The Religion of Secularism Reexamined
by Leigh Eric Schmidt

Excerpted from The Church of Saint Thomas Paine: A Religious History of American Secularism

America’s most famous infidel orator, Robert Ingersoll, was a paradoxically religious man. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he skewered his natal faith with a sharp wit and a silvery tongue on lecture tours all across the country over the last three decades of the nineteenth century. But, even as he tore down Christianity, its scriptures and creeds, he offered a new religion to takes its place. “Secularism is the Religion of Humanity,” he told one admirer in 1887. “It is the only religion now. All other is superstition.” He was the sonorous bearer of “the religion of the future” in which this world—not some celestial realm beyond it—would be the sole focus of human endeavor, purpose, and meaning. “Whoever imagines that he can do anything for God is mistaken,” Ingersoll elaborated. “Whoever imagines that he can add to his happiness in the next world by being useless in this, is also mistaken. And whoever thinks that any God cares how he cuts his hair or his clothes, or what he eats, or whether he fasts, or rings a bell, or puts holy water on his breast, or counts beads, or shuts his eyes and says words to the clouds, is laboring under a great mistake.” Ingersoll’s secularism was built rhetorically on a long series of such negations—all the theological assumptions, bodily habits, ecclesial rituals, and devotional objects that had to be jettisoned in order to stride into an emancipated future. Yet, the freethinking secularism that Ingersoll broadcast was not simply destructive; it was also productive; it carried a religious gravity of its own, a surrogacy that was also a supersession. The religion of secularism would have its own saints, martyrs, and relics; it would cultivate its own liturgical projects and material practices; it would build its own churches of humanity to replace churches of God; it would reembody religion even as it disembodied it. “We are laying the foundations of the grand temple of the future—not the temple of all the gods, but of all the people,” so Ingersoll prophesied in 1872, “wherein, with appropriate rites, will be celebrated the religion of Humanity.”

That grand temple did not carry the future in the way that Ingersoll and his many collaborators imagined. They dreamed of Christianity receding in the American landscape as their own religion of humanity advanced; more than that, their vision was both cosmopolitan and imperial—an assurance that their universalistic faith in an age of reason would sweep the globe and leave old religious authorities in ruins everywhere. Despite the alarm of secularism’s critics—from the nineteenth century forward—nothing like that church-usurping dominion came to pass. Christianity’s role in American statecraft has hardly been curtailed through a program of political secularism; the exercise of Protestant and Catholic power has remained evident, time and again, from local to federal levels. Nor has American public life been denuded of religious symbols, rituals, and utterances—indeed, far from it. Instead, secularism in the United States has operated, more often than not, as a movement for minority rights: that is, a congeries of groups and individuals who sought equal liberties for nontheists under the American constitutional order whether in public schools, courtrooms, and state offices, or in relation to conscientious objection, tax exemption, and freedom of expression. When functioning as a humanistic religion—say, in the form of a positivist Church of Humanity—secularism has been little more than a series of sects: marginal in numbers, divisively protective of their own distinctions, and possessed of millenarian fantasies of imminent triumph. In both public life and before the law, freethinking petitioners have looked a lot more like the Jehovah’s Witnesses than the hegemon of moral decline over which culture warriors despair. Secularists have been embattled sectarians, struggling to build up usually fleeting organizations, to honor their maligned heroes, to ritualize their lives and memorialize their dead, to create solidarity amongst themselves in their alienation from Christianity and the prevailing religious order.   

To consider secularism’s history in religious terms is to pursue only a portion of secularism’s history—a religious rendering frequently contested by atheists, freethinkers, and humanists themselves, many of whom never bought into the project of organizing themselves along congregational or ceremonial lines. A significant bloc among nineteenth-century nonbelievers insisted that all mention of religion in connection to their secularist worldview was anathema; they had no interest in preserving churchgoing as a habit, even if in service of ethical ideals that they would otherwise have endorsed. When avowed freethinkers found themselves trading on a religious lexicon—showing their devotion to Thomas Paine as a secular saint, cultivating their own sacraments in imitation of Auguste Comte, or building a Church of This World for Sunday fellowship—they often hesitated over their own doubts or stumbled over the objections of their peers. Such misgivings often turned adamant. That was as true among secular humanists in the late twentieth century who disclaimed any religious dimension to their philosophy as it was among nineteenth-century purists who rejected the espousal of any religion at all, no matter how reasonably it was framed. Religion was a bad word, and so were its many derivatives—from relics and spirits to angels and fetishes. Purgation was the mark of clarified rationality; the erasure of religion, not its reclamation, was the essence of secular enlightenment. Nonetheless, religious language and religious practice proved inescapably tempting for an array of secularist projects. As one proponent of the new humanistic faith declared in 1873, religion “is too good a word to lose; it is quite worth saving. It has a spell in it which is not yet broken.” Any number of positivists, freethinking liberals, humanists, and agnostics agreed; they were uninterested in an enforced purity; instead, they were intent on salvaging religion through redefinition, ritual through reinvention, and church through recalibration.

