The so-called Reason Rally, meeting in Washington, DC. on June 2-5, 2016, was heralded even before the event as “the biggest gathering of non-religious people in history”. The idea is to work toward a voting bloc uniting “atheists, freethinkers and secular humanists”, who will promote “fact-driven public policy”—against, I suppose, the superstition-driven agenda of all those benighted religionists in the American hinterlands.
Even if one trusted the nose-counting of the District of Columbia police, it would be hard to get comparative data to verify the claim that nothing that big ever happened before (say, at a rally of Hellenistic rationalists mobilizing against early Christian missionaries). I don’t know about 100 CE. But will 1793 CE do for the purpose of comparison?
On November 10, 1793, the French Revolutionaries desecrated a number of Catholic churches in Paris and elsewhere, realizing the curse of their spiritual father Voltaire—“ecrasez l’infame”/”destroy the infamy”—by which he meant especially the Roman church, though his animus could easily be broadened to include other communities of “godders”. Years ago, when I first read about that historic event, I had only located it in the Parisian Church of the Madeleine. I now discovered that the main event took place in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the true center of French Catholicism. I have not gone into the ceremony (perhaps the assembly held hands and sang the Marseillaise). The altar had been removed. Up front sat a woman representing the goddess of reason, a helmet on her head and draped in the revolutionary tricolor. In one account the lady is called an actress, but she has also been described as belonging to an equally ancient profession, which in French is delicately described as a une fille publique/”a public female”. I will also note that in the same year 1793 the Jacobins established their dictatorship and initiated the Terror. It is not the only time that the goddess of reason came to install the guillotine.
Back to America in 2016: Thus far our secular humanists have not called for the beheading of conservative Catholics or Southern Baptists, but there is a venomous rage in such projects as harassing professors who engage in incorrect speech or destroying the livelihood of photographers who refuse to take pictures at same-sex weddings. Just who are our latter-day Jacobins and how many are there?
On June 1, 2016, the Pew Research Center (Washington) released a report “Ten Facts about Atheists”. Most of them are from data collected in 2014. Statistical data about human behavior are most useful if the connection between questions and “facts” is relatively straightforward: If the election were held today, for whom would you vote? Or, do you prefer toothpaste brand A or brand B? I am particularly skeptical about such data if the alleged “facts” have to do with religion, where one misleading word in the questionnaire may change everything. (For instance, ask a Hindu if he believes in God—“please, which one?”) Even so, Pew surveys are very thoughtfully designed and, even with bit of skepticism, I find the results useful.
By self-identification 3.1 percent of the US population are “atheists” (whatever that means—our just mentioned Hindu might have been counted as an “atheist”). This percentage has doubled since 2007. “Agnostics” at 4 percent have also doubled in the same period. The unaffiliated or “nones”—those who say “none” when asked about their religious affiliation—number 14 percent, also a steadily rising percentage. In all the three categories—“atheists”, “agnostics”,”nones”—there are more young people than older ones; more men than women; whites than non-whites; people with college degrees than without; Democrats than Republicans. For any sociologist these differences shout “class!” The self-identifications become doubtful by a number of findings—notably the one that 8 percent of “atheists” say that they believe in ”God or universal spirit”—old-line Calvinists and Theravada Buddhists would have difficulty making sense of the question. International comparisons are most interesting when the differences are stark: 45 percent of Americans say that it is “necessary to believe in God to have good values”, as against 15 percent in France and 99 percent in Indonesia. Back to Americans: 51 percent are unlikely to vote for an atheist as president. A curious Pew measure is a “feeling thermometer”: Respondents are asked to rate religious groups on a scale from 100 (like a lot) down to various levels of dislike: Jews are on top at 63; Muslims and atheists are down at the bottom rated respectively at 41 and 40! (By the way, during the mass immigration of Jews from eastern Europe over a century ago, many of them called America (in Yiddish) “the golden country”—they could not have dreamed how right they were!)
The Enlightenment believed and hoped that an age of reason was dawning, even before it turned out (in the words of the Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer, 1791-1872) that, “the course of history leads from humanism, to nationalism, to bestialism”. This is not a moral argument against religion: The humanists created the guillotine, the religionists the auto-da-fe. Where are we now, at the cusp of the twenty-first century? In an increasingly secularized world? Or one being resacralized? The empirical reality is more complicated. It seems that secularization and desecularization are happening simultaneously, but differently in different societies and in different sectors within societies. Those who continue to believe in ongoing secularization may feel good about this—if they are spiritual descendants of the Enlightenment. Or they may see it as a development to be strongly resisted—Rome has called for a campaign to re-evangelize the secularized world. Both latter-day Jacobins and “godders” may agree on the facts, but will have opposite views on what should be done about the alleged facts.
