The War on Secularism

Can you stand one more meditation about religion and the need for certainty ?

We talk a lot these days about fear–fear of terrorism, fear of change, fear of modernity. But when you come right down to it, the basis of all of these threats to subjective well-being is an overwhelming fear of ambiguity.

We humans evidently have a primal need for bright lines, eternal truths—for non-negotiable and non-relative Truth with a capital T.

The political danger presented by that need for certainty was obvious to the nation’s founders, who intended the Bill of Rights to prevent the “passions of the mob” from extinguishing the rights of those holding nonconforming beliefs.

The deep desire for easy answers in a complicated world explains many of the more troubling aspects of our  political environment. Consider the current “Trump phenomenon.” According to a study referenced in a recent article in the Washington Post,

Interviews with psychologists and other experts suggest one explanation for the candidate’s success — and for the collective failure to anticipate it: The political elite hasn’t confronted a few fundamental, universal and uncomfortable facts about the human mind.

We like people who talk big.

We like people who tell us that our problems are simple and easy to solve, even when they aren’t.

And we don’t like people who don’t look like us.

Much of Trump’s appeal–and the appeal of the many demagogues who preceded him–boils down to this need to simplify, to draw bright lines, to chase away the demons of ambiguity.

Hibbing of the University of Nebraska says this need for clarity is important to understanding Trump’s support.

“People like the idea that deep down, the world is simple; that they can grasp it and that politicians can’t,” Hibbing said. “That’s certainly a message that I think Trump is radiating.

Much the same psychology is on display by the religious conservatives fighting for (their version of) religious rights. (Sometimes, aided and abetted by people who surely know better. Yes, Justice Scalia, I’m looking at you.)

Most of us look at Christian Americans and see people who have been highly privileged by a culture that has long been dominated by Christians. But these religious warriors see themselves under attack, not by a rival theological perspective, but by secularism.

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.

However one defines secularism, it represents a diminished influence of religion and religious authority—the blurring of previously “bright” lines.

Secularism terrifies people who need those bright lines, who need concrete authority to obey and whose worldviews are rendered entirely in black and white.

What terrifies me are people who fear ambiguity, who see no shades of gray, and who reject the exercise of moral autonomy.

And those people aren’t all in ISIL.


  1. What scares me are the people who drag their fear of ambiguity into the state legislatures, the courts, the council meetings, and other law making arenas. As more and more people leave religion the fear of those left behind only grows and so does their irrational responses to the world around them. So certain of themselves, they never seem to look inward for the cause of all their anxiety.

  2. I believe today’s Indianapolis Star reporting is showing some ambiguity regarding the way Pence is running this state; the three headlines are carefully not supporting the current status of major issues plaguing Indiana.

    “RFRA repeal, rewrite proposed”

    “Lawmakers call for ISTEP rescore”

    “Indiana lagging in filing gun data” with sub-headline, “Where (Indiana) has been the weakest is on the mental health records”

    I read this as ambiguity as I understand it; no full support of Pence but laying no blame where it should be…on his shoulders RFRA is of course his primary religious issue; he still can’t get it right. The Voucher situation in schools, most are religious based receiving Voucher students, is in essence a religious issue with differing levels of quality in teaching and testing students. I threw the gun control issue in the mix because it is a major, if not religious, issue which our religious governor is in control of.

    Gary Varvel’s unfunny “cartoon” is particularly ugly today while the article in the USA Today supplement appears to ambiguously support President Obama’s action without stating it outright.

    I view Trump’s lure the same as Hitler’s…and the comparison has been made to Wallace…”dazzle them with bullshit”. The Christian conservatives; with little working knowledge of Christ, are battling demons existing only in their closed minds and naming them Muslims. Someone on yesterday’s blog’s comments appeared not to realize – or recognize – that those of us who refer to “Christians” in our views are NOT anti-Christian as a whole, only those who belong to the far-right conservative party which bears no resemblance to the original GOP affiliation they claim. There is no “blurring of previously bright lines” in their stand on issues.

  3. Sheila has drawn the line in the sand for us. It’s inescapable. It’s a battle over the separation of church and state. And to be more specific: prayer in the schools. It’s more than just a debate.

    It’s war. And it’s divided Christianity.

  4. A wise former pastor once counseled that ambiguities which made me really question and examine my faith would bring me to deeper, fuller faith, as would examinations of other religions, spiritualism, and other philosophies. He was right. The ambiguities made me focus on faith more deeply than habitual following ever would have.

