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(Jack Dylan for The Globe and Mail)
(Jack Dylan for The Globe and Mail)

The post-secular age

Earth to God: We could use you right about now Add to ...

There's no evidence to suggest that Christopher Hitchens, who died this month of esophageal cancer, took his final breath as anything but an ardent, confident atheist. Any suggestion to the contrary would have enraged him, much like the prayers spoken on his behalf by the targets of his criticism. Faith, as the prominent author said with a trademark sneer, is “the surrender of the mind,” with “sinister” implications. His was the clever voice of secular superiority, though his argument against religion ultimately amounted to slugging it out with an opponent whose mind he was never going to change, and who had no chance of changing his.

Mr. Hitchens and his cohort of fellow new atheists have sold a lot of books, to be sure – Mr. Hitchens, no matter where you stand on the issue, is a very good read. But if anything, the rhetoric that cast an entire group, which itself contains its share of intellectuals, as “stupid” only fired up the extremists on the other side. The moderates – the group into which the majority of faith-exploring people fall – dodged the flying stones by standing on the sidelines (perhaps while reading their own copies of Mr. Hitchens's bestselling book God is Not Great).

Mr. Hitchens was doing his best to hasten what intellectuals in the West have predicted since the dawn of the Age of Reason – that the Enlightenment would extinguish faith once and for all. This hasn't happened: God, while certainly less “Great” in the West, nonetheless continues to hold sway, and in some instances increasingly so, over many other parts of the world. Even in countries like Canada, dumping organized religion is not the same as giving up on God (or, at least, inquiring about God's existence), as national surveys on beliefs and values have shown. So while Mr. Hitchens had his answer, the majority of humanity still isn't convinced.

Now, sociologists speak of a “post-secular age” in which religion finds a permanent place in a largely non-religious society. Faith is morphing and softening, drifting out of formal worship places and breaking down once-strict denominational and doctrinal walls, creating a modern syncretism that might just be capable of adapting the best parts into a new whole. After all, our reliance on pure reason and its secular institutions – government, the marketplace, even science itself – has failed, or, at minimum, disappointed, roughly 99 per cent of us. Religion, particularly as it speaks to social justice and equality, might have a contribution to make in a world confused about its core values.

So, pace Mr. Hitchens, isn't it time for a more sensible conversation about faith? Something, for instance, that goes beyond whether Muslim women should be forced to remove their veils when becoming Canadian citizens, as Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced they must, seemingly out of the blue, two weeks ago. A deeper conversation might explore, more productively, not just the compromises faith should and can make as it becomes woven into Canadian society, but the contributions it might offer, as well.

If David Cameron, a self-described “vaguely practising” Anglican, wants to pronounce Britain a Christian state – as he did last week on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible – does he not have an obligation to foster a discussion of what that should actually involve?

What role religion should play in the public sphere is hardly a new question. But this year, how to create a moral and equal society became a mainstream concern: At the Occupy protests, embedded clergy pitched tents and got arrested; Governor-General David Johnston gave speeches calling for a kinder, gentler Canada rooted in the Christian values of his forbears; Islamist activists helped to topple tyrants in the Middle East and will probably play a major, if polarizing, role in reshaping their societies.

In the search for a new “civic faith” – as Stephen Duncombe, a communications professor at New York University and an activist, described it in an interview this week – God is still sitting at the table.

That makes many people, understandably, nervous. In Canada, faith is largely a private matter – unless, it seems, one is citing scripture to denounce same-sex marriage or abortion. The survey research explored in American Grace, an award-winning book by political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, found that a key reason for young Americans withdrawing from faith was its unsettling association with right-wing issues, and there's no reason to believe that young, liberal Canadians are any different.

(You only have to look at the fearful reaction of the lead character on the TV show The Good Wife, when she discovers her daughter reading the Bible – one suspects, she would have been relieved to find a bag of weed, by comparison.)

Balancing those fears with a reasoned debate – one that gives voice to the progressive believers often drowned out by shrill judgment from the right (and badgering atheists on the other side) – is a necessary goal of a post-secular state.

“One way to understand it,” suggests Mark Cladis, a religious studies professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, “is that given the many serious problems we are facing – environmental and economic challenges –it seems like a time in history when it's especially important for citizens to pull together and work towards significant reform. We want to gather all our intellectual and moral resources, and consider the various perspectives that might be helpful, whether or not they are expressed religious terms or non-religious terms.”

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, a leading social-political theorist (and atheist) well known for his dialogue with Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, declares it “democratically enlightened common sense” to allow faith-based perspectives into political and policy debates – even, if ultimately, legislation is constructed in neutral, non-religious language. (One example of this balance, Dr. Cladis says, are the U.S. Supreme Court decisions to ban prayer in schools, while allowing for classes on religion.)

