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May 26, 2005

Secularism and American history

We hear a lot about how the religion of Colonial America may, or may not, have influenced the American Revolution and the Constitution.

At Left2Right historian James Oakes describes how growing eighteenth century secularism changed religion in Colonial America.

(I accidentally double-posted this entry. I didn't check to see which of the two posts had comments attached, so, I'm sorry if I accidentally erased anyone's contribution. Feel free to re-post.)


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Er, Lindsay? At the risk of beating a dead horse,

"The term secularism was created in 1846 by George Jacob Holyoake in order to describe "a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life""

As we've discussed on and off blog, this is a loaded word for many reasons. But especially within the context of dissent from religious practice in the 18th Century, "secularism" is completely anachronistic and it's meaning doesn't apply. It's like discussing the metaphysics of Plato in terms of quarks, gluons, and the Higgs boson.

In no way do words like "secularism" or "secular humanism" relate to the events and trends Left2Right thinks they do. I'll leave it right there except to say that in order to understand how religious fanaticism was marginalized among the folks who sparked the Revolution, the operative terms are Enlightenment and Deism, neither of which are identical with secularism or secular humanism. It is also necessary to give credit where credit is due. Franklin, as deistic as the next Founder, was heavily influenced by folks like Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather. He was also quite the Paine-booster, of course. So, the actual history of religion, Enlightenment thought, and the recognition of the importance of separation of church and state is complicated and very interesting.

It is also crucial that we understand it if we are to craft effective counter-strategies to the blatant lies and distortions being told today about our history by the extreme right.

It looks like the other post with a similar title was deleted and along with it my comment, so I'll throw my two and a half cents in here again:

I think the most useful response for the left to the constant volley of religious propaganda is simply to point out that one, the Constitution, which happens to be our law of the land, doesn't give religion any "controlling authority" and that two, to the extent that religion had an influence on elite thinking 200+ years ago, the Bible as a guide to life and public policy has not faired well with the passage of time (consider the general "religious" approach to slavery, women's rights, science, etc), so it's relavance now is even more dubious.

Tristero, I agree. Oakes is using "secularism" is a very different sense that most philosophers or religious scholars. I think historians like Oakes use "secularism" to describe the trends you're highlighting (Deism, etc.).

The author is probably right regarding the "Great Awakening", the resurgence of religion in the mid 1700's. I did a search on the religious wars of the 1700's and found this comment on one site:

"In the 1740's and 1750's, refugees from religious wars in Europe were able to enter the tolerant Quaker colony at Philadelphia, walk westward through the limestone valleys along modern-day US Route 30, and follow the Great Valley to enter Virginia from the north. Colonial settlers moved into Frederick and Augusta counties by walking up the Shenandoah Valley. ("Up the valley" is uphill, to the south - ignore your old prejudice that north is "up.") Many Valley newspapers before the Civil War were printed in German, and land deeds were recorded in the language. There is even a deed in Swedish on the upper Potomac, reflecting the origin of one family. The Pennsylvania "Dutch" brought their German Reformed religion (Church of the Brethren, Amish/Mennonite, and Dunker), while the Scotch-Irish brought their Scotch Reformed Protestantism (Presbyterian)."

This would also explain why they sought seperation of church and state... they had suffered persecution at the hands of state sponsored religions.

It's a minor point, but it's always dangerous to compare the percentage of printed material at date X to date Y without going into a more detailed inquiry as to the availability and economy of the technology associated with printing in the region. An increase in non-religious texts would be consistent with static technology and a decrease in demand in religious texts - but it'd also be consistent with static demand and the proliferation of cheaper printing, as there would suddenly be cost-efficient markets for non-religious texts as well as religious texts.

The problem, Lindsay, is that it is incredibly sloppy. It completely misrepresents the actual historical issues.

Since the mistake was made by an actual historian -and since it's easily avoided by doing some trivial research if you understand the issues he claims to know something about - it calls into question his intellectual credentials. I know several world-class primary source historians, the kind that poke around locating musty 200 year-old plus documents, doing research in creepy places that would give the rest of us hives just thinking about. The anachronistic and inaccurate application of terms to history is precisely the kind of stuff they spend their lives fighting tooth and nail to avoid, even when writing for the popular press.

