Show Notes - Episode 59
What is secularization? Well, according to Google dictionary, secularization is defined as “disassociation or separation from religious or spiritual concerns.”
In anthropological terms, secularization is the natural progression of our species. We start out explaining everything we don't understand by attributing it to magick, or to the actions and behaviors of various deities. Then we start discovering things, understanding things better, becoming more independent, pursuing knowledge, solving problems, and more. Eventually, we figure out that all those things we attributed to “the gods” have natural explanations which diminish the power and influence of deities in our thought processes. We stop depending on belief for our understanding of ourselves, of nature, etc. and start seeking out hard answers.
That's what's supposed to happen, but these brains of ours are still geared toward belief. It's one of the curses of having an advanced intellect: we can make ourselves think whatever we want AND we can influence thought in others. If we choose to perpetuate the notion of deities being behind everything, the notion will remain in the minds of people.
Our base tendency is to believe in deities, that is, on a very primitive level – one wherein access to information and knowledge, particularly in the area of science, is not yet available.
Paganism has its roots in primitive human thought and is the oldest form of religion there is. In other words, religion is as old as people. This was one of the key reasons I eventually adopted Paganism. It seemed more... natural for a person to follow that than Christianity ever did. And that's true to an extent, but not so much in a society that has found so many of the real answers to things that Paganism only ever guesses at. When you don't understand what static electricity is, your only other explanation for lightning is probably going to be things like magick and deities. We know better now. We should think better. Period.
The good news is that our intellects are designed to eventually think past those tendencies both as individuals and as a species. The problem is that too many modern people, who have every reason to reject every iteration of religion there is, still adhere to belief either because of influences that go back to their infancy, or because, at the end of the day, it's still how we're wired. Old habits die hard, especially when they're in your DNA. It's also easier to believe in something than it is to think about why we believe it and, sorry, most people are lazy as fuck when it comes to thinking about anything.
Yes, some of these tendencies run as deep as the building blocks of our makeup. Just because we have these highly-developed brains doesn't mean we always knew how to make microchips. We all have to start somewhere. If you don't think thought and behavior are at least somewhat hard-wired in us, just look at bees, birds, fish, ants, and more. Who teaches these things their behaviors? Answer: no one has to. They just behave the way they do because that's what nature dictates.
Well guess what: nature dictates to us that we require answers and explanations and those needs are only ever sated by finding (or, let's be realistic here – settling upon) those answers so we can get around to the business of thinking about something else. We decide that things are the way they are for Reason X so our brains don't have to stress over them anymore. This is how things like religion start gaining ground. “God” is a convenient explanation so we run with it for a time, but then we learn better, or at least we should. That's how secularization is supposed to work: we figure out that we either have the answers or that the answers have yet to be uncovered. We stop stamping everything we don't understand with base explanations and start trying harder to understand them.
But, as we know, there are still plenty of people out there who need that anchor of religious belief to satisfy the need to Know. They need explanations for things that they can believe in (like the creation myth) and they need a scapegoat for hanging onto their antiquated thoughts and ideas (like homosexuality somehow being unnatural). The Bible is good at placating these needs. And like our Pagan ancestors, we take this concept of “god” and mold it into whatever works best for us, even to the point of stamping our god as loving and nurturing when his own “divinely inspired word” paints him in a much darker, more sinister light.
“Western societies are largely secular. Even in countries like the United States, which contain high levels of religiosity, popular culture, education, and politics all operate within an essentially secular paradigm. And yet religion continues to prosper: presidential candidates discuss their faith, people still go to church, [most] Americans draw a connection between religion and morality, and religious leaders continue to hold real sway.”
One of the interesting things about secularization is that its goal isn't to eradicate religion. Oddly enough, religion factors in to secularization. It's not about removing religion from the equation. It's about doing with religion what we do with everything else: finding a place for it to fit into the structure of society.
