Is secularism working?

Print More
Chicago's CNA building lit up for the Christmas-Hanukkah-Diwali-New Year's  season in 2005 with a snowflake-like symbol.

Photo via Wikipedia Commons

Chicago's CNA building lit up for the Christmas-Hanukkah-Diwali-New Year's season in 2005 with a snowflake-like symbol.

Welcome to Faith & Reason (or welcome back if you followed my blog for years at USA TODAY). This is where readers make the blog happen. I raise questions on issues in the news and you chime in (thoughtfully and politely please).

My Q. today arose at this past weekend’s gathering of sociologists, political scientists and other academics at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Chicago's CNA building lit up for the Christmas-Hanukkah-Diwali-New Year's  season in 2005 with a snowflake-like symbol.

Chicago’s CNA building lit up for the Christmas-Hanukkah-Diwali-New Year’s season in 2005 with a snowflake-like symbol.

“Is Secularism Working?”  SSSR president Michele Dillon asked four experts. Last year, the number of people who claim no religious identity reached one in five in the USA. But what impact is that having on the wider culture and where does America fit in the global picture?

It depends on how you define “working,” said Roger Finke, of Penn State University.

Finke ventured a definition: “Secularism is working when it preserves the collective peace without infringing on the civil rights of others.”

However, he said, cutting religious ideas and symbols out of the larger culture offers no assurances of peace or respect for religious rights. A secular state does not automatically ensure individual freedoms. Neither does a democracy, which is vulnerable to the tyranny of the majority.

“Working” also varies by where you look. Harvard’s Pippa Norris saw a global disconnect: “Affluent countries are increasingly secular” but “the world as a whole has more people with traditional religious values than ever before.”

Religion, said Norris, functions to relieve anxiety and stress and support, providing a basis for psychological well-being. The more “existentially insecure” people feel, the higher their rates of prayer and worship attendance. “If your country is more secure, you need less of what religion offers.”

Genevieve Zubrzycki, of the University of Michigan, took a close look at Poland and Quebec where, she concluded “secularism is not working” because it is not creating peace or safeguarding individual rights.

Wade Clark Roof, of University of California Santa Barbara, saw a problem with Dillon’s question. It sets up a simple binary that does not match most American’s lived experiences.  American culture is a dynamic interplay between an enlightenment emphasis on reason, tolerance, nature and progress and the dominant evangelical Protestant emphasis on the experience of Jesus, the authority of biblical truth and salvation through faith, Roof said.

“Both are working in individual lives,” he said.

What do you see? Is secularism “working” in America? Is that a good or a bad thing?

Finally, the F&R traditional closer: Post early, post often, share with your friends and remember the house rule — all views respectfully presented are welcome.

  • Frank


  • Larry

    Secularism is the only way to ensure religious freedom. It protects religious faith from government interference. It protects civil liberties from sectarian discrimination. Government and religion do not belong together. When they get entangled both get cheapened and undermined. Asking if it is working is like asking whether religious freedom is a good idea or not.

    Secularism is not government enforced atheism. Its embracing the idea that all religious ideas have value and none are government approved favorites. Its understanding that the reins of government are not the divine right of people of a given sect or faith. [Something Frank can’t understand]

    Countries with a history of government sanctioned religion have a tough time understanding the concepts of secularism. They go from a historic extreme of near theocracy to one of anti-clericism. The effective method lies in between

    Like Multiculturalism, secularism is a concept which is often criticized in countries where they are not really doing it right in the first place. The US really does have some of the best ground rules on both subjects.

  • I think Leicester Secular Society’s strapline (I’m a member ) defines a secular society quite well:

    “for an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination”.

  • Ian Clark

    Larry, I think you are spot on in your observations. However, one of the modern problems with secularism, I feel, is that secularism – as a concept – has been effectively hijacked by the hardcore atheist crowd. These folks see secularism not as a protector of a plural society, but as a tool to rid society of the plight of religious thought. To many in this camp religion is an archaic relic at best, a major social disease at worst.

    The advocates of this philosophy have pushed secularism to its extreme – where any faith based decisions in the public sphere are ridiculued or labelled as socially irresponsible.

    I grew up in the United States, but now live and work in Europe – and this reality is palpable here. Secularism has moved so far to the extreme that you would hardly ever see politicos (and, for that matter, the average citizen) speaking openly about their moral and religious convictions in a civil dialogue. If someone is religious, it is as if they must be religious in private.

    This is not the secularism that you are speaking of, but it is the reality of much modern “secularism”.

    Is it working? It depends on who you ask. For the militant atheist crowd, yes – it is probably working. The traditional churches are seeing some declining figures throughout Europe and people of religious faith are trying to white-wash religion from their public discourse. However, for the people of faith – no – it isn’t working. A social system of tolerance is eroding. Look at the rising anti-semitism throughout Europe. Likewise, we are beginning to see an uptick of anti-Christian sentiment and even violence against Christians. What it is is frightening. What is isn’t is progress.

  • I have read so many articles regarding the blogger
    lovers however this paragraph is truly a pleasant article, keep it up.