Eli and tristero, I think your misgivings are well-placed. I'm not necessarily endorsing Oakes' essay, but I do think he's making some interesting points.

I'm not sure I agree that it's sloppy to use "secularism" in Oakes' sense. (I agree that it's sloppy to talk about "secular humanism" in the context of Colonial America, though.)

But let's assume that Oakes and his fellow historians use "secular" and "secularization" as very general terms of art. If so, it doesn't necessarily matter whether American colonials would have described themselves as secular or whether the trends Oakes describes as secular precisely resemble what passes for secularism in any given society today. That's wouldn't be such a strange way of talking. When people contrast so-called secular Muslims with Islamic fundamentalists, they're using "secular" to pick out the same sort of trends that Oakes is interested in.

And they are wrong to do so, Lindsay. It makes it impossible to understand, in any meaningful way, what is going on in Islam. As it happens, I have an actual, specific example, not a hypothetical, in re Islam.

In Steve Coll's otherwise excellent book, Ghost Wars, he describes Wahabbists as "puritanical." I know what he means, you know what he means, but he is totally, embarassingly, wrong because Qutb -even though he came to the US- almost certainly never would have encountered the doctrines known as Puritanism or even knew the colloquial use of the word. By describing Wahabbism in that way, he misses the opportunity to show us how that set of religious beliefs differs from Puritanism and ended up being employed as a specific justification for ghastly acts of terror (and also became the state religion of Saudi Arabia), achievements that are in way adequately understood via the word "puritanical".

Both Coll's errors (he made a few similar whoppers, but that was the worst) and Oakes's are all of a piece: they are reading a 20th century American attiude into places they totally don't belong. They obscure rather than clarify and by doing so, they create arbitrary, unnecessary, and biased limits on what we can know. We end up understanding, for example, Islamism less well if we think its sexual mores are even remotely comparable to Salem's in the 17th century.

In the case of "secularism," as we've discussed, the word was coined by a man who had been arrested for atheism and lost everything he owned. So the word was invented as a euphemism for "atheism." A man like Tom Paine, who never minced words, would probably snort in contempt if he learned his ideas were being described thus.

Furthermore, as Holyoake's definition implies, he was influenced by the growing sophistication of English science in the mid-19th century. Origin of Species hadn't been published, but other important scientific works had. The process of scientific experimentation had advanced considerably from Franklin's day. This is the reason why testing figures so prominently in the definition of secularism. But even the great scientist Franklin wouldn't dream of making an "ism" out of scientific testing.

Furthermore, the word was coined by Holyoake when he formed "The British Secular Institute of Communism and Propagandism" Finally, Holyoake explicitly distances his beliefs from theism but doesn't mention deism in the parts quoted. Nevertheless, it is pretty clear he had no use for any kind of God belief, including Deism:

We war not with the church but the altar — not with the forms of Christianity but with Christianity itself — not with the attributes but with the existence of deity.

You can't find anything like that in the Founders. (Indeed, Holyoake himself learned to temper this kind of language after he was arrested). I think Jefferson and Franklin, to name just two, would laugh heartily at anyone who claimed they were "secularists."

I strongly believe that one of the main reasons the right is winning so handily is that opposition to them is so poorly articulated. Oakes's article is just the most recent striking example. Until we can talk precisely and accurately about the history of our values, we are royally screwed. Likewise, until we learn enough to stop referring to Wahabbist belief as "puritanical" or describe a new trend in Islam as "secular Muslims," we don't have a chance in hell to craft a sensible response to the very real threat of radical Islamism.

Anyway, that's enough for now.

oops. remove the italics after the word "deity." Sorry.

Italics off.

Tristero, I second the sentiment that I fail to see the errors in any of those uses. I don't see how describing a set of views as "puritanical" at all implies that the people holding the views are actually familiar with puritanism. The same with "secularism." I guess I just fail to see why it's a necessity to use terms that would have had legitimacy as self-identifiers for the subject when you're a historian writing 200 years later or a social critic on the other side of the world. Maybe both metaphors are imperfect (in fact I'm sure that they're at least either imprecise or imperefectly contoured to match the subjects, depending on how you read them). I can't speak for the book's context, but my guess there is "imprecise," and I'd judge the discussion on the degree to which the rest of te discussion honed the insight in. From reading the linked blog post, I think "imprecise" may be the verdict there too - but, it's just a blog post, and it'd be unrealistic to expect the kind of finely-wrought definitions you'd expect from an academic article.

