The Frontiers of Secularism

An Interview with Phil Zuckerman
December 3, 2014

Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. He is the author of Living the Secular Life, Faith No More, and Society Without God. He has also edited several volumes, including Atheism and Secularity, Sex and Religion, and The Social Theory of W.E.B. Du Bois. Zuckerman writes a regular blog for Psychology Today titled “The Secular Life.” His work has also been published in academic journals, such as Sociology Compass, Sociology of Religion, Deviant Behavior, and Religion, Brain, and Behavior. In 2011, Zuckerman founded the first Secular Studies department in the nation. He earned his PhD in sociology from the University of Oregon in 1998. He currently lives in Claremont, California, with his wife, Stacy, and their three children.


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Harris: Your most recent book is Living the Secular Life, and you founded the secular studies program at Pitzer College. Perhaps we should begin by clarifying what “secularism” is, because many people use it as a synonym for “atheism,” which it isn’t.

Zuckerman: I’m going to resist the urge to whip out all my lecture notes, because this stuff is central to what I teach, and I’ve got a lot to say here. But I’ll try to be as brief and concise as I can.

We’ve got three terms that are closely related, but also distinct.

First off, let’s start with “secular.” To me, that simply means “non-religious.” In a nutshell, I’d say someone is secular if 1) he or she does not hold any supernatural beliefs about deities, spirits, or netherworlds 2) he or she does not engage in any religious rituals or rites, and 3) he or she does not identify or affiliate with a religious group, denomination, or tradition.

Next comes “secularization.” This term refers to a historical process whereby a given society becomes less religious over time: Fewer people hold religious beliefs, fewer people place importance on religious rituals or rites, fewer people identify as religious, fewer institutions exist under the auspices of religious authorities, and so on.

Finally, what you asked about: “secularism.” For me, the “ism” is key here. It implies ideology. Social movement. Political agenda. How things “ought” to be.

On this front, we’ve primarily got good, old-fashioned Jeffersonian secularism, which at root is nothing more than the ideology or political position that church and state ought to be separate and that government ought to be as neutral as possible when it comes to religion in the public square. This version of secularism is basically anti-theocracy-ism (or what used to be called disestablishmentarianism). It is an ideology that is often embraced by both religious and secular people. And it most definitely is not the same thing as “atheism.” In this instance, “secularism” is a political or ideological position concerning the relationship between government and religion (keep them separate!), whereas “atheism” is a personal absence of belief in gods.

Harris: Yes, it was the Jeffersonian sense of the term I had in mind, and I think that’s the meaning worth emphasizing. Secularism in this sense does not require unbelief. It merely demands a commitment to keeping religion out of politics and public policy. Secularism is the only viable response to religious pluralism—otherwise incompatible religions will vie for political dominance. Secularism, essentially, is a condition of permanent truce.

Zuckerman: I totally agree. But there is definitely another popular form or manifestation of secularism—one that is much less focused on the separation of church and state. This form is about people and groups actively trying to disabuse other people of their religious beliefs or involvement. It is a secularism that actively seeks to combat and critique religion. It is predicated upon the view that religion ought to go away, that religious beliefs ought not to be believed in anymore, that religion is a harmful thing and society would be generally better off if it just went away. Think of the 1980s hit “Dear God,” by XTC. That song wasn’t advocating for the separation of church and state. Rather, it was trying to get its listeners to agree that believing in God is silly or absurd. Or think of your first book, The End of Faith, which is not a detailed defense of the separation of church and state but primarily about exposing the irrational, malevolent, and harmful aspects of religion. This form of secularism—as exemplified by XTC’s song and your first book—is definitely not the same thing as “atheism,” per se, but it comes fairly close: Most secularists who actively seek to make religion go away and want to disabuse other people of their supernatural beliefs are atheists.

Harris: Can you summarize the current commitment to secularism in the West? Is it increasing?

Zuckerman: In certain parts of the West—particularly Europe, Australia, and Canada—secularism is going strong. However, in other places, including the USA, the situation is much less clear-cut.

In terms of political secularism, we see many instances in which the realms of religion and government are becoming more clearly and strongly divided. For example, Sweden officially disestablished religion from government in 2000. And in Britain, challenges to religious involvement in the public schools are growing. In Israel, there is increasing opposition to the governmental support of religious institutions and to the ability of religious fundamentalists to opt out of compulsory military service. In France, the separation of church and state is widely celebrated, and restrictions on religion in the public sphere are increasing.

However, here in the United States, the wall of separation between church and state is becoming less secure, especially in light of recent court decisions. I’m thinking specifically of some cases decided in 2014: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that closely held, for-profit corporations can claim exemption from laws that go against their owners’ religious beliefs. It also decided that kicking off city council meetings with explicitly sectarian Christian prayers is constitutional. Even the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared that the teacher-led, God-centric language of the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t discriminate against the children of non-theists.

In other ways, however, the kind of secularism that involves weakening religious faith or lessening the strength, prestige, and pervasiveness of religion in society has been incredibly successful in the West, even here in the USA.

I don’t want to barrage you with endless numbers, but the stats are staggering when it comes to people in the West who are abandoning religion. Consider just these tidbits: A century ago in Canada, only 2% of the population claimed to have no religion, whereas today nearly 30% of Canadians claim as much, and approximately one in five does not believe in God. A century ago in Australia, less than 1% of the population claimed no religious identity, but today approximately 20% of Australians claim as much. A century ago in Holland, about 10% of the population claimed to be religiously unaffiliated; today more than 40% does. In contemporary Great Britain, nearly half the people claim no religious identity at all; the same is true in Sweden.

