Meaning What We Say and Saying What We Mean: Taking a Vacation from Secular (Part 1 of 2)
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Nov 20, 2006 at 01:34:49 PM EST
For a generation, the notion of the secular; secularism, secular humanism, the secular left, and most recently (and oxymoronically) secular fundamentalism, and other variations, has become the bogeyman to be opposed. For this, we can thank the works of such religious right theorists as Frances Schaefer, R.J. Rushdoony, and Tim LaHaye,

This is part of a central framing of the nature of what some consider to be a war going on in society: a war between religion and non-religion; between Christianity and religious pluralism; between the once and future Christian Nation and those in league, wittingly or unwittingly with the forces of Satan. All too often secularists, secularism, secular humanism, the secular left, and secular fundamentalism, are synonymous.  This is because the underlying concepts are seen as Satanic in origin, and so the terms are literally terms of deomonization.  

Before we get deeper into the definition of secular, let's establish a bit of context. Pat Buchanan, in his infamous speech to the Republican National Convention in 1992. is often misquoted as saying that we are engaged in a "culture war" in the United States. Here is what he really said:  
My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.
Other leading thinkers of the religious right believe and say this as well.  The notion of a culture war is a euphemism; and those who buy into the culture war framing are missing the forest for the trees. Yes, there are issues of culture, but there is a wider issue of religion and worldview and many of the leaders of the   religious right do indeed see themselves as engaged in a war. (And lets underscore that Pat Buchanan called it a religious war.)  One can see this clearly in the works and websites of any of the major factional leaders of the religious right.   Some also say that this war is as old as Christendom itself, and that the war for the "kingdom of God," as they understand it, has often, and may yet again, come to physical violence.  

Thus when the language of warfare, and military metaphors, are used by conservative evangelicals, the meaning is often literal; and the metaphors are powerful visions, and not merely a strident analogy.  We can see this tension clearly in the current film documentary Jesus Camp.  Do the children, who understand themselves as being trained in the army of God, take the idea literally or figuratively?  How will they view it as adults?  A few more quick examples:  Pat Robertson in his book The New World Order, predicted that an end times world war was coming soon, and that two billion people would die in it. Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series of novels also depicts religious warfare, and the just released spin-off video game, Left Behind:  Eternal Forces sets the end times religious warfare in present day New York City.  Homeschooling advocate Chris Klicka notes in one of his books that differences over the education of children resulted in wars and martyrdom in the not too distant past."      

As far fetched as such things may seem to some, to fail to take seriously and to thoughtfully and coolly evaluate these claims would be as foolish as declaring the religious right political movement to be dead every other election cycle or so.

I offer this as context because when one group of people with such a sense of history says that there is a war on, it is probably wise to sit up and pay attention. If we allow ourselves to be diverted into thinking that it is a different kind of war than the one it really is, then we may be indulging in the luxury of thinking that this war is only about abortion and homosexuality, when in fact, as important as these matters are, they are relatively minor skirmishes in a much wider and longer term war.

Here at Talk to Action, I have written quite a bit about the misuse of the word secular, and its variants, but it is worth noting that among those of all points of view, few who use these terms actually bother to define them, and thus the meaning can depend on the biases of the reader, rather than clearly representing the intentions of the writer.  

For one point of reference, here is the definition from Mirriam Webster's Online Dictionary:  

Main Entry: 1sec*u*lar
Pronunciation: 'se-ky&-l&r
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French seculer, from Late Latin saecularis, from saeculum the present world, from Latin, generation, age, century, world; akin to Welsh hoedl lifetime
1 a : of or relating to the worldly or temporal <secular concerns> b : not overtly or specifically religious <secular music> c : not ecclesiastical or clerical <secular courts> <secular landowners>
2 : not bound by monastic vows or rules; specifically : of, relating to, or forming clergy not belonging to a religious order or congregation; a secular priest
3 a : occurring once in an age or a century b : existing or continuing through ages or centuries c : of or relating to a long term of indefinite duration < secular inflation>

However, most contemporary usages take on different shadings.  

When leaders of the religious right use the term, as noted above, its meanings suggest a continuum of possibilities:  non-religious; atheist; anti-religious, even anti-Christian. It is often a code word for demonic or Satanic.

Most conventional uses of the term in the context of the routine function of government, generally refer to the official neutrality with regard to religious matters required by Supreme Court decisions of the past half century. The notion that government can be neutral in matters of religion is, however,  rejected as impossible by leaders of the religious right, and that this is in fact a taking of sides in the religious war, already well underway. They take a similar view with regard to the requirement that public schools remain neutral in matter of religiosity.   Christian right theorist Gary North, for example, has written: "So let us be blunt about it," says Gary North. "We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God."  

This is one of the points of departure and conflict between the religious right and other sectors of society. The religious right believes that government should, even must be used to advance specific sectarian views and ultimately to advance the kingdom of God as they see it. (Even former White House staffer David Kuo sees it that way, although he now sees that he was confused as to how best to go about it, and what he could reasonably expect from the effort.)

Jim Wallis, Barack Obama and Michael Lerner have been the most prominent non-religious rightists, who have publicly blamed an undefined secularity for all manner of insult to "people of faith," without offering much if any evidence for the accusation, let alone define the term or name names and specific examples.   These leaders have internalized the attitude of the leaders of the religious right as givens and have yet to substantiate or retract their public claims in this regard; or to acknowledge that they are muddying the water and that their claims reinforce the views of the religious right.  

