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Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Synthesis of Sacred and Secular

This topic is rife with contending sides and positions, so I’ll try to give as balanced a perspective on the two main views on an issue I’ve confronted slightly  in “Religion and Secularism’s Questions and Answers. This time, I’ll give a short exposition on the two subjects and then detail the two prominent perspectives on their interaction. Religion and secularism’s relationship has been lukewarm at best, though it isn’t necessarily always combative by nature either. There are lay theologians in Christianity, not to mention the “secular” monks who did more worldly things as part of their duties, like the monastics in convents and monasteries who gardened, wrote, etc, as opposed to primarily contemplative behavior. But these days, we seem to have a very contentious environment of the profane and the sacred, the nonbelievers and believers of various stripes. This is especially the case in the U.S., but it isn’t necessarily resolved perfectly in any sense around the world. Japan maintains an interesting blend of secular and sacred, though the more immanent and pantheistic form of religion makes this easier. The transcendent nature of religions more prominent in America makes the separation into spheres much more common and thus the resolution of any conflict becomes either a truce or a retreat of one into its own area in surrender. So, my question is twofold: what are religion and secularism (in the basics) and what is the nature of their relationship?

Religion is much more complex in definition than secularism, since it has existed for longer in history and language, but admittedly has two formulations, one more Western, the other more Eastern, though there is always an overlap, such as Wicca or Sikhism for two examples. As I explained somewhat in “Looking At Eastern Religion From the West”,  Western religion tends to be much more based in sacred scriptures and belief in God or gods. There’s more ambiguity in Western religious studies about nontheistic religions and whether they actually are religions or philosophies. Buddhism, Confucianism and even Daoism in some sense are either pantheistic or nontheistic in some sense regarding the existence of gods and whether they matter. There’s a term formulated by Paul Kurtz, sometimes called the father of secular humanism, made up of three Greek words. The prefix eu, meaning good, the word praxis, meaning practice and Sophia, meaning wisdom. Eupraxophy refers to worldviews and philosophies that are secular in nature and don’t rely on the supernatural in order to advocate being a good person. The three religions enumerated beforehand fit in this classification with some possible qualifications. Religion at its heart could be specified to be that which regards the supernatural as relevant to human life and makes a system of tenets that people are expected to follow. This is, of course, very simplistic, but for the purposes of this discussion I think it suffices to distinguish it from secularism.

There are two kinds of secularism we could discuss when confronting this topic: the first is more political in maintaining a strict separation of some form between church authority and state power, but not always completely keeping it out of the public square. Turkey and France based their form more on laicite, one form of the second very strict and philosophical position on religion in the public and political square. This contrasts a great deal with America’s which is more permissive in a sense of religious expression by private citizens within the public forum without favoring any single religion. Secularism is not a religion, contrary to rumors and accusations from theists, though secular humanism might be considered one. But most secularists are not secular humanists, though all secular humanists are secularists technically. Fundamentally, secularism is some position about religion that desires to keep it at least separate for the most part from policy making and a much more religiously diverse society or is fundamentally opposed to religion’s claims and wishes it to be put in the spotlight and actively criticized for its falsehoods and also reserved to the private sphere it originated in.

Secularism and modernity have done two things for religion in my estimation. First is that religion and beliefs about it have become more private. Believer or not, you are very individualist about it. Secondly, religion has still kept a certain place in the public square in the face of separation on the grounds that as a part of the history of the country, religious expression in public is very much part of the culture and may stay that way for quite a while longer, particularly for political gain as we see with virtually every Republican candidate to one degree or another, as I mentioned in “Conservatives Clamor For Christianity” . Altar calls and other such identifications to a larger group are what make Western people religious, as opposed to in the East, where it’s very much an eclectic and syncretic approach of the culture at large and not so much a matter of affirming particular creeds or such. With the Western method of voluntaristic religious affiliation, there is a strong element of competition between religions and thus they have to constantly change tactics and also allow the existence of their opponents, even if they disagree with them, so as to have opportunities for conversion. There is both a freedom of individual conscience and also communal association with any religion or lack thereof, but still holding what tend to be religious beliefs. The concept of civil religion further complicates the issue of religion’s presence in what is supposed to be a more secular country in the sense of not favoring any religion in its decisions. It is commonly understood to be the sorts of things that have become intrinsic to the American identity, which includes the unconstitutional and divisive motto of the country, “In God We Trust” Religion in America, shared or esoteric, reflects a unique and compelling approach to how it overlaps with secularism as a whole.

The U.S. Constitution almost seems to necessitate that there be a conflict between religious and secular interests by the notion of separation of powers given within it. Not to mention the first amendment creates a sort of ambivalent interaction of the exercise of religion on the one hand and the neutrality of the government towards it on the other. With the historical nature of the U.S. being a country with economic demands of a free market comprising radically diverse people with varying beliefs, there was a necessary development of religious pluralism as well as the secularism that creates a barrier against any one religion or any religion becoming influential for policy making. Christianity, the dominant religion of America, surprisingly has theology within it that allows for more advocacy of separation of church and state than you would think. There’s a basic relationship between the religious and secular communicated through the idea of two kingdoms, one of the world and one of God. Jesus’ saying “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” comes to mind as well as Augustine’s treatise called City of God where he elaborates the differences between the two spheres in the Christian understanding: the profane and the sacred. Of course, there will be flux in the exact nature of this exchange of religious neutrality and religious tolerance, but it actually seems more compelling than what has become the other popular position, especially with the mistakenly titled “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Antitheists in particular claim it is questionable as to whether actual tolerance exists in religions, since they are commonly very prescriptive and absolutist in those normative claims about how the world ought to be. Not everyone is this way, but fundamentally, religion takes time to get away from that sort of mindset and there is a likelihood that people cannot completely get away from the tendency to convert people, to influence people in their way of thinking, indignant that others would believe heresies and false spiritual teachings. Thus, true coexistence of the religious and secular, in a sense of non overlapping magisteria similar to science and religion, demands that religion change very sharply and drastically. The kind of tolerance religion in America necessitates is generalized and not anything beyond a bare acceptance of the existence of various competing systems that most believers in any of the exclusivist religions would say are wrong at heart. Religion would have to become much more inclusivist or pluralist in nature. The only other alternative would be to retreat into the churches and make religion a much more private matter, like it was allegedly back in the times of America’s founding fathers. But history may not take that turn any time soon.

Any sort of religious/secular fusion in society will necessitate that religions be propagated more, of course. We should promote a free market of ideas, even those that are delusional. But we should also spread critical thinking about religion and the criticism of it, rejecting the notion in popular culture that religion is sacrosanct and not able to be held to the same standards we hold every other belief to. Once you do this, there is a balancing out of what can be negative traits of religion with the agreement of many religious people that we need to carefully examine out beliefs to hold them consistently and reasonably, even if we disagree. Religion must be willing to not only be in the public square, but also be subject to rigorous criticism which we give to anything else, such as science and politics, and not given a special place. The religious questions should be taken seriously, but they shouldn’t be said to be purely one way or the other. One can accept religion’s existence as a phenomenon without assenting to any beliefs that they have. Atheists can appreciate religious as part of American culture and history, literature, etc, but nevertheless not hold religious views, but more philosophical ones based in reason. The irreverent and the pious may always be at each others’ throats to an extent, but one can hope there could be a better truce arranged in the future between them. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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