Religion and Secularism


Figure 1.--

The American Revolution is often portrayed as primarily establishing a revolutionary democratic government. This is not quite true. The revolutionary government it established was a republic. Democracy came later. America continued for over a century as virtually the only republic of any importance as the great European powers continued to be goverened by monarchies. Another major aspect of the American Revolution, enbued by the ideals of the Enlightenment, was secularism. Republicanism and democracy are no longer in question. Secularism is very much an issue, not only in America, but in many other countries around the world. Ironically secularism is under assault in America at a time when it isc the dominant approach throughtout Europe. At the same time, America is under assault by fundamentalist Islam which also rejects secularism.

The Enligtenment

Religion was one of the many subjects addressed by the Enlightenment. Here two important works were Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason and Constantine Volney's The Ruins. Jefferson highly praised Paine's book and helped translate Volney's book. Lincoln's confidant Willian Herndon reports that they were inflential in Lincoln's agnosticism.

The American Revolution (1776-83)

The American Revolution is often portrayed as primarily establishing a revolutionary democratic government. This is not quite true. The revolutionary government it established was a republic. Democracy came later. America continued for over a century as virtually the only republic of any importance as the great European powers continued to be goverened by monarchies. Another major aspect of the American Revolution, enbued by the ideals of the Enlightenment, was secularism.

Secularist Thought and the Revolution

Religious fundamentalists would today have Americans believe that secularism is a recent phenomenon and some how un-American. In fact secularism and asgnoticism are as American as apple pie and were firmly outlooks firmly held by many of the founding fathers. Jefferson is known to have used a razor to cut out passages of the Old Testament that he found unreasonable or not based on science which resulted in a much reduced text. [Jacoby]

The Constitution

The issue of religion was debated at the Constitutional Convention. The delegates decided to omit all references to a higher power. The American Constitution is the first an only country to specufically exclude a reference to a higher power. [Jacoby] (HBC note: We can not confirm the statement that the American Consitution is the only one to exclude references to a higher power. We would have thought that the Soviet Constitution, for example, would have excluded such references.) Religious leaders at the time sharply critised this ommission.

The First Amendment

Many Americans did not believe that the Constitution's silence on religion was sufficient. It was no accident that the First Amendment to the Constitution contained the anti-establishment clause. This was based on the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom authored by Thomas Jefferson. Both document were criticised by religious leaders, but in essence simoly stated that citizens would not be compeled to support an established Church to which they did not belong.

Morality

There is no doubt that the world's great religions have played a major role in constructing sound moral codes upon which moder civilization are based. Although there are enormous differences in the great religous traditions, most have in one form of another the Golden Rule and essentially the Ten Commandments--expressing almost universal values. It is also true that religion has been the source of enormous intolerance and evil. The Christian Crusades, pogroms against the Jews, and the Spanish Inquisition are some of the best examples of religious intolerance. The religious wars following the Protestant Reformation came close to extinguising Western Civilization--esprcially the Thirty Years War in Germany. [Jacoby] While religion has played a major role in the fight against slavery and segregation, it is also true that religion was used to justify those very same institutions.

The Scopes Trial


Secularism in Modern America

Republicanism and democracy are no longer in question. Secularism is very much an issue, not only in America, but in many other countries around the world. Ironically secularism is under assault in America

Pledge of Alegiance

A current debate in America is whether the words "under God" should be included in the Pledge. Most Americans believe that they have always been there. In fact they were not added until the Red Scare of the Post World War II era. In fact America manage to survive quite nicely two wold wars, the Depression, and the beginning of the Cold War without American school children adding those words to the Pledge. [Jacoby]

Religious displays on public property


Support for religious schools


Support for religious charities


Prayer in the school


Religious involvement in politics


American Politics

Religious fundamentalists often associate secularism with the liberal tradition in America. This has especially been the case in recent years as Fundamentalists have assumed increasing influence in the Republican Party . Some times forgotten is the fact that some of the most important exponents of conservatism such as Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss were determined atheists.

Secularism in Europe

Since World War II Europe has had a decidedly secular outlook. Today througout Europe, few families attend church. Perhaps an exception here is Poland. European liberals foughtt clerics throughout the 19th century. It was the horrors of World War I and World war II, however, that destroyed the faith of many Europeans, both in victorious and vanquished countries.

Islam

At the same time, America is under assault by fundamentalist Islam which also rejects secularism.

Sources

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 2004), 417p.





HBC








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Created: April 25, 2004
Last updated: April 25, 2004