Religion-free Zone

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Repost from 2012. Seemed timely. I did not have time to edit it down, so sorry for the untidiness I am sure it contains.

The following reflection came as a result of a question my wife asked me the other day about the Democrats’ debate over the words “God-given.” I had taken a few moments to email her my response, but since then I have been thinking more and more about what’s at stake in this debate. My thoughts are a bit tangled and dense and partial, but it seems worthwhile to toss in my 2 cents as it becomes increasingly important to shed more light than heat in these pre-election days.

DNC and Secularism

The vigorous debate during the Democratic National Convention over whether or not to remove “God” from its platform is related to the Party’s more general adoption of a certain conception of what role religion should/should not play in a secular State. Their position, regardless of one’s  judgment of its truth claims, is an attempt to intelligently respond to an unavoidable and complex question: How does a religiously diverse and pluralistic democracy negotiate among seemingly irreconcilable differences while preserving social and political unity?

In highly simplified form, the liberal democratic view argues that creating a political context for religious pluralism to flourish requires faith-based reasoning (i.e. arguments drawn from the sacred texts or the worldview of a religious tradition) to be considered as a non-public form of reason which, therefore, cannot serve as the basis for the laws that govern public life. In this view, faith-based arguments are disqualified from possessing any publicly binding force by the very fact that they arise from a distinctive theological tradition. Within in a pluralistic society, they argue, this would allow the part to determine the whole.

This premise, carried to its logical conclusion, leads to a progressive excision within the socio-political order of all explicit forms of “religious reasoning” in defining rights and duties. What replaces such religious reasoning?  A secular form of reason that is considered to be truly rational, critical and objective, freed from the irrational/supra-rational biases religion is said to bring. Here “secular” means a God-sanitized worldview devoid of any transcendent or theological meaning. Such a God-sanitized view of justice and human fulfillment is to be based, the argument goes, on a “reasonable consensus” funneled through a legislative or judicial process. Such prevailing consensuses are understood to be invested with the binding force of “public reason,”arrived at by a thoroughly secularized, and therefore reasonable people.

It is this last claim to a truly rationally grounded justice that really becomes for secularists the sticky wicket, as it begs the question (as Alasdair McIntyre phrased it), whose justice and which rationality gets to be considered the enforceable one, as there are many competing claimants to these titles. Do majority groups claiming reason on their side determine truth claims?

Naked Zone

This version of the secular State attempts to solve the challenges found in a religiously pluralistic democracy by cleansing the temple of public life from all vestiges of religious reasoning and rhetoric and putting in religion’s place an alternative ideology that — it is argued — is capable of bearing a sufficient neutrality to allow for a peaceful and fair coexistence. Religion is privatized and hemmed in by the truth claims of “public reason,” punished when it transgresses its carefully traced out ghetto walls. Such secularists argue that their approach alone is capable of negotiating the seemingly irreconcilable differences among religious traditions by leaving, as the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus called it, a Naked Public Square where all are welcome to engage in non-religious reasoning without distinction or judgment (sic).  In the religion-free zone, tolerance, the Queen of the Virtues, allows religious people to be themselves in the privacy of their own heart and personal opinion.

Imposing Faith?

In a culture dominated by this form of secularism, the social-psychological effects tend, as I said, toward the radical privatization of religion, cultivating a mindset among religious practitioners that religiously-based language and worldviews are to be seen as a strictly personal and private affair. Such a culture levies stiff social sanctions on anyone who attempts to proclaim or argue for truth-claims that arise from reason informed by faith. Evangelization becomes proselytizing, and faith-inspired arguments are deemed intrusive, aggressive and intolerant impositions of private and non-binding reasoning on the naked public square. Religious truth is seen as a threat to the inviolable integrity of pluralistic worldviews that are, by their very diversity, the soul of a truly democratic society. Truth, it is argued, transgresses the neutral safe-zone that buffers a rival Church and State. Because it makes universal and binding claims on reason, truth makes those who’ve rejected it feel unfairly “judged” by its purveyors. Only the contemporary incarnations of secular reason, garnered by a democratic consensus, can claim authority to judge.

I’d argue that this nearly invisible cultural air we breathe is far more important in effecting the progressive elimination of religion from public life than is the highly visible political/legal battle. Cultural revolutions precede and empower political and legal revolutions.