In a 2008 paper on the post-secular state, Dr. Habermas warned against cutting religion out of the public debate, in part because “with regard to vulnerable social relations, religious traditions possess the power to convincingly articulate moral sensitivities.” In a robust democracy, secular thinkers and religious believers mutually tolerate each other, he argued.

Otherwise, Dr. Habermas noted in an earlier speech, the secular West “appears simply as another crusader on behalf of a competing religious faith, like the Arab world, or as the travelling salesmen of an instrumental reason that subjects all meaning to itself.”

In other words, show me a mudslinging atheist commenting at www.whygodhatesamputees, and I'll show you a Leviticus-quoting Christian fundamentalist protesting outside an abortion clinic.

“This divisiveness is not capturing what a lot of people feel and experience, or even what they believe,” says Scott Schieman, a sociologist at the University of Toronto who is working on a book about how religion affects health, social lives and politics.

In a survey of 6,000 Canadians that he completed this year, he found a large group of people hesitant to align themselves clearly with a faith tradition, but equally hesitant to say they had no faith at all. This may be “residual” religion, left over from family traditions, and whether it sustains is uncertain. Nonetheless, “there is a substantial group of people who have their doubts and questions, but they are not willing to let religion go,” he says. “[They]seem to struggle with the ambiguity around the religious role, what should be involved in it ... how to connect their faith with social issues that matter.”

Those middle-ground Canadians and Americans are marrying between faiths, changing religions for their spouses, socializing and working with people from diverse backgrounds. In the conclusion of American Grace, the writers find a country where religious tolerance is exceptionally high – and increasingly so. Despite the idea that religion is divisive – especially in the United States, where a person's party affiliation can usually be deduced by their level of piety – the majority of religious Americans think religious diversity is healthy. (Religious people also agree overwhelmingly that people of all faiths get to heaven – sorry, atheists.)

For all the ranting of the extremes, the people in the middle are living (and praying) together just fine.

And what's more, despite Mr. Hitchens's insistence, religion does not poison everything. Echoing similar studies in Canada, American Grace finds that religious Americans are “better neighbours.” They are more likely to donate to charities, give money to strangers, volunteer, serve on boards. “Without religion,” says David Campbell, a displaced Canadian, “American civic society would be a shadow of what it is today, and that gets missed.”

Yet it isn't belief that causes people to live by a moral code, his research found. It is their social ties. They travel in a circle of like-minded volunteers who consider – and discuss – their obligations to society.

The Occupy protests are a fitting example of the modern balancing act in which faith can enter the public sphere without dominating it. Among a generation that is the most secular in history, faith groups and clergy set up camp – creating makeshift worship spaces where people could come and go and debate, opening up churches to house protesters. Jewish protesters observed Yom Kippur, Christians held services on Sunday. A procession of a statue of a golden calf, a symbol of pagan idolatry in the Old Testament, was cheered in the streets. In the group discussions, participants spoke of social justice from an interfaith context – or a purely secular one.

“What's interesting about Occupy Wall Street is people are welcome to bring their religion in,” says NYU's Dr. Duncombe, who joined the protests. He has a very modern view of his own faith: he doesn't believe in God, or the divinity of Jesus – his belief lies in the historic idea of Jesus as an activist who shaped a system of ethics. “It is a faith-based movement,” he says of the Occupy protest. “It has a real fundamental faith that there can be a better way to run the world.”



Religion can help to shift the question away from correcting wrongs to doing what is right. “How do you appeal to people with the argument that stark inequality is just a bad thing for society? One possibility is to take it up a level to something more spiritual, if not religious,” Dr. Schieman says. “At the fundamental core of most religions is care and compassion, but that's lost on the extremes. How do you make the connections between what people still value and what's happening in everyday life – that's not discussed or it gets lost in the noise produced by those who shout the loudest.”

Or as British Prime Minister David Cameron put it in his controversial speech, while faith is neither “a necessary nor sufficient condition for morality,” it can – for many – serve as a “helpful prod in the right direction.”

Ultimately, though, if it's not inspiration you seek, what about education? Recognizing a need for a greater understanding of a significant force in the world, especially since 9/11, universities have expanded their religious studies; in Quebec, high-school students are required to take a world religions course to graduate. A new program at the University of Toronto will bring together students of different faiths for discussions.

At the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, an exhibition called God(s): the User Guide seeks to provide that education to a broader public. Walk though and you will see a Torah, a Buddhist prayer wheel, a gold-plated statue of Garuda, the eagle that carries the Hindu god Vishnu. There is a stone statue of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea. A contemporary section includes a bottle opener with the Pope's face on it. The exhibition doesn't cover religious conflict. It focuses on what unites different religions in their varying rituals and milestones – the “everyday” as the curator, Stephen Inglis, puts it, where most people live. “I hope that we're going to bring more and more energy to the conversation.”

As Mr. Hitchens wrote, “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” Or, to quote from Proverbs, Chapter 15: “The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out.”

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