Religious tolerance is a secular concept. It's where the concept of “separation of church and state” comes into play. Our founding fathers understood that religion and government should be separate, but there were plenty of those same founding fathers who used their religions to gain influence and integrated their religious principles into the way they governed. This has been a problem in America (and in other parts of the world) ever since. We need a secular society. But we also need a moral society so lets integrate our religious morals into the framework. It's a very, very slippery slope at best.
In some ways, our society has gone through a significant degree of secularization, but we fall way short in others. Some of the positive things that secular thought has graced American culture with include things like:
The end of prohibition
The Space program (and other government-backed scientific bodies)
The Civil Rights Movement (that did, admittedly, have strong spiritual leanings)
The sexual revolution
Roe Vs. Wade
Movies and TV
Pop Music (that has ALWAYS seen religious backlash)
Prohibition of state-sanctioned prayer in school (thank you, Madalyn Murray)
The Women's Liberation Movement
LGBTQ Rights and Same-Sex Marriage
All of the above are examples of what secularization is supposed to do. They demonstrate a separation between religious ideas and free thought. They all encapsulate the concept of removing religious considerations from the equation of morality and ethics. They communicate that the benefits to society and the individual outweigh the opinions and tenets of a religious system and that we should be striving for the former, not falling in lock step with the latter.
But since we think the way we do and religion still permeates a lot of areas where it should be kept from touching at all, there are still some pretty huge negatives. Lets take a look at a Pew Research study from last year that outlines some very noteworthy facts about the role religion plays in government in the United States...
All outward expressions of faith by the United States Government endorse and perpetuate belief in the existence of the Christian god. Is it any wonder that evangelicals think they own the government? When was the last time a Hindu representative demanded invoking Ganesh at the beginning of any proceeding? It doesn't happen because religions outside of the Judaeo-Christian moniker don't have the power from within that protestantism has (and let's be fair, it's not always wild pentecostal evangelicals pulling the reins), but any flavor of Christianity provides an in-road to evangelical thought in government. There is also PLENTY of agreement between radical evangelical doctrine and that of other more traditional protestant denominations.
Governmental proceedings are often opened and/or closed with prayer.
Governmental buildings often have monuments or etchings that include scripture verses or passages
Our money still says, “In God We Trust”
Our Pledge of Allegiance still includes the phrase “under God”
The Pledge of Allegiance is a prime example of how religion permeates our government. In a truly secular society, this never would have happened, but as we've already demonstrated, our government has always been stacked with religious people of varying degrees of zeal. It doesn't surprise me that one voice could have made this kind of drastic change.
The original pledge was written in 1891 by Francis Bellamy and it looked like this:
“I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands — one Nation indivisible — with liberty and justice for all.”
Later on, things were added, like mentioning the United States just to be clear which flag we're pledging to. And for years there were various calls to invoke the name of God as part of the pledge, but it wouldn't happen for more than 60 years.
Enter the Rev. George Docherty.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1911, Docherty was brought to the United States in 1950 to become pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a historic house of worship in downtown Washington that Abraham Lincoln attended. When Lincoln was president, the church held a special service on the Sunday closest to his birthday that he liked to attend.
[It's worth noting here that Lincoln was not a religious person and that he attended church as president for reasons that were far more political than spiritual]
Docherty himself had not heard the Pledge of Allegiance until he heard his young son recite it.
“I came from Scotland, where we said ‘God save our gracious queen,’ ‘God save our gracious king,’ ” Docherty told the Associated Press in 2004. “Here was the pledge of allegiance, and God wasn’t in it at all.”
Docherty had previously sermonized about the need to insert “under God” into the pledge, but he found his prime audience in February 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended Docherty’s service in honor of Lincoln’s birthday.
“To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive factor in the American way of life,” Docherty said from the pulpit.
[Thank goodness he wasn't too overdramatic or anything – there's that signature emotionalism and sensationalism again – and this time it got the attention of the PRESIDENT]
He felt that “under God” was broad enough to include Jews and Muslims, although he discounted atheists.
