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