  5. MK , do you doubt that there are prayers in our public schools? Do you advocate having organized prayers in public schools? Irvin

  6. Trump reminds me of a character in that Miroslav Krleza book, On the Edge of Reason — the blow hard at a party that no one wants to offend. Yet when one person finally calls him on his horseshit beliefs and braggings, he pays dearly for it. Right now, no one wants to be that person who calls out the would be “martyrs” of Christianity at the party. If Marv is correct, that this is a war, the payment for such behavior, to finally call out the blow hards, will be quite high.

  7. Fear of ambiguity or love of power. Different? Different faces of the same coin? They seem the same to me.

    Perhaps his supporters would like to be Trump. All powerful through wealth. The ultimate bully. Frequently wrong but seldom uncertain. Like Cheney/Bush’s foreign policy or Republican Congress. Like what the NRA promises to the heavily armed and the lifestyle of the Bundy cult. Like TV evangelists live.

    The enemy of those fantasies is democracy. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.

    That’s why this is a fight for America. For a viable and sustainable future. For the survival of who we’ve always been.

    Life free, informed and unafraid.

  8. Irvin,

    I know there are prayers in the schools. Since I’m for separation of church and state: I’m against organized prayers in public schools. I’m not against students praying.

    This war over prayer in the schools has been going on since 1963. For years, its been presented as a debate by Americans United (for separation of church and state). It’s much more than that: It’s a major “wedge” issue. And it has created tremendous resentment by fundamentalists and evangelicals with resulting anti-Semitic rage. That’s a very unfortunate fact.

    Many fundamentalist and evangelicals support Israel. That doesn’t prevent them from hating American Jews. And it hasn’t.

    See Supreme Court: Ban on Prayer in Public Schools |…

  9. I have been some books lately on the War on the Eastern Front between Germany and the Soviet Union in WW 2. The books all delve into the interwar period in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Simply stated there was the idea among the Communists that Marxism and Leninism would be the tie that would bind the working classes of Europe. Communism would super-cede Ethnocentrism, Nationalism and Religion. The “War” would be against Capitalism rather than among the nation states. This of course did not happen for various reasons.

    Here in the USA we have tried E pluribus unum – Out of many, one. There was to be a gravity that bound us all together as one. It was quickly evident the many did not include African-Americans or Native Americans. The “One” included only certain people the WASPs. Oh the Irish and later ethnic groups could be used as labor and later the Hispanics under the Bracero program during WW 2.
    The plantation owners of the Old South and later the Capitalists, realized that no matter how dirt poor or exploited the white workers were in the factories, the poor white always knew they were not at the bottom.

    The African-Americans and Hispanics were always the canary the coal mine in our economic system – Last Hired, First Fired. White people today are now the canaries too and they do not like it.

  10. T Lentych,

    “If Marv is correct, that this is a war, the payment for such behavior, to finally call out the blow hards, will be quite high.”

    You’re absolutely right. That’s why understanding Sun Tzu’s Art of War is so important for us here in the U.S.. It’s about winning without destruction and resulting casualties.

    I refer you to the #1 Sun Tzu’s Art of War website. “Without destruction and resulting casualties” is one of the topics for today on the Sonshi Blog.

  11. Marv == Many fundamentalist and evangelicals support Israel. That doesn’t prevent them from hating American Jews. And it hasn’t.

    I think the idea is to support Israel but convert the Jews to Christianity. This conversion is essential to the evangelicals.

  12. Sheila,we always need to be reminded of the ways that other people think. And another window onto the horror that is Scalia is not amiss either. I quote from that piece you mention in which Scalia spoke to a group at the Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie, Louisiana: “He said that it is “absurd” to think the Constitution bans the government from supporting religion, according to the Times-Picayune.

    “To tell you the truth there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition. Where did that come from?” he said, according to the Associated Press.”

    “Where does that come from?!!” The writers of the Constitution were men of the Enlightenment. That’s were that comes from. I hope he is only pandering to his audience and lying through his teeth, rather than that he is so unaware of the history of our country. It is horrifying to think that someone who should be a constitutional scholar could ask that question.

  13. Louie,

    “I think the idea is to support Israel but convert the Jews to Christianity. This conversion is essential to the evangelicals.”

    You’re right. That’s one part of Jerry Falwell’s scheme. The other part is “freezing” the American Jews from defending against anti-Semitism. If they do, then the financial and military aid for Israel will be in jeopardy because of the evangelical and fundamentalist members of Congress and their supporters.

    Zionist Jews are a minority in America. But they control ALL major Jewish institutions. Repeat ALL.

    I briefly touched on this point in “Democracide: The Far Right’s Path to Power.” That was enough to set off the retaliation by John Grisham in 1995. He’s a personal friend of the Bush family.

    Why do you think President Bush suspended aid to Israel in 1991? He was teaching the American Jews a lesson.

