News: Catholic leadership wants a more supportive secularism

Catholic Culture website quotes Msgr. Anthony R. Frontiero, a priest of the Diocese of Manchester (New Hampshire) as criticising a secular approach to tolerance:

[N]eutrality toward world views cannot be truly tolerant and respectful. Likewise, an absence of convictions does not define tolerance; and in the absence of some compelling notion of the truth that requires us to be tolerant of those who have a different understanding of the truth of things, there is only skepticism and relativism.

and later:

An authentic notion of tolerance in pluralistic societies demands that in their dealings with unbelievers and those of different faiths, believers should grasp that they must reasonably expect that the dissent they encounter will go on existing. At the same time, however, secular political cultures must encourage unbelievers to grasp the same point in their dealings with believers. When secularized citizens act in their role as citizens, they must [not] deny in principle that religious images of the world have the potential to express truth. Nor must they refuse their believing fellow citizens the right to make contributions in a religions language to public debates.

Again, the Catholic hierarchy view astounds me. I would have thought neutrality towards religious world views would more naturally lead to tolerance than say an ardent Christian, Islamic or Jewish view. Many religious people love conflating secularism and atheism to be anti-religious. They seem to work on the most intolerant mentality of ‘for us’ or ‘against us’. So who is really intolerant?

The real agenda comes in the second quotation. The Catholic leadership wants to imposed their faith-based morality (derived from revelations and ancient scriptures) onto the modern secular world. I have no problems people having religious attitudes. However, and this is a big ‘however’, discussion in the public space needs to be based in modern-day secular terms. Restricting condom use in HIV ravaged Africa, for example, should not be argued on the basis of God’s will or preventing soul-creation.

Alex McCullie

Comment: Faith-based secularism – US style

pdf: Pew Forum comment (right-click to save)

Pew Forum Transcript

At a 2007 Pew Forum Faith Angle Conference, Wilfred (Bill) McClay, a professor of intellectual history, argues that US-style secularism is a highly successful mixture of minimal church-state separation and the active participation of religions in society and politics to provide the necessary moral compass. US secularism values individuality through free expression and free association over secular public policy. He calls this Political Secularism. By contrast McClay characterises and almost demonises the European alternative, Philosophical Secularism, as creating social environment essentially hostile to public expression of faith. Throughout his presentation McClay equates this type of secularism with ‘religions are poisonous’-type comments attributed to the so-called new atheists. McClay continues his anti-secular stance with his suggestion that the “higher reaches of securalism…[has]…begun to exhaust itself intellectually”.

According to The Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular Faith by Gerald Benedict, a religious studies lecturer, “a truly secular culture is not anti-religious, but creates the free space in which religions of every kind can benefit from the free choice people make, uninfluenced by established and official policy. A truly secular society is an ‘open’ and pluralistic society.” This is how most Australians and Western Europeans see secularism. However many conservative religionists see institutionalising non-faith governments and public education as an anathema. Instead of offering freedom to make private religious or non-religious choices, they take a “for or agin” attitude expecting their faith to take precedence over the lives of others. In Australia and Europe they represent only a small but unfortunately vocal and very well organised minority.

Compared to Australian and European perspectives McClay advocates a minimalist version of secularism – one that we may not even call secular. With just enough separation between church and the US federal government required by the constitution, US offers an open competitive market of religions, typically Protestant, vying for social and political influence and control. McClay doubts whether Islam would support the individualistic approach required to fit within such as system. Religions are also seen as the major contributors to the moral values of the US society. Much to the amusement and concern around the world, a US president has even declare publicly a personal communication with his god supporting a foreign war.

I agree with McClay that a US style secularism isn’t transportable to another culture even though he hints that Turkey may benefit. I question, though, whether or not it is superior to the secularism as implemented in Western Europe. His presentation suggests he holds that belief.

So, does the US style active participation of religions in society lead to a more humane society? Put simply none of the happiness surveys and crime statistics support this claim. It appears that the greater support offered by the more secular governments of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, for example, leads to happier and more contented lives than those experienced in the US. Australia has a national health insurance scheme that provides protection of all citizens regardless of financial circumstances. Similarly our government provides social services benefits for the most vulnerable of our society including the unemployed, single parents and permanently disabled. Many argue that it is not enough support, but it provides good security for all citizens. Interestingly, other surveys throughout the world suggest that there is a broad correlation between higher levels of discretionary non-belief and greater personal security (Zuckerman 2007).

The presentation is explicitly supporting high levels of religious involvement in society and politics while acknowledging there should a minimal level of state-church separation. I’d questioned the way McKay has presented the US approach and his implied degradation of the European alternative. Presented to a faith conference so I’m not totally surprised by the uncritical questioning and responses to McKay’s propositions.

© 2008 Alex McCullie


Benedict, G. 2008, The Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular Faiths, Watkins Publishing, London

Zuckerman, P. 2007, ‘Atheism Contemporary Numbers and Patterns’, in Martin, M. (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

News: Excellent secularism article/review


This article reviews and supports the new book The Secular Conscience by philosopher Austin Dacey. It provides are very good discussion of secularism with comments about worldviews and the need to keep naturalism separate. (full article)

Alex McCullie