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May 24, 2005

History Lessons: Another Way to Think About Secular Humanism

James Oakes: May 24, 2005

When people argue about secular humanism and religion in American history they usually end up throwing quotations at each other.  Jefferson called for a "wall of separation" between church and state, but Washington said he never made a decision without consulting his God, and so forth.  I'll get to what George was saying some other time, but for now I thought I'd approach the topic from a different angle. 

Take a look at these numbers.  In the year 1700, in the thirteen colonies, there was one church for every 598 colonists.  Forty years later there was one church for every 642 colonists.  And by 1780, in the middle of the War for Independence, there was one church for every 807 Americans.  To put the matter simply, over the course of the eighteenth century the number of churches was declining in proportion to the number of Americans.  1780 was the lowpoint.

Here are some more numbers.  In 1730 just under half (48%) of all the titles published in the colonies were religious.  Religious titles dropped to 38 percent in 1760.  The slide continued until it bottomed out in 1775, where a mere 16 % of all the titles published in the colonies were religious

1775.  Hmmmm.  As Joseph Stalin would say, "it was no accident that...."   

By the way, those numbers jerked a bit during the not-so Great Awakening, but they quickly resumed their secular decline.  There were minor variations from place to place as well, but nothing to upset the general pattern.

And its an interesting pattern.  It suggests that over the course of the eighteenth century Americans were becoming more and more.... secular.  From this perspective, the secular humanism of the American Revolution was not some fluky philosophical outburst sandwiched in between the "first" and "second" Great Awakenings. 

And it won't do to shoehorn a lot of theology into the philosophy of the Revolution, either.  Historians have wasted entire careers trying to demonstrate the influence of religion on the American Revolution--and they always fail.  What stands out is the rise of secularism in eighteenth century America, culminating in the Revolution.  It might be that the Revolution itself could not have happened had the secularization of the colonists not taken place first.

I suggest that my fellow historians reverse direction and start asking a completely different question:  How did secular humanism transform the history of religion in colonial America?  Here's an answer suggested by Mark Noll, perhaps our most distinguished historian of American religion, and himself a devout Christian.

The Great Awakening was a failure, in two different senses.  First, Awakeners wanted to stem the decline in religiosity revealed in those numbers above by reimposing strict Calvinism across the board.  It did'nt work.  In fact, it backfired.  It provoked so much public bickering among the clergy that their standing fell further.  And having failied to reimpose Calvinism, it left American Christianity devoid of a philosophical core.  What filled the void?  Two ideas, mainly.

First, Christians rejected the Calvinist idea that the only route to the truth was through God and put in its place the Lockean idea that humans could, through the use of their capacity to reason, arrive at the truth on their own.  This was heresy, but it was as nothing compared to the second idea that Christian ministers started espousing:  Through the exercise of their moral senses, humans could also arrive at morality on their own.  Oh, yes, of course, God gave us reason and a moral sense, but there was no gainsaying what had happened to Christianity in the eighteenth century.  It had been secularized. Infected, some would say, by the principles of the English and Scottish Enlightenments.

If that's the "religion" that shaped the Revolution, the enemies of secular humanism are still not off the hook.  Now for the punchline...

The wave of evangelicalism that swept the United States beginning in the 1790s was not really a "second" Great Awaking at all.  It was not a continuation of the earlier failure.  It was something else.  What, precisely?  Well, nothing "precisely," but a lot of things.  And one of the things that evangelicalism was in the "New Nation," I suggest, was a reactionary assault on the secular humanism of the Revolution. 

It still is.


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Posted by: Chris

Any links for those numbers? What are they today? Where were they during the 19C & 20C?

Posted by: Chris | May 24, 2005 3:45:42 PM

Posted by: Aaron S.

Fascinating, I hope you follow this up with another post containing some insight into the current state of religiosity in the US.

Posted by: Aaron S. | May 24, 2005 4:46:21 PM

Posted by: Mona

Aaron S. writes: Fascinating, I hope you follow this up with another post containing some insight into the current state of religiosity in the US.

I think he gave that insight with his final sentence: It still is.

Myself, I find his understanding of religionists, and the Great Awakenings, quite crabbed. A simplistic model in which the secularists reflect all that is noble and good, as against the benighted forces of Religion, misses a good deal of human reality. There is more to say about attempts to retain a large aspect of culture, which religion inarguably is, than that such efforts are "reactionary."

Invoking Stalin in a post contrasting religionists with the supposed glories of secularism, is especially ironic.

Posted by: Mona | May 24, 2005 5:10:43 PM

Posted by: Austin B

The Great Awakening did not try to "stem the decline in religiosity ... by reimposing strict Calvinism across the board." This is wrong in two respects:

First, the Awakeners were not trying to "reimpose" anything. Rather, the Awakeners sought to *undermine* the established clergy. Basically, an itinerant preacher would show up in town, and suddenly all the locals would start questioning the authority of the local clergy (and political leaders for that matter). The Awakening was anti-authoritarian.

Second, the Awakeners were not always strict Calvinists. On the contrary, they oftentimes had Arminian tendencies, which is another reason that the established clergy distrusted them. Jonathan Edwards remained a Calvinist, but the whole point of his work as a preacher was to reconcile the Awakening to orthodox Calvinism. In other words, like other Calvinists, he saw the Awakening as a problem.

In sum, the Awakening was radical and populist, not reactionary. This is why most successful reformist movements in America--civil rights, temperence, anti-slavery--were evangelical in style.

