U.S. scholar wages battle for secularism

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How to Be Secular

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/09/2012 (3614 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

How to Be Secular

A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom

By Jacques Berlinerblau

MCT Former president Bill Clinton speaks at 2012 Democratic convention.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pages, $30

Bill Clinton’s supremely polished speech at the 2012 U.S. Democratic National Convention was preceded earlier in the day by a very messy delegates’ “voice vote.”

This sudden, controversial, muddled oral vote successfully rammed language of “Israel” and “God” back into the official Democratic platform, sledging away once again at the supposed wall between church and state in the U.S.

Somewhere, Jacques Berlinerblau threw his arms up in the air in familiar frustration.

Berlinerblau is a Georgetown University professor and the director of its program for Jewish civilization. He stands publicly as a cutting-edge theorist of secularism, the role of religion in American politics and the increasingly crucial importance of pervasive biblical literacy.

He has for a decade and a half been a champion of the precise articulation of the history and ideology of “secularism” and a fierce, untiring advocate for religious education for laity of all stripes.

How to Be Secular is very much in line with his previous books, especially The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously (2005) and Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics (2008).

With all these, Berlinerblau appoints himself a kind of public educator, stepping out of the ivory tower not only to inform the masses but to shake some sense into the very audience he studies.

Berlinerblau believes powerfully that secularism, its history and its relationship to outright atheism have been massively misunderstood by almost all. Worse, secularism has been deceitfully deployed to ruining effect by many on the Christian right.

In How to Be Secular, he expertly, elegantly and eloquently tries to stem those tides and undo some of the unwelcome renovations to the global and, especially, American landscape.

Large parts of the book feature Berlinerblau repetitively declaring not so much what “secularism” is as what it is not. Secularism is not total “separationism” (defiantly keeping church and state utterly discrete); it is not agnosticism; and it most definitely is not atheism.

He makes these claims while not so covertly arguing in favour of his understanding of secularism, one he desperately wants to see triumph.

So, radical separationism it is not because, without a weighty, influential constituency, that will never work; agnosticism it is not because agnostics are fence-sitters and non-doers; and atheism it is not because atheists, especially these “new” ones, are nasty and, really, no better than their Christian fundamentalist polar opposites.

What secularism is, in the end, is somewhat less sparkly, and a good deal more bland. It is “the least bad alternative for achieving peace in complex, religiously pluralistic societies.”

America was seemingly founded on it but secularism never really stumbled into its heyday until the Supreme Court made a string of pro-secularism decisions in the 1940s through the ’70s. It has since, however, been repeatedly bludgeoned, mostly at the hands of the Moral Majority, founded in 1979 and smelling more blood with each passing election.

Berlinerblau seems to have assigned himself a career of resuscitating this near-cadaver.

A mighty, playful and funny scholar of religion and religious history, Berlinerblau not only deliberately structures his book into 12 chapters, forming three “parts” (numbers suffused, of course, with religious overtones). He also builds to a climax wherein he explicitly checks secularism into rehab, intervening with a “12-step program for the survival and revival of secularism.”

Clinton concluded his romping 5,500-word speech with these six words: “God Bless You — God Bless America.”

The inescapable question, therefore, is whether those who need to read Berlinerblau’s important, fascinating book ever will.

Laurence Broadhurst teaches in the departments of religion, and culture and classics at the University of Winnipeg.

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