The Symposium: State, Society and Contemporary Competing Religions

  1. The Symposium: State, Society and Contemporary Competing Religions

I believe it will be helpful if I place myself within the context of the positions of the other participants of the symposium where this paper was initially presented.[1] As I will try to show, most of the other papers presented an aspect of one of the contemporary secular religions that I have dubbed HRH religious secularism.

Simone Chambers, who has previously written on democratic theory and secularism as well as the role of civility in public political discourse, in her paper “Towards Radically Inclusive Citizenship,” essentially offered four types of internalized values and rules that do or should govern conduct in the public sphere. They were:

  1. civility
  2. accessibility to others through the use of reason
  3. accountability by others by allowing for critique
  4. respect for and openness to outliers for inclusion.[2]

This was an attempt to codify the internalized norms of our contemporary liberal secular religion concerned with fostering reason, tolerance and accommodation in the public sphere. It has an appeal across many traditional religious lines, particularly traditional religions committed to universal humanitarianism – the Mennonites and the Christian Reformed Church. Like traditional religions, the HRH secular religion, which incorporates the above principles, internalizes a set of values and rules in a set of attitudes and practices. This is the religion of public reason that goes beyond individual human rights to try to define what holds us together as a collective. The rules enunciated and brought to the surface are based on a religion of secular liberal civility without any appeal to authority. I identify this as one of the contemporary secular religions.

This liberal secular religion is in competition with another secular religion that could be labeled as classical liberal, one that draws a heavy line between state and religion, or as conservative because within the private sphere it is wedded to the preservation of traditional cultures and senses of morality, or Machiavellian and manipulative because it empties the public sphere of any moral compass and allows the contention for power to be determined primarily by Machiavellian manipulation in the quest to acquire and hold power. Because of the latter characteristic, I have labelled it as MMP religious secularism. There is no presumption in this polar categorization that the religion of liberal humanitarian secularism that I have labeled the HRH secular religion is or should be the overriding catholic religion which unites us all or that its claims to universal validity are sound.

Phil Triadafilipoulos, whose scholarship focuses on immigration and citizenship policies that reflect and reconfigure boundaries of national belonging in liberal-democratic states (to which I will refer in more detail in my case study of Stephen Harper’s refugee policies), in his paper on, “Debates over Religious Accommodation and Competitive Group Formation: Evidence from Canada and Germany,” argued that such debates are not so much expressions of the implicit rules of a liberal society around which solidarity can be maintained, but the result of competing group formation and boundary construction. In that interpretation, the rules proposed by Simone are efforts to define the boundaries of “liberals” in Western societies, an effort characteristic of any religious organization in its effort to maintain a coherent group identity. The identity now sought is of those who support a liberal polity.

This means that the liberal community not only competes with the norms of some religious traditionalists, as in the abortion debate, but with the religion of secular conservatives, what I have called the secular religion of manipulation and mastery to acquire and retain political power, the MMP secular religion. It is the one contemporary secular religion that is most closely connected first to the idolatrous worship of an unbridled free market in the economy and a specific type of traditional religion, usually labelled evangelical.

Both secular religions (HRH and MMP), at the same time as they define their own identity, compete to win over the floaters, those wedded neither to a liberal nor a conservative view of the world. Simone’s rules really only represent the religious norms of a liberal secular religion. They are not the shared values of all of us. Further, within the ranks of HRH religious secularists, there are extremist puritans who constitute a distinct sect.

For example, in the case presented by Phil on the clash over male circumcision in Germany, the protesters took up the mantra that infants have the right to their own bodies and no one has the right to mutilate them. This position clashed with Jews and Muslims for whom male circumcision is a sacred right.  In this case, the protesters battling male circumcision “as a barbaric practice,” (a phrase Stephen Harper and his Cabinet Ministers used to characterize the wearing of the niqab in his campaign to retain office as Prime Minister of Canada), based their attack on a practice of traditional religions. They were joined by many very liberal clergy. Jews and Muslims were relegated to being traditionalists currently defending against the attacks of the believers in the liberal secular religion of rights, even though most Jews also belong to the secular religion of rights and humanitarianism. Freedom of religion was not protected by the puritanical proponents of the liberal secular religion, but absolutely subordinated to the values of the new system of beliefs when traditions crossed the puritanical red lines of the new religion.