Posted by: Austin B | May 24, 2005 5:42:58 PM

Posted by: Stagnolio

The numbers are misleading as they stand. Many of the original colonies were founded by religious communities for religious purposes (to escape persecution in England), so of course strongly religious people were overrepresented in the early colonies, and of course the percentages indicating religiosity were bound to fall when a more diverse group of people started entering the new world.

So when Mr. Oakes writes, "It suggests that over the course of the eighteenth century Americans were becoming more and more.... secular," he seems to be implying that Americans were undergoing period of secular enlightenment, when in fact the introduction of secularists from other parts of the world is the more likely culprit.

Posted by: Stagnolio | May 24, 2005 6:08:01 PM

Posted by: James Oakes

Critics of secular humanism have a bad habit of implying that they alone are the bearers of religion, that secular humanism is anti-religious, maybe even atheistic, that it leads to things like Stalinism.... They persist in this delusion no matter how often secular humanists point out the embarrassingly obvious fact that freedom of religion is one of their cardinal precepts, and that the flip side of religious freedom is the separation of church and state.

As it happens I very much admire the way Christians in 18th century America took on board so much enlightened humanism, in particular a... faith? shall we say, in the ability of human beings to reason their way to truth and to sympathize their way to morality. Without those ideals its almost impossible to imagine where the critique of slavery would have come from. That's certainly how the Methodists got there in the 1780s. In short, I have great admiration for the "humanized" christian tradition of Revolutionary America.

The fundamentalists hate that stuff, of course. I guess that makes them, what? witch burners? Proto-fascists? Klansmen with collars instead of hoods? Why not? Secular humanists gave us Stalinism, right?

I've never been persuaded that an attack on established authority is, in itself, a "radical" position. The Awakeners inadvertently undermined the authority of the clerics--but that didn't make them radicals. The advocates of "massive resistance" rejected the authority of the Supreme Court--that didn't make them radicals. The secessionists rejected the authority of the Union; that didn't make them radicals. The Nazis undermined the authority of the Weimar Republic..... you get the point.

The old social history paradigm that interprets the Great Awakening without regard to its theology--which was almost uniformly Calvinist--has long since been displaced by the work of religious historians, historians who actually know their Bible. Besides showing that the Great Awakening was not so "great" in terms of the numbers of converts, they've also demonstrated that post-Revolutionary evangelicalism was NOT a continuation of the Great Awakening.

Nor is it enough to say that our greatest movements for social justice were inspired by "religion," or even "evangelical" religion. You have to be a lot more specific.

Consider antislavery. The post-Revolutionary upsurge of Evangelicalism was organized around a remarkably uniform commitment to biblical literalism, something almost unheard of among European Protestants, and not part of the 18th century Awakening. But how do get to antislavery from Biblical literalism? The answer is, you can't. The Bible, literally, is proslavery.

That's why post-Revolutionary Evangelicism fractured over the problem of slavery. And that's why antislavery Protestants in the North eventually abandoned biblical literalism for a "liberal" ethical christianity that held slavery to be incompatible with the "spirit" of the Bible--because slavery was quite compatable with the literal word of the Bible. This "liberal Christian" tradition more or less won the Civil War and prevailed through the late 19th century.

So it took a repudiation of post-Revolutionary evangelicalism for Northern christians to get themselves to antislavery.

And even that won't explain Abraham Lincoln, whom Allen Guelzo describes as "the last Enlightenment President" in his book "The Emancipation Proclamation." Lincoln's antislavery was rooted in the secular humanism of the Revolution. He believed in God, but not in the divinity of either Christ or the Bible. Yet he hated slavery. And for my money he had a lot more to do with emancipation than William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown.

Finally, post-Revolutionary evangelicalism was, as I said in my original post, "many things." For example, evangelicalism became so widespread in early national America--nearly universal, in fact--its public culture of religious enthusiasm was so egalitarian, that it paved the way for the democratic political culture that prevailed for most of the 19th century.

But early national Evangelicalism was also, in its commitment of biblical literalism, its antirationalism, its revival of the old Calvinist premise of universal human degradation--a rejection of the enlightened Christianity of the eighteenth century. You could even call it a "reactionary assault" on the secular humanism of the Revolution.

Posted by: James Oakes | May 24, 2005 9:58:59 PM

Posted by: John Biles

To understand the figures cited by Mr. Oakes, you have to take several things into account.

First of all, different regions of the country had different levels of religiosity and different churches. In Puritan New England, it was relatively easy to found more congregations as settlement expanded because each congregation was semi-independent.

In other regions, however, the dominant churches were less flexible and adapted more poorly to the expansion of settlement. From Virginia on south, the Church of England failed to provide adequate numbers of priests (who all had to come from England) to expand the network of parishes to adequately meet demand. This did not mean the South was a hotbed of secular humanism, but rather that you had problems of providing all the resources necessary to extend the established church.

In the central colonies, some of the dominant churches either didn't use fixed church buildings (Quakers) or struggled with providing adequate numbers of ministers to meet needs as the fronteir expanded (Lutherans, Presbyterians).

As the Fronteir moved west between 1700 and 1800, churches were a luxury to be built later, not something built right off the bat. It took the Second Great Awakening to bring about the further development of churches in the West, and it was those churches which were less hierarchical and better able to be founded from the ground up by locals who tended to win out in the SGA.

Posted by: John Biles | May 24, 2005 10:23:22 PM

Posted by: mtnmarty

Finally, a post with some zip, but I'm confused a little about this definition of secular humanism.

So "freedom of religionists" are "bearers of religion" for supporting that freedom? Are supporters a a free press, the press? Are supporters of the right to bear arms, the militia?

Some dictionary definitions:
Secular humanism: An outlook or philosophy that advocates human rather than religious values.

