The Religious and the Secular and why there need not be a divide

Charles Lewis writes a blog for the National Post called the “Holy Post.” It is one of the rare columns in Canadian journalism that devotes its content to religious issues which is odd since Britain’s Guardian and BBC have religion pages and it seems to be a fairly important topic in pretty much every society…everywhere. The main purpose of The Humanist Lens is to bridge the gap that has formed between the religious and the secular and Lewis has written again about how we as a society need to look past the ignorant view of religion as immature human behaviour and engage in a discussion about it.

Instead of rejecting religion wholesale and thus signing up with the religion of secularism, it seems more poignant to retrieve religious resources capable of sustaining the best of our Western cultural heritage. Healing the breach between reason and religion and moving beyond secular and religious fundamentalism become possible through a hermeneutic view of truth. Philosophical hermeneutics, if it can open itself to religion, just as religion must open itself to hermeneutics, is an essential part of the humanistic ethos through which cultural renewal may come.

Lewis’ article on religious tolerance is worth repeating here as it highlights this problem of a false divide between the secular and the religious we seem to adhere to in Western culture. The comments attached to the article at the National Post website are quite revealing of how the discussion is still lost on many.

Charles Lewis: Secularists could learn tolerance from the Sisters of Life
In the National Post, April 11, 2011

We are now living in a society with a secular set point. Any issue that is raised can only be considered if it is within a secular context. Anything that might smell of coming from a religious point of view is not welcome and even feared.

Such issues as embryonic stem cell research, the large number of abortions taking place in Canada, or the rampant use of pornography in society has to be discussed in non-religious terms — even if religion has something to say of value for the broader good.

This was made clear to me in an unusual way not long ago. I was writing about the debate on euthanasia. I happened to interview a woman, a physician and professor, who gave some very rational and secular reasons for opposing euthanasia.

An anti-euthanasia activist was furious at me for speaking to her. He said I had undermined his cause because the woman also happened to be a nun and her objections to euthanasia would just confirm to the society at large that this was another case of religious people trying to impose their values on secular society.

His goal, he told me, was to convince secular Canadians to also oppose euthanasia and the only way he could be successful was if he could convince them that this was a not a religious cause.

Weirdly, the man who called me was a Christian but he was beginning to understand that his religious views had made him a second-class citizen. Worse, he was willing to accept that for what he saw as a greater cause — even though his own objections to euthanasia were inspired by his reading of the Gospels.

Last week I wrote two stories about social conservatives in Canada. The first story stated that social conservatives were now officially voiceless in our political system. The story came on the heels of Stephen Harper saying his party would not institute a social conservative agenda if the Tories were given a majority. The second was an opinion piece, outlining classic social conservative causes — concerning abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and the like — and how they could be revitalized to appeal to the broadest range of society.

The response to both stories went something like this: you cannot bring religious views into politics even if those views are posed in secular terms or even if the religious view might make sense.

Anything that smacks of religion has to be kept behind a fence — even though religious people pay taxes, work, vote and contribute to society as much as the non-religious.

There is a great confusion here. Basing a view on a religious belief is not different than basing it on a secular belief system. Both are legitimate views of the world and in a democracy none should be excluded. I suspect that those freaked out by the religious point of view imagine a theocracy around the corner. But that makes as much sense as believing a secular view might lead to a communist dictatorship.

But it is not the secular view under siege these days; it is the religious view. It has led to a form of intolerance that is not only unwarranted but also crippling to democracy.

In the past few years there has been a succession of anti-abortion groups removed from university campuses. Even more concerning is that the people doing the censoring were other students. These young student dictators had decided that to be anti-abortion was to hate women and therefore banning pro-life clubs was a way of removing prejudice off campus. The logic is frightening and anyone with an ounce of concern for free speech should have been appalled. But hardly anyone was. That’s because the great liberal secular society we now live in suspects that these anti-abortion students are likely religious fanatics and so good riddance.

Of course, not everyone who is non-religious thinks like this but there are enough that we are drifting into an intellectual eradication of those religious traditions that helped form the foundation of our civilization.

On Saturday morning I attended a ceremony for a friend of mine who works with an order of nuns in Toronto called the Sisters of Life. Let me get this out of the way right now: I am a big fan of the Sisters of Life. These are wonderful women who are full of joy and love and even a hardened atheist would be hard pressed to dismiss them. The sisters and their volunteers do several main things: they help women who want to have their children but are afraid to, they help women once they’ve had their babies and they also counsel women who have had abortions and are now feeling regret.

What was so telling during the morning was that nowhere in their Catholic zeal for life was there a shred of judgment. They spoke about all the wonderful children they had seen come into the world. They also spoke about their concern for one woman who had had gone ahead and had an abortion and now they were desperate to find out if she was okay. They were not going to lecture this woman; they were going to love her.

They did not mock pro-abortion rights activists. They did not talk about politics. They did not speak about changing the law. They simply spoke of helping those women who needed help but could not find it anywhere else. They also do not seem to care whether the women were Catholics or any religion at all. All are welcome by the sisters.

But they are obviously religious. They do believe in Christ and they believe that God brings us to life. And they are not ashamed of that and nor will they try to dress it up in acceptable secular language. And that is probably enough to put many people off.

And so I have to wonder: What are so many people afraid of? Why is it so many people today need everyone to think the exact same way? When did this country become so intolerant?

Charles Lewis writes about religion for the National Post and is the editor of the paper’s religion site, Holy Post

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