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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 ...

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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