Q & A

Reprinted courtesy of Publishers Weekly:

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (PW): What led you to write a book about secularism?

JACQUES BERLINERBLAU (JB): The book evolved as a consequence of twin frustrations. On the one side, I saw a discourse emerging from antitheist New Atheists. Their understanding was that secularism was atheism. That didn’t correspond to what I knew as a scholar about the history of secularism. On the other side, I saw a discourse on secularism coming from the Christian Right equating it with a great moral evil and undermining the very fabric of American society. These two owned the public discourse. I sought to achieve some clarity. Both sides are misunderstanding the secular vision.

PW: What do you mean by saying that the separation of church and state is misunderstood?

JB: Pro-secular people will speak about the constitutional right to separation of church and state. Critics of that model will say, “Show me the line in the U.S. Constitution.” For secularism to get its house in order, it has to begin a process of radical re-examination where it stops with these platitudes and empty slogans.

PW: Why do you recommend jettisoning the idea of total separation of church and state?

JB: As the Supreme Court justices have pointed out, if there’s a fire at a church does total separation mandate that the state not send over firefighters? That doesn’t mean we have to go the other way and assume a theocracy. Still, this idea of achieving a total separation, which is the New Atheism utopia, is impractical and unrealistic. Secularism in its purest form posits that churches have a right to exist. The more extreme versions want to get rid of churches. Things get out of control when you say it would be ideal if churches didn’t exist. To me, that’s a forbidden thought.

PW: How do you get large religious groups to endorse secularism?

JB: Secularism is not at odds with what most Americans believe. Deep in the American psyche, even among majority religious groups, is the belief that no one should be subjected to the religious views of another. That’s one way to get people to understand the pricelessness of the secular vision. We have liberty of conscience.

  • Order the new book!

    A rousing defense of America’s secular roots as our nation’s best way to protect freedom of—and from—religion.
    "How to Be Secular serves as an important reminder that . . . as I have noted in the past . . . we protect our rights to our personal beliefs by preserving the rights of our neighbors to believe otherwise. I agree wholeheartedly with Berlinerblau’s argument and highly recommend this powerful book.”
    —MARIO M. CUOMO, former New York Governor
    “This insightful book is not designed to convince you of the non-existence of God or the afterlife; it exists to convince both the non-theistic and the religious that if we don’t find a way to work together, we will all pay a heavy price. Berlinerblau makes a compelling, urgent case, with rigorous regard to history as well as a keen eye for the relevance of today’s many new variations of fundamentalism.”
    —BARRY LYNN, executive director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State
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