The scare quotes around the word religion—paired with its capitalization—bespoke the equivocation at the heart of secularist enthusiasms: somehow to witness to the humanistic religion of the future, while simultaneously dismissing religion as a superannuated relic of the past.

The Church of Saint Thomas Paine offers a history of those liberal secularists who courted religion, often with forthright ardor and hopeful anticipation, frequently with poetic license and unresolved ambivalence. “Beloved brethren! Among all your gettings, get religion!—this real, true up-to-date religion of Ingersoll,” so exhorted the Torch of Reason in 1903, a freethought newspaper then operating out of Kansas City. The paper’s editor knew that many of his colleagues thought it impossible to have a “religion without superstition”—it was about as likely as having “whisky without alcohol,” one critic quipped. Still, the publisher of the Torch of Reason had seen the light and urged others to join him at the altar of “the new ‘Religion’ of Secularism.” The scare quotes around the word religion—paired with its capitalization—bespoke the equivocation at the heart of secularist enthusiasms: somehow to witness to the humanistic religion of the future, while simultaneously dismissing religion as a superannuated relic of the past. Those who got that “Emancipate Religion”—that “real Religion of Humanity”—worked to materialize it in the face of their own ambivalences, the admonitions of colleagues, and the rebukes of Christian critics. They insisted that their own humanistic, ethical, and largely nontheistic commitments deserved the same rights and protections within the American constitutional order as those of their God-reverencing counterparts who dominated the nation’s public life.

Interior of the Fellowship of Humanity “church” or “hall” in Oakland, CA. Thomas Paine’s “motto” adorns the stage. Photo courtesy of the author.

To acknowledge that secularists often claimed a religious mantle for themselves is not to vindicate conservative critics who have been decrying “the religion of secularism” over the last half century and more. Especially since the Supreme Court decisions of the early 1960s forbidding state-mandated prayer and Bible reading in the public schools, the religion of secularism has often been invoked as a nefarious, all-determining force bent on supplanting the Protestant mores of a nation under God. It is atmospheric and inescapable, a doctrinaire regime disguised in the garb of neutrality. The Church of Saint Thomas Paine shows instead the fragility and sectarian peculiarity of secularist designs to build up a religion of humanity or a religion of this world. Perhaps the most consistent ritual among freethinkers—the celebration of Thomas Paine’s birthday—never came close to being a red-letter day in the nation’s civic calendar or in the public schools. It was a minority rite among a faction of dissenters, a distinct sect of “Paineites,” who set themselves against the religious majority with contrarian persistence. If anything, close attention to the practices of devout secularists exposes the spectral fears and rhetorical excesses of their Christian critics. Humanism was often cast as a religion—with just enough presence to serve as a convenient scapegoat of rightwing Protestants, but never with sufficient clout or appeal to rival the nation’s dominant faith, let alone displace it as the established religion. The religion of secularism, in the twentieth century as much as the nineteenth century, was always far more provisional than preponderant in actual expression: a small Church of Humanity in Oakland, California; an undersized Fellowship of Religious Humanists being run by a retired Unitarian minister in the Missouri Ozarks; or a twelve-year experiment with a Society of Evangelical Agnostics in the Sierra Nevada mountains. A religious history in an ethnographic register renders secularism less familiar, less ascendant and age-encompassing—finite, fractional, and strange for all the triumphal assurance of so many of its prophets. ♦

Leigh Eric Schmidt is the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at the Washington University in St. Louis where he is part of the faculty of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. He is widely published as a cultural historian, essayist and reviewer, who has written extensively on American spiritual seeking, holiday conflicts, evangelical Protestantism and liberal religious traditions.

Recommended Citation

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “The Religion of Secularism Reexamined” Canopy Forum, February 25, 2022.