In other words, I accept very definitively Phil’s suggestion that any religion defines itself in contention with other religions by specifying public practices that are acceptable or unacceptable. If one is a liberal humanitarian who largely rests his or her belief on rights, then this is normally an indication that the individual belongs to progressive religious secularism that I have dubbed the HRH religious secularism. However, if one is aligned with the other secular religion, the conservative one that relegates religion to the private sphere, if one holds that the public space is about who obtains and holds power and really not in the end about values, then these characterize Machiavellian behaviour. This is the secular religion of power politics that I have dubbed the central belief and practice of an MMP religious secularism. Further, both HRH and MMP as secular religions remain undeveloped and currently only consecrate norms that govern conduct and attitude. Neither has matured in developing a specific set of virtues or the rites and ceremonies that will reinforce the rules held sacred by that religion.

That problem is a general one for various types of both traditional and secular religion. The development of virtue has been largely left behind and relegated to the periphery by the contending secular religions and their sects, though different traditional religions retain an emphasis on different sets of values and practices still found in the most traditional of non-secular religions.

Many American universities were founded as religious institutions, explicitly designed to cultivate their students’ spiritual and moral natures. But over the course of the 20th century they became officially or effectively secular. Religious rituals like mandatory chapel services were dropped. Academic research and teaching replaced character formation at the core of the university’s mission. Administrators and professors dropped spiritual language and moral prescription either because they didn’t know what to say or because they didn’t want to alienate any part of their diversifying constituencies. The humanities departments became less important, while parents ratcheted up the pressure for career training.[3]

David Brooks, the well-loved New York conservative columnist, became a traditionalist Jew through the efforts of his wife, a convert to Judaism. As he describes himself and the workings of his conscious and unconscious existence, “Judaism’s powerful laws, customs and rituals — the understructure of life — [became] embedded in the mind,” his mind. And for Brooks, that embedding is valuable, whether that embedding is the result of secular or traditional religious sources.

But what happens when the secular religion of human rights, especially puritan members within HRH, clash with the values and norms of traditionalists, especially those who also consider themselves small “l” liberals even if they are, to some degree, social conservatives? For that is what happened in the debate over ritual circumcision in Germany. Political conservatives joined with many traditionalist religious followers to defeat the secular religious effort of the puritanical liberals lest they repeat what happened in Sweden and South Africa. There they succeeded in creating an alliance that banned ritual circumcision of boys before the age of consent.

The secular religions are not about virtues, but about those very rules of discourse and debate that Simone reviewed as the basis of what I call the new liberal religious secularism (HRH) to which contemporary universities largely adhere. For although universities have given up the task and obligation of teaching virtue based on the classics, they do concentrate on inculcating social rather than personal norms, such as tolerance and a respect for diversity. The religion of procedural liberal universalism based on rights and humanitarianism is generally supreme in universities. The classical religions of virtue are not generally taught in universities today. Neither is the doctrine of Machiavellian acquisition of power characteristic of the public sphere, for those who truly and deeply believe in the so-called relegation of traditional religion to the private sphere.

Ronald Kuipers, Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics
and Associate Professor, Philosophy of Religion at the University of Toronto, wrote a very interesting overview on Richard Rorty (2013) that is particularly strong in analyzing his ironic liberal approach to philosophy and his anti-clericalism. In Kuipers’ paper, “Towards a Radically Inclusive Citizenship,” he offered one answer to the issue of various types of traditionalists either warring against the new dominant religions of secular liberalism within the body politic of the nation. He focused on the radical separation of science and religion rather than the private versus the public sphere. Each traditional religion forges its own partnerships with some secular ones. Ironically, the secular religion of rights forges partnerships with religious traditionalists, such as those with a very deep commitment to social justice, but is unable to form alliances with so-called evangelicals who focus much more on individualism and individual salvation more particularly. The secular religion of power, again ironically, defends and usually relegates the traditional religions to the realm of “private belief systems’ in opposition to secular religious norms that attempt to define the values of and for our public space to govern and provide boundaries to the quest for and distribution of power.

Ronald on his bio page wrote the following:

What is faith today? What does it mean to be a Christian in a secular age? In today’s world, the act of continuing to identify with an ancient religious tradition can seem outdated. Modern Western society demands that we answer the invidious question, ‘Do you believe in God, or Science?’ But what happens to religion and faith when we force them to fit within the frame of a scientistic culture, one in which all of reality is reduced to what may be discovered through the quantifiable methods of the physical sciences alone, while everything beyond that is understood as mere wishful human projection on an otherwise meaningless cosmos? In this picture, faith becomes readily understood as a form of intellectual assent to propositions whose scientific warrant is dubious at best…The reformational tradition has taught me that Christianity, if it is anything at all, is a holistic pattern of living, and not simply a matter of intellectual believing. More than that, Christianity remains a live option for those living in a scientistic culture because it can still fuel our ability to imagine relevant alternatives for contemporary human existence than those our scientistic culture affords. My work in the philosophy of religion takes up Wittgenstein’s challenge to speak an old language that yet belongs to a newer world. In so doing, I hope we may retrieve redemptive possibilities for our current existence, possibilities that our current culture has trouble envisioning.