1. Religious skepticism or indifference.
2. The view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education.

What do you make of the secularism of the Boston Globe editorial board that thinks religious rhetoric has no place in the public square? Are they in or out of the secular humanist group?

Posted by: mtnmarty | May 24, 2005 10:52:33 PM

Posted by: Caleb

I think it is significant that the print culture of the eighteenth century was increasingly infused with non-religious titles over the course of the eighteenth century. But the declining percentages of religious titles need to be coupled with the points that: (1) print as a whole was multiplying in this period: conceivably, it was growing enough that the percentage of religious titles could have declined even while the absolute numbers of religious titles stayed the same; (2) this figures only tell us about the supply of religious titles, but by themselves they do not tell us about the demand for religious titles (assuming I'm right that the overall supply of all titles was growing in this period), and it's certainly possible for American readers to have been consuming religious and secular titles simultaneously. Finally, many printed works in this period mixed religious and secular themes; the title by itself is not a sure indicator of the presence of religious tropes and logics in the work itself. Given these points, it's not clear to me that an analysis of titles can by itself prove that Americans were becoming more secular in this period.

That's not to say I disagree that there was a significant secular transformation that culminated in the Revolution, or that I disagree that the Great Awakening was not all that Great. I'm just not sure the print culture thumbnail sketch is evidence of those transformations.

In a larger sense, too, I think telling the history of secularization as a history of religion's displacement is misleading. Professor Oakes hints that liberal divines were often responsible for their own secularization, and that's an important point. That means the declining religiosity (however we would define that) does not mean increasing secularity (however we would define that). This wasn't a zero sum game, but rather a complicated process in which religious concepts and concerns often became wrapped in new secular forms, and vice versa.

Thanks for an engaging and provocative post.

Posted by: Caleb | May 24, 2005 10:58:25 PM

Posted by: Mona

Mr.Oakes writes: The fundamentalists hate that stuff, of course. I guess that makes them, what? witch burners? Proto-fascists? Klansmen with collars instead of hoods? Why not? Secular humanists gave us Stalinism, right?

Secular humanism did not give us Stalinism. Marxism is a messianic, secular religion, but it is not a species of humanism, secular or otherwise.

Secularism, as with Xianity or Islam, can be a force for good or bad, depending on the content of the specific brand.

And Lincoln was not, by the time he was elected President, against slavery. He was the consummate pragmatist (and he was likely not a Xian, since, as Mr. Oakes implies, it is nearly certain he did not believe in the divinity of Christ). If retaining the "peculiar institution" would have saved the Union, Lincoln would have retained slavery.

Additonally, Evangelicals are not coterminous with biblical literalists. Fundamentalists qua biblical literalists did not emerge as a movement until the early 20th century. Xians such as Bush are Evangelicals, not fundamentalists, and they are in the tradition of the Evangelical-led abolitionists.

I'm a non-theist, but I recognize the salutary role many religionists and religious movements have played in American (and world) history. I further recognize that secularists have killed many millions and instigated much misery-- as is also true of religionists. Mr. Oakes proposes a simple (and decidedly unnuanced!) paradigm that human reality does not bear out.

Posted by: Mona | May 24, 2005 11:21:19 PM

Posted by: James Oakes

The 18th century numbers have meaning in the context of what's happening to the theology; together they indicate a decline in religious zeal--not in religion per se. When you think about it, it actually pretty amazing that people find the 18th century trend toward secular humanism hard to swallow. After all, it provides a most satisfactory context for the popularity of the principles of the American Revolution. Unless, of course, you want to go into denial about what those princples were.

Then, too, the numbers that show startling increases in church membership after 1790, reaching ninety percent or so by the 1830s and 40s, are hard to read as anything other than a dramatic reversal of 18th century trends.

Posted by: James Oakes | May 24, 2005 11:38:14 PM

Posted by: Mona

Mr. Oakes is a professor, and I am not, but my undergrad degree is in religious studies, with an emphasis on religion in America. Perhaps subsequent to my undergrad matriculation in the late 80s a great shift occurred in the understanding of the Great Awakenings, but when I was being instructed by liberal academics at a secular institution, I was given to understand American religious history as this site:

explains them. An excerpt:

In the late 1820s and 1830s a religious revival called the Second Great Awakening (a reference to a similar revival that had swept the colonies in the previous century) had a strong impact on antebellum American religion and reform. It grew partly out of evangelical opposition to the deism associated with the French Revolution and gathered strength in 1826, when Charles Grandison Finney, a charismatic lawyer-turned-itinerant preacher, conducted a revival in Utica, New York. Finney argued against the belief that a Calvinist God controlled the destiny of human beings.... The Second Great Awakening had effects that extended beyond American Protestantism. The period has been called a "shopkeeper's millennium" because nascent capitalists used church membership and the admonition to work and avoid sin as a means of instilling discipline in workers accustomed to being independent artisans. And by spreading the belief that "heaven on earth" was possible, the revival movement inspired or contributed to many secular reform movements, including sabbatarianism, temperance, abolition, antidueling, moral reform, public education, philanthropic endeavors, and utopian socialism.

A fierce reaction to the anti-clericalism and secularism that fed the blood bath of the French Revolution was a good thing, in my secularist's opinion. But I invite Mr.Oakes to point to the scholarship that undermines the above.

Posted by: Mona | May 24, 2005 11:39:20 PM

Posted by: mtnmarty

You have thought a lot about slavery and history.

I am curious as what you see as the "cause" of changes in moral and religious sentiment.

What caused the increase in secular humanism in the 18th century? You hint that the English and Scottish enlightenment played a role, but don't give much detail on the causes.

