Secular Values are Worth Defending

Fresno Bee, May 29, 2015

According to new data from the Pew Research Center only 70% of Americans are Christian. That’s down from 78% in 2007. Non-Christian religions — Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus — grew slightly from 4.7% to 5.9%.

The number of “unaffiliated” people grew more rapidly. More than 22% of Americans do not belong to any religion — up from 16 % in 2007. In California, 27% of us do not claim any religious affiliation. The number is even higher for young people.

Some unaffiliated people are spiritual but not religious: they have turned away from organized religion. But the unaffiliated also includes a growing number of atheists and agnostics, who make up 7% of the population — that’s more than all non-Christian religious believers combined.

These statistics have alarmed conservative pundits such as Pat Buchanan. In a recent column, he cited this data as portending the death of American Christian culture. Buchanan links declining Christianity with moral decay, citing broken families, assisted suicide and abortion. He concluded, “As Christianity dies, individualism, materialism and hedonism replace it.” Buchanan fears a wave of “barbarians” threatening Europe and America “from the south.” He ominously warns that we are committing cultural suicide.

This rhetoric is dangerous. Fears of barbarian hordes and cultural suicide can prompt the need for radical — and possibly violent — reaction. Beneath the fear-mongering, Buchanan fails to see that many come to Europe and America to escape religious fundamentalism in their home countries. They come here because of our secular system.

Even if immoral “barbarians” were really attacking core values, the solution is not reactionary religious intolerance. We can’t make church mandatory, as an Arizona legislator recently proposed. Rather, the solution is better secular education. We defend against “barbarians” by teaching them the virtues of secular democracy.

Modern secular culture is complicated. Science has opened new vistas unimagined by ancient scriptures. Technology creates new ethical challenges. And new voices join our public debates. All of this is difficult. But it is much better than a cramped world of forced conformity.

A secular legal system recognizes religious liberty as a basic human right. This means that some people will choose new religions or will leave religion behind. That sort of diversity is the price of liberty. And it is a great improvement over the stifling orthodoxy of previous centuries.

The worry about religious decline is based upon misplaced nostalgia. It is a myth that there ever was a time of religious harmony and homogeneity. Galileo was threatened by the Inquisition. Columbus left a world where Christians fought Muslims and slaughtered Jews. He discovered a world with completely unknown religious ideas. The world has been fractured by religious controversy for millennia.

Long centuries of violence within Christendom eventually gave way to our secular system, which allows us to live in peace despite deep differences. One result of secularism is that people will question traditional pieties. So what? As long as we treat one another kindly, tell the truth, pay our taxes, and take care of business, it makes little difference whether we are Christian or not.

And yet, Buchanan is right that individualism, materialism and hedonism are problematic. But you don’t have to be a Christian to understand that. The Roman Stoics warned of similar dangers — as did Confucius and the Buddha.

The great moral traditions teach a core of ethical common sense. Love your neighbor. Find something larger than yourself to believe in. And recognize that there is more to life than short-term pleasure.

Critics may argue that without God, morality loses its anchor. But basic moral truths do not rely upon any particular religious story. And secular culture does not require anyone to give up his personal anchor. It merely allows each of us to find our own way forward within common moral limits.

The growth of religious diversity and non-religion is not a sign of cultural suicide. Rather, it reflects the robust health of our secular system. In some parts of the world today non-believers are massacred. But we have found a better way.

Hedonism and materialism are problems. But intolerance and religious violence are worse problems. The only acceptable solution to any of these problems is more freedom, better education, some historical knowledge and a healthy dose of ethical common sense.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him: