Christian conservatives who are battling for the right to promote their faith in public or official settings see themselves locked in an epic contest with a rival religion. But that rival isn't Islam. It's secularism.
"Secularism and Christianity are distinct, immutable religions," writes David Lane, founder of the American Renewal Project, a group he organized to promote more political participation by conservative pastors. "Secularism advances the fundamental goodness of human nature, where historic Christianity sets forth a pessimistic view of human nature."
The notion that secularism can be seen as a religion is ridiculed by many nonreligious people, but Lane and other Christian conservatives have their own Supreme Court hero to back them up: the late Justice Potter Stewart, who served on the court from 1958 to 1981.
The lone dissenter in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, a 1963 Supreme Court decision that banned Bible readings in public schools, Stewart argued that prohibiting such religious exercises put religion in "an artificial and state-created disadvantage." Such a ban, Stewart said, "is seen, not as the realization of state neutrality, but rather as the establishment of a religion of secularism."
Defining Secularism And Its Relation To The State
That view of secularism as a religion has since become a key part of the conservative argument against a strict separation of church and state. It suggests that when government authorities ban prayers or Bible readings or Nativity scenes on public property or in official settings, it isn't avoiding the appearance of state support for religion, it's unfairly favoring one faith tradition over another.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan cited Stewart's dissent in arguing for a constitutional amendment authorizing school prayer.
A secular viewpoint is normally understood as one that excludes religious references, so Stewart's claim is controversial, even among some people of faith.
"Secularism is a way you look at the relation between government and religion," says Barry Lynn, a Christian minister who also directs Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "If you say religion should keep its hands off government and government should keep its hands off religion, that to me is what a secularist is. You can have any or no theological beliefs backing that up."
Some scholars nevertheless say some advocates of secularism do have their own worldview and belief system. Among them is Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a leading lay Catholic intellectual.
"I don't think there really can be any question that there are forms of secularism, including some that are very prominent today in universities and other elite sectors of our society — belief systems that are comprehensive views — that function in people's lives the way that religions function in the lives of traditional religious believers," George says.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention, goes further.
"In some virulent forms of secularism, you have a moral code that is being imposed [that] often comes with the force of penalty of law," he says. "It acts as a religion in terms of demanding conformity and seeking out heretics."
Recent polling by the Pew Research Center suggests that secular attitudes are gaining strength in the United States, with fewer Americans saying they pray daily or attend church regularly.
But can secularism really be considered a religion?
Unpacking What It Means To Be Secular
No way, says sociology professor Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. He specializes in the study of "nonreligious" people.
"To me, what makes religion religion is the supernatural beliefs," he says. "So a scientist who is gazing out at the universe and trying to make sense of it by looking at facts, physical properties, material reality, is not engaging in religion. The person who looks out at the universe and thinks there's a magic deity behind it is engaging in religion."
At Pitzer, Zuckerman has founded an academic program in Secular Studies, the first of its kind in the country.
"We need to unpack what it means to be secular," Zuckerman tells his students in a recent class on the sociology of secularism. "There is so much diversity and so many ways to be secular."
One of Zuckerman's students, Chance Kawar, says in an interview that his "nonreligious" identity stemmed in part from his experience in a Boy Scout troop sponsored by a local Catholic parish in San Diego. As a teenager, Kawar says, he realized he was gay.
"There was a lot of name-calling and bullying, and I actually got kicked out of the organization," he says. "That was a very traumatic experience for me, not being welcomed by this religious community because of my sexual orientation. It was certainly a big turnoff for me in terms of religion."
Finding Acceptance Among The Nonreligious
Not all of Zuckerman's students are anti-religion, however. April Forrest, a 30-year-old single mother who is finishing her college education, notes during a class discussion that not all Christian churches are as judgmental as they are sometimes portrayed to be.
"You do find ones where it is about love and trying to make the world a better place and being more like God," she says, "which would be like being as good as you can be."
In a paper she wrote for Zuckerman, Forrest argued that God should not be blamed for bad things that happen.
"I believe in a loving God," she wrote. "I know that life isn't perfect. I watched my mother's battle with drug addiction and depression. I've seen my father in and out of jail ... I saw my uncle die of AIDS. ... At 23, I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. I struggle every day to do regular tasks. But I still believe."
In a personal note to Zuckerman that she added to the paper, Forrest wrote, "I'm sure you have a lot to say back to this. Actually, I'm a little worried."
In an interview, she admits to fearing that Zuckerman and her Pitzer classmates might think less of her because of her religious views.
"I guess there was a concern being here, where there is a culture of secularity," she says. "I am aware that I'm a little different in believing in God."
But Forrest found Zuckerman to be wholly respectful of her views. In an interview, he says he understands how people with religious convictions may feel out of place in some secular settings.
"I had a Mormon student burst into tears in my own office, saying she felt so alienated, put down, mocked, criticized," Zuckerman says. "So there's no question that in really secular enclaves like Pitzer College or Berkeley, if you're a student of faith, you're going to be made to feel defensive. You're going to be made to feel less intelligent, and that's definitely a problem."
Secularists Not Dominating Cultural Landscape
Such cultural conflicts are what lead some conservatives to allege the spread of "anti-Christian bigotry" in America. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said in a recent speech that "secular progressives" are among those in America "trying to push God out of our lives."
But Zuckerman, the author of Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, vigorously disputes such generalizations.
"I can tell you from my research that in certain parts of this country, nonbelievers are certainly not the ones dominating the cultural landscape," he says. "If someone is not churchgoing, people are suspicious of them. Prayers are said at the Little League games. I've interviewed so many [secular] parents in the Bible Belt whose children are teased on the schoolyard and taunted that they're going to go to hell."