It’s About Morality

In addition, it is the moral dimension of religious traditions’ reasoning that comes to the fore in the struggle for dominance in the public square, especially in regard to the Big Three moral battlegrounds: life-issues, marriage, sexuality. Moral questions serve as the prime subjects of the naked public square’s ravenous appetite for total control. That’s an important point to make, as the moral assertion of the inviolable dignity of all human life or of marriage as heterosexual, indissoluble and monogamous historically originates in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its belief in a God who created humanity in the divine image and established a determinate moral order that is known both by divine revelation and right reason. So anyone who wishes to deconstruct these moral arguments in favor of, for example, abortion or same-sex marriage knows they must contend with their theological associations.

Now, these arguments can, a Catholic would say, be persuasively made apart from theological sources because faith and reason are harmonious. But because our culture usually abhors such fine distinctions it’s usually quite easy for critics of faith-associated moral arguments to make a slam dunk, guilt-by-association argument, bringing a swift end to the hegemony of Judeo-Christian morality in America. Throw a “fanatic” epithet here, “fundamentalist” there and “bigot” over there, and the case is closed. Genuine dialogue is over.

This point reminds me of an interesting perspective a seasoned priest once shared with me. It went something like this:

A Catholic parent recently pleaded with me to speak to her son who had returned from his first year of college claiming to be an atheist. My first question to him was, “What’s the name of the girl you’re sleeping with?” In my experience, the rejection of organized religion or the idea of God is often arrived at through the back door of a morally dissonant life. My chosen lifestyle is incompatible with my faith, so I can either give up my immoral behavior, live in guilt or reject the faith. Not a tough choice for many. I say that many atheists or agnostics begin not as atheists but as amoralists who need atheism to sustain their desire to be unhindered.

Final Vatican Thoughts

I will end my considerations with a quote from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome that weighs in on this debate with some keen insights:

In democratic societies, all proposals are freely discussed and examined. Those who, on the basis of respect for individual conscience, would view the moral duty of Christians to act according to their conscience as something that disqualifies them from political life, denying the legitimacy of their political involvement following from their convictions about the common good, would be guilty of a form of intolerant secularism. Such a position would seek to deny not only any engagement of Christianity in public or political life, but even the possibility of natural ethics itself. Were this the case, the road would be open to moral anarchy, which would be anything but legitimate pluralism. The oppression of the weak by the strong would be the obvious consequence. The marginalization of Christianity, moreover, would not bode well for the future of society or for consensus among peoples; indeed, it would threaten the very spiritual and cultural foundations of civilization.

11 comments on “Religion-free Zone

  1. Jennifer says:

    Happy Feast day of St. Thomas, Dr. Tom!

    The way that secularism is playing out in Canada vs USA seems to be to be quite different… so my comments might not be that relevant. I don’t have seventeen hours to go into it so I won’t post my thoughts on the Canada-v-USA here today. 🙂

    But here is what I want to say: Saint John Paul: pray for us! Let all of us study his thoughts on your question: “How does a religiously diverse and pluralistic democracy negotiate among seemingly irreconcilable differences while preserving social and political unity?”

    I am unable to think on political levels, I’m not a strategist in any way. I can only think on small scales. I think we need to be serious about proclaiming our faith through our words and our actions in allllll things, not just for the hot-potato issues. How we help the kids handle conflicts in the playground, how we speak to strangers in the grocery store, how we negotiate with our neighbours, how we defer to others out of love… we simply have to be holy through and through, and radiate the intense love and joy that accompanies holiness out into the world. (a.k.a. we all have to act more like Dr. Tom). Change the cultural air, as you put it. Keep in mind the Canticle of Zechariah which recall the oath that God made his people: that we would be set free from his enemies, free to worship Him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight.

    Back to Saint Thomas: After the resurrection, Jesus told him: “You have seen me and so you believe, blessed are those who have not seen me yet still believe.” That’s us. That’s potentially our entire generation. Bless them Lord, that they too may believe.

    And long before that, Saint Thomas bravely said: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” Let us, indeed.

