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December 21, 2012

The True Believer is Everywhere on the March

Last night I finished the chapter on the Secularist worldview for the new Understanding the Times course. Unsurprisingly, the research showed Secularism to be quite influential and growing. In fact, 12-18% of the American public now are comfortable thinking of themselves as “secular.”

In addition, the fastest growing religious movement among 18-29 year-olds in America, according to research done by the Pew Foundation, is “the nones.” As in, “What’s your religious preference?” “None.” One-third of young people claim that designation. Some of them are probably secularist. Other just have commitment issues. But either way, it’s grown a lot. When I was in high school it was 10%.

The point of writing about Secularism is to highlight the fact that just because someone doesn’t believe in the supernatural doesn’t mean they are not religiously evangelistic. As Eric Hoffer wrote so prophetically in 1951, “For though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious. The true believer is everywhere on the march, and both by converting and antagonizing he is shaping the world in his own image.”

In the original UTT we zeroed in on the Secular Humanist worldview. It made sense because Secular Humanists were willing to state propositionally (in documents like the Humanist Manifesto) exactly what they believed and what their aims were. This was astounding, especially for academics who like to pin down other people’s beliefs but hide their own in a fog of rhetoric and dissimulation.

I don’t know if anyone really knew this, but several Secular Humanist leaders read drafts of UTT when it was first being written. While they agreed that we had fairly represented their worldview, they denied being influential. “We’re just a tiny group,” they argued. “How can you say we have so much control?” In some ways that question is more relevant now than before. All of the Secular Humanist leaders and chief promoters are dead. The last one, Paul Kurtz, died in October. But before they passed they managed to produce a new breed, the self-proclaimed “secularists.”

Here’s how I’m thinking about phrasing it in the chapter on the Secularist worldview:

In spite of the substantial agreement among Secularists about their embrace of science and their rejection of Christianity, many have questioned whether Secularism is truly a coherent enough worldview to be compelling to the masses. That a lot of people have signed the Humanist Manifesto may or may not mean anything. Some people are quite promiscuous with their signatures, especially on college campuses. Plus, organizations like the American Humanist Association are relatively small, about the same budget as a church with 20 staff members, of which there are several hundred. The AHA’s founders and chief promoters are all dead. It is also possible that most Secularists have never even heard of AHA’s manifesto and would never sign it even if they had.

But it would be wrong to confuse the issues of whether someone believes something and whether they are willing to sign their name to it. When we talk about worldviews, we’re talking about what ideas people hold, and their subsequent commitment to certain beliefs, values and convictions, not about the organizations to which they pay dues. If we can figure out someone’s theology, philosophy and ethics, we can probably make fairly accurate guesses about their views in other disciplines as well. Probabilities, not certainties, are sufficient to help us understand the patterns of ideas.

Now on to the Islam chapter!


This post has earned 2 Comments so far.

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  • December 28, 2012 // 04:08 am //  # 
    Nathan Straub's avatar Nathan Straub

    Good point in the second paragraph, distinguishing people’s beliefs from what they’re willing to sign their names to. You may want to revise the sentence ending with “of which there are several hundred”, since it’s not immediately clear what there are several hundred of; whether staff members or organizations.

  • February 07, 2013 // 07:26 am //  # 
    Darlene Ward's avatar Darlene Ward

    I agree that the sentence: “Plus, organizations like the American Humanist Association are relatively small, about the same budget as a church with 20 staff members, of which there are several hundred.” needs to be changed to make it clearer.  Where’s the several hundred??

    I am pleased that Noebels sought the verification of accuracy from secular humanist leaders, when he wrote this text decades ago.  That’s good to know.

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