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Windows and Doors


Hard Core Atheist Secularists and Their Religious Counterparts Become Increasingly Alike

posted by Brad Hirschfield

Secularists, atheists really, are following other ethnic and religious identity groups in using academia to create and/or shore up a particular cultural identity.  For example, noted atheist secularist, and editor of the Humanistic Bible, A. C. Grayling is opening a “secular university” this year. 

Jews, African-Americans and Hispanics have all used academic studies for just that purpose and now atheist secularists are following suit. Whether this new initiative is a good thing or not, depends on how it is handled.  There precedent for doing it well, and for doing it quite badly.

In doing so, atheist secularists must also admit that despite claiming otherwise, theirs is every bit as much an identity claim as it is a supposedly neutral approach to a bunch of cold facts. That alone may be a valuable issue to surface.

Like their predecessors in this process, these atheist secularists seek recognition of a particular identity, in this case a sort of anti-theistic religious identity. That claim will disturb the many secularists who take great umbrage at having their secularism described as a faith, but what else could it be?

The kind of secularism advocated by people like Professor Grayling, is not determined by race, ethnicity, or by geography. It is determined by commitment to a premise for which there is no proof i.e. the absence of God. While I don’t share their conclusion, there is no reason why either that claim, or the work of those who espouse it, should be any less worthy of exploration than Judaism or Buddhism, which already have their place in the academy.

Like other so-called area studies advocates however, secularists now also run the risk of becoming myopic defenders of an intellectual fiefdom whose value is inversely proportional to its ability to interact with and be informed by other disciplines. And based on the number of statements and publications which are more concerned with explaining the “foolishness” of faith and the threat of religious domination, which come from this community, it seems that they may be traveling down just that road.

The issue for any identity group is the degree to which it can maintain its particular identity while also remaining engaged with the larger community — both learning from it and contributing to it. There is no doubt that many religious and ethnic groups have done, and continue to do a remarkably bad job in that regard. There is now increasing evidence that secularists will continue that tradition rather than help correct it. I hope that I am wrong, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Of course, it may just be a matter of time. The early generations of Jewish studies programs were mostly for Jewish men, and they were none-too-friendly for others. The early generations of African-American and women’s studies programs were famously hostile to whites and to men, respectively. Perhaps, just as there has been improvement in those fields, we will see the same evolutionary process in secular studies. One can hope.

And hopefully, those pursuing this field will begin that process by acknowledging how remarkably like those they most oppose they really are. That is the recognition which accompanies most great leaps in personal awareness and intellectual growth — the kind, presumably, to which Professor Grayling and his supporters are most deeply committed.



  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment RayneVanDunem

    I find my own reservations concerning this piece, but I may find myself repeating talking points.

    But I would ask the author to consider that, if he does consider this as a trend from his perspective, it is borne out of the ongoing intellectual/cultural reaction to the current status-quo of intellect and culture in many countries, especially those which are Westernized and industrialized.

    Western secular humanism has been most defined in its expanse by those ideologies and institutions which most fiercely oppose it, especially Christianity (which is why a large portion of the irreligious or secular humanist population in the world are the progeny of Christians), just as Hinduism was not defined as a faith (or even named as “Hinduism” – that is, “Hinduism” was not adopted as a name or cultural identity) until Muslims and Christians came to the Indian subcontinent in the last millennium. The same with Judaism, I assume, as identity was combined with (non-)faith and/or ideology.

    But many Western secular humanists and naturalists (those who do not believe in the existence of the supernatural or anything existing outside of the borders of the natural universe), because they are in a state of exasperated reaction against centuries, if not millennia, of residing on the edge of life and culture in predominately-Christian societies.

    And just as with LGBT people and the post-Stonewall rights movement, those who reside on that periphery or respect for too long are likely to fight back when one least expects it. They’re likely to become just as desperate for respect and recognition as the predominant organizations and institutions which had formerly succeeded in shunning and isolating them.

    One talking point: I would also abstain from describing “atheism” as a faith, as it is, at its most solid, a mere absence of belief in the existence (or relevance) of one or more supernatural deities in the natural world. I wouldn’t describe a non-belief as a belief.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Lloyd Miller

    This is exactly the issue that has me reading your columns. I am an Atheist myself but don’t like saying so in company. Like a catholic must feel after a priest gets arrested. I have no problem finding room for everyone’s beliefs in my world.

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