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American secularism is growing — and growing more complicated

13 February, 2022 19:55
Its impact on politics and self-identity looms large, experts say
American secularism is growing — and growing more complicated

Americans are getting less “religious,” you’ve probably heard. They do fewer traditionally religious things, such as belonging to a denomination, attending worship services or feeling certain that God exists.

But what does that lead to?

As research in the past couple of decades has reflected those drops in behaviors and beliefs, conventional wisdom has lingered on a superficial understanding about what it really means — for our identities, our yearnings for something “bigger than ourselves” and our ideas about the role of religion in politics.

Now, a new crop of books dives into the many shades of gray in growing secularism and its important ramifications.

Deploying new research and theories, these writers go beyond the top-level data and argue that many Americans are, in fact, a mix. Someone may be devout personally, for instance, but strongly believe in church-state separation and the primacy of science and observable facts. They may be completely non-religious but also agnostic when it comes to the role of religion in public life.

The 2021 book “Secular Surge,” by a trio of prominent political scientists, says “secular” core values include freethinking, logic and reason — rather than received authority — human experience and the laws of nature. Secularism, notably, is not defined by opposition to religious identity or practices. By this definition, a quarter of Americans now have a secular worldview, the researchers contest, and events such as the pandemic could speed along the birth of a secular political left, not unlike the early days of the religious right.

“There has been no innovation in secular thought in 50 years, few new policy ideas,” Berlinerblau said in an interview. “There’s no coherence, no leadership, no central movement. They can’t articulate what they want it to do.”

Berlinerblau’s book and others of late look at different parts of personal and public secularism, but they agree that the contemporary terminology is inadequate.

Emma Koonse Wenner, religion editor for Publishers Weekly, said there is a bit of a boom happening on the topic. There are so many people who have left traditional religious structures but are still interested in the “spiritual but not religious” genre, she said, that PW now does a regular feature on the topic of the “nones” — those Americans who tell pollsters they have “no religion.” That group has swelled from 16 percent of the country in 2007 to 29 percent today, Pew Research said last month.

Experts on secularism sometimes call this era the “third wave” for secularism. The early freethinkers were first, then the “new atheists,” such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who were defined by their angry, direct criticism of religion.

Source: Washington Post

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American secularism is growing — and growing more complicated
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