Secular Rally Doesn’t Exactly Welcome All Secularists

Even though I am not an atheist, I am a secularist, and I am pleased that a bunch of secularists are getting together on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on March 24.

But before I go on, let’s look at two meanings for the word “secularism“:


1. secular  spirit or tendency, especially a system of political or social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship.

2. the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the introduction of a religious element.

I am a secularist in the second sense, not the first, and that is why I was disappointed that the organizers of the celebration of secularism chose to focus on the first definition. They announced the event—called “The Reason Rally“—this way:

Across America, in every city, every town, and every school, secularism is on the rise. Whether people call themselves atheists, agnostics, secular Humanists, or any of the other terms used to describe their god-free lifestyle, secularism is coming out of the closet.

By this definition, one of the greatest religious skeptics in modern American history—Martin Gardner—would not be technically qualified to attend this gathering. Gardner was a philosophical theist, but highly critical of miracle-based religions.

In The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, in a chapter titled, “Why I Am Not an Atheist,” he wrote:

Let me speak personally. By the grace of God I managed the leap when I was in my teens. For me it was then bound up with an ugly Protestant fundamentalism. I outgrew this slowly, and eventually decided I could not even call myself a Christian without using language deceptively, but faith in God and immortality remained.

He added,

I am quite content to confess…that I have no basis whatever for my belief in God other than a passionate longing that God exist and that I and others will not cease to exist.

By this admission, Gardner, who died almost two years ago, would have to sit out The Reason Rally in March.  And that would be a damn shame.


  1. ansonburlingame

     /  February 17, 2012


    I started to pass in commenting on this blog but after some thought offer the following.

    Most religions exclude other religions. Thus it is not a surprise that variou secularists would exclude others calling themselves such.

    I am all for a very secular government, one that does not lintrude into religion. I also call for religious groups to stick to their own preaching and not try to use government to advance their views.

    Having said all of that, my “spiritual” beliefs are just that, beliefs and have little to do with what I think government should be doing. As to what God or the gods think, well I let others figure that out and expect them only to practice what they preach at the individual level or within their own families, but not mine.



    • I’m not sure the organizes meant to exclude anyone; I think it was just careless use of the word “secularism.”

      And by the way, if you truly were “all for a very secular government,” you would support me in my insistence that no group–religious or otherwise–should be exempt from following the law. Thus, you would insist that the Catholic Church follow the law and have to provide contraception coverage to all of its employees.

      But you don’t even accept the formulation (which is a compromise of a compromise) that Obama offered, do you?



      • ansonburlingame

         /  February 17, 2012

        First Duane, it was not a “law” passed by a legislature, elected body. It was a regulation determined by bureacrats. Civil Rights legislation dictates morality to a degree, but that was argued, democratically, and passed anyway. So follow the law.

        Just the fact that the administration could “turn on a dime” to change the regulation makes that point as well.

        And today if you tried to legislate this matter it would go down to defeat in my view.

        As for “subsidizing” things, all churches are tax expempt organizations. I support that as part of the separation of church and state. But when churches then turn around and ask for tax money for their activities, I say NO to that as well.

        Provide vouchers for a Catholic school, no, unless the law provides vouchers for other private schools as well, like TJ.


  2. EC,

    For me the easiest was to look at secularism is through the lens of a few of our founding fathers. Here’s James Madison in a letter to Livingston, 1822, (from Leonard W. Levy- The Establishment Clause, Religion and the First Amendment, p. 124):

    “An alliance or coalition between Government and religion cannot be too carefully guarded against……Every new and successful example therefore of a PERFECT SEPARATION between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance……..religion and government will exist in greater purity, without (rather) than with the aid of government.”

    And here’s Thomas Jefferson from his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, CT., dated January 1, 1802:

    “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, THUS BUILDING A WALL OF SEPARATION BETWEEN CHURCH AND STATE.”

    I would only add that the very active, 75,000 member “Americans United for the Separation of Church and State” is headed by the REVEREND Barry Lynn.

    Therefore, there is no good reason for a “Reason Rally.”



    • Yep. I’m a member of our local ACLU. The president of our local chapter is a retired Baptist minister.


    • Herb,

      Oh, I think there are a lot of good reasons for a “Reason Rally,” I just don’t think it should ostensibly exclude those, like Barry Linn, who happen to have some faith-based belief that doesn’t comport with the atheists’ confidence that there is no God. A secularist can be someone like Jefferson, who though he had some residual belief in a deity, nevertheless understood the importance of keeping the government out of it.

      The religious zealots today not only want to practice their religion without government interference (which for the most part they are entitled to do under the Constitution), but they want the government to promote their religion in some form or another, like with demanding exemptions from employment law.



  3. PS – after hitting return it occurred to me to mention our recent victory. The ACLU several years ago brought suit against our Forsyth County Commissioners, asking them to stop opening their public meetings with Christian prayer. The county lost in lower court, lost on appeal, and then brought the matter to the US Supreme Court. The SCOTUS refused the case, and so the lower court stands. Here’s a blog about the night the county bussed in Baptists from all over — even broke out into Christian hymns when others tried to speak.
    I just now discovered that clicking “American Theocracy” on my blog home page doesn’t work – guess I need to find and fix the code.
    The ACLU spent $200,000 on this case.
    After this victory, I hoped the county commissioners would simply open the meetings and get down to business, but no – they’ve vowed to open with non-sectarian prayer. They can still say “Our Father” and “Amen”.


