Friday, June 15, 2007

Seeing Forrest for the Trees or
What is Atheism part N

Here I go again trying to define "atheist" and "secular". What a bore.


Tristero quotes Barbara Forrest at length

ID proponents and their Religious Right allies promote a distorted understanding of secularism, presenting it as synonymous with atheism and antireligious animosity. However, contrary to this misconception, “secular,” properly understood, merely means “not religious” rather than “anti-religious.” In the same vein, criticism of ID as a religious belief rather than a scientific theory is not criticism of religion per se.
[snip]
the vast majority of Americans, .. understand that the strongest protection for people of faith lies precisely in maintaining government neutrality with respect to matters of religion.


I agree with the substance but, as an intolerant atheist theologian, object to the wording. I would say that that "secular" means "not involving religion at the moment". If I understand correctly, the Catholic church introduced the word to describe legitimate authorities who were not clergy people. It is possible to be both religious and secular, that is, personally religious and in favor of keeping religion out of some part of our society (and in particular government policy). So a secular state is not a state run by non religious people, it is a state run by people who do not use their official powers to advance their religious beliefs. The founders were Christian (with the likely exception of Thomas Jefferson whose heterodoxy was a bit extreme).

The reason I object is that Forrest does not note the difference between atheism and anti-religious animosity, although she doesn't say that one implies the other either.
I think this vagueness is unfortunate.

First in a quibbles quibble I note that, if I had to coin a word for anti-religious animosity, I would invent antitheist. the prefix "a" means "non" or "not."

On a more serious point, if "secular" were used to mean "not religious but not anti-religious" then there would be no word for "religious but in favor of separation of church and state."

I think a bunch of atheists decided to take control of the word "secular" distorting the language. IIRC the unfortunate phrase "secular humanism" was introduced in a document called "The Secular Humanist Declaration" signed by, among others Isaac Asimov and B.F. Skinner. I'm sure they were secular and Asimov at least was a humanist, but one of the principles of the declaration was "6. Religious Skepticism"
so signers were at least agnostic if not atheist.

I just checked the Wikipedia and I see that there were much more eminent signers. Also the date, 1980, seems very late for the introduction of the phrase so probably I didn't recall correctly.

The problem with letting the religious right define "atheist" as hostile to religion is not just that leads to horning in on the turf of "secular". It also leads to abuse of the word "agnostic" which properly does not refer to someone who has no doubt that no God exists (or who has no hope that a God exists). In common usage atheists who are not anti religious tend to claim they are agnostic. Not as bad as claiming to be simply secular, but not accurate either.

Atheists are numerous (I am one of them) and by no means all of us are anti-religious (obviously I don't think any religious belief is true, but one of the teachings of Christ which does not convince me is "the truth will set you free" and, all in all, I think believing the truth is often over rated).

I do like Forrest's use of the phrase "civic friendship"

Civic friendship means, at the very least, being reasonable enough and respectful enough of one’s fellow citizens to trust that they can be good people—good neighbors—without adopting one’s own religious views, or perhaps without any religious views at all.


Although, perhaps, she could have done without the "perhaps".

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Now, I go to church regularly enough to be a nuisance, but I am absolutely uninterested in whether there is a God and interestingly enough my favorite priest is too.

anne

Anonymous said...

Tradition is always held important, but our church is remarkably liberal and welcoming. I find the same with a near Temple, that is supposedly conservative but is nothing of the sort in terms of thinking.

anne

Anonymous said...

The sense I have of religion is when Jerry Seinfeld goes to church to complain about a dentist who has converted from Catholicism to Judaism for the jokes. After wandering to Confession and being told that what seems like an oddly low bench is really a kneeler, Jerry explains that he is Jewish and the Priest says "that's no sin."

anne

Anonymous said...

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/world/middleeast/17iraq.html

Troop Influx Complete, U.S. Forces Press Al Qaeda in Iraq
By THOM SHANKER and MICHAEL R. GORDON

The top U.S. commander in Iraq outlined a major new offensive against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia insurgents on the outskirts of Baghdad.

[My entry for headline of the day, anny old day.]

anne

Anonymous said...

Finally, we are surged enough, after 4 years and counting to confront the dread Iraqi al-this and al-that. What have we been doing hitherto?

anne

Anonymous said...

I am a fool, I know, but why does the thought keep coming that we have been, well, insane to arm the Sunni Iraqis? Well, why not. We arm everyone. Surge on, surge on.

anne

Anonymous said...

http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2007/06/paul_krugman_wr.html

Notice Brad DeLong's fine response to Paul Krugman on trade, though I think they are rather implying like policy.

anne

Anonymous said...

Now, in 2003 there was no al-this or al-that in Iraq, while now althis and al-that are everywhere in Iraq, and we are surging at a cost beyond understanding to rid Iraq of what was not in Iraq before we initially surged in Iraq.

anne

Anonymous said...

I do wish I had a sense of humor.

anne

Anonymous said...

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/world/asia/17afghan.html

5 Die in Kabul Suicide Blast; U.S. Gunfire Kills Afghan
By BARRY BEARAK

American soldiers fired into a crowd near the scene of the blast, accidentally killing one man and wounding another.

[There is something about war. Me, I am for peace; but what do I know?]

anne

Anonymous said...

We must leave Iraq completely and immediately.

anne