As a humanist working in multifaith education, I sometimes feel tension between secularism and pluralism.
Much of the new atheist movement is aimed at instituting and enforcing secularism in our communities. Organizations such as Americans United and the Freedom From Religion Foundation work to remove overtly religious language, symbols, and practices from public life and spaces. Their goal is to make these public spaces more welcoming and representative of non-religious persons, and in so doing to make the space equally welcoming to all. If no single tradition is represented, no one is excluded. This is the same idea behind the current court case in Massachusetts over whether or not “Under God” should be included in the Pledge of Allegiance, which is a project close to the heart of the American Humanist Association. These organizations attempt to dismantle unequal treatment of religious minorities (including the non-religious) by the dominant religious culture. I support these goals, and I commend their efforts. As a secular humanist, I would appreciate less religious language in political speeches, fewer religious symbols and less religious inequality in public schools, and recognition that not every humanitarian effort must be somehow connected to a religious community. But there is something about these efforts that frustrates and confuses me, despite the good intentions.
I am drawn to working in religion, and specifically working with multibelief communities, because I can think of few aspects of one’s identity that are more central and influential than one’s beliefs. How I see the world and how I understand my place in it affect how I relate to others, where I put my energy and resources, how I confront obstacles and hardship, and how I experience joy. Religion is fundamental to humanity; it has been a driving force for action and change as far back as our records can take us. You do not have to believe in anything divine to recognize that religion – for better or for worse – has had a profound and unmatched influence on human history and development. Beliefs, including atheism, remain an essential element of individual identity. Is it right, then, to remove religion from public view, to never talk about it, share it, teach it, scrutinize it, witness it, challenge it, or express it? This is where i feel the tension.
Secularism is incredibly tough to define, and the same word is used to describe several ideas relating to the regulation of religion. Even in a completely secular state, there is not truly a separation of religion and politics, because the state is involved in the regulation of religion, but (hopefully) with an eye towards equality and protection of religious minorities from coercion or persecution. As I see it, the aim of the secularism movement in the United States should not be to remove any and all signs of religion, but to oppose religious dominance. We need to cease using religion to fuel exclusion and inequality, or as justification for stomping out diversity of one kind or another.
Christians make up the majority of U.S. citizens, but the United States of America enjoy incredible religious diversity – more than any other country in the world – and this presents us with immeasurable opportunity for education and growth. Rather than working to hide religion, we need to focus on eradicating fear and bigotry based on ignorance of people of different faiths and cultures. These far more destructive forces are not going to disappear if religion is pushed underground and out of sight. Ignorance is defeated by understanding, and so we should be striving to improve multifaith education and build relationships across religious boundaries.
The tension I feel between secularism and pluralism is not irreconcilable, and I think that by re-framing the conversation we might realize both can be honored simultaneously. I want to remove aggressive and exclusionary religious symbols and language from public life, but I do not want to push religion away. At its best, religious pluralism goes far beyond coexistence, encouraging us to celebrate and respect our differences as well as our common ground. This might only be possible once we have public spaces and language that do not offer preferential treatment to particular beliefs and traditions, but removing public displays of religious dominance is only part of an ongoing process to promote respect and understanding. If it stops there, we have not succeeded in our fight for religious freedom and equality.