Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.
By Paul Cliteur | Church and State
From Chapter 1: Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism
Atheism or Non-Theism?
In other words, atheism seems to be superior to agnosticism. Does that mean that atheism is the best position? In a certain sense it is. Atheism in the sense defined before is highly defensible. The only problem is, hardly anybody follows the semantic convention that I, following Nagel and others, have proposed. In popular parlance atheism is associated with all kinds of negative ideas and attitudes, especially due to the way it can be defended (and undoubtedly has been defended). Atheists have a reputation for being arrogant, militant, missionary, zealous, and also impolite if not rude. For that very reason George Jacob Holyoake coined the word “secularism.”
George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906) is most famous nowadays for his trial on the grounds of “blasphemy.” During one of his lectures in Cheltenham he was confronted with a question from the audience about man’s duty to God. Holyoake’s response was that England was too poor to have a God. So it would not be a bad idea to put Him on “half pay.” For this remark he was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to six months in jail. After his release he returned to Cheltenham. There he reiterated the exact words that had gotten him into trouble the first time.
Less well known is the fact that Holyoake coined the word “secularism.” He did this because he was convinced that “atheism” was in bad repute. He defined secularism as concern with the problems of this world. He summarized his position in the following words:
(1) Secularism maintains the sufficiency of Secular reason for guidance in human duties. (2) The adequacy of the Utilitarian rule which makes the good of others, the law of duty. (3) That the duty nearest at hand and most reliable in results is the use of material means, tempered by human sympathy for the attainment of social improvement. (4) The sinlessness of well-informed sincerity. (5) That the sign and condition of such sincerity are – Freethought – expository speech – the practice of personal conviction within the limits of neither outraging nor harming others.
Holyoake may have been a learned man but he did not possess the gift of making snappy phrases. Nevertheless, in one respect he was right: the concept of “atheism” is hopelessly tainted with negative images, and any author who wants to put this epithet on the banner advertising his lifestyle is confronted with almost insurmountable difficulties. He is constantly obliged to explain his use of the term “atheism” while his audience reacts by saying: “All right, but is not atheism also …?” And then the whole litany against atheism starts all over again: isn’t it a bit arrogant to pretend to know that God does not exist? (Answer: the atheist does not proclaim that God does not exist, he affirms that the reasons to believe in his existence are inadequate.) Why are people not allowed to believe in God? (Answer: atheists are not against free speech or against freedom of conscience or freedom of religion; they only claim the right to disagree with anyone who affirms the existence of God.) Isn’t atheism a bit arrogant? (Answer: atheism is no more arrogant than agnosticism or theism. The “arrogance” is not in the position itself, but in the way that people hold their opinions: that is, if people are dogmatic or not willing to discuss their views. Atheists are usually fond of discussions.)