Most Americans nowdays (including myself), disapprove of slavery, many Americans approved of slavery in the 19th century.

Do you think "we" hold that view for good reasons and "they" held their views for no good reasons or are we all just the product of non-rational pendulum swings in sympathy?

Posted by: mtnmarty | May 25, 2005 1:10:36 AM

Posted by: le sequoit

How might one judge whether in the minds of the vast majority of those 90% or so of evangelists in the 1830's a distinction existed between societal crises' origins in the deism of the French and the secular humanism of the American Revolutions?

It would seem to require a sophisticated populace indeed to have reacted to one and not the other.

Posted by: le sequoit | May 25, 2005 1:29:04 AM

Posted by: Paul Shields

I think it is a mistake to take a popular contemporary dichotomy, e.g. between secular humanism and religion (meaning here the beliefs and culture of the Christian Right), and project this dichotomy back onto the broader historical tapestry of religious thought in America. It is hardly surprising that such an artificial historical treatment would then yield a thoroughly partisan moral. This reminds me of a student this fall who argued that Oedipus and Jocasta suffered from ‘communication problems’ (presumably requiring marriage counseling).

I basically agree with Caleb that

This wasn’t a zero sum game, but rather a complicated process in which religious concepts and concerns often became wrapped in new secular forms, and vice versa.

What puzzles me, in general, is the current tendency to view religious sentiment as being mainly a negative historical force. I know about the inquisitions, religious wars and intolerance. But religious sentiment has also been, historically, a powerful force for enlightenment. Capturing both sides of the story is important. Maybe it would help if we did our history before our politics.

Posted by: Paul Shields | May 25, 2005 3:07:12 AM

Posted by: Ralph Luker

Caleb's point about the declining percentages of religious imprints in the 18th century British-American colonies would also hold true for the ratios of churches to population. If congregations grew in size, it wouldn't mean much that their numbers in proportion to population declined.
Beyond that, neither the First nor the Second Great Awakenings represent repudiations of learning. To the contrary, they stimulate the building of colleges and academies. Nor is there any significant impulse in the Second Great Awakening to repudiate the disestablishment instincts of the founding generation. Rather, its leaders assume disestablishment and, as Sidney Mead argued, create voluntary societies that will promote voluntary allegiance to commonly held values. They continue to believe that a healthy society must have some commonly held values, but they do not expect the state -- certainly not the national government -- to be the primary agency promoting them.

Posted by: Ralph Luker | May 25, 2005 4:40:25 AM

Posted by: murky

The numbers don't seem so suggestive to me. Couldn't the trend reflect economic development and the emergence of a society? As wealth increased, church architecture becomes grander (and more capacious) and with a diversified economy (or the economic stability in which contemplating diversification becomes possible) colonial authors have more to do and write about than religion, not to mention a wider audience for any prospective publication.

Posted by: murky | May 25, 2005 8:03:06 AM

Posted by: john t

Mona maybe MR. Oakes threw Stalin in because he had been a seminarian. But perhaps there are other reasons.

Posted by: john t | May 25, 2005 8:47:19 AM

Posted by: john t

"That,as it is the duty of every man to worship God in such manner as he thinks most acceptable to him;all persons professing the Christian religion are equally entitled to their religious liberty". Maryland Constitution,1776. "That no person shall ever,within this colony,be deprived of the inestimable privilege of worshipping Almighty God in a manner agreable to his own conscience". New Jerey Constitution 1776. "It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society,publicly and at stated seasons,to worship the Supreme Being". Massachusetts Constituiton,1780. "As morality and piety,rightly grounded on evangelical principles,will give the best and greatest security to government",New Hampshire Constitution,1784. "Every sect or denomination of Christians ought to observe the Sabbath or Lord's day",Vermont Constitution,1786. "The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed,and is hereby constituted and declared to be,the established religion of this state",South Carolina Constitution,1778. "That no person,who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion,or the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments,or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the feedom and safety of the state,shall be capable of holding any office etc",North Carolina Constitution,1776. Secularity,ain't it great.

Posted by: john t | May 25, 2005 10:36:57 AM

Posted by: David White

"Consider antislavery. The post-Revolutionary upsurge of Evangelicalism was organized around a remarkably uniform commitment to biblical literalism, something almost unheard of among European Protestants, and not part of the 18th century Awakening. But how do get to antislavery from Biblical literalism? The answer is, you can't. The Bible, literally, is proslavery." --Oakes

I sense a subtle linkage here: Awakening=Proslavery. And I think that's very hard to justify if we look at the locations of the major revivals, especially during the Second Great Awakening.

I'm also having some problems here with the linkage of theology and the slavery question. Perhaps it's because I'm a bit out of my element (I'm more 20th century than 18th). Certainly the Quakers were never pro-slavery, but am I wrong for being hesistant to classify them as "humanists"? I have reservations in saying that they would identify themselves as such. How do we classify the Quakers within the context of the Awakenings?

And a query: when do we start seeing the major Southern biblical justifications for slavery? I don't recall seeing any major published apologia before the 1840s, well after Garrison, Phillips and Lundy et. al. had seized on Philemon as their justification for immediate abolition. (I think all three would consider themselves "fundamentalists", by the way)

Posted by: David White | May 25, 2005 11:42:33 AM

Posted by: J.S.

Great piece.



Posted by: J.S. | May 25, 2005 12:58:22 PM

Posted by: CTW

"secularists have killed many millions"

is this anything beyond a "revival" of the recurrent theme that commies (and, therefore, also misguided commie symps indirectly) have killed many millions? if not, isn't it just as meaningful to note that men with mustaches have killed many millions?

the point being, of course, that the fact that there have been efficient mass murderers in totalitarian states who have been secularists or at least espoused secular ideology isn't relevant to the comparison with religiosity. the question is: have there been actions taken in the name of an ideology and with support from associated institutions representing a majority of the population that have killed many millions?