    • Wow. I think this line you wrote is significant and represents one of the reasons why the zealots sometimes have their way:

      Not one Wake Forest University professor– not one professor of history, not one professor of religion, not one professor came out to identify the misrepresentations made tonight about our history and our constitution.

      And the fact that the ACLU had to spend $200,000 on such a ridiculous and obviously unconstitutional case is depressing.



      • Duane, I have not kept up with the financial aspect of this as much as the substance of the issues, but I *believe* the loser (the county) will pay the ACLU’s legal bills. A Christian organization prodded the county to continue the appeals, I believe promising to pay the legal bills.
        — hold on —
        OK, I should have known this –just looked it up in Winston-Salem Journal:

        “The county’s defense was handled by the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian organization. The organization offered legal services to the county for free, but the ADF said from the start that it would not pay any legal fees awarded to the plaintiffs if the county lost.”

        I haven’t kept up so much with the


    • Helenofmarlow,

      The reason the ACLU lost in the Forsyth County case is most likely because of a 1983 case, Marsh v. Chambers. I addressed this case on my blog. “Ernest Chambers, a member of the Nebraska legislature, challenged the practice of saying a prayer at the beginning of each legislative session by a Chaplain who was chosen by the state and paid out of public funds. The case went to the Supreme Court, which was ask to decide whether the Nebraska legislature violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

      In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court ruled in favor of the Nebraska legislature. Chief Justice Warren Burger, who wrote the majority opinion, noted that the custom of a chaplaincy, “is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country from colonial times and the founding of the republic.” Further, the Court held that the use of prayer “has become part of the fabric of our society,” coexisting with “the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.” Justice Burger noted that in such circumstances an invocation for Divine guidance is not an establishment of religion. “It is,” he wrote, “simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”

      In this regard, it should be noted that both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have Chaplains who start each session with a prayer. Of the 115 Chaplains who have served in the House and Senate since 1774, all but three – two Unitarians and one Universalist, have been Christian and those have all been Protestants, save one Catholic. These chaplains are paid with taxpayer funds, which are also used to pay for their offices, supplies, and other expenses. Also, near the Rotunda of the Capitol there is a room set apart for prayer. According to the chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives, Reverend Daniel P. Coughlin, its purpose is, “to provide a quiet place where individual Representatives and Senators may withdraw to seek Divine strength and guidance, both in public affairs and in their own personal lives.” The current chaplain of the Senate, Barry C. Black, a Seventh-day Adventist, proudly lists his duties to include, “spiritual care and counseling for senators, their families, and their staffs and discussion sessions, prayer meetings, and a weekly Senators’ Prayer Breakfast.

      To this point, my hero, James Madison, had written:

      “The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: The tenets of the chaplains elected [by the majority] shut the door of worship against the members whose creeds and consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority. To say nothing of other sects . . . “

      Clearly, Justice Burger’s opinion not only turned the Establishment Clause on its head, but disrespected our founding fathers, not to mention the acknowledged Father of the Constitution. The employment of Chaplains in state and federal legislatures is a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause and is unconstitutional for the same reason we can’t have Chaplains in public schools to start each day with a prayer and/or conduct bible study. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that its provisions are to be dismissed or ignored due to tradition. I submit that the “we’ve-always-done-it-that-way” argument is intellectually and judicially dishonest and makes a mockery of the law. Shame on the Supreme Court. Again.”

      By the way, i believe Madison’s objection should apply to the Chaplains in the military as well. I don’t mind them being there, it’s just that they should be paid by their own faith organization, much like imbedded reporters are paid by their networks, but not with my or your tax dollars.



      • Herb,
        This is all very interesting. But I probably was not clear somewhere in my comment. The ACLU won each time –twice (or was it thrice?) in the county’s appeals. Forsyth County then appealed to the Supreme Court. Since the Supreme Court did not take the case, the lower court ruling holds.


        • helen. . .

          Thanks. I did misread your post. Either it’s because of age or my glasses need correcting. Anyway, the issue is still contentious, so maybe the Supremes will eventually get it right; that is if they the guts to take it on.



  4. ansonburlingame

     /  February 17, 2012

    Now you have peaked my interests.

    CHAPLINS continue to serve as commissioned officers in the armed forces. Thus they are PAID by public funds to preach, provide that which chaplins have traditionally provided, etc.

    Should a case to the SCOTUS on that acceptance and payment for religion in our armed forces?

    50 years ago when I was a midshipman, I was required to attend services of worship, as were all midshipman. To get out of it one classmate claimed that he was Muslim and there were no Muslim services in Annapolis. Fine said the administration. You don’t have to go to church on Sunday. But we expect you to be at the chapel 5 times each day, including at dawn, to pray to Mecca. My classmate quickly reconverted to Christianity!



  5. Good post and excellent civil discussion, thanks to all. My own sentiments are with Duane and Martin Gardner.


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