Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"I’m not an atheist, I’m a secularist,”

reposted from:
via NSS Newsline October 5th

As usual, comments by Chris Street are in green
and my highlights are in blockquotes

Jacques Berlinerblau

The God Vote

Jacques Berlinerblau

Jacques Berlinerblau is associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Some sixteen years ago he received a doctorate in ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature from New York University. Soon after, for reasons that he himself has never fully understood, he completed another doctorate in theoretical sociology from the New School for Social Research. Feeling sufficiently credentialed to write about and research any topic under the sun, his areas of interest include the Bible, its composition, its interpretation, and in particular the way that it has been dragooned into modern political discourse.
To this end he has published "The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously" (Cambridge:2005) and the forthcoming "Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics" (Westminster John Knox: 2008).
An earlier book, "Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibilities of American Intellectuals" (Rutgers: 1999) probed the manner in which institutions of higher education handle scholarly dissent. He has written extensively in scholarly journals on the subject of heretics, intellectuals, secularism, and Jewish civilization. This confluence of interests accounts, to a great degree, for his fascination with modern Jewish-American literature. A life-long New Yorker, he has recently moved to Washington D.C. with his family and is beguiled by the strange traffic lights that count down the seconds until they finally change colors. Close.

The God Vote

Jacques Berlinerblau

Atheist? Secularist? Both?

There is a memorable scene in the short story “Bloodshed” by the spectacular Jewish-American novelist Cynthia Ozick. A Hasidic Rebbe endowed with the ability to read other people’s minds confronts a visiting nonbeliever seated in his synagogue. After having somehow articulated the innermost thoughts of this troubled voyeur, the Rebbe exclaims: “Despair must be earned.” The following dialogue ensues:

“I’m not in despair” Bleilip objected.
“To be an atheist is to be in despair.”

"I’m not an atheist, I’m a secularist,”
but even Bleilip did not know what he
meant by this.

My hunch is that many Americans do not know what is meant by these terms either. Given the hysteria and incivility that characterize discussions about secularism and atheism, permit me to suggest a few basic definitions and distinctions.

Much confusion would be avoided if all kept the following in mind: not all secularists are atheists or agnostics.
There are many definitions of the term secular. Some of them are highly nuanced and complex. Some demand familiarity with the history of classic Christian political philosophy. But for now let me offer a very simple (and useful) go-by:
a secularist is a person who advocates the strict separation of Church and State.

This brings us to atheists and agnostics. Speak to well educated members of both groups and you will find that they have profound, and often quite fascinating, philosophical disagreements with one another. But if there is one thing atheists and agnostics usually agree on it is the importance of keeping the Wall of Separation “high and impregnable,” to quote Justice Black.

In short,

nonbelievers in the United States are almost always secularists.
I once had an atheist friend who--crediting Voltaire as her inspiration--preferred theocracy because it kept the “little people” tranquilized, in line, and generally out of her hair. Remarkable person, she was. But clearly an exception to the rule).

Many Americans tend to equate secularism with nonbelief. Yet this equation overlooks a fact of the utmost political importance for the 2008 elections. There are many god-fearing citizens who are secularists as well.
You will find these believing secularists among the ranks of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Eastern Orthodox, Mainline Protestants, Mormons, Hindus, Sikhs, and even certain Evangelicals, among others. It is a common fear of being subject to a state-imposed religion (and that religion would be some denominational form of Protestant Christianity) which unites them.

I am going to stop here, but let me close by observing that

Democratic strategists too seem to have understood that not all secularists are atheists.
It is the believing secularists and non-secular Swing Evangelicals that they are targeting in 2008. The smaller and wildly unpopular cohort of atheists and agnostics are of far less interest to the presidential frontrunners. This is a state of affairs that induces despair among nonbelievers who have come to view the Democratic Party as their home. Soon, I hope to demonstrate that it may create new possibilities for them as well.

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