September 17, 1999
Defining American Culture: Secular, Religious, or Religiosecular?
-- Martin E. Marty
In the constant efforts, over the definition of American culture as "secular," "religious," or, as we prefer (though we'd look for a better word), "religiosecular," religious apologists regularly point to the academy and politics as the most secular spheres of public life. The modern university especially is seen as the sanctum of secularity, the nerve center of skepticism, the soulless citadel of inhospitability to religion, and even of open dismissal of belief.
Not so, argues Alan M. Dershowitz, the very public figure who teaches at Harvard Law School. He writes in FREE INQUIRY, the most notable journal devoted to Secular Humanism. (Quick, now: have you heard of it? Can you name another such journal? It's on the Web at secularhumanism.org) Dershowitz writes on "Taking Disbelief Out of the Closet" and does so in not very militant and certainly no secular-humanist-conspiratorial tones. Yet he complains:
"Even academics, whose tenure guarantees them the right to speak freely without consequence, rarely publicize their disbelief for fear of alienating students, alumni, and the administration. BEING an atheist or agnostic in America is relatively cost free, so long as you remain in the closet. Most public institutions have a 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy when it comes to disbelief."
That paragraph shows how important perspective is in sighting public religion and public nonreligion in America. Many religious apologists may rub their eyes upon reading it: what a different universe Dershowitz's academics seem to inhabit than those perceived by many religious critics of the academy! Obviously there has to be fresh conversation, perhaps a wholly new dialogue, until both sides understand the other's perspective on an issue that colors American life.
Dershowitz has an easier time making the case that in politics expression of nonreligion, agnosticism, or atheism is dangerous or defeating. Why that should be and why some people think otherwise--that politics and law only trivialize or ignore belief--is a good topic for another day.
From where is Dershowitz coming? He writes that he thinks of himself as "a committed Jew" who does not believe being a Jew requires a belief in the supernatural. He goes on to say that he recites prayers when he attends synagogue or conducts Sabbath, Passover, or Chanukah services at home, and, he finds himself "comfortable with these apparent contradictions."
Finally, writes Dershowitz, "America was founded on religious dissent and skepticism. We must not accept religious hegemony or preference for religion in public life. Atheists and agnostics are every bit as American, every bit as moral and every bit as qualified to hold public office as people who believe in an intervening God." Communication across the believer-nonbeliever gap, always difficult, gets a boost here.