I'm much too historically ignorant to answer, but my impression is that the answer for religion is "of course" (adjusting "millions" for populace inflation) and for secularism is "probably not", if for no other reason than that secularists are rarely if ever a majority. ie, in the spirit of recent threads, we haven't had "equal opportunity".

Posted by: CTW | May 25, 2005 1:16:09 PM

Posted by: Jeff Younger

Mona, your posts or should I say riposte are excellent.

Posted by: Jeff Younger | May 25, 2005 1:19:48 PM

Posted by: Mona

ctw writes: is this anything beyond a "revival" of the recurrent theme that commies (and, therefore, also misguided commie symps indirectly) have killed many millions? if not, isn't it just as meaningful to note that men with mustaches have killed many millions?

The French Revolution killed, if I recall correctly, nearly a million (but I'm willing to stand corrected; in any event, it was "lots."). Stalin killed millions, with the approval and support of Communists Parties and their sympathizers everywhere, including in the U.S. (Walter Duranty infamously noted in defense of Stalin's genocide-scale murders, the thingie about needing to break eggs to make omelets.) American Communists even saw their own called to Moscow and killed, or offed elsewhere, and stifled all criticism when not outright denying the manifest truth. Non-Stalinist Marxists who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War were killed there by the thousands on Stalin's orders, and the CPUSA thought that was just fine. And, the CPUSA aided Stalin in assassinating Leon Trotsky and some of his family and supporters.

Really, the murderous perfidy of the CPUSA, in its slavish devotion to a bloody tyrant, was breathtakingly heinous.

Secular ideologies can be as lethal and mindlessly adhered to as theistic ones.

Posted by: Mona | May 25, 2005 6:24:43 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Ignoring for the moment whether Mr. Oakes’ evidence in support of a rise in secularism and commensurate decline in religion in 18th century America is correct, I take the point of his post to be the assertion that what some are beginning to describe as the third Great Awakening in the U.S. “still is” at least in part “a reactionary assault on the secular humanism of the Revolution.”

I suspect that’s true. To what extent the current growth of evangelical Christianity and / or what some might describe as certain revanchist tendencies in the Roman Catholic Church are either merely or necessarily an assault, reactionary or otherwise, against secular humanism is a more interesting question.

Unless, that is, Mr. Oakes’ position is that these versions of Christianity are everywhere and always and in every respect in diametric opposition to secular humanism. If so, he should so state, providing also a sufficiently precise definition of secular humanism for us to assess such a claim. Otherwise, it seems to me his claim boils down to something along the lines of “Some religiously devout Christians have opposed and some continue to oppose certain tenets of secular humanism.”


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 25, 2005 8:33:08 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

A small but important correction: I should have said "whether Mr. Oakes’ evidence adequately supports his contention of a rise in secularism and commensurate decline in religion in 18th century America." I'm sure the evidence, per se, is correct.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 25, 2005 8:50:43 PM

Posted by: CTW

"The French Revolution killed ..."

in essence, your answer to my question seems to be "yes", with the clarification that you view communism/marxism as a secular religion subject to abuse by extremists just as are sectarian religions, and I'll buy that. since I interpret "secular" as "non-religious", for me the deaths attributable to "secularists" due to their being stirred to violence by "religious" passions is by definition zero. hence, my problem with your statement.

in any event, upon thinking about your response I decided the whole concept isn't very useful. take the several million deaths due to the vietnam war. should those be attributable to the secular religion of communism? of nationalism? or to the not-so-secular religion of anti-(godless)communism? better to just acknowledge that there's plenty of "murderous perfidy" to go around.

Posted by: CTW | May 26, 2005 12:35:49 AM

Posted by: Bernard

Does anyone know whether there was any change in the size of churches as the number declined?

Given a likely increase in population density and probable improvements in building materials, architecture and acoustics over the period in question it seems entirely possible that the number of churches per head declined because the relative size increased, rather than because the number of churchgoers went down.

Posted by: Bernard | May 26, 2005 7:05:47 AM

Posted by: john t

D A Ridgely When you get a chance please provide a example or two of Catholic revanchism. Regarding increasing secularism in the 18th century,it's stating the painfully obvious,the Enlightenment and all that. Here I address myself to Mr Oakes. The question isn't whether there was a rise in secularism,but to what extent. My 10:36 post,typically and perhaps rightfully ignored,should cast a little doubt on this at least partially dubious march of progres. Bernard,you raise a good point. The increase in clergy to faithful ratio that Mr Oakes uses is a statisical form with a flaw. One could easily interpret,at least in part,that the increase in churchgoers is attributable to a growing community/parish. I know a clergyman who started out with 200 families attending his church,he's now serving 600 families,I'd be hard pressed to tell him this is a sign of growing failure. It is thought provoking that Mr Oakes uses the term assault,such rich language. As always there are people who fully expect others not to resist,protest,or assert their beliefs but rather to lay down and be,what,assaulted? Life is tough out there!

