Monday, December 1, 2014

“Faith and Secularism”

Off the Wall 10/9/14

Last week I shared a rather complicated and academic explanation of what “secularism” is. I also shared how there was an assumption that over time there would be a decline in the importance of religion, and how rather than decline there was in fact a transformation of the role of religion in society.

Celebrated Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf, who serves as the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, has written and discussed at length the failure of the secularisation concept. His 2011 book “A Public Faith” examines two equally unhelpful extremes -- "totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion" and "secular exclusion of all religion from public life".

According to Volf, the world has always been a very religious place, and, by all appearances, it will continue to be in the foreseeable future. In fact, the fastest-growing worldviews today are religious - Islam and Christianity. And for the most part, they are propagated not by being imposed from above but by a groundswell of enthusiasm to pass the faith on and a thirst to receive it.

“Behind the spread of Christianity - behind the fact that Christianity is now predominantly a non-Western religion with over two billion adherents and growing mainly through conversion -is neither the power of states, nor the power of economic centers, nor the power of media or knowledge elites. Experts on world Christianity seem unanimous that the masses of believers are themselves the chief agents of its spread.”

As the different faith communities began to spread around the world we began to see a religious diversity in countries where there used to be one predominant religion. Even Fiji, which is predominantly a Christian country has a diverse range of religions. This is called religious pluralism.

The challenge of course with diverse religious views is that sometimes people clash as a result of differing perspectives on life. These clashes can sometimes be violent. One way to avoid clashes triggered by particular religious perspectives would be to suggest that all religions are fundamentally the same. For Volf, attempts to reduce what is important in different religions to the same common core are bound to be experienced as “disrespecting each religion in its particularity.”

“Religions simply don’t have a common core. Each is comprised of a set of loosely related rituals, practices, and metaphysical, historical, and moral claims to truth. Among different religions, these rituals, practices, and claims partly overlap (for instance, Muslims and Christians believe in one
God) and partly differ (Muslims engage in ritual washings before prayers, for instance, and
Christians donCt), and are also partly mutually contradictory (Muslims object to the Christian
claim that Jesus is the Son of God).”

In Western countries, the attempt to accommodate diverse religious perspectives on life within a single nation, gave rise to “liberal democracy”. It is democracy because governance is basically  decided by adult citizens, all of whom should have an equal voice. It is liberal because its two key ideas, in addition to equal protection before the law, are (1) freedom for each person to live in accordance with his or her own interpretation of life (or lack of it) and (2) the state’s neutrality with respect to all such perspectives on life.

Liberal democracy requires that in debates and decisions concerning political issues, citizens are not to base their positions on religious convictions derived from explicit divine revelation but on some source independent of any and all of the religious perspectives to be found in society.
According to Volf,  those who promote this ignoring of religious convictions in public matters, “often interpret the state’s neutrality with respect to all religions as the separation of church and state - the famous “wall of separation””.  

However, as Volf points out, for many religious people, it is part and parcel of their religious commitment, “to base their convictions about public maters on religious reasons - on Torah, on teachings of the Old and New Testament, or on the Koran, for instance! How can they be free to live the way they see fit when they aren’t allowed to bring religious reasons into public debates and decisions? For these people, liberalism, conceived in this way, is illiberal. It hinders them from living out their lives as the faith they embrace urges them to do.”

When religion leaves the public space, or is driven from it, the public space does not remain empty. Instead, it becomes filled with a the phenomenon known as secularism - a set of related values and truth-claims partly inherited selectively from the tradition and partly generated by the society and a set of convictions drawn from the hard sciences.

“With religions absent from the public square,” writes Volf, secularism of this sort becomes the overarching perspective.”

Volf’s point is not that secularism is not admissible and respectable as such. It is rather that, by barring religious reason from public decision-making and enforcing separation of church and state, secularism ends up as the favoured worldview, “which is clearly unfair toward religious folks.”

Volf suggests that  “the only way to attend to the problem of violent clashes among differing
perspectives on life - whether religious or secular - is to concentrate on the internal resources of each for fostering a culture of peace. For each, these resources would be different, though again they may significantly overlap.”

The fact is religious communities will continue to disagree and argue. Volf’s point is that argument must be done productively as friends rather than destructively as enemies.

“In a democracy, one important way in which we act is by voting. We argue, and then we vote, and then we argue again - or at least that is what citizens of well-functioning democracies do. There is no reason to think that members of different religious communities could not do the same without having to leave their religion locked up in their hearts, homes, and sanctuaries.”

In a pluralistic society, a  central challenge for all religions is to help people grow out of their petty hopes so as to live meaningful lives, and to help them resolve their grand conflicts and life in communion and a right relationship with others.

For more on Miroslav Volf on the issue of faith, globalisation and secularism watch: 

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”. 

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