Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Review: How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau

How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau
Mariner Books, Paperback, 9780544105164, 306pp. Publication Date: September 17, 2013

Professor Berlinerblau's book is a "how-to" manual for activists concerned with preserving secularism in the United States. The key to the defense of secularism is building up a large coalition of people. Some will be committed to separationism, one of secularism's variants which "maintains that [order, freedom of religion and freedom from religion] will be achieved in spades if there is, in effect, no relation between government and religion." [p. 125, emphasis in original] Others will be content with accomodationism, which allows government to establish religion, provided it does not privilege one over another. Some will be atheists who promote the abandonment of religion. Some will be believers who interpret their religion to call for distance from the state. Others will be members of religious minorities who fear persecution by the majority. Astute activists will try to gather all of these under the rubric of disestablishmentarianism.

The largest potential number of supporters of disestablishmentarianism are people with "secularish" attitudes, and activists need to attract them by cultivating "secularish" virtues. Berlinerblau enumerates these in Chapter 12, "How to be Secularish (In Praise of 'Secular Jews' and 'Cafeteria Catholics')."
  • Moderation in belief and practice - "Don't get overwrought."
  • This-worldliness - "A leading and troubling indicator of an anti-secular worldview is an exaggerated concern with one's fate after death." (p. 183)
  • Ability to be critical of self and others
Berlinerblau's emphasis on secularism as a political philosophy and not a system of personal ethics is important for two reasons:

1. It allows him to emphasize the value of control, which was one of the reasons John Locke advocated an early form of toleration.
2. It makes filling secularism with positive values less important, thus making coalition-building easier.

My understanding of secularism had always been a system of personal ethics, akin to Berlinerblau's quotations of George Jacob Holyoake:
Secularism relates to the present existence of man ... [it is] a series of principles intended for the guidance of those who find Theology indefinite, or inadequate, or deem it unreliable. (pp. 57-8)
I'm still uncomfortable with the concept of "secular Muslim." In my review of Ranya Idliby's Burqas, Baseball & Apple Pie, I discuss this. You may also want to check out the Good Muslim, Bad Muslim podcast.

I've reviewed several books about the relationship of religion and government (tag: Establishment Clause). My summary so far, which I've tried to do while ignoring my objections below, has been in line with most of my political commitments and writings on this topic. But there are some passages in this book which disturbed me, and I'm now going to try to walk you to where I am now, a state of Victorian-era agitation.

Do you remember the 2010 so-called "Ground-Zero Mosque" controversy? Berlinerblau objected to Imam Feisal's failure to genuflect properly before United States imperialism and the Zionist project. 
Should secularists tolerate the Cordoba Initiative? The refusal to disassociate from Iran and Saudi Arabia is a potential deal breaker. It does imply a future course of action detrimental to the interests of the nation. ... [Cordoba Initiative's] new leadership needs to categorically refuse to take money from states or groups with extremist views. With such assurances rendered, a secularist could, in good conscience, support the cultural center. [p. 67, emphasis added]
There's a great distance in my mind between two verbs used in this passage, "tolerate" and "support." Under what political philosophy is intoleration of the Cordoba Institute justified, other than religious bigotry and suppression of unpopular political speech? Does intoleration mean obstructing a project through specious claims about traffic and parking? Does it mean arson?

At this point, I took a break from my reading and searched for Jacques Berlinerblau in Twitter.
I found he and I were on different sides of the so-called contemporary campus "free speech" issues:
While on Twitter, I also saw the New York Times Opinion Page hit piece of some of the figures associated with the Women's March. I also saw that the Baltimore Ravens hired a quarterback with few qualifications, passing on Colin Kaepernick. Add this to my general frustration with liberals acting like everything in the US would be hunky dory had Secretary Clinton been elected instead of DJT, and my radical antennae were up high the rest of the way through the book.

When discussing the virtues of "this-worldliness", he wrote a passage which justifies violations of constitutional and human rights:
Now that our government has established an Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to help religions do good, it seems reasonable to set up a department that will monitor potential dangers related to the opposite possibility: that religions can sometimes do very bad things. This is a controversial claim, yet a secular state cannot ignore groups whose rhetoric and theology radically degrade the life we live together on earth. The state has an interest in keeping such groups under surveillance and proactively incarcerating their members when they constitute a threat. The government has a responsibility to curtail religious freedom when it threatens order (and our survival.) [pp 183-4]
So, in a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) manual, you might one day read a recommendation to arrest Muslims who refuse alcohol, preach ascetic sermons and fail to see the value in derogatory depictions of the Messenger Muhammad. If they don't pin an American flag on their lapel, work as confidential informers for the FBI, welcome military recruiters, approve of the Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and laud police for their bravery and heroism, then one wonders if "secularists" should even bother with trials.

Here are some words which I don't remember appearing in the book: human rights. There is also no entry for human rights in the index. In a passage comparing secularism and liberalism (contemporary American liberal ideology, not classical liberalism) (p 166-7), the author denies (correctly, IMO) a relationship between the two. The author is keen to restrict secularism to a political philosophy about the relationship of government and religion.

I hope the author and activists for secularism in general would consider the idea that the rise of white religious revivalists seeking to transform the United States into a "Christian nation" is a reassertion of white patriarchal supremacy in the face of the gains of African-Americans and other ethnic groups and steps towards gender parity. It is also an ideological companion to United States imperialism in other countries, many of whose inhabitants are non-Christian. The reversion to robber baron economics with the resultant decline in the quality of public services is also a factor. If my assertions are correct, then advancing the cause of religion and state separation is dependent on reducing racism, ending empire and promoting economic justice.

Finally, Berlinerblau advocates compromising from the separationist version of secularism. While he is correct in pointing out that it is impossible to achieve total separation, it is implicitly obvious that the compromises he wants the secularist coalition to make are based entirely on calculations of near-term growth in support. Based on what I've mentioned here and the book's silence on racial justice issues, I can guess the groups at whose expense these compromises will be made. If I was a member of an unpopular group asked to join a coalition willing to compromise on principles for expediency, I'd wonder if I was Shakespeare's Lepidus, an ass bearing gold.

I'm scheduled to join a discussion about this book with other readers later today, so I'm hoping to steal their ideas to improve this review.