Posted by: john t | May 26, 2005 9:44:45 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

John T, regarding the RC church I meant no more than tendencies liberals or reformists of the Vatican II variety find disturbing about a reassertion of an authoritarian attitude and insistence on stricter adherence to orthodox dogma in Rome in the last and probably most recent papacy. I have no dog in that fight one way or the other, but what I find in purely demographic terms is that it is the evangelical Protestants and the Roman Catholics who are growing in numbers and who are both emerging as oddly allied political forces in American politics. Thus, while I think it is fair to say that the Vatican was extremely careful to avoid any notion that its (one must presume) spiritual authority over President Kennedy as a Roman Catholic translated into any sort of pressure or direct influence on particular political policy issues, it appears that Rome is now far more willing to suggest that an elected official’s standing in the Roman communion is somehow threatened by a too liberal stand on abortion, euthanasia, etc. Some would see that as a return to the Catholic Caesarism of the Middle Ages, albeit writ small, and that’s all I meant.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 26, 2005 10:26:48 AM

Posted by: Paul Shields

D.A. Ridgely: Concerning the question of whether, and in what ways, this ‘third awakening’ can be seen as an assault against secular humanism: If secular humanism is interpreted in the way envisaged in the post -- as the enlightenment orientation of the founders -- then it seems doubtful that this is the case at all. But if secular humanism is interpreted in a more contemporary way -- as the worldview represented by some combination of popular culture, academic orthodoxy, and the NYT -- then the answer is clearly that it represents a determined frontal assault. I suspect that contemporary evangelicals feel strongly that this latter is a worthwhile target.

The problem is a conflation of the historical and the contemporary -- a conflation of two very different understandings of what it means to be ‘secular’. That this ‘third awakening’ is also different from its predecessors in terms of specific religious sensibilities is indicated by, among other things, the rapprochement you mention between evangelical Protestants and Catholics.

David White: I also thought of the Quakers in this regard. They seem to be a counterexample to the general thesis of the post, in that they held both that morality was available to everyone by some sort of ‘inner light’ and that it derived directly from God. They campaigned against slavery very early.

CTW: Hold on to the thought that there is plenty of ‘murderous perfidy’ to go around. I guess the fortunate corollary is that enlightenment and tolerance can also be found in some unexpected places.

Posted by: Paul Shields | May 26, 2005 11:51:12 AM

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner

The historian Christoper Hill, in his book "The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During The English Revolution" makes it clear that the radicals all used the Bible to justify their ideas. The Diggers, the Ranters, the Agitators, the Seekers, and the Levelers all managed to find religious reasons to overthrow the King and make Parliment the ruler of England. The Bible can be interpreted to say anything.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner | May 26, 2005 12:10:34 PM

Posted by: Mona

Paul shields writes: I also thought of the Quakers in this regard. They seem to be a counterexample to the general thesis of the post,

Agreed. I simply find Mr. Oakes' post to be counter-historical. But then, I spent my teen years devouring books about people such as the Grimke sisters. Quaker converts (altho they were eventually expelled) and ardent social activists for the rights of blacks and women, their arguments all made in strongly religious terms as was common.

Posted by: Mona | May 26, 2005 12:31:11 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

I suspect, in any case, that Mr. Oakes’ thesis would be favorably received by his CUNY colleague, sociologist Timothy Shortell. Far be it from me to suggest any animus on the part of university faculty against Christians, however. That would be wrong.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 26, 2005 1:01:54 PM

Posted by: CTW

"I guess the fortunate corollary is that enlightenment and tolerance can also be found in some unexpected places."

precisely why I have paid the most attention to postings by libertarians - finding anything of value there was so unexpected! (:>)

Posted by: CTW | May 26, 2005 1:08:59 PM

Posted by: tristero

Secularism and secular humanism had nothing whatsoever to do with 18th century America.

Let me repeat that another way: the terms you are using were invented long afterwards; they describe completely different ideas than those of the 18th century. That is, they are woefully inaccurate as well as anachronistic.

In regards to "secularism:"

The term secularism was created in 1846 by George Jacob Holyoake in order to describe "a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life.


As for "secular humanism," the earliest use of that phrase was in a court case from 1960 in a footnote where a judge incorrectly described a humanist group as being members of the religion of secular humanism (this was later clarified: the court says that the term does not refer to a religion), It is a term that was seized upon by the rightwing, then inadvertently adopted by humanists who, apparently, hadn't done enough homework to know they were swallowing a poison pill.

In any event, among the appropriate words to use regarding 18th century American philosophy and religion are of course, deism and the Enlightenment. What actually happened back then was a far more interesting and complicated combination of religious belief and rational philosophy than Left2Right describes.

Here's the thing: It is crucial that we understand this period properly if we are to craft effective counter-strategies to the blatant lies and distortions being told today about our history by the extreme right. So let's not make the present discourse on religion even more confused than it already is by applying half-understood -and really unfortunate -terminology to talk about ideas they in no way describe.

(PS I've done quite a bit of research on the history of the terms "secular humanism" and "secularism." However, I am not a professional historian. If I am mistaken or if anyone has any detailed information about earlier uses of these terms than I've been able to discover, please let me know and I will gladly correct this.)

Posted by: tristero | May 26, 2005 1:12:52 PM

Posted by: TB

Amen brother!

What Mr. Oaks said isn't news to me, I'm a Unitarian Universalist.

Posted by: TB | May 26, 2005 1:15:33 PM

Posted by: Jeff Licquia

It's also important to point out that the Bible is pro-slavery only in comparison to modern sensibilities. Compare, for example, Greek or Persian practice with the Levitical rules regarding Jubilee and mistreatment of slaves.

If by "literalist" Oakes means "can't believe the sky is blue unless I can prove it in Scripture", then perhaps anti-slavery positions cannot be reconciled with it. Such a meaning, however, is a straw man.

Between those issues and the quip about Lincoln and Garrison, I get the impression that Oakes has some conclusions he needs to fit the facts to.

