Monday, February 06, 2006

Secular Christian, Militant Darwinist

Note: I wrote this last year before the judge in Dover, Pennsylvania, ruled against the teaching of "intelligent design" in biology classes in Dover. As he wrote:

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

The whole decision is at:


I was born once, but baptized twice, without ever becoming a believer. The doctor who delivered me had to perform emergency surgery, so, being a Catholic who believed unbaptized babies go to Limbo, he asked and received permission to christen me.
After two weeks in intensive care, I was taken home by my parents, who, in a sense, disregarded the fact that I had already been baptized and had me christened at the Episcopalian Church, in the usual rite with a minister rather than an emergency ceremony with only a doctor.
One might think two baptisms would be enough to make a Christian out of a baby, but in my case, they did not stick. My parents hardly ever went to church while I was growing up, and my only experience of churches for actual services was for the occasional wedding or funeral. In my last two years of high school, I began to be outspoken about not being a Christian, which for me was summed up in the rather trivial claim that I did not want to celebrate Christmas, preferring to celebrate Winter Solstice. The latter "holiday" seemed grounded in material reality, since it is clearly a significant day: the shortest day of the year. I went so far as to ask my future sister-in-law to improvise some "Winter Solstice songs" on the harpsichord for me, to counter all the Christmas carols. (As she is Jewish, she was not offended and came up with some lovely music.)
When I went to college, however, I began to be aware of a paradox in my rejection of Christianity as a religion: not only am I immersed in Christianity as a culture, I am also fascinated by its history. The cultural "world" I think in is permeated by the Old and New Testaments: paintings, music, poetry, novels, and simple everyday language are all unthinkable and often incomprehensible without their Christian background, and the history of North America and Europe (where I grew up and where I now live, respectively) is driven by the complex history of Christianity in all its promise and hair-splitting violence. From the moment when I read the Bible and Augustine in a "Western Culture" course in my freshman year in 1982, I was drawn into this cultural and historical context. In fact, several times over the years, I have had conversations about Christian history with ministers who were later surprised to hear that I was not a believer: they knew many professed Christians who were less informed about the Bible and the history of their religion.
Over the years, then, I found myself wondering what to call myself when people asked about my religious persuasion. While rare, this question did come up often enough for me to want to consider it. "Atheist," while an accurate description of my perspective, in both its etymology and its common usage (I do not believe in a deity or deities), seemed too harsh, but also misleading, given what amounted to my thorough immersion in Judeo-Christian monotheism. Despite its being coined by Thomas H. Huxley in the nineteenth century, an excellent source who felt like a a "man without a rag of a label to cover himself with," "agnostic" always seemed wimpy: "I do not know" may be modest, but since I thought I did know, why should I be modest (except to avoid sounding harsh)? Also, the term sets one up for discussions with those believers who take it as an invitation to proselytize! I would always just avoid nouns entirely and say, "I am not a believer." But I did not like the negation there. Perhaps the negation of a-theist and a-gnostic also bothered me.
I was delighted, then, when I came up with an expression that felt just right: Secular Christian. As my Jewish sister-in-law pointed out, a "Secular Jew" is someone who never goes to temple but still enjoys celebrating the major holidays. By now, my youthful rigor has given way to an enjoyment of Christmas as a cultural event, as it were, so my term "Secular Christian" covers that, while also doing two other things, one for me and one for others. For me, it involves the acceptance of my cultural immersion in Christian imagery and history. For others, it is a surprising enough expression that it generates interesting discussion and, I hope, thinking (something the well-worn "atheist" and "agnostic" do not do, since everyone thinks they know what those terms mean).
Since I came up with the expression several years ago, I have enjoyed using it, even or especially when people ask me for an explanation. But it has begun to seem a bit weak in its own right, not because my beliefs have changed, but because of the vehemence with which others assert the validity of their own beliefs. Fundamentalist Muslims, after all, are not wary of killing those whose beliefs they find unacceptable. But they are not the ones who irritate this "Secular Christian" enough to make me reconsider the term; it is the fundamentalist Christians, especially in the United States, who rub me the wrong way enough to make the expression "Secular Christian" too much of a concession to their all-too-sectarian Christianity.
The straw that broke this particular camel's back (or is it a sledgehammer?) was not the rise of the political fundamentalists or the hypocrisy of the recovering alcoholic they heaved into the White House. Nobody tried to proselytize me once too often; nobody told me I was going to burn in hell for my beliefs. What turned the tables for me was the concept of "intelligent design" (ID).
To be precise, it was the news that school boards in the United States are mandating the teaching of ID in biology classes as a supposedly legitimate challenge to the supposedly unproven theory of evolution. Culturally, I have realized, I may be a "secular Christian," but politically and "scientifically," I have to call myself something else. I am as fascinated by the theory of evolution as I am by the history of Christianity, and I do my best to keep abreast of developments and debates in contemporary biology (with its wonderful popularizers, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins being the most famous of them). And those developments make nonsense of two of the claims of intelligent design: "irreducible complexity" and ID's status as "science." The supposed "irreducible complexity" of the protein system involved in blood clotting, for example (take one protein away and it does not work, so it must have been designed, as it could not have evolved all at once) has already been explained in evolutionary terms without reference to "design." Beyond that, for intelligent design to be a science, it must produce testable hypotheses. (It was this lack that led me, after years of reading about psychoanalysis and applying it to the study of literature, to reject it.) Without such an experimental contribution coming from its supporters, it is best to apply Ockham's razor: take the simpler explanation — in this case, evolution.
"Secular Christian" no longer expresses what I want to be. Militancy on the part of others makes me want to be militant, too, but not with a negative term like "atheist." So now I am coming out of the closet as a "Militant Darwinist." I am happy to accept Christianity as a cultural phenomenon (and one that people should accept their immersion in if, like me, they grew up in such a context), but when good science is challenged by religion in disguise, then it is time to run for the school board.
I'm spared that, as I live in Switzerland, but if I lived in the United States now, I would be trying to form a coalition of Militant Darwinists to get pseudo-science out of biology classes. — Or, alternatively, I would allow intelligent design into biology classrooms. An academic confrontation with pseudoscience might well help the pupils understand science better. Sometimes negation is, after all, the best way to understand something, and explaining why ID is not worthy of being called "science" would not only make what science is clearer but also help those believers who feel threatened by evolution to understand what it is they actually believe in.


