Religion Isn’t the Problem

Charles Taylor in the recent issue of Commonweal Magazine (February 25, 2011) wrote an article called “Religion is Not the Problem: Secularism and Democracy.” He’s the author of a previous, highly-praised book called “A Secular Age” which examines the process of secularization at the heart of so many of the disputes today between religion, the churches and society.

Taylor addresses the judgment of some today who hold religion responsible for many of the problems of our times, and so society is better off without it and the churches that profess it. Religion should have no voice in public affairs; it’s a private matter that shouldn’t enter any public debates. This view is found particularly in the western world.

Those against giving religion a public voice in the world argue that when you see a transcendent world linked to this world–which is what religion does– you see reality through a distorting lens of superstition. You can’t build society on insights that come from religion; it can only be built on what human reason and experience knows, they say.

The denial of a role for religion in society and its displacement by human reason is a modern development, Taylor writes. The view didn’t exist in societies of the past; it’s a creation of the western world and develops from the time of the Reformation.

A crucial step occurred in the 18th century with the rise of Deism, a philosophy that saw human reason as the dynamo behind human progress. The Deists acknowledged God as the Great Architect, but human beings are the builders who take up the task. For them, religion has a place, but it’s like a cop on the beat. Religion keeps things in order with its code of ethics.  For Deism, “some religion, or at least some piety, is a necessary condition of good order.”

I think of the 18th century Anglican Chapel of St. Paul in downtown New York, still standing among the great skyscrapers, where George Washington and the city’s leading figures worshipped. Before the recent renovations in the church (a mistake, in my mind) the focus in the old church sanctuary was a list of the Ten Commandments spelled out large over a modest table. That corresponded to what, in the eyes of the Deists, was the church’s function– to produce honest, law-abiding citizens.

On the brink of converting to Catholicism in the early 19th century, Elizabeth Seton, now a Catholic saint, sat in that church and thought of the Catholic Church of St. Peter,  a short distance away, where Jesus Christ was honored in the Blessed Sacrament and scenes of his saving life and death were prominently  displayed in its decoration.  She wanted a religion that was more than an ethical code.

I think also of St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists and a saint of the 18th century, who had a vivid sense of a world beyond this one, which could be known through prayer. He preached that life here on earth was a preparation for a future life, won by us through Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

Taylor describes the process of secularization nourished by the Enlightenment reaching a radical stage with the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century when reason was exalted as the only tool of human progress and religion was banished from society.

The denial of a role for religion in modern western society, particularly in the modern state, creates a severe problem today. For one thing, it sees no place for any Moslem society, with its laws and customs based on a religious faith.

Can a society exist that is not simply secular? This is an important issue today.

Taylor argues for this possibility. It would involve a separation of church and state, “meaning that the state can’t be officially linked to a religious confession except in a vestigial and largely symbolic sense, as in England and Scandanavia.” It would also require

  1. No one must be forced in the domain of religion, or basic belief. This is what is often defined as religious liberty–or the ‘free exercise’ of religion…
  2. There must be equality between people of different faiths or basic beliefs; no religious (or areligious) Weltanschuung can enjoy a privileged status, let along be adopted as the official state view.
  3. All spiritual families must be heard and included in the ongoing process of determining what the society is about and how to realize these goals. And I believe that we might add a fourth requirement: that of maintaining harmony and comity among the supporters of different religions and views. “

Taylor offers a way into the future, I think. In a global society, the state must respond to an increasing diversity in an even-handed way, protecting people with their differences, treating them equally and giving everybody a hearing. He does not conceive of secularism as an evil, but as a challenge brought about by new times. He calls for “a revisionary understanding of secularism.”

“In order to merit the name ‘secularist,’ regimes in contemporary societies must be conceived, not primarily as bulwarks against religion, but as good faith attempts to secure a few basic goals. They must protect people in what religion or outlook they choose. They must treat people equally. And they must give all people a hearing. As our modern democracies attempt to shape their institutional arrangements to a remarkable diversity of beliefs, we must not be afraid to adjust our hallowed democratic traditions in pursuit of liberty and equality for all.”


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