I mean “good” in two ways:
- It helps reduce the tendency of religions to become cults with teachings and ideology more and more divorced from reality;
- It helps reduce the tendency to define “outsiders” as dangerous, maybe even deserving of death for their “sins.”
Sam Fleischaker makes these points in an article Religion v. Secularism? Let’s Skip This Fight recently posted on the South Jerusalem blog. As a religious Jew, Sam is in favour of religious people of different “faiths” uniting on common issues. However, he deplores the current calls for unity emanating from the Madrid Interfaith Conference and Saudi King Abdullah. “Religious people should unite with one another, but will only continue to wreak havoc if they take secular people as their enemy. They will also harm themselves: the secular world is good for religion.”
[I question the very basis of “interfaith” activity as it is exclusive, limited to only religious people, and therefore has the danger of ignoring basic human rights. But clearly “interfaith” unity aimed at opposing or eliminating atheism (as in King Abdullah’s appeal) is downright dangerous. But that’s an aside].
Secularism enables freedom and choice
Sam goes on to point out the real advantages a secular society, which includes non-religious beliefs, provides for religion:
What can religious people gain from living in a secular world? Well, for one thing, the fact that we have a community around us that is not dominated by our co-religionists allows us, if we ever decide that our religion is wrong or confused, to change it or become secular. The existence of a realm to which we don’t need to bring our religious commitments allows us to examine those commitments freely, and alter them if we think necessary. The secular world provides a break from religion, a place in which one can, if only metaphorically, stop and catch one’s breath from one’s religious passions, and assess them in a cooler fashion.
This break will enable some to stop being religious, or become a more liberal member of their religion, or convert from one religion to another. Others will at most allow consider doing these things, and then return to the religious commitment they had with renewed fervor. But the mere fact that this opportunity is available, the mere fact that one can, if one wants, drop one’s religious commitments or alter them or convert, reassures us that the commitments we have, when we are not dropping or changing them, are freely chosen. 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.
Secularism enables knowledge
Our knowledge about reality has developed in spite of religion (and often is opposed by some religious trends). Consequently secular society provides an important advantage to religious people which is not provided by religion itself. As Sam points out:
There are also a number of cognitive advantages, for the religious project, of living among secular people. Just as it is always helpful to get the advice of an uninvolved outsider when trying to figure out what to do in a charged personal situation, so it can be helpful to get factual information, even on matters relevant to one’s religious beliefs, from people who are not caught up in one’s religious passions. I want to learn about the physics and chemistry and biology of our world, and about human history, from people who are not committed to a religion (at least in their work on those subjects); I trust them to be more objective than I or my co-religionists would be about such matters. On subjects other than metaphysics, and the question of what, overall, our lives are for, religious people seek information in ways that we share with all other human beings, whether or not they share our religious commitments, and in ways that are best pursued by abstracting from ethical commitments, by striving for objectivity.
I like these comments, as far as they go. I think they should be kept in mind by those in New Zealand who enthusiastically promote “interfaith” activity and organisations. However, I think that to really take advantage of the opportunities secularism provides for religion these people should also do more to promote an inclusiveness. They should widen their horizons to include the non-religious in the organisations and activities. They should avoid situations and activities where they attempt to impose their own ideas and customs on people who don’t accept them (for example Parliamentary prayers). And they should give up any idea that religion and religious ideas are deserving of a special place, a special respect and a special protection from criticism.