Janet said...

Wow, so I'm not the only one? I was out in the garden today when I hit upon the idea of the "secular Christian", in much the same way you described, and for all the same reasons. I came across your blog while searching to see if anyone else had coined the term, and for what purpose. And although I agree that associating myself even distantly with the fundamentalists is an affront to my scientific beliefs, I should think it wrong to let them spoil all that is good in Christian culture. May I ask, do you still use the label, or have you settled upon a suitable alternative?

As for ID, I always thought that it could be given a small footnote in biology class as the "theory" that was ousted when the young, Christian naturalist Charles Darwin, inspired by his travels on the HMS Beagle, formed his daring hypothesis. Not unlike Ptolemaic astronomy, or the "plumb pudding" model of the atom, or "cold" as a physical entity. It was, after all, the prevailing belief of the Victorian era, before the predictive power of evolutionary theory made it obsolete from a scientific point of view.

Andrew Shields said...

I like how something like this can be found by someone three years later!

I swing back and forth on being a "secular Christian." I think it accurately describes where I am culturally, but "militant Darwinist" is more accurate intellectually, if you will.

(Now let's see if you still get this comment, since you made yours over a month ago.)

Heleen said...

It is now 2011 and I enjoyed your article!
I also like to use the term secular Christian to describe my beliefs, although it is difficult in my community

Andrew Shields said...

This seems to be a good essay for belated hits! :-)

I've been turning more and more militant Darwinist since then, while also realizing more and more just how secular Christian my perspective on the world is.