Posted by: Jeff Licquia | May 26, 2005 1:35:30 PM

Posted by: razor

What a great post. Fun to watch the lame excuses, and the hard flogging of the patently false, and shamefully specious, dichotomy between religion and secularism, for all its worth, by those who want to create a religious civics.

"Fundamentalists qua biblical literalists did not emerge as a movement until the early 20th century. Xians such as Bush are Evangelicals, not fundamentalists, and they are in the tradition of the Evangelical-led abolitionists."
Interesting Mona. Please site the source that establishes the direct hadith between Bush and Evanglical led abolitionists. While clearly those today, who characterize themselves as the Christian opposition to Secularism, claim the glory of the anti slavery movement, to gain moral superiority and legitimacy for their position on abortion, it is my understanding this is a flat out lie, by which I mean, the exact opposite of the historical truth. Those who were anti-slavery belonged to the Northern religious traditions that are now mocked by the Southern based evangelicals and fundamentalists as not being real Christians. Tracing back the lineage of today's evangelicals leads to those who were pro slavery. For example, Is it not true that "Southern Baptist" was created out of antagnoism to worship with ex slaves? And is it not true that desegregation in the South - according to the Southerner on the scene at the time - was brought about by outside godless communist agitators, and African Americans who did not know their place, against the opposition of the white Southern religious community? Or, is this, like Bob Jones University, a figment of my imagination?

And John t's counter revolution party line laundry list to support his "Secularity,ain't it great." tag line
left out this gem from 17 September 1787 "... but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" and this gem from 15 December 1791 "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exerciswe thereof...", or, at least that is how my copies have always read. But more than that, John T isn't making the point he thinks he is. First, the war was fought and religious civics lost. A lot of prison convicts have a case they would like to reargue as well. Second, if lurking argument is that the 14th Amendment incorporation of the 1st Amendment is undone, great, I would like to see South Carolina outlaw Catholics and go back to the Founder's originalist intent. And, get rid of those Catholics on the Supreme Court while we are at it - since it is time to strictly construe Religious Test as a "conversion" requirement, but, not as a broad limitation on the ability to keep out those who, for example, as South Carolina was concerned with, are religiously bound to slavishly follow an evil Pope. Or, do we invoke secularism at our convenience?

But my favorite so far is from Paul Shields:
"But if secular humanism is interpreted in a more contemporary way -- as the worldview represented by some combination of popular culture, academic orthodoxy, and the NYT -- then the answer is clearly that it represents a determined frontal assault. I suspect that contemporary evangelicals feel strongly that this latter is a worthwhile target."

Please please let these be the agreed on game rules, because I would love to be authorized to bundle up such diverse phenomnon as "popular culture, academic orthodoxy and the NYT" into one antagonistic bundle to suit my own purposes. After inventing my false dichotomy, that others would be obliged to accept, then, I will then immediately switch, by the game rules, to nit picking about evidence. You know, some evidence of secularism in 19th Century America does not establish complete proof of the proposition advanced. Hallelujah! As I live and breath!

I will start by bundling all the opinions expressed here, that I don't agree, with into one antagonistic bundle, and then start blaming this frankenstein antagonists for all bad things. I suspect I will be able to nitpick all counterarguments. I've seen the light!

Posted by: razor | May 26, 2005 1:42:24 PM

Posted by: tristero

Razor, first of all, you're spot on in your contempt for the rightwingers here who are trying to rewrite history or manufacture completely false dichotomies. That said, fundamentalists qua biblical literalists really did not emerge until the early 20th Century. The movement was a religious movement centered around a group of 19th century pamphlets called "The Fundamentals."

It is also true that numerous religious organizations did yeoman's work for the cause of abolition. However, I do not know, nor have I recall reading anywhere, that the authors of "The Fundamentals" were involved in abolition of slavery activism. Given that there were many writers who contributed to "The Fundamentals," it is possible, perhaps even probable, that some were abolitionists or associated with them. But the truth is I don't know enough about "The Fundamentals" to say one way or the other. An interesting question.

In any event, to link modern day christianists like Bush to the abolitionists is preposterous. But then we knew that, as did Mona, no doubt. She's just propagandizing

By the way, if you need a reference, I would suggest this book about the Scopes trial, which discusses the history of fundamentalism. It has the added advantage of reprinting some of Bryan's worst offenses against commonsense and reason at length:


Posted by: tristero | May 26, 2005 2:04:34 PM

Posted by: Mona

This online encyclopedia lists Bush as an Evangelical, its entry for fundamentalist does not list him -- this is accurate.

Evangelicals believe in reform. Fundamentalists tend to be skeptical of it. Antebellum southern evangelicals were torn apart by the incompatibility of slavery with their faith; human bondage ran counter to their defining reform spirit, and emphasis on the Golden Rule.

Indeed, one Dr. Terry Matthews has posted a relevant lecture here. Therein, she or he discusses the writings of...Mr. Oakes regarding Southern Evangelicals! I would agree with this:

In the chapter entitled "The Convenient Sin," Oakes examines the diaries and other personal writings of Southerners and discovers that many were deeply troubled by their involvement in slavery, and attempted in various ways to rationalize or justify their participation in this terrible evil. Many became convinced that they were going to hell. Yet, there was too much money to be made. As a result, they could not bring themselves to give up such a lucrative system. Slavery became a political issue they could not control. One's faith could only be applied to issues of personal morality like drinking, card-playing, and sex.


Throughout the antebellum period, slave holders continued to show signs that despite the best efforts of pro-slavery apologists, evangelical Protestantism still carried an implicit antislavery message.

