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American secularism is growing — and growing more complicated

Its impact on politics and self-identity looms large, experts say

Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau, seen in D.C. in February, has written one of a crop of new books on American secularism. (David Barash)

Americans are getting less “religious,” you’ve probably heard. They do fewer traditionally religious things, such as belonging to a denomination, attending worship services or feeling certain that God exists.

But what does that lead to?

As research in the past couple of decades has reflected those drops in behaviors and beliefs, conventional wisdom has lingered on a superficial understanding about what it really means — for our identities, our yearnings for something “bigger than ourselves” and our ideas about the role of religion in politics.

Now, a new crop of books dives into the many shades of gray in growing secularism and its important ramifications.

Deploying new research and theories, these writers go beyond the top-level data and argue that many Americans are, in fact, a mix. Someone may be devout personally, for instance, but strongly believe in church-state separation and the primacy of science and observable facts. They may be completely non-religious but also agnostic when it comes to the role of religion in public life.

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The 2021 book “Secular Surge, by a trio of prominent political scientists, says “secular” core values include freethinking, logic and reason — rather than received authority — human experience and the laws of nature. Secularism, notably, is not defined by opposition to religious identity or practices. By this definition, a quarter of Americans now have a secular worldview, the researchers contest, and events such as the pandemic could speed along the birth of a secular political left, not unlike the early days of the religious right.

Another book, “Secularism: The Basics,” out this month from Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau, focuses on political secularism and argues that while Americans may be growing less religious, their government and courts are becoming less secular. The gap, he says, inflames culture-war debates in areas such as vaccine exemptions, LGBTQ rights and government funding for religious schools. Unchecked free exercise of religion, Berlinerblau argues, deprives religious minorities of equal protection under the law.

And the United States, he says, is way behind in developing a secularism for the current era.

“There has been no innovation in secular thought in 50 years, few new policy ideas,” Berlinerblau said in an interview. “There’s no coherence, no leadership, no central movement. They can’t articulate what they want it to do.”

Berlinerblau’s book and others of late look at different parts of personal and public secularism, but they agree that the contemporary terminology is inadequate.

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Emma Koonse Wenner, religion editor for Publishers Weekly, said there is a bit of a boom happening on the topic. There are so many people who have left traditional religious structures but are still interested in the “spiritual but not religious” genre, she said, that PW now does a regular feature on the topic of the “nones” — those Americans who tell pollsters they have “no religion.” That group has swelled from 16 percent of the country in 2007 to 29 percent today, Pew Research said last month.

Experts on secularism sometimes call this era the “third wave” for secularism. The early freethinkers were first, then the “new atheists,” such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who were defined by their angry, direct criticism of religion.

In “Secular Surge,” the authors say the existence of a now-huge group of Americans who share secular values is potentially one of the biggest political forces of the near-future. That group is becoming more organized around liberal priorities on climate change, environmental protection,immigration and social welfare.

The authors say this is a significant bloc within the Democratic Party, which could be powerful if organized well — and could also, depending on its approach, cause friction with the more religious, largely non-White segments of the party. The authors say a growing slice of the Republican Party is also defined as secular, and also must be engaged.

“Secularism is at the very heart of the battles for the soul of the Democratic Party,” write the authors, political scientists John C. Green of the University of Akron and David E. Campbell and Geoffrey C. Layman, both of the University of Notre Dame.

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The three agree with Berlinerblau that the big challenge to secular political impact is the lack of a perceived movement: People may fit into the secular camp but not realize it. Some experts posit that the pandemic, and even potentially an overturned Roe v. Wade, could galvanize secular Americans in the way abortion did for the religious right.

Berlinerblau sees secular organizing as a backstop to what he calls growing religious fundamentalism, in Turkey, Israel and the United States.

But Ryan P. Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University who last year published “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They’re Going,thinks Berlinblau overstates that possibility. He looks at atheists and considers their antagonism to religion as out of step for the country.

Burge’s book focuses on the nones broadly, and the significant differences in belief and attitudes between nones who are anti-religion and nones who are ambivalent. The majority of nones are in the latter camp, Burge says, and that same dynamic is at play with secular Americans: The majority are in the middle.

“Now we’re seeing religious polarization and political polarization lay on top of one another,” Burge said. “Religious polarization is just as real, but we don’t talk about it as much because no one has articulated it in a way that makes sense.”