Is Secularism a Religion?

Frustrated over a long succession of U.S. Supreme Court decisions applying the First Amendment’s establishment clause, faith groups have occasionally resorted to a novel argument—namely, that there is actually no difference between secularism and religion. Here, for example, is Matthew Wunderlin, writing for Catholic Online:

Besides the fact that our country was founded on biblical principles, that Congress has never made a law that promotes a particular religion, and that their actions clearly violate the precept that free exercise of religion shouldn’t be prohibited, I would like to make a case for the idea that promoting secularism is no different than promoting any other religion. (Emphasis mine)

If Wunderlin is right that secularism is a religion, then a court order to remove a monument containing the 10 commandments from a county courthouse favors one “religion” (secularism) over another (Judeo-Christianity), in violation of the establishment clause. If secularism is just another religion, then there are no grounds for prohibiting the teaching of creationism in public schools alongside evolutionary theory.

Such definitional claims would turn the First Amendment on its head, and that is perhaps their purpose.

Attempts to equate religion with secularism demonstrate just how hard it is for sectarian groups to bend the First Amendment to their purposes. Their only hope seems to lie in a semantic slight of hand, merging the core term of the amendment—-”religion”—-with what religion was clearly understood not to be when the First Amendment was drafted.

The semantic merger starts with an overly-generous definition of religion—-one that encompasses virtually every worldview that one may fervently hold. Even nihilism, generally regarded as the antithesis of religion, would fall under this rubric. Consider, for example, the following definitions:

  • Loosely defined, “religion” is nothing more than a belief system that moves its members to action or to support a cause with fervent devotion.
    (Matthew Wunderlin, writing for Catholic Online)
  • Religion: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.
    (one of four definitions in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
  • Nihilism: a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or probability.
    (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

By the terms of the first two definitions, nihilism would only qualify as a religion if its adherents are fervent about it. Political movements such as communism and Nazism would also qualify with this stipulation. So would environmentalism, secular humanism, human rights advocacy, Republicanism, and libertarianism.

Since belief, action, and fervency are common to nearly every human endeavor, defining religion by these terms alone leaves very little that is not religious. Remove any one of the key terms and you’re left with various combinations of cynicism, inaction, and apathy. Is religion only the opposite of these? Most people of faith would strongly resist such a definition, and with good reason. Even people of faith can be afflicted with apathy at times, but they don’t then describe themselves as “irreligious.”

Clearly, such broad definitions of religion make the First Amendment toothless. That is why they are espoused, and that is why they must be resisted in courts of law. Even if there is no clear definition of religion in international law, there is certainly a nearly universal consensus that religion—and not just a subset of religion— entails beliefs of a particular kind—usually involving supernatural agents and higher powers. A secular humanist would add that such beliefs are arrived at not through critical thinking or free inquiry but through blind adherence to culturally-bound propositions unsupported by empirical evidence. This more restricted definition, whether seen through the lens of the believer or the secular humanist, would disqualify environmentalism, secular humanism, and human rights advocacy while leaving many of the political ideologies in the fold of religion.

Perhaps that is where they should reside. Atheists and secular humanists, accused by religionists of practicing a form of religion, have in turn labeled communism a “political religion” because of its suppression of free thought and its valorization of authority (the “dictatorship” of the proletariat) as the path to the ideal of a classless society. Authoritarian political ideologies have no more place in classrooms and courthouses than do authoritarian religious ones.

As historian Brian C. Wilson wrote, “the effort to define religion is as old as the academic study of religion itself [and] the definitional enterprise…continues in full vigor.” Nevertheless, absent such a definition, judicial interventions in First Amendment disputes are fraught with difficulties, and any attempt by the courts to supply their own working definition amounts to an “establishment” of religion (i.e., defining what religion is and is not). This is why Winnifred Fallers Sullivan titled her 2005 book, “The Impossibility of Religious Freedom” (Princeton University Press). To circumvent the definitional conundrum, Sullivan has argued for an approach that would emphasize “equality” over “religious freedom.” (See my post of 9/11/2011 for a review of her book.) Two years after her book’s publication, Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence G. Sager published “Religious Freedom and the Constitution” (Harvard, 2007), in which they proposed to replace the “church/state separation” approach with one that they call “Equal Liberty.” Both these books are helpful in navigating the complex maze of judicial decisions regarding issues of religious freedom.

Eisgruber and Sager see a clear distinction between religious institutions and secular ones:

To be sure, secular institutions are not neutral, in the sense of being acceptable from the standpoint of all religions. But neither is secularity simply another religious viewpoint. Secular institutions and principles are self-consciously incomplete; indeed, they often strive to be incomplete. They aspire to constitute a practical realm in which various competing and contradictory philosophical and religious views may coexist and constructively interact. Secular institutions and principles are even partially embracing of philosophical or religious views that are themselves hostile to the idea of such a secular domain. They insist, for example, on the right to express antisecular views, even while limiting the freedom to translate such views into private and (especially) public actions. Religions, by contrast, are typically comprehensive; they speak to ultimate questions about life’s meaning, origins, and value.

Austin Dacey, author of “The Secular Conscience” (Prometheus Books, 2008), defines secularism as “the political arrangement that separates civil and ecclesiastical power and, typically, affords robust freedom of conscience to citizens.” And he adds, “Secularism is not atheism. There is a perfectly ordinary contemporary usage in English that just denotes matters independent of religion. For instance, … when journalists speak of a political party in Iraq or Palestine as a ‘secular party,’ they are not talking about a party composed of non-Muslims.”

The simplistic conflation of secularism and religion obliterates useful distinctions and does nothing to advance the principle of equal liberty in matters of faith and conscience. A much more nuanced and analytical approach is needed in determining not just what religion really is but whether its precise definition is even relevant to the enterprise of a free and open society.


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