Jonah, the notion of a self-conscious secularism — ideological atheism, for wont of a better term — becoming a tribe all its own is a pretty interesting sociological possibility. It was pretty much the doctrine of the left-liberal enclaves of the 1960s and 1970s — the Upper West Side, Berkeley, progressive college towns. The central conviction of these enclaves was that they were enlightened, educated, skeptical, intellectually curious and forward-thinking, and that none of these qualities could co-exist with a religious life. The vital importance attached to sexual freedom and the supposed liberation it would provide from neurosis was key here, since all organized religions codify and enforce restrictions on sexual behavior. Religion, therefore, was bad for you, since it imposed neurotic behavior on you.
But their embrace of this anti-religion religion was always hampered by two phenomena: the role of religion in the civil rights movement and, subsequently, in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was, of course, the Reverend King. And clergy like Father Berrigan and Rabbi Heschel were central to the effort to give the anti-war movement a touch of the transcendent.
The religious role in present-day left-liberalism is almost non-existent. Its primary civil-rights cause is gay liberation, and while leftist religious figures can try to fight what they believe to be the good fight within their denominations and faiths by arguing against the applicability of Biblical and canonical prohibitions on homosexual conduct, they can hardly stand at the forefront of the movement to equalize homosexuality with heterosexuality.
And while religious leaders can and are taking a leading role in the other great left-liberal cause — the “saving of the earth” — here too they are subordinate figures to the scientists and ex-vice presidents who take the lead.
Meanwhile, they are certain that religiously-influenced causes — against embryonic stem-cell research and abortion as matters of social policy and creationism as a matter of education policy — are the harbingers of a new Dark Age.
So why not a secular tribe? Secularists believe they are smarter, wiser, and better for America and the world than the religious people who are, in their view, pulling America backward into a nightmarish past. A conviction like this, widely shared, is a perfect basis for a present-day movement.