“An atheistic American is a contradiction in terms,” Docherty said in his sermon. “If you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life.”
[...said the Scottish immigrant. You mean the christian ethic that calls for enslaving black people or attacking and killing them for being black? The Christian ethic that led to the deaths of six million Jews in Nazi Germany? The Christian ethic that would deny a woman an abortion even if her life is in danger because it must be “god's will?” Are you talking about the Christian ethic that pries its way into everybody's bedrooms and makes a particular stink if everyone in the room has the same chromosomal makeup? Ideally, I think society would be a better place without ANY of that...]
Calls to add “under God” to the pledge had been promoted by groups including the Knights of Columbus and a veterans organization. But Eisenhower proved to be the audience the movement was missing.
The week of Docherty’s sermon, bills were introduced in Congress to add the phrase, and Eisenhower signed the act into law on Flag Day — June 14, 1954.
[All of a sudden, I really don't like Ike...]
And I don't think I need to get into the entire laundry list of ways that religion has steered the tides in our government over the years, but religion, and in recent years evangelical religion has definitely had an undue amount of say in policy-making and legal issues.
As much as I like him as an individual and with as many reasons as there are to admire him as a humanitarian, moral, and ethical person, it was Jimmy Carter who opened the doors wide to the influx of evangelical influence in our government. Note that I said “evangelical” and not “Christian.” It's true and here's how...
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/28/us/religion-politics-evangelicals.html “Religion and Right-Wing Politics: How Evangelicals Reshaped Elections”
“When he campaigned for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter often invoked the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his admonition that “the sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” That sort of faith-inflected speech from a major national politician was new to most voters. So was the candidate himself, a former Georgia governor who taught Sunday school and described himself as born again, an obscure term for many millions of Americans.
Mr. Carter managed, narrowly, to win that first post-Watergate national election. As president, he put liberal aspects of his Baptist tradition front and center, whether appealing for racial equality, lamenting economic disparity or making human rights concerns integral to American foreign policy. What he did not win were the hearts and minds of his white co-religionists.”
Even as late as the mid-1970s, the term “born again” was kind of a fringe concept, especially in American politics but evangelicalism was alive and well throughout the heartland and it was often associated with some of the darkest attributes of the faith, specifically the radical, far-right leaning segment that would come to be known as White Evangelicals.
Yes, it's true. Jimmy Carter was the catalyst for an entire movement of hate-filled vitriol, fueled by a segment of the population that didn't like his liberal slant on Christianity. It wasn't his fault. Let's be clear about this. He didn't “get the ball rolling” with an evangelical shit storm in our government, but how dare you be a liberal and call yourself a Christian! Carter tried to mainstream liberal Christian thought and the “proud boys” of the day didn't like it one bit. When confronted with the aspects of their religion that didn't relate directly to their own personal gains and benefits, they had to start pushing back. And push back they did.
This is around the same time that organizations like the Moral Majority began making their voices heard and they did it with the express intent of infusing conservative evangelical thought, policy, and practice into the workings of government. It was, and is, a platform of de-secularization designed to ultimately steer America in the direction of theocratic governance.
The Moral Majority was the mouthpiece that White Evangelicals needed and they used it well. Prior to the development of that organization in particular, evangelicals tended to keep out of politics – as any secularized society would dictate. The fact that they managed to gain momentum for decades is a warning that things can easily change course and that we, as free-thinkers and secularists need to pay attention.
Today, we are definitely seeing a loss of momentum in evangelical influence. I think the fact that they couldn't keep a tyrant leader in office coupled with the very public toddler-esque way that they handled their loss in the last election are showing America (and the world) that they are not only losing their foothold, but that they have no practical, sane, logical, or even mature way of managing their messaging and it's time for radical, sweeping change.
Things that need to go...
