Secularism Good for the Soul

Looking at the shouting match in our culture, between the forces of aggressive atheism (“The End of Faith”, “God is … Continued

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.

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  • Daniel

    “The shouting match between the Christopher Hitchens’ and the James Dobson’s of the world is an ugly caricature”Say what? Where? Please produce the caricature. I missed it.

  • Brian Westley

    “Somebody at the Madrid conference explicitly stated that religious people should unite together against the forces of secularism.””Somebody”?? Try King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the organizer and host. “I have noticed that the family system has weakened and that atheism has increased. That is an unacceptable behavior to all religions, to the Koran, the Torah and the Bible. We ask God to save humanity. There is a lack of ethics, loyalty and sincerity for our religions and humanity.”

  • Paganplace

    Wow, Brian, …then that King certainly is committed to three religions ganging up on everyone else… In his mind… Everyone but Abrahamics is apparently an ‘atheist.’ I mean, I find the ‘aggressive’ (really I think they’re being defensive) atheists pretty annoying at times, too, but these types tend to be the ones who represent the ‘non-religious’ to the Abrahamics, cause few others are actually very interested in debating the existence or nonexistence of the particular God of Abraham.

  • Farnaz

    The confusion about America’s status as a secular society has never been greater than it is at present. While bigotry has always run amok, Americans, in the past had always proudly proclaimed themselves a “secular society,” arguably because the US has no official state religion and considers its laws to be based on a shared secular sense of morality. To a fairly large extent, the US has been justified in making this argument.If one is not Christian, however, one tends to think of America as a secular Christian society. Although one might not be wholly conscious of this thinking, it is evident in what one expects and accepts. Now, many Christians, practicing and secular/cultural are outspokenly claiming that this is a “Christian” society because the majority of Americans are Christian. Practicing? Cultural? That the meaning of this identity token is never made clear is part of the confusion. The larger problem lies with the logic.The majority of Americans have straight hair. Is America therefore a straight-haired society? And if it is, what are the implications? Should everyone have straight hair? Should hair straightening products be removed from the market, since it is only a majority who need them?America is a Christian society. If so, what does “Christian” mean in this context? Practicing? Secular? Which Christians, what denominations are included when one says we are a Christian society? ARe Catholics included? If so, which ones? The various Christian Orthodoxies?If America is a Christian society, how should that affect legislation and Supreme Court rulings?In light of the fact that Catholics and Christians of different denominations differ in fundamental ways on issues regarding legislation and public affairs, which group should take precedence? The majority?If America is a Christian society, what are those of us who are US citizens but not Christian?

  • Farnaz

    Whoops!Third paragraph should read:The majority of Americans have straight hair. Is America therefore a straight-haired society? And if it is, what are the implications? Should everyone have straight hair? Should hair straightening products be removed from the market, since it is only a MINORITY who need them?************

  • Arminius

    Hi, Paganplace,One should also remember that the Saudi King was not being quite honest, since Islam is the only religion allowed in his country, and they are rather particular as to brand-names among Islamic factions. As to family values – good Lord. I know full well that Arabs are very family oriented, I have seen this clearly with Muslims I have known, and I really respect that. But glaring faults exist – easy for a male to divorce, and also the horror of ‘honor killings’.Not that we in the West are particularly fine examples, hell no. But do the so-called ‘secular’ types have a worse record? I doubt it. We’re all in the same family mess here, and that certainly includes the evangelical crowd.

  • Janet

    Farnaz:I agree. It’s getting harder and harder to remember that at least in name we’re a “secular society.” The fundies have been a problem for a long time, so I guess we should’ve assumed they’d get crazier if they weren’t checked, and they haven’t been. Now we have these candidates with their Christianism which is driving me nuts. If I wanted to live in a religious state, I’d move to the Middle East.

  • Looking inward

    Arminius:I do not disagree with you. But we should also look inward. Do you ever watch LIFETIME movie channel? They regularly show atrocities committed on women right here in America–murders included. These movies are based on true stories.Several hundred women loose their lives every year. You read about them in small town newspapers, unless the victim is the like of Chandra Levy.These killings are not religiously motivated but like ‘honor killings’ are cultural in nature. We have a culture of violence against women.Women have been socialized to believe that their ‘freedom’ is unlimited and that they can attract men by showing their bodies. Men treat women as sex objects.All women are our mothers, sisters, daughters, or wives. Why don’t who inflict harm to these women recognize this?Women are afraid that their men will leave them if they age. And of course, many do. That is a major cause for a high rate of divorce, although not the only cause. So, they make every effort to look younger. In other cultures, one grows old with grace. Not in our culture.

  • Concerned The Christian Now Liberated

    Eboo, Eboo, Eboo, Interfaith in what? The flaws of Islam? Give us a break and address the issues of Islam before spouting off all the books you have read on the subject of interfaith. Start by reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel and then Sir Salman Rusdie’s book Satanic Verses. Oh reading those books could get you killed you say??? Do we need to say anything else about interfaith and Islam??

  • Arminius

    Congratulations, Oh Brain Dead ON FAITH!JJ has now trashed four blogs in less than 30 minutes. Are you not proud, bragging to your kids? Calling the Guinness Book of World Records? Obviously, you are not on guard. Is the current stupid neocon administration running you, by any chance?

  • shafiuddin

    SECULARISM IS A HYPOCRACY. ALL RELIGION CANNOT BE GOOD, BUT ONLY ONE. GOD IS ONE, HE CANNOT CONFUSE HIS CREATION. EVERY BODY IS ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR ACT. SOMEBODY IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR ACT, IT IS TOTALLY AN INDIVIDUAL ACTION AND HE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR.