    I don’t like getting into all of this. But “freezing” the American Jews from defending themselves will ultimately destroy American democracy, just like it did to the Weimar Republic in Germany. I’ve touched on this crucial point before.

  14. Marv: Your 9:11 AM – You used it’s correctly all five times. The other one (its) shows possession and would not have been correct in those five instances. Go to the head of the class!

  15. Betty,

    “Marv: Your 9:11 AM – You used it’s correctly all five times. The other one (its) shows possession and would not have been correct in those five instances. Go to the head of the class!

    Many thanks for your kind words. I cherish them. I’m improving but it’s taking a long time.

    I was the only person in my graduating class from high school who was held back from being on the graduation list. I failed the final English exam. I overdid the sports part of my education. However, I did pass the special English exam made up just for me. I can now proudly say, I am a high school graduate.

    A few months ago, I was talking with an English teacher who was sitting in the waiting room for one of my doctors. I told her about my problems with graduating. She asked me to talk with her class on the subject of “cramming.” Specifically, that it might work for most subjects, but don’t try it in my English class or you’ll end up like Marvin.

  16. So many of our problems today are big and complex and high risk, requiring exceptional effort to mitigate, but are made nearly unsolvable by propaganda.

    ISIS, gun violence, climate change, health care, the Bundy cult, immigration etc would be tough as pure problems to solve but are made infinitely more complex by private Ministries of Truth blaring self serving BS in our ears so that only through diligent research and critical thinking can the truth be discerned, whole and nothing but. However those skills and the time to develop and employ them are well beyond much of the populace.

    Here’s insight into the war on ISIS as an example.

    How to Beat Islamic State – The Wall Street Journal

    All of this propaganda is a mental virus that is paralyzing problem solving.

    Freedom of speech as essential but it hampers addressing propaganda directly, so the liberal world is forced to take on a much more difficult solution, developing the requisite thinking skills in a greater portion of the population.

    God help us.

  17. Ms Kennedy’s post addressing the “Trump phenomenon” reminds me of the reason I consider Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” (1951) a classic on mass movements and the psychological roots of fanaticism.

    *When our individual interests and prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need for something apart from us to live for. All forms of dedication, devotion, loyalty and self-surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoiled lives.

    *Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both.

    *Every extreme attitude is a flight from the self.

    *The weakness of a soul is proportionate to the number of truths that must be kept from it.

  18. Tolerance of ambiguity has always been a salient sign of a healthy person. Only those who know how to say, “I don’t know,” have much chance of knowing much truth. And they are not likely to stuff it down the thoughts of others.

  19. Pete, don’t stand around too long waiting on god. he/she has been coming for years and he/she ain’t here yet

  20. Marv, you’re awesome and you have not let a little thing like standard English usage get in the way of your accomplishments in life. At least in the previous usage, you acknowledged that you thought something was not quite right. This time it was! Check with me before your next English final exam. I can help. Sheila can, too. We’ll get you through it! Our language is sometimes baffling to us; to those who are learning our language, it must seem impossible.

  21. @Theresa, I cannot take credit for the insights, but such a nice compliment is indeed a luxury. All credit goes to Eric Hoffer and his uncanny ability to step back and view the players on the stage of life.

    Ms Kennedy has provided her readers the opportunity to fulfill one of Eric Hoffer’s observations, “There are no chaste minds. Minds copulate wherever they meet.”

    I hope it’s been as good for you as it’s been for me.

  22. BSH,

    “There are no chaste minds. Minds copulate wherever they meet.

    Mind copulation, now that’s an interesting subject. A few years ago, I happened upon a book entitled: “Click: The Forces Behind How We Fully Engage with People, Work and Everything We Do” by Ori Brafman and Ron Brofman (July 5, 2011). It has great examples of the explosive nature of mind copulation. I would highly recommend it to you all. It has helped keep me in an optimistic frame of mind, which, I must admit, is not an easy task these days.

    Also, thanks for reminding us of the contributions of Eric Hoffer. For some reason, I seem to need reminding of things these days.

  23. All these American “wars” on words were lost when founded. At least windmills are gaining popularity…again, for digging into Earth.

  24. A relative of mine was chairman of the church board and I asked him what he thought of the ACLU. He gave me his opinion that some of his friends in the organization had the goal to fight for our civil rights. He agreed with them and gave a few answers I wasn’t expecting.
    He was very complementary to what they were trying to accomplish. He also gave examples of how some were making a hard push to drive all political thought to being void of any religious moral compass and gave examples of how those who practiced religion were being demonized. I looked up a few cases on the web, some were from an organization called the American Center for Law and Justice.
    How do those who are not religious get along with those who are not and visa versa? By making sure we support each other when we get the chance to do so. And so i reflected once back upon my relative and thought him to be wiser than I thought.

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