Wallis in particular is notorious for making a false equation between the religious right and unnamed secularists, as if they were somehow equivalent in power and influence, as well as size and organization.   For example, early in God's Politics, Wallis writes, "We contend today with both religious and secular fundamentalists, neither of whom must have their way. One group would impose the doctrines of a political theocracy on their fellow citizens, while the other would deprive the public square of needed moral and spiritual values often shaped by faith."

Most recently he claimed: "In this election, both the Religious Right and the secular Left were defeated, and the voice of the moral center was heard."

That sentence underscored the problem.  First he suggested that there is a moral, political, and possibly size equivalence between the religious right and the secular left.  He then failed to define the term secular left and did not bother to explain the role of the supposed secular left in the recent elections let alone how it lost.  He presumed everything was understood.

In contrast, one actual secular humanist leader, in specific response to a request by Pastordan to respond to Senator Obama, offered some useful definitions over at Street Prophets:  

*    Atheist - One who does not believe in any God, spirit, supernatural force, divinity, etc.
*    Non-theist - An atheist, agnostic, free thinker, or other non-religious person. Senator Obama uses the term "secular people" for non-theists.
*    Secularist - One who believes that religion has no place in government and government has no place in religion. Secularism contains no judgement, explicit or implicit, on the truth or value of religion, so even a true believer may be a secularist.
*    Humanist - One who holds a naturalistic world view that emphasizes that human beings have the power and responsibility for creating their own societies. Humanism advocates the use of reason, compassion, scientific inquiry, ethics, justice, and equality.
*    Secular - Containing no mention of anything religious. Again, this is different than anti-religious because their can be no judgement made about the truth or value of any religion if religion is not even mentioned to begin with.

While some thoughtful people might take issue with these definitions, at least they are an honest effort to sort out meaning, and offer strait forward descriptive terms.

The presuppositions of the religious right, particularly domionionists and Christian nationalists, include the idea that government must necessarily assert their worldview. They claim that God ordained it and the Founding Fathers intended it. However, history shows that the framers of the constitution clearly sought to found the nation based on religious equality and religious freedom.   They specifically rejected the notion of Christian nationalism. The new nation would be based on religious pluralism; that the people have a right to individual conscience; have the right to to find their own relationship with god; to believe or not to believe; to be a Christian or a non-Christian; to change one's mind; and that none of this would be relevant to one's status as a citizen.   The premise that government neutrality with regard to religion, except to defend the rights of citizens to believe as they will, and be free from coercion from church or state is nothing short of foundational. Some describe this as having secular government.

My modest proposal is that we put a moratorium on the use of the term.

Ok. Maybe this is not so modest a proposal. So how about a vacation?  

I think the word and the constellation of related terms long ago  became code words for certain ideological factions; left, right, and center with little meaning outside those circles. It has become a mostly undefined, misused and widely misinterpreted buzzword in most areas of public life.  It has become so debased that it is difficult to understand what a writer or speaker means unless they go out of their way to define how they are using it.  And as we can see from the Mirriam Webster online dictionary, even dictionary definitions are not keeping up with contemporary usage.  So my suggestion is that on our little terminological vacation...  

When we mean non-religious, let's say non-religious instead of secular.
When we mean atheist, say atheist, not secularist.
When we mean neutrality in government or religious pluralism, let's say it instead of secular.
When we mean anti-religious, let's say anti-religious, instead of secular.

I think it would be worthwhile to surface other uses of secular I might have missed and suggest alternatives.

We should never be so reliant on one term to be able to be able to mean what we say, and to say what we mean.   "Secular" has so many unacknowledged meanings and uses by various religious and political subgroups that it poses an obstacle to basic communication about the role of religion in public life.  

So let's take a vacation from use of the word secular and see what happens.

If we have difficulty getting by without it, then we probably need to widen our vocabulary related to the ideas we are trying to express. While on vacation, we will undoubtedly become more sensitive to how others use and misuse the term.   Over time, a clearer set of definitions of the term will emerge, such that Merriam-Webster and maybe even Jim Wallis will someday find themselves on the same page.

using alternative language, the more effective we will be at reframing the national conversation.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Nov 20, 2006 at 04:54:30 PM EST

What you say makes sense, and I am going to try it.  You are absolutely correct that many people I talk to seem to think that 'secular' means 'atheist' or even 'anti-religious'.  And this is even not-particularly-religious people.

It just frustrates me that progressive's response to these language games of the right always has to be, "oh darn, they changed the language on us- I guess we have to change our name again."

Like, we used to be called liberals and now we're 'progressives'.

Just for once I want us to be able to say, "No, your definition does not make sense, we are going to keep using ours."

by cynical humanist on Tue Nov 21, 2006 at 02:55:05 AM EST
But let me be clear about something.  I am not saying let's abandon language we we may want to own and to defend. I am saying that we need to listen to ourselves and to think this through. Somehow progressives have cornered themselves by making certain words and phrases preicious, but have lost a direct connection to ideas and values.

I am struck by how often people do not understand each other about basic matters and end up quibbling over minor matters of semantics, apparently unable to delve into the substance.

The problems with the word secular is but one glaring example.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Nov 21, 2006 at 09:22:40 AM EST

Sure, your point is well taken.

by cynical humanist on Wed Nov 22, 2006 at 07:33:44 PM EST

This extremely helpful for all of us. I consider myself a secular America who is also a believing Roman Catholic. I guess that makes me an enemy in the eyes of the Religious Right.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Nov 22, 2006 at 07:04:23 PM EST
Remember, the more important enemies of the religious right are not religious or sexual minorities.  Thbos are convenient scapegoats. The real competition is mainstream Catholicism and Protestantism, and then more broadly, the cultural ethos and constitutional and legal strucutres that make religious freedom possible.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Nov 24, 2006 at 10:43:41 AM EST

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