A more diverse, activist and, in some cases, tolerant secularism is emerging, according to several papers presented at the recent meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR) in San Francisco in mid-August.
Although those involved in secularist “free-thought” groups are often identified as belonging to one monolithic group of atheists, there is more diversity in this community than one might expect. In a survey of 911 affiliate members of 20 secular groups, researcher Frank L. Pasquale found that while they may share a rejection of monotheistic ideas and institutional religious affiliations, such participants do not all have a strictly naturalistic worldview and may entertain different ideas about religion.
Pasquale’s survey covered such secular groups as atheists, secular humanists, Unitarian humanists, skeptics, and Jewish humanists, and found that “organized secularism in the US is, in the main, a Euro-intellectual and cultural reaction to monotheism.” When most of such participants speak of “religion,” they usually have Christianity and, more recently, Islam in mind. Although Asians usually comprise a significant percentage of the unaffiliated, or “nones,” they tend to be uninvolved in such groups and movements, according to Pasquale. Pasquale found an overrepresentation of Jews and a negligible representation of Latinos, African-Americans and Asians.
These participants in secular groups are overwhelmingly the product of religious upbringings, with only about 12 percent reared in strictly secular households. Secular group affiliates raised Roman Catholic were the “most likely to view their religious or philosophical upbringings as strong or strict and were also the most critical of something called religion compared with those raised Protestant, Jewish or Judaic, or even secular,” Pasquale writes. While nine in 10 rejected the idea of God or the soul, only seven in 10 rejected an ultimate purpose to life, and only six in 10 rejected an impersonal connecting force in nature.
In short, “only about a third of the sample indicated rigorous naturalism—rejecting all ideas categorically.” Those involved in Jewish and Unitarian humanist groups were the most likely to use the terms “spirituality” or “spiritual” to describe their views. Pasquale concludes that participants in secular groups in particular are far from uniform in beliefs and attitudes and actually show a more “cafeteria,” eclectic approach rather than one of “deliberate, thoroughgoing philosophical naturalism.”
Meanwhile, organized atheism has undergone something of a transformation in the former Soviet Union (FSU), according to another paper presented by Leontina Hormel of the University of Idaho. Notorious for its role in the anti-religious repression of the communist era, organized or “scientific” atheism was part of the educational curriculum of the Soviet Union, but was quickly forsaken during the fall of communism in the early 1990s.
Hormel notes that even during the popular and official acceptance of religious faith in the years since, the percentage of atheists and non-believers in the FSU remains relatively high; except for Armenia (8.4 per cent), most of the republics in the FSU exceed the U.S. (9 per cent) in their rate of atheism and unbelief. There is little advantage in claiming an atheist identity today, especially since most charity and free goods and services are administered through religious organizations.
Hormel found only one atheist organization active in Russia today, the Liberty of Conscience Institute. In Ukraine, there is also the organization Atheism in Ukraine. The Liberty of Conscience Institute is the most organized and is tied to the larger International Humanist and Ethical Union. Far from seeking to advance scientific atheism and eradicate religion from society, the institute seeks to advance freedom of conscience on regional, national and international levels and reduce the role of the state in regulating religious activity. Hormel concludes that the atheism that “remains intact is not a relic of Soviet scientific atheism, but one which seeks to build a post-Soviet society upon the principles of freedom of conscience valuing human rights.”
Of course, aggressiveness still characterizes the hard atheist core of the secularist movement. A paper by Bradley Nabors (University of Southern California) traced the evolution of atheist organizations from concentrating on legal and church–state issues to their current focus on “justifying their non-belief to others, and often debasing religion with their own combative rendering of the scientific method.” Along those lines, the latest trend at atheist conventions across the US is that of ceremonies of debaptism, reports G. Jeffrey MacDonald (Religion News Service, July 20). From reading reports on such mock ceremonies (using a hairdryer named “reason” in order to blow away the waters of baptism), the strong flavor of satire is obvious, and intended, since it is meant to make religious rites appear laughable.
At the same time, the spread of such practices testifies to the development of secular activism and reveals some flair on the part of those involved for creating a media sensation. “Debaptism” is not a purely American practice, although the ceremonies are. In the United Kingdom (UK), the National Secular Society makes a “certificate of debaptism” available for download on its website. While admitting that such certificates are “a bit of fun,” the society adds that baptism itself is “a complete fantasy.” Some “debaptized” atheists push it a little bit further, asking for their debaptism to be recorded in the church of their (infant) baptism. Catholic parishes have agreed to enter the information that a person has left the church in the margins of the register, but other churches can be less cooperative.
In the UK, a wave of “debaptisms,” if this were ever to happen, could actually have deeper implications, remarked The Times‘ religion correspondent, Ruth Gledhill (March 18): the baptismal figures of the Church of England (25 million, but a Sunday attendance of 1.1 million) are used by bodies such as the World Council of Churches or the Anglican Communion itself, as well as the House of the Lords.
When some day the number of baptized Anglicans decreases, this might also have consequences for the weight of the Church of England in social life, as well as in international religious relations. If only the number of practicing UK Anglicans were to be counted, instead of all who were once baptized in the Church, the official size of the Anglican Communion would be “cut by nearly a third,” Gledhill writes.
(Religion News Service, http://www.religionnews.com; National Secular Society, http://www.secularism.org.uk; The Times, http://www. timesonline.co.uk)