RD10Q: Believing in the Bible, Not God

Ten Questions for Bruce Ledewitz on Hallowed Secularism: Theory, Belief, Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[You can read Ledewitz’s article “Obama and the Unbelievers: The Future of Secularism” here.]

What inspired you to write Hallowed Secularism? What sparked your interest?

I have been trying to redefine the relationship between secularism and religion from one of opposition and tension to one of fruitful interaction. My first task was to try to show that America does not, probably never did, and probably never could have a secular democracy. I made that argument in my first book, American Religious Democracy in 2007. Shortly after that book came out, the Democrats fell all over themselves courting the religious vote in the 2008 campaign. So, in that sense the book was vindicated.

But it is also the case that the electorate in 2008 was the most secular in history. This was the continuation of an immense cultural change in America. During the period between 2004-2007, a new phenomenon emerged in America, what The Atlantic Monthly would later call “mass-market atheism.” Beginning with (though with many precursors) Sam Harris’ The End of Faith in 2004, to Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, both in 2006, to Victor Stengers’ God: The Failed Hypothesis ?in 2007, and culminating in best-selling blockbuster, God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens, also in 2007, this period saw the establishment of a muscular and assertively anti-religious atheism that began to reach a popular market. This new reality reached its apex of public visibility when President Barack Obama included “nonbelievers” among American beliefs in his inaugural address.

The question I am addressing in Hallowed Secularism is, what is the nature of this new secularism going to be? Hitchens and his supporters want to lead secularists, many of whom know very little about religion, into opposition to religion. Instead, I argue that for secularism to be healthy, it must learn from the wisdom of the religious traditions. Not believing in God, afterlife or miracles does not exhaust what religion can teach.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

The most important take-home message from the book is that it is possible to believe most of the promises of the Bible without believing in God. I have to remind readers at this point that I am not a believer myself. But consider the following question: when I assert that some action is cruel, do I mean simply that I consider it to be cruel or do I mean that it is in fact cruel? Most of us, believers and nonbelievers, mean the latter. This position is called the objectivity of values and C.S. Lewis considered it, and not belief in God, to be the core of a religious orientation.

The opposite position, that people invent values, that man is the measure of all things, in other words, is scarcely imaginable. One would have to say that the Holocaust was not intrinsically wrong. One would have to imagine that chattel slavery could reappear in the world. Or that the liberation of women is something other than an eventual certainty. Genuine relativism is a hard position to hold and is not a basis for a flourishing secular civilization.

I am afraid that without the influence of religion, secularism will eventually succumb to a weary relativism, or even nihilism. That is the fear as well of other secular thinkers, such as Austin Dacey, in his book, The Secular Conscience. My proposal is that secularists continue to learn from religion, especially the lesson that Martin Luther King Jr. called “the moral arc of the universe.” Religious symbols and language, such as redemption, salvation, and forgiveness, can have real meaning for secularists.

Anything you had to leave out?

No, I didn’t have to leave anything out. Hallowed Secularism is the second part of a trilogy, beginning with American Religious Democracy: Coming to Terms with the End of Secular Politics (Praeger 2007). In that book I dealt with the relationship of religion and politics. In this second book, I try to describe the life of a secularism that is open to religion. That left out changing the law of church and state to permit experimentation for religious symbols in public life, which is the subject I take up in a manuscript to be entitled, For the Establishment of Religion, which is now being looked at by publishers.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

The biggest misconception I had to deal with in the book is the belief that the statement “I don’t believe in God” is some sort of final answer to the perennial questions of human life: Who am I? Why am I here? and What may I hope for? Actually, statements about belief in God tell one very little about reality, or even one’s belief about reality.

Just as one example, belief in God does not necessarily tell you anything about an afterlife or a Messiah or a plan for history. Abraham in the Book of Genesis, for example, believed in God and yet knew nothing of those things.

It may even be that the word “God” itself is a symbol for things secularists also believe, such as the power of goodness. Or the mysterious sense of oneness that often pervades our lives. Or the grace that permits us to make mistakes and receive second chances.

Atheists like Christopher Hitchens are busy trying to convince people that there is nothing to learn from our religious traditions. But those traditions are not simple-minded and they have been wrestling for centuries with questions you and I are asking right now.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

My target audience is those people, particularly among the young, who were raised outside of the religious traditions. Some of these persons know nothing of religion. Others know some things but not much. I am hoping to open these matters up. After all, we have to live; we have to raise children; we have to decide what is real and important. Rejecting religion is not exactly a life.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

Obviously my goal is to inform. We are at a turning point in history in which secular civilization, which we have never had before, seems to be a likely future for humankind. But what will be the sources of depth in such a civilization since religion will not be its source? We secularists had better begin thinking about these matters, in a hurry.

What alternate title would you give the book?

Originally the title of the book was to be Hallowed Secularism: A Guide for the Nonbeliever and that is still how I see the book, as a guide or starting point for people who cannot accept the stories of Our Religions, but have a sense that there is more to reality than materialism and postmodern humanism can account for.

How do you feel about the cover?

I like the cover a lot, but it was expensive and authors sometimes have to pay that cost. Anita Dufalla, who works here in Pittsburgh, did a wonderful job conveying the sense of different realms even in a purely natural universe.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

No, there is no other book that says what I am trying to say. But I wish I had the scientific training of Simon Conway Morris in Life’s Solution. He is able to convey the hidden depth of reality within the confines of accepted scientific discourse. I know that science and holiness are not really in conflict, but I don’t know enough to show that.

What’s your next book?

My next book is For the Establishment of Religion, which argues that government should be permitted to endorse the common core of religion, just not any particular religion. That book will close a gap that my first two books have left open. If religion is to be accepted in public life, and if secularism is to be much closer to religion than it is at present, a new understanding of the separation of church and state will be necessary. That manuscript is finished, and while I hope it will be published before the end of the year, it is still being considered by publishers.