Redemptive possibilities in Christianity are personal and do not define public space. Ronald’s response to the failed effort to hive off traditional religious practices and the alienation religious conservatives experience is to offer a set of strategies for reconciling the traditional and what I call secular religions, leaving aside the sects within each one of them[4]. In an effort at defining principles of reasonable accommodation that can be absorbed and imbibed by each religion, he tries to define the responsibilities of the secularists and those of the traditionalists who also had to adapt to assume and partake in the responsibilities of citizenship. Kuipers articulates the cultural factors in society that might help each of these faiths to engage in such accommodation rooted in the writings of Vico, Hugo Grotius, John Locke, Hegel and Charles Taylor.

He offers a set of overarching norms – accommodation and tolerance, inclusion versus exclusion, participation as opposed to passivity for all. I interpret him as simply advocating a larger view of the dominant liberal secular religion, selecting those norms governing the public space that are acceptable to most religions as well as the dominant secular one. But it is a mug’s game. For though the thesis deals with members who primarily define their religion in terms of affiliation, it leaves out those who define their religion in terms of beliefs, particularly beliefs that clash with the dominant culture. Though Ronald is clearly out to reconcile a life of faith with the dominant secular religion, yet one asks: what and where is the place for those who define religiosity in terms of commitment and giving witness to one’s beliefs? As adjuncts to the dominant secular religion? As supernumeraries to provide a traditional scaffolding for the new secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism?

Finally, Ronald omits the cultivation of virtue since the liberal secular belief system applies to public norms, usually norms governing discourse in the public sphere. This omission becomes acute when religion is defined as private and the public sphere is left as the space for the work of the devil where Machiavellianism holds sway. Though his thesis is compatible with, even if not integrated into, the secular religion of human rights and humanitarianism, it seems to have little to say to secular traditionalists who believe in the primacy of ensuring security for the public so that they may practice their religion peacefully and in private. Further, the virtues of honesty and telling the truth are bracketed. That demoralizes their liberal secularist allies, especially since the latter also claim to speak for one branch of religious traditionalists.

Ingrid Mattson, a Muslim religious leader and scholar, offered a complementary effort to resolve the impasse between the secularist religions and the traditional ones by stressing practices rather than beliefs and certainly not affiliations. What does she offer as the principles governing the public space where conservative secularists and liberal secularists, where traditional religious believers who retreat from the private sphere or reverse that propensity and try to recapture the public sphere, where these traditionalists war with both their alienated liberal traditionalists and liberal secularists, and where even puritanical versus tolerant liberal secularists clash with one another? Her suggestions for overarching norms include prohibitions against harming another and obligations to assist others in need, to do good rather than harm. These initially appear to be transcendent norms since both religious traditionalists and liberal secularists believe in them. But what about those religious traditionalists who uphold the radical separation of religion and state and believe that the public realm is the space for Machiavellianism and manipulation? How does one reconcile such norms with traditionalists who regard the public sphere as the realm for divisive rather than inclusionary politics? In the process, MMR religious secularism may undermine trust in government altogether and relegate legitimacy to a sideshow. The adherents also usually bracket inflicting harm on another when the “other” is regarded as alien and obligations to offer assistance to their own religious tribe and its allies in the secular world are taken to be primary. In the process, the whole idea of transcendent norms is undermined.

What seems clear to me is that my fellow participants in the symposium were simply advocates of one version or another of liberal religious secularism as the foundation for including religious traditionalism in the discourse within the body politic. Mary Jo Leddy, the closest approximation to a saint that I ever have known and a member of my own panel, complemented Ingrid Mattson’s stress on a caring culture and core values, but drawn from traditional belief rather than contemporary humanitarian liberalism. Sharing rather than ownership was the mantra. But this stance merely relegated economic conservatives to the sidelines and never directly dealt with the clash between and among the various beliefs systems and their respective sects. Mary Jo promoted the effort to promulgate a doctrine of accepting responsibility for our public space rather than having our private spaces of possessive individualism dominate and even have a virtual monopoly over the public sphere. As I understand Mary Jo, she wanted to relegate the religious secularism of business that favoured low taxes and minimal government, the antithesis to Mary Jo’s definition of the transcending religion governing our public space, to an inferior and even alien status.