Those who agree with the idea of continuing secularization are impressed by the growth of the so-called “nones” in Europe and North America. The media have been mesmerized by a flood of books by a group of authors called the “New Atheists”, such as the bestsellers by Sam Harris, The End of Faith (2004), Richard Dawkins, The God Illusion (2007), and Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great (2007). I am not impressed. A closer look at the data about “nones” suggest a much more complicated picture than one of deepening secularization. And “New Atheists” are not new but a replication of the views of such long gone American writers as Ralph Ingersoll and H.L. Mencken, who looked down on faith. (Mencken: “The world is a huge flywheel. Man is a fly that happened to land on it. Religion is the belief that the whole thing was constructed for the fly’s benefit”.)
In conclusion I want to engage in a bit of what Confucians called “the rectification of terms”, a sort of semantic hygiene. (I read somewhere that in the old imperial bureaucracy there was a department by that name which, in addition to the semantic job, made sure that the scales used by merchants showed the correct weight of objects placed on them.)
Specifically, I want to deal with the terms “secular”, “secularization”, “secularism”. Many words have a long history. This one in its original Latin seculum meant an age—that is, a measure of time. Possibly in connection of Biblical translations (from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to modern European languages) it morphed into a measure of space—this world as against other worlds. I understand that in this sense it entered Roman canon law. Thus a secular priest is one whose ministry is predominantly with people engaged in this-worldly pursuits. So indeed is the ministry of some ordained monks (such as Jesuits), but there are contemplative orders (such as Trappists) whose focus is mostly other-worldly. In another spatial reference, if a diocese sells a church building to be converted into condos, that building is canonically secularized. To make things more complicated, there are important differences between countries in the usage of this term: In this country the separation of church and state has a different meaning from that of laicite in France—the latter (at least until recently) had a strong anti-clerical undertone. In India the term “secular” means “not communal”—that is, not linked to one religion as is the case in Pakistan. In traditional Muslim societies it overlaps with “infidel”. “Secularization” refers to a society or part of one becoming separated from religion. For example, America is less secular than Europe, institutions of higher education on both continents have separated themselves from their early religious connections. Broadly speaking, “secularism” means a positive normative attitude toward secularization. It can range in intensity from a coercive anti-religious regime (such as existed in most Communist countries) to the Jacobinism-lite of the “atheists” marching quite politely around Washington these days.
For the last few years I have tried to draw out the implications of the empirical untenability of the core proposition of secularization theory. That proposition (which I also accepted in my early career as a sociologist of religion) can be stated very simply: Modernity necessarily leads to a decline of religion. Well, it doesn’t—not necessarily. What modernity leads to (unless that development is coercively stopped) is an increase in pluralism. As applied to religion, pluralism means the co-existence in the same society of different religions. If that situation not only exists de facto, but is supported de jure by religious freedom, pluralism dramatically changes the status of faith in society as well as in the consciousness of individuals.
I like to refer to my favorite Zulu saying: “If I don’t beat my drum, who will?” So I take the liberty of mentioning my recent book, in which I tried tentatively to propose a theory of pluralism—The Many Altars of Modernity (2014). Looking at the contemporary world through the lens of pluralism, we get a better understanding of the relation between religious faith and its absence. No modern society can exist without sectors dominated by a strictly secular discourse: A jet liner piloted by the discourse of traditional African religion will crash. But when the pilot climbs out of the cockpit and goes home, other areas of his life can be dominated by religious discourses. If that were not possible, we could not see how a hybrid of charismatic Christianity and indigenous African religion is sweeping across the continent south of the Sahara.
Pluralism does not make religious faith impossible, but it undermines a mindset in which any particular faith is taken for granted. In celebrations of the cult of reason—from eighteenth-century Paris to twenty-first century Washington, atheists and agnostics have been marching together. Looked at more closely, these two are really very different. An atheist claims to be absolutely certain that God does not exist. A believer who affirms faith in God without such absolute certainty is, strictly speaking, an “a-gnostic”—“one who doesn’t know”. There are individuals who have had experiences that lead them to say ‘I know” rather than only “I believe”. I do not call such experiences illusionary. I only note that they are relatively rare. Most of us believers can be described as, literally, “a-gnostics”.