Is organized atheism too much like a religion? Is it okay for secular people to participate in rituals? If a humanist holds beliefs, is this dogmatic? Can a nonreligious person say “bless you” after someone sneezes?
Probably every atheist or nonreligious person has, at some point in their lives, asked themselves or been asked questions like this. Joseph Blankholm, an associate professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, has written a new book that puts a name to these interminable questions: the “secular paradox.”
The Secular Paradox: On the Religiosity of the Not Religious (NYU Press, 2022) is the result of nearly 10 years of field research, sitting in on meetings, attending secular events—including a fascinating secular Day of the Dead—and interviewing over a hundred secular leaders as well as the rank-and-file.
While Blankholm is indeed an academic, this is far from a dry and stuffy academic text. He peppers the book with amusing anecdotes and personal reflections that help to illuminate his main points and take the edge off the more theoretical sections. And sometimes they are just for fun, such as the Moby-Dickian start to the first chapter: “I called Ismail.” (Ismail, we learn, is the pseudonym of one of his ex-Muslim interviewees.)
Along the way, we encounter many examples of the secular paradox at play. On the subject of belief, the aforementioned Ismail insists he holds no beliefs; he only accepts things as true or false based on the evidence. Others reject the label of “non-believer” or similar terms which center on what they don’t believe; instead, these people say, they actually hold many positive beliefs about the world.
Another place the secular paradox is encountered is around the issue of community. Some vehemently reject forming a community as coming dangerously close to becoming religion, while others, such as some members of the Ethical Culture movement, actually claim to be religious— while hastily adding, “not the bad kind of religious.” Aside from the theoretical distinctions, sometimes this question has practical ramifications, especially when it comes to tax time.
This ambivalence to institutions among secular people certainly hinders the development of sustainable secular communities. One of the many interesting facts that Blankholm mentions is that he and a colleague counted 1,400 secular or nonreligious groups in 2012; when he did the exercise again in 2017, he counted 1,359. Yet these numbers hide the fact that only 942 of the groups from 2012 were still active in 2017. Roughly a third of the groups had disbanded and been replaced by new groups.
Quite a turnover.
This hesitance about becoming too similar to religion leads secular people to adopt a number of different strategies. The most straightforward is outright avoidance, such as secular people attempting to “purify” themselves from the “pollution” of religion by purging all religious language (like “God bless you”) from their speech. By contrast, another strategy is to “pollute” the “purity” of the religion, such as the deliberate blasphemy of ex-Muslims celebrating “Haramadan” by drinking beer and eating pork.
In every case, though, religion is lurking. This is the secular paradox.
Blankholm does not provide a “correct” way to resolve the secular paradox. People can debate whether, for example, atheists gathering in a communal setting is like religion until the cows come home – and I’ve taken part in such discussions and maybe you have too – but there is no right and true answer to the question. There are answers, but not necessarily right answers. One of the great values of the book is how Blankholm illuminates the fact that such discussions are part of this fundamental paradox. And since reading the book, I see examples of the paradox everywhere.
Where does the secular paradox come from? One of the main trends in academic studies of secularism in the past decades has been that Christianity—indeed, Protestant Christianity—has shaped the form that secularism has taken. But as Blankholm writes, “It would be an error to mistake that which is influenced by Protestantism for the thing itself, but it would also be an error to overlook secularism’s similarities to Protestantism, Christianity, and religion more broadly.”
This is partly because our understanding of “religion” itself is inevitably shaped by Protestant Christianity: the degree to which we think something is a religion is the degree to which that thing looks like Protestantism. But “religion” isn’t some kind of natural category that simply exists in the world; it has a history that has been shaped by the west’s 2000-year entanglement with Christianity.
This is where the people Blankholm calls “secular misfits” enter the picture. These are the people who don’t quite fit into the “majority” way of being secular. Ex-Muslims, Black atheists, nonreligious Hispanics, and secular Jews all break the mold of white, ex-Christian secularism.
These different people show that there are countless ways to be secular or nonreligious. Indeed, this also means that the paradox can sometimes look different for different people. Another fascinating interviewee is a secular Jewish man who insists he is no longer Jewish now that he is secular. But much to his frustration, other secular Jews disagree with him. Since Judaism is an ethnicity, a culture, and a religion all bound up into one, they argue he could never really give up being Jewish, even as he disagrees. Again, there is no “right” answer to this question. It’s just another manifestation of the secular paradox.
This is not a dilemma that ex-Christian atheists or secular people seem to face, since Christianity doesn’t quite work the same way as Judaism. Yet western culture is so intertwined with religion, that is to say, Christianity, that there is simply no getting away from its reach. The secular paradox is to live within this culture as a secular person and constantly feel this ambivalence about religion. Some feel completely repelled by it, and almost define their lives in opposition to it; others come close to embracing particular forms of ritual and community that might even be described as religious. Neither way is “correct.” As Blankholm says, all of this is just the “weirdness of being secular.”
Ultimately, as much as we might like to, we can’t simply throw off our cultural heritage. There is no getting around the secular paradox. But there is another part to Blankholm’s argument. Just as Christianity has shaped Western culture, so have several hundred years of secular thought— or millennia, if one goes back to the ancient Greeks. This is our cultural inheritance too, and—here’s the kicker—even religious people share it.