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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 ...

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.)

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