And just to sum it up, tristero, you say the left is failing because its opposition is so poorly articulated... and that is typified by the failure to use perfect transcentennial religious metaphors, but assumedly not typified by, say, your blog posts about fascism.

I'm not sure I would agree that "the right is winning so handily" on this.

Do you mean opinion polls? Do you mean the 2004 election? Do you mean the high visibility given evangelicals by the ruling party and the media?

I recognize that the debate about the role of religion in the public square is a terrific mobilizing issue for the right. And on some issues opinion polls seem to show considerable support for fundamentalist positions, such as on school prayer. But these findings should also be assessed relative to both how intensely these opinions are held and relative to other priorities for the majority of the population. I also wouldn't read too much into the 2004 election results, which I believe, at least at the presidential level, were primarily about incumbency. Given the usual success rates of presidents running for their party's second consecutive term (Carter was the only one to lose such a race in the last century), and given the high visibility of cultural issues that were skewed to the right, Kerry gained a surprisingly high share of the vote.

And I wouldn't mistake the prominence or level of venom being spewed by evangelical leaders as an indicator of their actual power. As the foundation for their arguments become increasingly shaky the rhetoric of religious fundamentalists is bound to become increasingly louder, and more shrill and vindictive. And of course their actions and demands are going to grow more dangerous as they seek to exert their control over a society that increasingly has other options than to bow down to the idols of ancient religious symbols and forms.

I'd be nervous about any attempts to draw an equal sign between religion and reactionary sentiment. The Bible can be read many ways. Jesus can be seen as a socialist, telling the rich to give away their money. There are many liberal churches in America. I can't think of any progressive period in America (anti-slavery in 1850s, women's vote in 1900s, civil rights in 1950s, etc) that didn't have major progressive Christian support. Implying that relgion equals reaction says more about America in the 2000s than it says about the past.

I can't think of any progressive period in America (anti-slavery in 1850s, women's vote in 1900s, civil rights in 1950s, etc) that didn't have major progressive Christian support.

It's interesting that in all three cases, conservative Christians were even more visible in the opposition to the movements.

Historians always describe past events in terms that were unknown during the period itself. No on in the Middle Ages ever heard of "feudalism," for example. Surely no one ever used the term "World War I" while the war was going on. Sometimes important things happen that nobody even notices: what historians call "the demographic transition," the rapid decline in family size in the first half of the 19th century, went unnoticed by those living through it. But we can see that it happened, that it was important, and so we give it a name.

So, too, with a concept like "secular humanism" or even the less desirable "secularism." Nobody in the 18th century would have used such terms. We use them to describe what they were up to, and the mere fact of such usage does not make an analysis anachronistic.

Here's what I mean by secular humanism. The trio of principles--toleration, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state--implanted in the political culture, not to say the Constitution, during the Founding era. (This is easily documented; no serious historian would deny it.) At the time these were revolutionary ideas, and they made the American Revolution a turning point in the development of secular humanism. The religious values of the Founders themselves are of only secondary importance here, as are the statistics I offered on the proportion of churches and the percentage of religious titles. These latter forms of evidence serve only to explain how it might have happened that secular humanism was present at the creation of the United States.

If there is anachronism in the current debate over secular humanism, surely it is indulged in most often by those who seek to impose their own fundamentalist christian values (and I think of "fundamentalism" as a distinctively 20th century form of evangelical protestantism) back onto the eighteenth century Founders.

My goal in the original post was precisely to avoid this kind of thing. That's why I insisted, for example, on NOT collapsing the very large differences between the pre-Revolutionary Great Awakening, and the post-Revolutionary upsurge of Evangelicalism. The point is to restore the 18th century to its proper context, not to impose my own onto it.

"It's interesting that in all three cases, conservative Christians were even more visible in the opposition to the movements."

Good point. I'm left wondering why the progressive Christians don't ever seem to represent the majority of Christian sentiment? I look around the blogosphere and see progressive people who are both brilliant and who are also clearly motivated, in part, by their religious beliefs: Jeanne of Body and Soul, Hugo Schwyzer, the folks at The Village Gate. I wonder why folks like these are not the majority of what we think of when we think of religion in America?

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