The Secular Mindset
It is important to clear up just what we mean when we talk about secularism. Secularism is different from atheism, agnosticism, or pure religious indifference. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker defined secularism as “the attempt to separate religion from political life.” This, Pinker said, entails “political movements” that seek to counter the dangerous decisions made by politicians “out of a faith that … [they are] doing God’s work.”
Some nonbelievers say that that’s not enough, though. Greg Epstein, Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain, said that humanism is far more than “the need for a separation of church and state.” He sees humanism as “a movement,” or as “a way of life that millions of people adhere to,” and believes that humanists need to create their own community predicated on the notion that people can be “good without God,” which is the title of Epstein’s recent book. It is clear that secularism depends on a positive set of beliefs, rather than mere rejection of religion.
Religion Strikes Back
Despite its many achievements, particularly in the last half-century, secularism remains a controversial subject in the American public sphere. Hunter Baker, a professor at Houston Baptist University and the author of The End of Secularism, told the HPR that secularists’ goal of removing religion from the arena of political decision-making is problematic. Baker said that “individuals bring their religious beliefs to the public square because they have integrity.” Baker argued that, since the great majority of Americans are still Christians, it is inevitable, and even desirable, that politicians will “want to provide their real basis for a stand they take, rather than formulate a false one that meets some secular language requirement.”
Baker further claimed that “having a [religious] counter to the government can be freedom-enhancing and protect against the development of totalitarianism.” Likewise, Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute, told the HPR that religion operates “as a check and balance to the power of the state” and “provides the kind of moral and ethical standards that you’d like to see.” “If you’re starting de novo,” London insisted, “where does your morality come from?”
But secularists counter that many “European nations are now majority atheist,” yet do not appear to have sunk into immorality and despair, as Pinker pointed out. Whedon agreed, arguing that “the best in us will still exist, even if we break down the systems that so many of us fight so hard to preserve.”