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Austin Cline

Secularism in Modern America

By May 11, 2006

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There was a time when secularism was generally accepted by Americans of most religious groups. This dominance of secularism was, however, powered largely by the influence of liberal, mainstream Protestant denominations. Now that those denominations are on the decline, though, so is secularism itself.

In the Summer 2000 issue of the Wilson Quarterly, Wilfred M. McClay writes:

No one builds pedestals to the god of scientific rationality or the Comtean religion of humanity--although there is a booming trade in crystals, pyramids, horoscopes, and the services of psychics. Even the public prestige of science has receded somewhat in our own day, as a consequence of science’s growing politicization, its blizzard of inflated and conflicting claims about matters such as health and diet, and the public’s fears, founded and unfounded, that scientific and technological innovation has become a juggernaut lacking any sense of moral proportionality or ultimate ends.

One thing can be said without qualification: Secularism in our day boasts no energizing vision and no revolutionary élan. Instead, it must await the excesses of the Religious Right or some similar foe to make its case, stir up its fading enthusiasm, and rally its remaining troops. Secularism sits uneasy upon its throne, a monarch that dares not speak its proper name, and dares not openly propound its agenda, if indeed it still has one. For all its gains, it seems peculiarly on the defensive, a tenured radical that has ascended to the endowed chair of culture only to spend its days shoring up the principle of stare decisis. There are no envelopes left to push. Its victory, if that is what it has enjoyed, has not come without cost. For better or worse, the élan vital has gravitated elsewhere. These days it is more fashionable to be “spiritual” than to be secular.

It is certainly true that secularism today tends to be more reactive than active; rather than promoting a vision of a good life independent of religious institutions, more time is spent on fighting the activity of Christian Right groups that want to impose religious institutions on us. The need to oppose the Christian Right is understandable, but secularists may need to go beyond reaction and begin to focus on action.

At a bare minimum, I think, that means strengthening and supporting civil, secular institutions like public schools. It means ensuring that public services are provided equally to all and without discrimination via secular organizations, not via religious organizations that discriminate on the basis of religion and insist that religious services accompany the distribution of social services.

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