Zuckerman has data to back up his assertion that secularists are not a favored group. In a 2014 Pew survey where people were asked to rate 23 possible presidential traits, "atheist" came in dead last. The share of respondents who said they were "less likely" to support an atheist for president had declined by 8 points since 2007, but it remained the least attractive trait a candidate could have, ranking far below using marijuana, having had an extramarital affair or being homosexual.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Some Christian conservatives see themselves locked in an epic contest with a rival religion - not Islam, secularism. With polls showing a drop in the number of Americans who pray and attend church, deeply religious people see the growth of secular attitudes as a threat. NPR's Tom Gjelten has been speaking with self-described secularists about a movement some consider a religion of its own.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Here's a cultural divide. At one of the largest Christian schools in the world, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., students major in Bible studies. On the other side of the country at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., students major in secular studies.
PHIL ZUCKERMAN: I mean, if we think about what it means to be secular in France...
GJELTEN: There's actually a secularism department at Pitzer, the first of its kind in the country. It was founded by sociology professor Phil Zuckerman. His students learn what secularism means. They read his books. The latest is "Living The Secular Life." And they hear a secular take on the role religion plays in American politics.
ZUCKERMAN: For example, religious people and organizations and politicians in this country actively worked to limit women's reproductive rights. They actively fight to limit the rights of homosexuals and gays and lesbians.
GJELTEN: Secularism dominates here. Most of the students in this class on the sociology of secularism are more or less agnostic, but not all of them. April Forrest is a believer. And this day, she wants to say that while some churches she has attended are judgmental, some are not.
APRIL FORREST: You do find ones where it is about love and being a better person and just trying to make the world a better place and be more like God, which would be like being, you know, as good as you can be. So...
GJELTEN: April has not had an easy life. Her mother, for example, was, for many years, a drug addict and attempted suicide. In a paper she wrote for this class, April said she did not blame God for the bad things that happened in her life. In an interview after class, she said she was a little nervous when she turned the paper in to Zuckerman.
FORREST: I mean, he doesn't believe in God (laughter). And obviously it's a very personal paper. It's a lot about, like, my life, and so I felt like it was important to share, though, I think because a lot of people lost their faith due to traumatic experiences. And I wanted to share that I myself have had traumatic experiences, and that doesn't take away from my faith.
GJELTEN: But you're a little worried that people are going to judge you for believing in God.
FORREST: Yeah. I mean, I guess there was a concern being here at the school where, I guess, I know that there is a culture of secularity. I am aware that I'm a little different in believing in God.
GJELTEN: April says Zuckerman actually went out of his way to make her feel comfortable in his class. In an interview, he said he understands how religious people like April may feel out of place in some secular settings.
ZUCKERMAN: I had a Mormon student burst into tears in my own office, saying she felt so alienated, put down, mocked, criticized. So there's no question that in really secular enclaves such as Pitzer College or Berkeley or wherever, if you're a student of faith, you're going to be made to feel defensive. You're going to be made to feel less intelligent. And that's definitely a problem.
GJELTEN: This is a cultural clash. For conservative Christians, secularism is a dirty word standing for the forces against religious belief. At Pitzer College, Phil Zuckerman has studied this conflict for years. While recognizing people of faith may feel isolated in some settings, secular people, he says, can feel just as marginalized.
ZUCKERMAN: I can tell you from my research that in certain parts of this country, nonbelievers are certainly not the ones dominating the cultural landscape. I've interviewed so many whose children are teased on the schoolyard, taunted that they're going to go to hell.
GJELTEN: Chance Kawar, another student in Zuckerman's secularism class, says he found on his own that religious people can be intolerant. His experience came in the Catholic Church that hosted his Boy Scout troop. He joined in prayers, and then word got out that he was gay.
CHANCE KAWAR: I started getting made fun of, and there was a lot of name-calling and bullying. And I actually got kicked out. So that was a very traumatic experience for me in terms of not being welcome by this religious community because of my sexual orientation. And it's certainly been a big turnoff for me in terms of religion.
GJELTEN: When Zuckerman hears that secularism dominates in America, he cites the Pew Research survey last year where people rank the attractiveness of 23 possible presidential traits. Being an atheist was at the bottom, the very worst think a candidate could be.
KAWAR: So I'm a little suspect of characterizing religious faith as sort of this oppressed minority with no rights.
GJELTEN: The big question raised by the conflict between religion and secularism is government's role. The First Amendment bars the state from establishing religion but also from limiting its free exercise. But what exactly does that mean?
Conservatives cite the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who dissented from a 1963 opinion prohibiting Bible reading in public schools. His argument - secularism itself can be seen as a religion. So when the government bans Bible reading or prayer, it's favoring the religion of secularism over its rivals.
Normally, a secular viewpoint is one that excludes religious references, but Professor Robert George, a Princeton professor trained both as a constitutional lawyer and a theologian, understands how secularism can be seen as a religion.
ROBERT GEORGE: I don't think there really can be any question that the reforms of secularism, including some that are very prominent today in universities and in other sectors of our society - belief systems that are comprehensive views that function in people's lives the way religions function in the lives of traditional religious believers.
GJELTEN: At Pitzer College, Phil Zuckerman agrees that secularism as a comprehensive belief system may be like religion, but he says that doesn't make it a religion.
ZUCKERMAN: To me, what makes religion religion is the supernatural beliefs. So a scientist who's gazing out at the universe and trying to make sense of it by looking at facts, physical properties, material reality is not engaging in religion. The person who looks out at the universe and thinks there's a magic deity behind it all is engaging in religion.
GJELTEN: Right now, government dwells mainly in the secular, the nonreligious domain. But it hasn't always or everywhere and it may not in the future. On critical questions like this one, there's rarely a final answer. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.