  • FRIEND

    Thank you for including everyone in your efforts to bridge the divide that seperates all of us.

  • Anonymous

    WAPO – please eliminate all spam and prevent further posts from this chronic spammer. We have suffered with this idiot for many months and it needs to cease and desist. Thanks…..

  • Deb Chatterjee

    Shafiuddin wrote (angrily ?):”SECULARISM IS A HYPOCRACY. ALL RELIGION CANNOT BE GOOD, BUT ONLY ONE. GOD IS ONE, HE CANNOT CONFUSE HIS CREATION. EVERY BODY IS ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR ACT. SOMEBODY IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR ACT, IT IS TOTALLY AN INDIVIDUAL ACTION AND HE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR.”That is a paroxym of Muslim fanaticism. We humans cannot prove mathematically that God exists. We just believe in the Supreme, because our knowledge is limited to prove the existence. However because our knowledge is limited does not mean that to govern regular mundane human affairs one needs to submit to some monochromatic or multi-colored deity to take guidance. If humans cannot use their rationality and reasoning to figure out mundane matters of governance, then humans are no different from their ancestral primates. Governing by beliefs or a set of beliefs, that have been sanctioned/approved by some supernatural Supreme, is tribal primitivism. Any human being with some iota of intelligence would accept the validity of the onus of pedrsonal responsibility. One need not cite some stupid scripture or some priest/minister/mullah/rabbi to be convinced of this important aspect of human behavior. And, this can only be done in a multi-cultural/multi-religious society if all these people are judged under one set of common laws which does not emphasize a specific group of people’s spiritual beliefs. That is essentially how “secularism” works and the world must remain secular to preserve harmony.Of course, Islam wants the world to become Muslim. That’s Allah mian’s grand plan. To that end, the Islamic Shariah has been put in place by the mullahs and Muhammad. Thus, Islam and Secularism are diametrical odds, and I just cannot fathom how Eboo Patel supports secular governance himself being a Muslim. Islam is a primitive and barbaric religion simply because it is an intolerant theocracy, as evidenced by Shafiuddin’s remarks against secularism. Finally all religions are equally good. Because the goal of all religions is unique: to realize the Supreme. However the various paths (religions) by which that unique goal is achieved can very well be different. Thus it is pure ignorance to label secularism as “hypocrisy”.

  • harold

    Neither say they in their heart, Let us now fear the Lord our God, that giveth rain, both the former and the latter, in his season: he reserveth unto us the appointed weeks of the harvest.There be many that say, Who will shew us any good? Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.We acknowledge, O Lord, our wickedness, and the iniquity of our fathers: for we have sinned against thee.Good and upright is the Lord: therefore will he teach sinners in the way.The shew of their countenance doth witness against them; and they declare their sin as Sodom, they hide it not. Woe unto their soul! for they have rewarded evil unto themselves.“they declare their sin as Sodom, they hide it not”There shall not any man be able to stand before thee all the days of thy life: as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.“There shall not any man be able to stand before thee all the days of thy life”That say, Let him make speed, and hasten his work, that we may see it: and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw nigh and come, that we may know it!“Woe unto them that call evil good”In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,“But there went up a mist from the earth”And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar.“The Lord standeth up to plead”Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven;“But the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly.”And Abraham gat up early in the morning to the place where he stood before the Lord:“And Abraham gat up early in the morning”Behold, to morrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as hath not been in Egypt since the foundation thereof even until now.“The Lord standeth up to plead”Nahum 1:7 The LORD is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him.“The LORD is good”Romans 2:10 But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile:“But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good”Romans 7:21 I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.“I find then a law, that, when I would do good”Romans 12:9 Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.“Abhor that which is evil”“cleave to that which is good.”“Be not overcome of evil”Galatians 6:10 As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.“let us do good unto all men”1Timothy 1:5 Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned:“Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart”“For thou hast said, My doctrine is pure”Then Job answered the Lord, and said,“Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes:“I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord”1Timothy 1:8 But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully;“But we know that the law is good”1Peter 3:11 Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it.“Let him eschew evil”There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.“Job; and that man was perfect and upright”And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes:“I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord”“Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”“lest I deal with you after your folly,”Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven;“brimstone and fire”The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven: his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men.“Upon the wicked he shall rain snares”Let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap.And I will bring upon that land all my words which I have pronounced against it, even all that is written in this book, which Jeremiah hath prophesied against all the nations.

  • Secular

    The trouble with you theists is that you do not think twice before telling me that you are either going to pray for me – and for that I should be eternally indebted to you, when we know that your prayer no way changes my life. If not prayer you want to cuss me out, for not buying into the stone age myths, with eternal damnation – again this in no way affects my life, but the fact that you can gather up such venom at me and wish such harm befall on me will not make me to look at you kindly.

  • Observer

    Secular says:Farnaz asks:

  • Ibrahim Mahfouz

    Re: Secularism

  • Ibrahim Mahfouz

    Ibrahim Mahfouz: Islam should be viewed as a political system with religious aspects rather than a religion with political aspects. Islam is in fact an alternative form of government in competition with Western governments that seeks to weaken and ultimately destroy and replace them. Accordingly it must not be afforded the protected status of a religion precisely because it does not recognize the separation of religion and politics on which Westerns-style governments and religious freedom are based.

  • Anonymous

    In the everyday world, believers and atheists work together all the time. So there is nothing new about that.In an interFAITH meeting, what exactly is an atheist supposed to discuss? His lack of faith and his reasons why he sees no reason to believe in anything the interFAITH team is discussing?An “atheist at an interFAITH” meeting is an oxymoron.