Posted by: Mona | May 26, 2005 2:45:42 PM

Posted by: Mona

In any event, to link modern day christianists like Bush to the abolitionists is preposterous. But then we knew that, as did Mona, no doubt. She's just propagandizing

Not at all. Evangelicals are reformers and not given, as the fundamentalists are, to simply banging bibles and warning of hellfire. The evangelical movement in the Unites States directly inspired all manner of this-world reform -- from abolitionism, to Prohibition, to women's suffrage.

Bush is not a "small govt" conservative, to the unhappiness of many. He is quite prone to holding that the govt can and should fund programs for the poor & etc, it is just that he is likely to have "faith-based" entities eligible for some of the money.

I serve on a Board of Directors for a Xian non-profit that provides services, such as grief counseling, to developmentally disabled adults. Most in this group are evangelicals and none are fundamentalists. This is what one would expect, and Bush would fit right in. (Better than I do, since they all know I don't believe in God.)

Posted by: Mona | May 26, 2005 2:59:18 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Tristero, what is a "christianist"?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 26, 2005 3:05:02 PM

Posted by: grandmnitor

My Professor once told , "Statistics are very important, you can prove anything you want with them.

Church's per population is non-sequiter.

Did you consider: As people spread west, they home churched.
Some churches never "registered"
Data could be estimates.
What religions were there...

and on and on.

Now I ask you in 1755 how many mosques did we have in America?

How many Jewish temples?

That proves Jews don't exist back then, so where did they come from?

and on and on and on ad-rediculosity.

HERE is the real point:

I have an English Websters Dictionary printed in 1840.

You know what is in that dictionary, EVERY PAGE has references to God, the BIBLE (Not the koran) and in every definition, when possible, a sample Bible text was used.

This was the basis of ALL SCHOOLING IN AMERICA.

The truth of the matter is this, the Godless part of our Country is growing fast, and they don't want to acknowledge they are living a lifestyle rejecting God.

EvenDarwin asked his friend "WHY did America accept my theory so quickly?"

And his friend answered "Because they WANTED something tdifferent.

Bottom line, when you don't want the truth you will eventually make yourself believe in a lie.

Our nation has fallen lower than Sodom and Gomorrha in many ways, and it is just a matter of a short time before you will see for yourself you were incorrect.

But living a wrong life, in sin a d adultery and fornication (sex before marriage) is living immorally.

You may do it and I won't stop me.

But way are you trying to pass laws to stop ME from living MORALLY?

Because you don't want the voice of rebuke ringing in your ears.

Killing the messenger will not let you off the hook.

You may always repent, which means giving up your bad lifestyle.

But, will you?

Posted by: grandmnitor | May 26, 2005 3:23:08 PM

Posted by: tristero

I never said Bush was a fundamentalist, did I? I said he was a christianist, ie, someone who exploits the trappings of Christianity for political gain, the way Islamists prey on Islam.

Whatever his actual beliefs (and they are very hard to pin down, partly because he seems to know very little about any aspect of Christianity except it's anti-abortion rights, anti-gays, and pro-war), Bush is first and foremost a ruthless, cynical, politician who knows very well that wearing his religion on his sleeve is a perfect way to deflect criticism of his incompetence and immoral policies.

Posted by: tristero | May 26, 2005 3:43:08 PM

Posted by: tristero

"Our nation has fallen lower than Sodom and Gomorrha in many ways"

Not far enough, if you ask me.

Posted by: tristero | May 26, 2005 3:45:08 PM

Posted by: Tad Brennan

Franklin, from his Autobiography:

I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and tho' some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles.

I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern'd it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteem'd the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho' with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix'd with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv'd principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another....

Tho' I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He us'd to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevail'd on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday's leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc'd, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.

At length he took for his text that verse of the fourth chapter of Philippians, "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there be any virtue, or any praise, think on these things." And I imagin'd, in a sermon on such a text, we could not miss of having some morality. But he confin'd himself to five points only, as meant by the apostle, viz.: 1. Keeping holy the Sabbath day. 2. Being diligent in reading the holy Scriptures. 3. Attending duly the publick worship. 4. Partaking of the Sacrament. 5. Paying a due respect to God's ministers. These might be all good things; but, as they were not the kind of good things that I expected from that text, I despaired of ever meeting with them from any other, was disgusted, and attended his preaching no more....

Posted by: Tad Brennan | May 26, 2005 3:49:50 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Would you prefer more sodomy or more gomorrhea?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 26, 2005 3:51:24 PM

Posted by: Tad Brennan


"And Lincoln was not, by the time he was elected President, against slavery. He was the consummate pragmatist (and he was likely not a Xian, since, as Mr. Oakes implies, it is nearly certain he did not believe in the divinity of Christ). If retaining the "peculiar institution" would have saved the Union, Lincoln would have retained slavery."

I agree that Lincoln placed an immense value on the preservation of the Union, and was willing to temporize over slavery if doing so could avoid the destruction of the Union. But I do not think it follows from those facts that he "was not...against slavery."

Yes, he was not willing to destroy the Union in order to end slavery. He presumably would not have been willing to exterminate all of the slaves in order to end slavery, or blow up the world in order to end slavery. That simply shows that he was not a single-minded fanatic.

As far as I can tell, he was "against slavery" throughout his adult life. He always found it abhorrent and immoral. His political pragmatism involved no weakening of that principle.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | May 26, 2005 4:03:51 PM

Posted by: tristero

Tad, you're right. Questioning Lincoln's anti-slavery credentials is one more example of the right wing's indulgence in post modernism.

At least, Lerone Bennett attacks Lincoln's anti-slavery committment from a genuine sense of passion, not cynicism. Bennett's wrong, of course, but he's no rightwing nut.

Posted by: tristero | May 26, 2005 4:09:20 PM

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