Backstory: The Law of the Land

By Sam Myers, Literary Fellow

The Almedins (the Manhattan-dwelling, Arab-American family at the center of The Profane) could be described as a secular humanist family, though they never identify as such. Secular humanism is a belief system — or, in the preferred terminology of secular humanists themselves, a “comprehensive lifestance” — with a storied past and a deeply (if quietly) politically influential place in history. It is not synonymous with atheism, though its adherents do reject the existence of a god or gods. “Who are the secular humanists?” Paul Kurtz, founder of the Council for Secular Humanism, asks. “Perhaps,” he proposes, “everyone who believes in the principles of free inquiry, ethics based upon reason, and a commitment to science, democracy, and freedom. Perhaps even you.” 

At the end of the twentieth century, the religious right latched onto the term “secular humanism” to describe the morally degraded, godless country they saw around them. Here, finally, was a name for an increasingly prominent secular American ideology. Here was a clearly defined stance that exalted (even, some would argue, deified) the human as a gloriously autonomous being capable of, and solely responsible for, making its own decisions. Secular humanism asserted that everything in the universe is essentially knowable, and it rejected the existence of the supernatural or the divine. There was something profoundly and almost paradigmatically American about its dogged faith in the power of human enterprise, its pronouncement that we must take responsibility for shaping our own lives, its melting-pot vision of a culture that promises above all the chance to reinvent ourselves…and yet, it is an expressly atheistic belief system, and this placed it in direct conflict with some prominent voices from the religious right.

In the 1987 case Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, US District Judge W. Brevard Hand was charged with determining whether or not secular humanism is a religion. Ultimately, he ruled that it is. He wrote, in his 172-page ruling, that it is unconstitutional to teach the tenets of secular humanism in public schools:

“Teaching that moral choices are purely personal and can only be based on some autonomous, as yet undiscovered and unfulfilled, inner self is a sweeping fundamental belief that must not be promoted by the public schools. The state can, of course, teach the law of the land, which is that each person is responsible for, and will be held to account for, his actions. There is a distinct practical consequence between this fact, and the religious belief promoted, whether explicitly or implicitly, by saying ‘only you can decide what is right or wrong.’”

Whether or not you agree with Judge Hand’s conclusion that the presence of secular humanist thought in US schools amounts to state-sponsored religious indoctrination, it’s certainly interesting to consider a secular belief system as the de facto American dogma. Acknowledging the existence of secular humanism as an alternative to religion that is as complete and philosophically capacious opens up all kinds of fresh perspectives on tired subjects; for example, it allows us to reframe conversion narratives. When a person who was raised in a religious family becomes non-religious, it’s common to conceptualize this process as “losing faith” — a movement from something to nothing — rather than a process of exchanging one ideology for another. Likewise, in the conversion from non-belief to belief, one may be inclined to imagine the blossoming of faith where once there was a void. 

“Started exploring religion because of a girl. The relationship didn’t last. The interest in religion did.” So begins an anonymous discussion thread on Reddit that prompts users to share stories of personal transition to religious faith. Several posts start by detailing the active animosity the writer once felt toward religion. “In high school and college I started doing a lot of questioning,” writes one Reddit user, “and ultimately landed where I suppose a lot of atheists or agnostics do — religion is bad, religion is bs, religion is just a bunch of stories born out of fear and not knowing.” This writer frames his pre-religious identity as negative and reactionary rather than sustaining and positive. In other cases, atheism is understood as merely an absence, a nothingness before the introduction of religion. When it enters a person’s life, religion may represent both a point of connection with one’s cultural heritage and a lens through which to view one’s own experiences. “I was raised an atheist, and I kept meeting religious people who either rejected my questions from the offset [sic] or gave me entirely unsatisfactory answers,” writes another user. “Then I discovered that I was technically Jewish and decided to look into Judaism. I eventually picked up on a few rituals that made sense to me (e.g. resting on the Sabbath), and started studying the texts of my ancestors.” 

In The Profane, Zayd Dohrn gives us Emina Almedin, a young woman who begins to accumulate the markers of religious identity that her father has spent a lifetime trying to shed. Raised in an eminently liberal, academic household in New York City, Emina is drawn to a man from a conservative Muslim family. Her father, Raif — a first-generation immigrant to the US — seems deeply threatened by his daughter’s interest in Islam. Emina’s rebellion takes the form of a spiritual and ancestral curiosity, a rearward-glancing inquisitiveness about a connection that was never explored in her youth. She questions everything her father has clung to since starting his life in America, and, in so doing, inadvertently exposes a cultural conflict within his adamantly espoused ideals: his progressivism, his urbanity, his cosmopolitan open-mindedness.

There’s so much promise and portent in the secular humanist assertion that we are capable of defining our own morality. It’s an idea that must have been irresistible to Raif when he was a newcomer to America. It’s also a malleable philosophy that, by its very nature, undermines intergenerational ideological continuity. Raif, in his eagerness to become wholly American, enthusiastically embraced the chance to free himself from the constraints of a religious doctrine he found oppressive, only to be confronted years later by his daughter, who, raised in his non-prescriptive secular humanist lifestance, turns back to inspect the very doctrine he left behind.

In contemporary America, the narrative of the rebellious youth turning his back on religious tradition is often reified as typical, even mundane. Particularly in urban, cosmopolitan pockets of the US, where agnosticism and liberal politics predominate, it seems we expect to see the ongoing global philosophical march from religious conservatism toward secularism reflected on a small scale in stories of individual enlightenment. In this strange and uncertain historical moment, we may find it easier to conceive of enlightenment as an unburdening, as a discarding of belief — easier to imagine a person made lighter by the shedding of historical baggage and the rejection of ritual. There’s far less space in our collective imagination for narratives of accrual, and, when confronted with these stories, we are inclined to see them as incidents of regression rather than rebellion. The Profane, in its trenchant and closely observed treatment of ideological conflict, invites us to consider the many forms intolerance can take.