    • Jennifer: Three cheers to your “small scale” thoughts! It’s really at the heart of the response that the vast majority of us as Christians must embrace and execute as our prime option. Matthew 28:19 was the long range plan of Jesus the Strategist, freshly risen from defeat, for transforming the world: “Go!” And that go is rarely, in the scheme of things, about monumental legal and political battles, but rather is about the day to day work of leavening culture by influencing the small worlds in which each of us are called to live and move and have our being. Making the case for the Christian vision of the world as a compelling and attractive vision both by our words and our deeds. As NOS, says, it’s about the ways Christian lives are the answer (or not) to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” As you say, Jennifer, do our lives say, “You are just, merciful, truthful, honest, chaste, kind, courageous, patient, etc.?” This is, as you know well, the heart of the laity’s “secular” vocation to leaven, salt and enlighten — and so consecrate — the world to God through their Christ-imbued domestic lives and worldly careers. This vision of the lay vocation directly challenges the cultural cages faith is ever-more being hemmed in by. And what do we Catholics believe will happen to a free society when Christ breaches its defending walls? Let me turn, as you adjure me to, Jennifer, to St. JP2 through the words of Pope Benedict (which I have quoted so many times) on the day of his inauguration as Supreme Pontiff: “At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: ‘Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!’ The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society. The Pope was also speaking to everyone, especially the young. Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.”
      To enter the increasingly hostile cultural religion-free zone to speak and be Christ takes courage — great courage! We stand with the Ascending Christ again on the Mount of Olives, looking over the vast world’s expansive horizons, and hear him say again, “Go!,” even as he promises us the Spirit’s coming to empower us for our mission.
      We have to be very aware that legal and political transformations follow on cultural transformations, and cultural transformations follow on the transformation of culture makers: us.
      A last word in an obscenely long comment on your comment. I will re-quote David Bentley Hart’s words in Atheist Delusions. He makes the very important argument in that book that the appearance Christian idea of the world, which was itself a miracle in history, is an idea that emerged not simply from people thinking about what it means to be human, but from the historical experience of Israel of a God who reveals who he is and who we are — above all revealed in Christ. His point really is that, though employing reasoned arguments to account for the Christian vision of the world and of God is important and powerful, it can never be a substitute for Christians leading others to encounter for themselves Christ who, as St. JP2 often reminded us, “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” I will end with Hart’s words: “Modern persons will never find rest for their restless hearts without Christ, for modern culture is nothing but the wasteland from which the gods have departed, and so this restlessness has become its own deity; and, deprived of the shelter of the sacred and the consoling myths of sacrifice, the modern person must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy. And, where it works its sublimest magic, our culture of empty spectacle can so stupefy the intellect as to blind it to its own disquiet, and induce a spiritual torpor more deplorable than mere despair.
      All of which, as I take leave of this phase of my argument, raises certain questions for me. A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it; and Christian ideals have shown themselves to be almost boundless in cultural fertility and dynamism. And yet, as the history of modernity shows, the creativity of these ideals can, in certain times and places, be exhausted, or at least subdued, if social and material circumstances cease to be propitious for them. I cannot help but wonder, then, what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes?”
      Okay, Jennifer, sorry for the 17 hours of your time to read this. 🙂
      Thanks, as ever, for commenting intelligently…and to NOS for summing up what I said here in about 20 words. God love you both! Dr. Tom Kneel

      • Jennifer says:

        Wow. Thank you for this incredibly insightful comment! Can I say for the umpteenth time how much I love Pope Emeritus Benedict? I loved the other book by DBH (about the problem of evil in light of the tsunami, i forget the title), you are quickly convincing me to add this one to my list too.

  2. number one sinner says:

    For me it’s really quite simple. In every thing you think , do and say this question drives me. Who do you say that
    I AM? There should be no pretext in what you stand for or who you are. Come hell or high water ,I like Peter will today tomorrow and always proclaim Thou art the CHRIST THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD. AMEN. P.B.W.Y.
    PS. I say this with a level not a hammer. Although you could do some serious damage with a four foot level laughing out loud really loud .

  3. LP says:

    I have lived in the UK for 30+ years and what I love when I visit the family in the USA is the pervasive “religious” atmosphere that I see – at least in the northern mid-West (ie WI). While not overtly religious, the kindness and care, the friendliness and consideration is amazing compared to what I see in the UK. I hope that the concept of “one nation, under God” may long continue… LP

  4. Tony M says:

    Thanks for this repost! At first I was marveling at the prophetic voice of the CDF (which it certainly has and exercises) but I am becoming ever more aware that the enshrining of moral relativism in the US’s public square does not represent a “rerum novarum” on the global stage, the Church has been dealing with this for some time!

    • Yes, TM! Ecclesiastes 1:(: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” 🙂 Peace and all good! I am heading to IPF Sunday to teach for 3 weeks. Pray for me, and I for thee!

  5. WoopieCushion says:

    This one means even more to me than the first time I read it. Thank you.

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