When is a religious public sphere acceptable?

My default view of religion and public life is hard-core secularist: the less our public conversations are conditioned by supernatural beliefs, the better.

Having said that, I also have to acknowledge that the current reputation of secularism among political thinkers is ambiguous at best. Many religious people don’t like secularism. That isn’t surprising, but many religious thinkers have been more successful lately in pressing their view that secularism illegitimately handicaps people of strong faith. Many conservatives are suspicious of secularism. Even if not necessarily believers themselves, they favor the climate of piety and deference to established authority religion often reinforces. A publicly acknowledged religious culture, they say, provides the best context for a life of virtue. And the cultural and anticolonial left also has little to say in favor of secularism. Secularism is yet another liberal Western preoccupation to be unmasked as a device of oppression or cultural imperialism. And so on.

In some circles secular liberalism is still the default position. The science-types I hang out with, being a physics person, usually fit the bill. That’s what we feel most comfortable with; we rarely question it. But it also seems to me that, especially if we are committed to some form of democracy, we should be looking for ways of accommodating politically active religious people without demanding that they leave their religious convictions out of the public conversation.

The problem for me is that I can think of few immediate examples where a less secular public sphere is something that I can shrug, adapt to, and live with. In science and science education, which is my daily experience, I am convinced that supernatural beliefs should be kept as distant as possible. They too often corrupt the scientific conversation. I am not looking to stick science up religious noses, but I am also not interested in trying to spin science to make it less abrasive to religious sensibilities.

So in what is closest to my experience, I am very little inclined to compromise secularism. This, I expect, cramps my imagination when I try to think of other contexts where I would think that a more religious public sphere is acceptable.

Still, here’s a try. I generally have not been too impressed with the notion that we need to harness ordinary people’s religiosity to protect our environment. Perhaps if our public life was such that non-human life and the natural environment were to acquire a more sacred or semi-sacred coloration, we wouldn’t be in as deep shit as we are today. But in practice, the strongest religions we have on offer—the Abrahamic monotheisms—are scarcely better than secular liberalism in their indifference toward (or even encouragement of) human rapacity.

But then again, I’m getting desperate. As the looming Copenhagen debacle is demonstrating, our political systems are thoroughly inadequate in coming up with an appropriate response to the civilization-threatening crisis we face. Put simply: we are screwed. We are determined to do next to nothing. Our political inertia, and the institutional shortsightedness built into our economic and political thinking, make us unable to respond to the prospect of disaster. And this is almost entirely a secular failing.

So maybe if secularism’s reputation were to get even worse, and it faced practical political collapse, this need not be a bad thing. If the more religious public sphere we’d end up with were able to put the check on human rapacity that secular liberalism has so thoroughly failed at providing, than, hell, let secularism fade away as soon as possible. I don’t expect this to be likely; my bet is that things are likely to be even worse when more people take monotheism more seriously. But as I said, I’m desperate.

Roll the dice.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06228052543574335663 geoih

    If you're willing to abandon your beliefs (e.g., liberty) because you can't seem to get enough people to agree with you on a specific issue and resort to force and coercion to get your way, then you're little better than any other zealot stating the ends justify the means.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: Our political inertia, and the institutional shortsightedness built into our economic and political thinking, make us unable to respond to the prospect of disaster. And this is almost entirely a secular failing.

    Well… That's the most bizarre thing I've read here. Are you saying that if our political system was more theocratic we wouldn't be in this mess? Because theocracies are so foward looking… or maybe because they're so backward we wouldn't be advanced enough to be producing all of this CO2 that's going to kill us all?

    If its a failing of anything its that politicians today no longer have the balls to do anything remotely unpleasant in case they piss off people enough so that they lose the next election. Its all – as it has always been – about power and staying in power. *Everything* is secondary to that consideration including the survival of the human race in a state that anyone could reasonably call civilised.

    The country normally holding the rest of the world back from making any kind of climate agreement is usually the USA – the most religious state in the West – by *far*. It is not secularisation that has caused a failure of nerve and a failure of vision. It is a deep seated and widespread mistrust of the future to such an extent that we cannot see our way out of the problems we ourselves have created. Without a clear path to follow we do nothing and while we fiddle – the world burns.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    CyberKitten: "Are you saying that if our political system was more theocratic we wouldn't be in this mess?"

    No. I'm trying to push myself to think of an example where I wouldn't mind a less secular public sphere so much. And I guess if less political secularity would help get our collective asses out of trouble, that might be an example. I don't think this is at all likely. On the other hand, what we're doing now doesn't seem to be working all that well.

    While I'm at it, a secular public sphere and theocracy are not the only alternatives. We might (and may well) end up with a more religious politics that respects religious pluralism while firmly rejecting secular liberalism. I wouldn't be overly happy with that either, but then nobody is consulting me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: On the other hand, what we're doing now doesn't seem to be working all that well.

    That's because we're failing to do two things:

    Accept the scientific evidence for what its telling us.

    Act in a reasonable fashion on the basis of that evidence.

    At the moment we (as in the worlds governments) are, by and large, ingoring – or down-playing – the evidence and are continuing to act unreasonably (or it could be argued irrationally).

    That's what needs to be changed – not by turning our backs on secularism but by using our reason to think and plan our way out of our problems. Unfortunately we seem to be too stupid to realise that obvious fact.


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