunately, there are now shrill voices demanding their desecularization. One reads constantly in the Chronicle of Higher Education how the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and other Baptist institutions and the Mormon Brigham Young University oppose dissent and deny academic freedom to their faculties. And a movement is now afoot elsewhere to erode secularism. For example, George Marsden, a Protestant theologian at Notre Dame University, recently argued that the postmodern thesis that objectivity is an illusion and that there are multicultural forms of truth should also apply to Christians, whose truth claims need to be heard on the campuses. Alan Wolf, a sociologist at Boston University, in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (September 19, 1997) says that, although he is a "secular academic," he believes that the "rediscovery of religion" is an important new direction for the universities of the future to take - a step backwards, I might add.

As a sign of the times, many neo-conservative academics have now entered the fray against Darwinism. It is no longer the literal fundamentalist Institute for Creation Science that rejects Darwin and defends creationism. The dean of the neo-conservatives, Irving Kristol (professor emeritus at New York University), opts for the design argument to explain human origins. Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution and Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial: Arguments against Evolutionary Theory and in Favor of Design continue the assault. Robert Bork, formerly at Yale, in his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline argues that, given the undermining of Darwinism, "religion will no longer have to fight scientific atheism with unsupported faith. The presumption has shifted, and naturalistic atheism and secular humanism are on the defensive." Even the influential neo-conservative magazine Commentary has joined in the attack with a lead article by mathematician David Berlinski on "The Deniable Darwin" (June 1997). I reiterate, perhaps nothing should be taken for granted: the battles of the past for a secular society must be waged again in the future.

As readers of Free Inquiry know, the Council for Secular Humanism last year helped establish a new Campus Freethought Alliance. There are now student groups on over 70 campuses, and contacts on 200 more, providing a nonreligious freethought and secularist alternative. Given the great number of religious organizations and clubs on campus, isn't it time?

But, we ask, where are the secularists? Where are the secular faculty, writers, intellectuals, and activists who will join us in the fray? Must Free Inquiry stand alone in defending secularism? Is it not time that others work with us in establishing a new coalition - defending reason, science, skepticism, freethought, and the secular society?


Paul Kurtz is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry magazine.


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