Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

Bridging the Secular-Religious Divide

by Bruce Ledewitz

What prevents the formation, in the United States, of a broad-based and progressive coalition for tikkun olam? Surely one barrier is religion. Among secularists, there is hostility toward religion, which is expressed both politically and constitutionally. Politically it is stated that religious ideas and motivations should play no role in public life. Even presidential candidate Barack Obama called on believers to "translate" their religious commitments into neutral language when entering political debate. Constitutionally, secularists champion strict separation of church and state, including banishing religious imagery and language, such as the phrase "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, from the public square. Since the majority of Americans are religious believers, this secular hostility hinders effective coalition-building even when believers and nonbelievers agree in their policy commitments.

Secular hostility toward religion also has a cultural side, as expressed in recent books by the New Atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. These thinkers claim that religion represents and encourages irrationality and violence. They often single out Islam as an especially egregious religion, thus helping to fan hostility toward Islam and hamper U.S. efforts to align with moderate believers in the Muslim world.

On a deeper level, secular hostility toward religion has crippled efforts to create meaningful and fulfilling ways of life outside the religious traditions. Secularism is growing in the United States, especially among the young. Perhaps 15 percent of the population already have no religious affiliation. While many among the nonchurched profess traditional views of God, it is not clear that such beliefs will remain vibrant without institutional support. Meanwhile, in the absence of serious philosophical and theological encounter between believers and nonbelievers, secular thought drifts toward materialism, foolishly optimistic humanism, relativism, and even nihilism. Recently, secular thinkers such as Austin Dacey and Sam Harris have acknowledged this and have expressed commitments to objective values.

My work aims to bridge the secular/religious divide on all these levels. Politically, in the 2007 book American Religious Democracy, I pointed out that motivations for public policy in America have always included religious commitments. This is not undemocratic. Indeed, it is the suggested ban on religious appeals in politics that amounts to a kind of censorship, in which only religious groups are expected to surrender their deepest commitments when entering public debate.

Constitutionally, in a book to be published in 2011, Church, State and the Crisis in American Secularism, I argue for a new understanding of the Establishment Clause that treats religious language as containing universal and secular commitments along with traditional religious affirmations. "One nation under God," for example, has always expressed opposition to national imperial ambition, as well as containing a sectarian commitment to monotheism.

Finally, in a personal book influenced by my own journey, Hallowed Secularism, I have tried to describe a vibrant and fulfilling secular life that borrows from the wisdom and practices of religious traditions. Ultimately, believers and nonbelievers must share what they can or lose the possibility of a future, genuinely caring, community.

Bruce Ledewitz is a professor of law at Duquesne University and is the author of Hallowed Secularism: Theory, Belief, Practice.

Source Citation: Ledewitz, Bruce. 2011. Bridging the Secular-Religious Divide. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.  

tags: Atheism & Agnosticism, Democracy, US Politics  
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