As part of the Elephant in the Room, we asked Dr. Christopher Brittain how the discussion on secularism has changed over the past ten years:
I would not say it has progressed very well in America. Many who subscribe to the notion of secularism assume that religion is outdated, belongs in the ancient world, is slowly ebbing away, and will inevitably disappear. What 9/11 brought to the fore is religion hasn’t gone away. There are a lot of religious people; some of them seem to be disgruntled. Why is that?
There has been some helpful discussion, particularly about Muslims, and some public education that developed a greater appreciation for why some citizens feel alienated from American society, but it seems that much of the rhetoric in popular media has gone in one of two directions. First, there’s been an association of religion with violence: “Look what these murderers did, and they were religious, right? So religion is therefore dangerous.” In Britain that’s very much on the agenda with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens’s “New Atheism”. In the United States it moves more in the other direction; there’s a reassertion of religious identity, usually Christian, which says “in a world without religion – or without the correct religion – violence happens! So we need to reassert the prominence of Christianity in American society.” As a Christian myself, I’m not against the promotion of Christianity, but the tone it has taken is “Christianity versus the World”; this does not foster a greater discussion.
All these tensions surrounding this debate have made it very difficult to have a civil discussion between religious adherents and those who choose not to be religious. It’s become quite oppositional. Secularism is presented as either the savior from the violence that religion causes, or secularism as the symptom of a valueless world that needs to be changed by advocating a particular religion. And sometimes that means not only “my religion is the one we need”, but “other religions are as bad or worse than secularism”. That doesn’t generate a very helpful cultural debate.
In the midst of this emerges the idea of being Jewish but not believing in God; how do you engage in the discussion when those are the poles one has to choose from? Either being militant and full of conviction, or being without belief and viewing religion as dangerous. The concept of a secular Jew is neither of those. It is, to some extent, valuing the heritage of Judaism even if one doesn’t believe in it or parts of it; there’s still something there to be valued, even as one still identifies as secular.
Christopher Brittain is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He is interested in the philosophy of religion, the nature of secularism, and political theology.His most recent publication is “Religion at Ground Zero” (Continuum, 2011).