Looking at the shouting match in our culture, between the forces of aggressive atheism (“The End of Faith”, “God is not Great”) and the armies of belligerent belief (James Dobson, Pat Robertson), it looks like the widest part of the faith divide is between religion and secularism.
Not so says my friend Sam Fleischacker in a smart piece posted on an interesting blog called South Jerusalem. Sam, an observant Jew and academic philosopher with serious chops, claims that “the secular world is good for religion.” Sam’s argument rests on the idea that faith is strengthened by freedom: “The secular world thus guarantees the freedom of my own religious beliefs – which makes them more truly religious, less a product of fear or ignorance or habit.”
This is something that historians of American religion point out when answering the question why faith has such vibrance in the United States compared to Europe. Unlike the Continent, where many countries have official churches (the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, etc), faith communities in the United States were required to be entrepreneurial to obtain and retain members. People in Europe felt forced to go to church, which led to the atrophying of their faith. People in America could choose, and when they went they did so of their own free will, which made their faith stronger.
This was a good summer for interfaith work. Several important books in the field were published, including Gustav Niebuhr’s Beyond Tolerance and Bud Heckman’s Interactive Faith. And two watershed conferences were held – one on the Common Word document at Yale University and one convened by the Saudi King in Madrid.
One of the questions I get asked frequently as the Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core is how nonreligious people fit into the interfaith movement. Looking at the press from the Yale and Madrid conferences, it’s easy to think that they don’t fit in at all. The title Reverend, Rabbi or Imam was pretty much a prerequisite for receiving an invitation.
Somebody at the Madrid conference explicitly stated that religious people should unite together against the forces of secularism.
Those of us trying to bridge the faith divide would do well to welcome the nonreligious. Several of the most skilled practitioners of interfaith work that I know are not particularly religious. In fact, many of them are on staff at the IFYC. The shouting match between the Christopher Hitchens’ and the James Dobson’s of the world is an ugly caricature of what really happens in most of our lives, which is that we have friends from a range of backgrounds and we find ways to respect one another’s views, even support ones that we may personally disagree with.
My friend Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard, is writing a book on the respectful relationship that secular humanism should have with religion. Those of us within religious worlds should be prepared to respond with words of equal dignity and mutual loyalty.