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The Future of Secularism in American Politics

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This may seem a strange time to discuss the future of secularism, since we have just concluded a faith-saturated presidential election campaign. From the start, from Barack Obama's 2006 Keynote Address to the Sojourners Call to Renewal Conference to the over-the-top faith confessions by Obama, Clinton, and Edwards, the Democrats were determined to run as a faith-friendly Party. On the Republican side, though John McCain was pretty easy-going about religion, the religious right finally got to celebrate with the vice-presidential nomination of the ostentatiously religious Sarah Palin. You would not have known there was a secularist in America.

At the same time, however, recent polls have been showing an enormous and rapid growth in various forms of the unchurched. Perhaps the most startling statistic for such a famously religious country as America was a February 2008 PEW Forum finding that 25% of Americans 18-29 are unaffiliated with organized religion. Similar trends have been noted in other groups as well.

The growing power of the nonreligious can be seen in the publishing success of the group often referred to as the New Atheists. Christopher Hitchens' runaway best-seller, God is Not Great, joined Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and many similar books as a militant secularism found its voice.

You might predict that these two opposing trends -- a more religious politics and a more secular society -- would eventually clash, particularly in the Democratic Party, where most secularists reside. The Democrats wore their new-found religiosity a little awkwardly, as Obama's uncharacteristically oafish comment about small-town America clinging to religion and guns demonstrated. (The Democrats also got religion about guns this year). At some point, secularists may chafe under all the religious pandering.

But that may not happen. Along with its overall growth, new forms of secularism are emerging that are more religion friendly than the New Atheists would have you believe. This has been particularly true in science, where the idea of God has begun to be reinterpreted. In his recent book, Reinventing the Sacred, the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman writes that God "is our chosen name for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe, biosphere and human cultures." And the British paleontologist Simon Conway Morris in Life's Solution is even willing to look at the religious tradition directly: "[G]iven that evolution has produced sentient species with a sense of purpose, it is reasonable to take the claims of theology seriously."

As far as I know, these thinkers are not religious believers. They are secular scientists who are sensitive to mystery and meaning. They would not accept a personal God who could set aside the laws of nature. But they are not mere materialists either.

There are various other indicators of a new permeability between religion and secularism. In philosophy, Jurgen Habermas (Between Naturalism and Religion), Susan Neiman (Moral Clarity) and James C. Edwards (The Plain Sense of Things) are describing a secularism open to religious insights. In theology, a kind of secularist religion is emerging in the work of Michael Hampson (God Without God) and John Shelby Spong (Jesus for the Non-Religious). Even Austin Dacey, passionately opposed to organized religion, calls on his fellow secularists to reject relativism and accept belief in public debate in The Secular Conscience. I myself try to describe a religiously oriented secularism in the book Hallowed Secularism, which will be published in March.

The political implications of any movement away from the us-them divide between religion and secularism would be profound. The success of the Republican Party in winning large numbers of religiously oriented voters is based on two quite different foundations. One is policy. Religiously oriented voters oppose abortion and gay rights to a greater extent than the public at large. Secularists tend to support both. That is not going to change. The Democrats this year wooed religious voters, but not by offering much compromise on those fronts.

But there is another foundation for this Republican Party electoral success, one that is cultural rather than policy-oriented. The Democratic Party has just not seemed at home with religion. That suspicion was inflamed by the Obama comment about religion.

If secularism were to rediscover the language, symbols and images of traditional religion, now reinterpreted along naturalistic lines, this cultural divide could be bridged. Women and men of good faith could think once again of a broad progressive coalition among religious believers and nonbelievers, which, though it could not agree on all issues, would undoubtedly find a lot of political common ground. Indeed, such a coalition might renew the American radical tradition that has languished since Marxism was discredited.

All that is needed is an appreciation by secularists that religious concerns are the concerns of all human beings with perennial questions that can never go away: who are we, why are we here and what can we hope for? We who do not believe in God have a great deal to learn from traditional religion about how to approach those questions. We can become sufficiently self-confident that we no longer fear words like God and faith, but can look to shared realities behind them.