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Volume 16, Issue 1: Counterpoint

David Brooks Interview

Douglas Jones

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly, and a commentator on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. He is the author of Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster). His Atlantic Monthly essay, "Kicking the Secular Habit: A Six-Step Program" (http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2003/03/brooks.htm) prompted the following interview.

C/A: We're finding that many secularists are quite unfamiliar with being described as secularists. How would you characterize secularism for them?
David Brooks: That's a tough question. I guess I'd say there is militant secularism and what you might call soft secularism. After I wrote that piece in The Atlantic Monthly, I was struck by how many militant secularists there are. Militant secularists are genuinely hostile toward religion and think it is a form of primitive irrationalism. When you suggest that it is not going into the ash heap of history, they get quite angry. That was a belief system I thought was petering out but apparently not. And I would say soft secularists are people who just go through their average day without really much thought to either God or the transcendent and just live in a world that is aloof from talk of religion.
C/A: In The Atlantic essay "Kicking the Secularist Habbit," you made the case that secularists need to recover from assuming secularism is the normative vision in history. Why do you think that secularism is not the future?
DB: I think that its predictions have not been borne out. I think that it was based on an assumption that belief in God was becoming a less important driver of history and also that as people became better educated and more affluent, they would become less religious. Those two things don't seem to be true.
C/A: Apart from those two things, do you have any hint that there is something deficient in secularism itself? Why is the vision not carrying through?
DB: I just think it doesn't capture what human beings are all about. Just this morning I read a very good book called The Stone of Hope about the civil rights movement. It contrasted the secular civil rights movement, which was personified by Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, with the much more religious civil rights movement, which Martin Luther King Jr. was part of. This author made the argument that the American civil rights movement was not a political movement with some religious overtones, it was a religious movement with some political overtones, and he says that it gained great strength from that. First, because people are just much more committed to a movement that's concerned with ultimate issues, but also because it had a more complex view of human nature. The secular movement took progress for granted and said things like, "People will talk and everything will automatically move in the direction of happiness and freedom and liberty." Whereas the people who were much more infused with the religious spirit looked to Job and Jeremiah, and sometimes had a much more pessimistic view of history. But they were also willing to think more radically because things wouldn't automatically get better; life is steeped in sin, and the world is fallen. And so they were actually willing to think more grandly than the secularists were.
C/A: You also tell secularists to face the fact that they are not the norm. Do you see secularists assuming they're the norm in other ways than just assuming they're the average person?
DB: It depends on where you are in the country, especially along the coasts. For many people, most of the people they know don't attend any services with any regularity and just think that most people are not religious. When it comes to talking about religion, they just don't know very much. Writing about politics in Washington, I get into this discussing George Bush all the time. People hear that George Bush calls himself evangelical, and immediately some people think that automatically means you're sort of a stereotypical Jimmy Swaggart type person. But they don't know the incredible diversity that's found in the evangelical movement, or the incredible diversity that's found in the different denominations, or the fluidity of the denominations. You can live in a universe where you have no knowledge or contact with how religion is actually practiced in this country.
C/A: You also mention that in the post-secular world, the reigning categories of left and right will become obsolete. Any suggestions for new categories?
DB: At the moment, I think we're in a phase of religious practice, which is being influenced by consumerism. People are changing faiths quite a lot, and churches, especially seeker-sensitive churches, are sometimes behaving more like service organizations and less like churches. For example, I am struck by Wes Clark, who has changed religion like five times; Howard Dean changed because the Episcopal church didn't like a bike path. That's actually not that unusual in this country. And so what I see right now is a loss of definition of categories. That won't last forever, but I think there has been a great blurring of lines. There's a great quotation I like by the historian Henry Steele Commager. He said, "In the nineteenth century religion prospered while theology went bankrupt." I think he was talking about the loss of knowledge of theological differences, and things blurred together. I think we're in the midst of another phase like that.
C/A: Any suggestions for how religious people in dialogue with secularists can break through the sort of narrow and unreflective secularist paradigm that so often shuts down dialogue?
DB: To be honest I think secularists have to make the first move. I think many, especially in academia, are supposed to study America or the world, and yet they are often very insular. But that's not entirely their fault, to be honest. A lot of people in different Christian or Jewish or Muslim movements are pretty insular too; its just more convenient and easier to stay within yourself. I think this is true society-wide, that as we get more affluent, we spread out into different suburbs and have different choices of media and internet sites. It becomes very, very easy to segment yourself off, so you only consort with people who are basically like yourself. That is very convenient, and I do think it would help both sides if there was just familiarity with how people across the secular/religious divide lived and thought. I don't know if it's a question of having groups that can reach across and maybe go to more secular parts of the country. I'm thinking of especially university campuses, or the people who are religious in a place like a university or in a city talking about it. One of the things I notice as I travel around the country is that there are religious people everywhere, but in some parts of the country its acceptable to talk about it at a dinner party, and at other parts its just not accepted or done. I just wish people were a little more, not aggressive, not necessarily evangelical about it, but talking more about what their faith means to them.

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