Ben Schewel, the other member of my panel, delivered a very rich paper entitled, “Comparative religious ethics and the problems of forced migration” which intersected with an area of my expertise other than ethics. I have also written on the important role of traditional faith groups and their contributions to the protection and resettlement of refugees. Schewel focused on the ethical concepts originating from faith groups that permeate the discussions of forced migration. Through this route, Schewel sought another route to define the transcendental values and norms that purportedly embrace these traditional religious efforts as well as the norms protecting refugees in contemporary society. He did this by probing the realms of convergence.

He began by dividing academics who discuss religion and the public sphere into partialists and impartialists. Michael Walzer was an example of a partialist who contended that the public sphere is a realm of contention among various communities with different but overlapping norms and beliefs. Peter Singer was offered up as an example of an impartialist, that is, someone who bases his views on what are contended to be universal norms. Schewel would likely classify me as a partialist, I believe, the only one on the program in the symposium. However, I characterize myself as an impartial partialist, someone who sees the whole range of partialists and so-called impartialists, while speaking from my own perspective which I claim to be more encompassing than those normative advocates who are on the side of the angels defending caring and sharing, tolerance and rational discourse, rights and responsibilities. However, I would fit in with his thesis that in the dialectical interaction of secularist and traditional religions, each is transformed by the other in that interaction.

The last keynote speaker was Armando Salvatore. His keynote talk was too intricate and complex to easily summarize, except to suggest that he was arguing in the tradition of Jurgen Habermäs and Charles Taylor. But the main voice he reflected was that of Karl Jaspers, especially his conception of the Axial Age when many of the so-called world religions emerged out of the womb of history. He also dissected the idea of transcendence sought by traditional religious thinkers into three distinct meanings:

  1. A standpoint from which one can offer a critique;
  2. A second order kind of framing;
  3. The convergence of the cognitive and ethical that looks at the subject as a whole, but sacrifices any serious consideration of rites.

The combined result of this tripartite reach for transcendence was the construction of a disembodied self that became the foundation of a new axial age and ushered in modernity, not only in Europe, but also in the Islamic world and Asia. (The latter received only glancing attention, and then only in the discussion of developments in Japan focused on order and stability in an age of large scale migration and human movement.) This was followed by a detailed account of this emergence in the Christian world through the work of Franciscans and Dominicans, in which (from St. Thomas Aquinas) caritas, healing, compassion directed at the other, and the self-sacrifice of chosen poverty, became central themes, themes clearly compatible with the modern liberal religious secularist culture of humanitarianism and rights.

In Islam, the trajectory followed a different path because it was more differentiated as well as more cross-border. Further, the emphasis was not on caritas or self-denial, but on knowledge and developing a didactic formulaic and a dyadic relationship between self and other, stressing victimization, on the one hand, and innovation and change on the other hand. Charisma also took a central place in the process. But the goal was the same – to provide a ground for political legitimation as Islam became an urban religion and also became noteworthy for its extremism. Like its Christian counterpart, the process yielded the idea of a public sphere, however one that instantiated a social hierarchy in that realm instead of permitting traditional religion to be relegated to the private sphere.

When what we are actually observing is the rise of an idolatrous form of religion that treats a finite nation-state as an infinite good (2011), when religion no longer contains other spheres within its compass, but rather acts as a separate realm that demands influence from its own position of distinction, there is no transcendental foundation as much as liberal religious traditionalists and liberal religious secularists wish there was.

What is the alternative to a transcendent voice of reason and an underpinning in universal norms that does not surrender to Machiavellianism becoming the dominant ethic governing the public sphere?

[1] “Religion and Citizenship in a Post-Secular Society,” University of Toronto, 2 October 2015.

[2] As an aside, Stephen Harper, Canada’s soon to be former Prime Minister at the time of this writing, is not an observer of the rites and rituals, nor holds to the beliefs and practices, nor belongs to or validates the institutions of the HRH secular religion. His attacks on certain symbols are a clear indicator. Of the four principles above, he does adhere to the deep Canadian value of civility, but he has been a leading figure in undermining the other three in upholding the principle of accessibility – he avoids not only press conferences that are not under his tight control, but denies the press access to civil servants. Nor are civil servants accorded rights of free expression on even scientific issues. Through omnibus parliamentary bills and a host of other measures, including the firing of civil servants expressly put in place to guarantee accountability, he has done his best to destroy that principle and contributed to Canada’s current democratic deficit. Most of all, he has been a politician of divisiveness and exclusion.

[3] David Brooks (2015) “Politics, culture and the social sciences,” The New York Times, 5 October.

[4] Think of John C. Calhoun writing in the years before the American Civil War demanding that the rights of minorities – those who believed in slavery – and of states within the federal system, be respected and protected by the majority.


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