“In terms of both political gains and popular appeal, nonbelievers in the United States have little to show. They are encircled by cunning, swarming 1/8religious3/8 Revivalist adversaries who know how to play the atheist card.”
Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University biblical scholar who teaches a course on secularism, wants to rescue that little zebra. But his plan may be a hard-sell with some atheists — he wants atheist groups to drop their black-and-white opposition to religion and its adherents in order to preserve the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion.
“The gimpy zebra remark was a little goofing on this over-the-top chest-thumping that emerges from Movement Atheists,” he said in an interview, referring to atheist organizations with political goals, like American Atheists. “They wildly overestimate their numbers. They tend to overestimate the efficacy of their activism. They underestimate how disciplined and organized their adversaries in the religious right are, too.”
One more thing: “They fail to recognize that mocking religious people in public is entirely inimical to the goals they wish to achieve.”
Then, he offers what could stand as a summary of the whole book: “If atheists want to live in a secular country, they will need allies. Those allies are called religious moderates.”
With his sleepy eyes and hangdog expression, Berlinerblau has a deceptively avuncular look — like a guy you’d actually like to debate religion with over the Thanksgiving turkey. In YouTube videos that support the new book, he seems to chat with the viewer, not lecture them, making points with a bob from the waist and a jut of the head, sometimes even mugging for the camera when a politician — say, Newt Gingrich — misuses, in Berlinerblau’s opinion, the word “secular.”
Think of him as the Rodney Dangerfield of secularism — never getting respect, and he’s aiming to change that.
But to do that, he writes, atheist organizations and religious moderates — people he calls “secularish” — must work together to reclaim the word “secular,” which has become a kind of dirty word bandied about by the religious right to denote a rejection of religion, often all religion.
“Secularism is not atheism,” he said. Its roots lie with religious thinkers — St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Locke, among them. They understood secularism, he writes, as “a political philosophy, which, at its core, is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion.”
In calling for cooperation with believers, Berlinerblau, 46, stands firmly with a segment of the nontheistic community who have long called for more cooperation with religious persons and groups on everything from ending wars, protecting the environment and combating homelessness. Similar pleas have been made by Greg Epstein, Harvard University’s Humanist chaplain; Paul Kurtz, founder of The Council for Secular Humanism; and Chris Stedman, whose book “Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground With the Religious” will be published in November.