“In God We Trust” from our currency
“Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance
Tolerance of racism and governmental systems that are designed to keep people, mostly minorities, poor, dependent on government, and in their place (you know, like what God expects from his children). We need to cut fewer welfare checks, refill fewer EBT cards, and make education and job training more accessible to the people who fill the welfare rolls because most aren't there because they want a free ride. They're there because no other viable, attainable way out is being presented to them.
Religious influence in politics
Tax exemptions for religious organizations
Lack of accountability for monies collected by religious charities
High-level justices that rule based on personal beliefs and not the rule of law
Special exemptions afforded religious organizations that threaten public safety (mass gatherings during a pandemic)
Political involvement in women's health issues
Conflicting standards of conduct and appearance between the sexes
Arguments over what constitutes a marriage
Hackneyed sexual mores that affect people's social status, employment, and more
Moralistic rules of conduct imposed by employers that affect people outside work
Political strong-arming in public health matters – we need to appeal to established scientific bodies FIRST when dealing with widespread public health crises.
Stamping an entire society with uniform codes of morals and ethics
Messaging from religious leaders and personalities that threaten public safety – let's remember that freedom of speech does not extend to messaging that creates harm or chaos (vis a vie, yelling “fire” in a crowded theater). How about enacting penalties for perpetuating rumors, fears, and outright nonsense about things like masking, vaccines, and the very existence of COVID 19? How about demanding mandatory disclaimers from these nutbag televangelists that state unequivocally that what they're saying is nothing but their opinion and that those opinions have no basis in observable science? Oh yeah, that'll happen...
The option to teach creationism in place of evolution in public AND private schools and calling it science.
Corporal punishment in schools
Changing, implementing or removing laws based on religious outcry or protest
The continued unabated, unchecked, and unregulated operation of recognized and identified hate groups, an overwhelming majority of which have religious ties and foundations including the KKK and other white supremacist organizations.
The operation of religious organizations that demonstrate patterns of child and adolescent sexual abuse (I added “sexual” in there because all forms of religious indoctrination that target children are, by definition, child abuse so let's stick with what society still finds abhorrent).
So how do we make those changes? It's like I've said before: we have to be mobile and not complacent. We need to make our wants known to the people who represent us in government. We have to use the voices that our current political structure affords us and start using them more aggressively.
We need to counter theistic thought with secular thought and make it crystal clear to the policymakers in our government that faith-based anything is bad for society and that secular thought on the same issues is more beneficial and will do far more to move society forward than reciting lines like “one nation under God” ever will.
And while every political structure out there has its advantages and disadvantages, no society ever got better by forcing more religion on the populace. Ask anyone who lived in Iran in the 1970s and still lives there today. Theocracy breeds chaos. Secularization quells it. Theocracy brings division. Secularization promotes cooperation. Theocracy demands conformity in thoughts and actions. Secularization acknowledges that all viewpoints matter.... yes, even religious viewpoints. It just does a better job of keeping certain things in places where they benefit the individuals who want to engage in them and don't have undue influence over people who do not.
If we want our government of the people, by the people, and for the people to not perish from the earth, it will take coming to an understanding that all people's views, wants, and needs matter and it will take no longer weighing decisions on how to govern against bronze-age thought or lending deference to religious systems that show a greater propensity for causing division among people than they ever will in bringing them together.
United we stand, divided we fall is a concept that I think has gotten lost in the last few decades in American politics. Let's keep in mind that we have the power to bring unity and we also have the power to cultivate division. It all has to do with who rises up as influencers. Let's also remember that the most important line in the pledge of allegiance is not one that has to do with god, but with the concept of “liberty and justice for all.”
When Gallup reports that religion is on the decline in our country, that, in my opinion is our signal to start making our voices all the louder – to make people understand that taking our cues from fake gods will get us nowhere and that the time for reasoned, rational, secular thought is upon us. At the end of the day, we don't have to go on being a nation divided along theistic lines. It is possible to come together and move in positive directions under common purposes. It is possible to find key points of agreement that keep everyone's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in focus, and it is possible to be strongly united as a people while at the same time being and remaining religiously unbound.