The True Believer is Everywhere on the March

Dr. Jeff MyersLast 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% xof 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 Understanding the Times 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 Understanding the Times 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!