Furthermore, 61% of Czechs, 49% of Estonians, 45% of Slovenians, 34% of Bulgarians, and 31% of Norwegians do not believe in God. And 33% of the French, 27% of Belgians, and 25% of Germans do not believe in God or any other sort of universal spiritual life force.

In the East, the most recent survey information from Japan illustrates extensive secularization over the course of the past century: Sixty years ago, about 70% of Japanese people claimed to hold personal religious beliefs, but today that figure is down to about 20%. Such levels of atheism, agnosticism, and overall irreligion are simply remarkable—not to mention historically unprecedented.

I just got the latest data on Latin America: 37% of people in Uruguay, 18% in the Dominican Republic, 16% in Chile, 11% in Argentina, and 8% in Brazil are non-religious. These are all unprecedented levels of secularity. And Jamaica is currently at 20% nonreligious! Gabon and Swaziland are at 11%! (While that may seem small, keep in mind that only 8% of people in Alabama are non-religious).

Secularism is growing in virtually all nations for which we have data; even the Muslim world, which contains the most-religious societies on earth, has a growing share of secular people (many of whom, unfortunately, must keep their secularity well hidden because of the danger of prison or death for being open about their lack of faith).

The proportion of Americans walking away from religion has continued to grow, from 8% in 1990 to somewhere between 20% and 30% today. Secularity is markedly stronger among young Americans: 32% of those under 30 are religiously unaffiliated. And somewhere between one-third and one-half of all those who respond “none” when asked what their religion is are atheist or agnostic in orientation—so the rise of irreligion means a simultaneous rise of atheism and agnosticism. Furthermore, the vast majority of nonreligious Americans are content with their current identity; among those who now claim “none” as their religion, nearly 90% say they have no interest in looking for a religion that might be right for them.

Of course, one wrench in all this is birthrates. Religious people have more kids than secular people. So demographically, the future is unclear.

Harris: Many of us have acknowledged that although “replacing religion” may not be an appropriate goal, religion does offer people many things they want in life—and these are things that most atheists also want. We want nice buildings that function as dedicated spaces for reflection and celebration. We want strong communities. We want rituals and rites of passage with which to mark important transitions in life—births, marriages, deaths. We just don’t want to lie to ourselves about the nature of reality to have these things. This poses a real challenge, because once we get rid of religion, we are left without an established tradition for meeting these needs, and the alternative is often piecemeal, halfhearted, and unsatisfying. How do you see us solving the problem of creating strong secular institutions and traditions that don’t feel hokey?

Zuckerman: You are spot-on here. Religion provides so much for people in terms of social capital, life-cycle rituals, and so forth, and if it were to just go away, most people would experience serious lacuna. True, a few die-hard hermits out there want none of the things that religion provides, but they are quite rare. Most people want and enjoy at least some of the many things that religions have to offer, even if they don’t buy all the supernatural nonsense.

So here are the options, as far as I can tell:

First, secularize religion. By that I mean keep the rituals, the holidays, the buildings, the gatherings, the knickknacks, but let the supernatural beliefs wither and fade. The example of this that first comes to mind is Reform Judaism. Most American Jews get what they like out of Judaism—the ceremonies, the holidays, the sense of belonging, multi-generational connections, opportunities for charity—and yet they have jettisoned the supernatural beliefs. Many liberal Episcopalian congregations, too, are in this vein. Also Quaker meetings. And most Scandinavians, with their modern form of Nordic Lutheranism, are as well. They observe traditional religious holidays and they participate in various life-cycle rituals and they congregate now and then in church and they even “feel” Christian—and yet they do all these ostensibly religious things without a scintilla of actual faith in the supernatural.

Personally, I think it would be great to have Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. all existing here and there, but neutered of their supernatural hoo-hah. I know that may seem contradictory or absurd, but I believe it is possible.

The second option is to create humanist congregations, like Sunday Assembly. The disadvantage here is that you are basically starting from nothing, which feels a little weird—there is no heritage, no tradition, no sense of something that has been around for generations. Not much for kids. But the advantage is that you get to create what you want and how you want it. I dig Sunday Assembly. I think the possibilities for such groups are strong. Obviously, they don’t appeal to most secular people—but for those who want the best of religious affiliation without all the supernaturalism, it is a damned viable option.

A third possibility is to find secular vehicles that provide at least some of the things religion has to offer. I’m thinking of sports, for example. Soccer. My Sunday morning soccer game fulfills me deeply: It makes me feel alive, it connects me to friends I otherwise would never know or see, it marks the end of the week, etc. Or music. My daughter’s love of music provides a lot: a sense of existential meaning, a sense of community via links with other fans, rituals in the form of concerts, and so forth. My younger daughter’s involvement in ballet serves a similar function, providing self-improvement, conscientiousness, camaraderie, performances. Others can find at least some of the things religion offers by communing with nature, or being creative, or engaging politically, or meditating.

I have learned in my research that the vast majority of people who walk away from religion don’t miss it and find numerous ways to live meaningful lives without it—through work, family life, friends, hobbies, art, sex, philosophy, theater, hunting, working on cars, dancing, and so on.

Of course, all that said, religion may not be so easily replaced, and the fact that secularism seems to correlate strongly with individualism could become a problem down the road.

Harris: Moving beyond religion is proving to be an immense challenge, and I greatly appreciate your contributions on this front. One of the main impediments to the spread of secularism has been the widely held belief, even among the non-religious, that religion will always be with us—as though the persistence of the current batch of supernatural ideas were a law of nature. I hope people will read your book to learn more about what the transition to secularism will look like. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.