James Croft Is Bothered By Secularism

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photo of James Croft
James Croft

I read an essay last night from James Croft about his thoughts after attending the recent American Humanist Association (AHA) convention. Titled ‘Beyond Secularism’, Croft complains that the AHA focuses too much on secularism and not enough on the issues he feels are more important. While I agree that we should be addressing more than ‘just’ secularism. I disagree with Croft’s assessment of the problem – if there is one.

Take, for instance, the American Humanist Association’s recent lawsuit against a cross-shaped World War I memorial in Maryland. Setting aside the bad will this move is likely to provoke (“Humanists denigrate memory of WWI veterans!”), and assuming the AHA is correct on the matter of law (I’m dubious), we must still ask “Is this the most pressing matter that the legal resources of the American Humanist Association could be tackling at this moment?”

I think not. We live in a time when many Americans are struggling to get basic healthcare insurance due to the flaws in the US healthcare system and the incompetence of the US government; a time when a stumbling economy has left a generation looking toward a future of insecure employment and reduced affluence; a time when Republican laws threaten the basic right of suffrage for minorities and the poor; a time when trans people face legal discrimination, cultural ostracism and violence; a time when unions are under attack and workers’ rights are being eroded; a time when gun violence is commonplace and increasingly deadly; a time when women live in an atmosphere of constant threat; a time when our endless consumption has put the health of our very planet is at stake. Humans – and Humanists – have bigger problems and more pressing priorities than old crosses on public land.

The world cries out for a non-religious, values-based movement striving for a more humane society on every level. Humanism could be that movement – but only if we look beyond secularism.

Beyond Secularism

First of all, I appreciate that James took the time to write the essay. It doesn’t do any good to keep one’s thoughts to one self.

However, it’s the type of essay I’ve come to expect from someone who lives in a western liberal secular bubble like the Humanist Community at Harvard.

The meat and potatoes of the religious right are symbols like the cross in Maryland. Theists use those government sanctioned symbols as “proof” that they should get special treatment. I liken those public displays of religion to the old “white’s only” signs found in many places before the civil rights struggle removed them in the 1960s. And no those crosses or Ten Commandment plaques aren’t beating me down or killing me but the physiological abuse is the same. Those symbols tell me I am a second class citizen just because I don’t subscribe to the religion that symbol represents.

And the theists will fight hard to keep these symbols. Just check out the long drawn out case of the Mt. Soledad cross in California.

Croft says he is dubious of the AHA being correct in the Maryland case. Really? I would like a court to decide it. It might have helped to include a link to the AHA press release rather than an article to the Washington Times – run by the Unification Church. But that’s just me.

Recent court decisions unequivocally support the notion that clearly sectarian symbols on government property are unconstitutional. In 2011, a 43-foot cross that dominates the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego, CA was ruled unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2010, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that crosses erected on public land along Utah highways to commemorate slain highway patrol officers were likewise unconstitutional. The Supreme Court rejected appeals in both cases.

Humanists Challenge Cross War Memorial in Maryland

I would argue that the other issues that Croft worries might be shunted to the side as the AHA goes after crosses are based on or have some part based in the struggle for a secular government. Then we also have people using religion to attack science curriculum in the public schools, the many many laws passed to further restrict women’s reproductive rights coming from religious lobby groups, and not to mention exempting the religious from child abuse laws. It isn’t hard to find a secularism angle on many issues outside of battling symbols.

I really don’t know where one could draw a line arbitrarily, where one issue is ‘trivial’ and another ‘most important’, when it comes to a secular government. The right will use any scrap to shore up their side and we shouldn’t be hamstring our side for the sake of the claim we need to be nice.

I was also concerned with this bit in James’ essay:

The more secularism comes to be seen as a battle between religious and nonreligious people, the less it will be embraced by the majority religious population, and the more frequently we will lose in the court of public opinion when we champion secularism.

It’s an odd statement because it seems that James is falling into the religious right’s spin that claims there is a conflict. Sort of like when the right pulls out one guy who disagrees about Evolution and they use that to “prove” there is a conflict in the science community about Evolution (there isn’t).

Secularism is a pillar of a free and democratic society. It shouldn’t be subject to public opinion. It’s embedded in our Bill of Rights.

When rights were put to a vote in 2004, for example, we got 11 state bans on same-sex marriage and it has taken years to undo that fiasco.

I’m sure James will agree with me that rights aren’t open to popular vote and I’m sure he wants Humanism to grow in numbers. I just don’t think attacking secularism is how you do it if you want to provide “a non-religious, values-based movement striving for a more humane society on every level”.

Post Script

My friend Joe reminded me of this quote from the Abington Township School District v. Schempp case in 1963 that declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools in the United States to be unconstitutional. It fits the point I’m making in this essay.

“[I]t is no defense to urge that the religious practices here may be relatively minor encroachments on the First Amendment. The breach of neutrality that is today a trickling stream may all too soon become a raging torrent and, in the words of Madison, ‘it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.'”

Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963)

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