Cover of How To Be SecularHow to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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Earlier this year Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of launching “a war on religion” and of wanting “to establish a religion in America known as secularism”. The irony is that Obama himself, even before entering the White House, had made clear his own disdain for secularism. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama had chided fellow Democrats for equating “tolerance with secularism”. In embracing secularism, Democrats “forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with larger meaning”.

Secularism is clearly a toxic word in US politics. But why? And how can we detoxify it? Those are the two questions at the heart of sociologist Jacques Berlinerblau’s new book. The key problem, for Berlinerblau, is the association of secularism with atheism. Studies have shown atheists to be America’s least trusted group. For most Americans, one study concluded, an atheist symbolises someone “who rejects the basis for moral solidarity”. Atheists, in other words, cannot be “one of us”.

The irony in the contemporary notion of secularism is that the separation of church and state began historically as a project not of atheists but of believers. The secular outlook, Berlinerblau observes, is rooted not just in the Enlightenment but in the Reformation too. He sketches out a history of the development of secularism, particularly in the Anglo-American tradition.

Over the past century, however, and in particular with the emergence of the so-called “New Atheists”, the original constituency for secularism has shattered as the idea has become associated simply with atheism. The result of “having extreme anti-theists carry the secular flag has”, Berlinerblau writes, “taken its toll”, alienating potential religious supporters. Without resurrecting the original constituency for secularism, without reaching out to moderate believers, religious conservatives will continue to erode the distinction between faith and state, until little of that distinction survives.

Berlinerblau makes a cogent case for rethinking the nature of secularism and the constituency necessary to defend it. His observation that secularism in America has developed through judicial activism rather than the creation of a popular movement is a valuable insight that tells us much about the problems facing secularists today. Berlinerblau’s own argument is, however, deeply flawed and many of its political consequences troubling.

Berlinerblau’s real case is not so much for secularism as for pluralism. He wants to see a world in which a thousand cultural and religious flowers are allowed to bloom. And to protect such pluralism, he seems willing to water down his secularism. To build the widest possible coalition we must “stop fetishising separation of church and state” and accept instead disestablishment as the minimum necessary for a secular society.

Pragmatism can be a useful tool in building political alliances. But here I fear that pragmatism has trumped principle. There are two ways one can build a constituency for a project of social change. One can win people over to a position to which they are currently hostile. Or one can accept that opponents can never be convinced, and that to build a campaign one must water down one’s own principles. Most real social change, from abortion rights to racial equality, has come about by winning people over to a view to which they were initially hostile, not by accommodating to existing prejudices.

I have sympathy with Berlinerblau’s distaste for that strand of atheism that dismisses all religion out of hand and that erases any distinction between liberal believers and fundamentalists. Yet his own hostility to what he calls “extreme atheism” is itself disquieting.

Berlinerblau suggests that atheists whose aim is a world free of religion cannot be secularists because any separation of faith and state requires the existence of religion. Consider the implications. One does not have to believe that religion is the root of all evil, nor that religion is invariably problematic, to hold that a world in which people did not look to the divine for guidance would be a better place. And while holding such a view of faith, one can also accept that in a world in which religion does exist, secularism is a good. Such a view is close to mine. Am I not fit to be part of the secularist movement?

While Berlinerblau is relaxed about the erosion of the line between faith and state, he is less sanguine about people crossing the line dividing faith and politics. Churches should keep out of politics, he believes, and politicians should not bring religious beliefs into the legislature. It is an argument that raises profound questions of what we mean by religious freedom and by freedom from religion. Does freedom from religion really require the exclusion of faith from the political sphere? Can such an exclusion square with a defence of freedom of religion? These are not questions that Berlinerblau explores.

“Order and freedom,” Berlinerblau writes, “are the yin and yang of the secular vision”. Every secular society “has to calibrate a functional equilibrium between the two.” The trouble is that the balance for Berlinerblau seems very much tipped towards the maintenance of order. “Never underestimate a secularist’s desire for order,” as he puts it. This leads Berlinerblau to a deeply undemocratic vision of secularism. He adopts John Locke’s argument that secularism cannot be a matter for democratic will. There can “be no establishment of religion even if the majority wants one.” To the unhappy masses, Berlinerblau has this to say: “Keeping religion out of government, schools, and other public spaces is better for all of you. We know this from experience – y”all should read about it yourself sometime. Now please return to your houses of worship quietly.” Having lambasted the New Atheists for alienating potential allies, does Berlinerblau really think that such patronising guff is acceptable or useful?

The real problem with Berlinerblau’s argument is not that it is a radical rethink of secularism but that it is not radical enough. Anglo-American ideas of secularism and freedom developed at a time when religion was the crucible within which all intellectual and political debate took place. Berlinerblau still draws upon ideas forged in that period. Today, though, questions of secularism and freedom and tolerance are not about how the dominant religious establishment should respond to dissenting religious views, but about the degree to which society should tolerate, and the law permit, speech and activity that might be offensive, hateful, harmful to individuals or undermine national security. It is time we rethought our arguments from first principles.

Read Jacques Berlinerblau and Kenan Malik's Twitter debate on Storify

Read a response to this review by Jacques Berlinerblau