Author explores meaning of secularism


How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom

by Jacques Berlinerblau

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, 306 pages

Religious freedom is getting many interpretations these days.

One line comes from church-related organizations asserting that they shouldn’t be required to fund services, such as birth control, that violate their doctrines.

Another line is that church and state should be entirely and absolutely separate to ensure religious freedom. Jacques Berlinerblau's How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom shows that religion is important to the secular movement, not just because secularism often focuses on the separation of church and state, but also because there is much secularism within the church, and much of the church within the state.

Mr. Berlinerblau calls the secular aspect of religious people “secularish,” and he’s trying to make that a useful term rather than an awkward hedging of a line that would divide religion from a larger world.

The borders between church and state are not solid, Mr. Berlinerblau writes.

If secularism is going to survive, Mr. Berlinerblau writes, it must be served by a coalition of nonbelievers and the secularish.

How to Be Secular isn’t a how-to book. Even though it ends with 12 recommendations to revive secularism, it isn’t a book of instructions, either.

This is a picture of the current state of secularism, “a term that … has been defined, derided, used, and abused in a bewildering variety of ways,” Mr. Berlinerblau says in the preface. The term has been so manipulated, I wonder if he might have done better by burying “secular” and devising a new word to revivify the movement.

Mr. Berlinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University who directs the school’s Program for Jewish Civilization, wants to reclaim “secular.” The definition he gives is, “Secularism is a political philosophy which, at its core, is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion. It translates that preoccupation into various strategies of governance, all of which seek to balance two necessities: (1) the individual citizen’s need for freedom of, or freedom from, religion, and (2) a state’s need to maintain order.”

Secularism and religion fit well together, he maintains. Mr. Berlinerblau calls none other than Martin Luther — the founder of Protestantism — the father of modern secularism too, because of his attitude about separation of church and state.

Mr. Berlinerblau shows well how much religion and government both contribute to better ideas of being secular, of contributing to religious freedom. The book shows that secularism is not the opposite of religion, and that government is not, and cannot be, separate from religion.

How to Be Secular doesn’t address religious humanism (some would call that a secularish term) in the depth needed for its role in religious freedom and a secular aspect of religion without a god. And the book keeps the “spiritual but not religious” movement very much on the surface of secularism.

There’s plenty of what secularism was, a good history, but less of what it is now.

Though Mr. Berlinerblau hopes this book will reinvigorate the secular movement, his isn’t the text to do that. It’s better as an explanatory book than a guide for action.

How to Be Secular is a book for this day, not one that will be taken off the shelf as a reference a few years from now. In one chapter, Mr. Berlinerblau wrote about the attack on “secular humanism” in the 1980s and how that phrase was equated by the Christian right with all things bad and unholy.

He wrote about the “assault on separationism chronicled” in the book, about issues and organizations and accommodation of religion and no religion. He tries to rescue the secularist movement, and makes some progress. He doesn’t do so well with the word, especially by adding “secularish” to the vocabulary. There are 12 steps he recommends for how to be secular, but his call to arms needs more — an “ish” won’t inspire potential enlistees.