However, secularism needs to be adapted to diverse cultural conditions if it is to gain ground. […] Accordingly, multi-secularism seems to be the best strategy to pursue: that is, adapting secular ideas and values to the societies in which they arise.
What is multi-secularism? Hidden in Kurtz’s editorial – behind his attempts to distance himself from atheism – is his proposal for creating secular societies that incorporate the cultural heritage of religions.
The wider platform for human progress as part of a New Enlightenment needs, I submit, to advocate secularism in the above three senses: (1) the separation of religion from the state; (2) the humanization of values that satisfy the deeper interests and needs of human beings; and (3) the decline of religious practice, entailing the growth of the Human City in place of the City of God.
This call is confused with Kurtz’s strange attempts to distance himself from “negative” atheism (or atheism in general?). Negative atheism “seeks simply to destroy religion, without providing a positive agenda.” Okay. Maybe I am too new to all this but I have yet to come across any atheists who want to destroy religion. The Four Horsemen talked a lot about religious heritage and how they’re enjoying paintings, music, and even buildings without subscribing to any of the religious beliefs underneath it all. And as they pointed out, it were Muslims who destroyed the Buddha’s in Afghanistan, for example. In fact, in the same editorial Kurtz mentions quite a few examples of religious leaders’ intolerance.
In the same issue of free inquiry, Tom Flynn argues that we will have to put up with the “A” word: the label “atheist” is here to stay whether we like it or not. He suggests that instead of denying it, we embrace it similarly to gays and lesbians having embraced words like “queer” and the pink triangle (the symbol homosexuals had to wear in concentration camps). I think Flynn’s approach makes a lot more sense, especially when approaching moderates. Even if we make a distinction between negative and positive atheism (and, again, I am baffled about who these negative atheists are), non-atheists will not make that distinction. Only when they learn that “normal” people just happen to be atheists, the stigma of atheism can begin to fade. And only then can we start finding common ground with religious moderates. As long as we’re trying to avoid the label others put on us, I don’t think we can move forward with multi-secularism because we’ll always have explaining to do, back-paddling from notions of the horrors of atheism. Raising a vague idea like “negative atheism” does not help either.
I would suggest that we come out as atheists. This might shock people at first but that will quickly fade. Then instead of having to talk about why humanism is different from atheism or spending time on distancing ourselves from “negative atheism,” we can put our energies into building a society that is based on secular humanist principles. The question of whether or not we’re atheists will fade into the background. We can then say, like Tom Flynn, “Yes, I am an atheist, but that’s just the beginning” and move on to other topics. (And I am not talking about achieving this with theists – they will likely always see us as devil-inspired. People who support secularism, though they still are part of a religion, are very likely not to be too shocked by our coming out).
I would challenge Kurtz, though, on the notion that we can secularize religions, which is what he seems to suggest. I believe that religions promote “us vs. them” thinking that is fundamentally at odds with humanism. However, I also think that there is a lot of cultural heritage that would be sad to loose, so maybe that is what Kurtz is trying to prevent.
Rather than calling for multi-secularism, I would suggest that we focus on the platform that Kurtz proposes. In addition, we need to create alternatives for the needs religions meet, community and a sense of meaning, in particular. And we need to stop being afraid to claim the atheist label – even if we’d rather not label ourselves.