Imagine that you had to choose between one of these two options: On the one hand you could live in a society in which every religious group is present, existing in shared celebration of each other’s views, and all equally influential upon the overall population. On the other hand you could live in a society in which no vestige or remnant of religious thought and practice was evident in any sector. The first would represent the idealized vision of religious pluralism, and the second that of secularism.
Why these two choices?
Lest I be accused of presenting a false dilemma, I’m not suggesting that these two exhaust all of the possibilities. They are obviously not the only real or possible versions of society. In fact, I doubt that any of the many and diverse societies in the world mirrors either of the choices I presented, though a few come close to one or the other.
My reason for highlighting these two is simple. They represent the leading visions of so many people today who seek to inspire Western nations to “evolve” toward one or the other. Below I will better define each one, demonstrate the zeal with which a number of “enlightened” visionaries proclaim their merits, and then examine the problems with this still relatively young idealogical two-headed monster.
What is Secularism?
In the simplest sense, secular means non-religious. Its Latin etymology is uninteresting, but its importance in the vocabulary of the modern age can’t be overstated. For a couple of centuries now, Europe and North America have experienced an ongoing process of secularization. Sometimes quiet and less notable, other times glaring and obvious – and more of the latter in the most recent decades – it has proceeded undeterred. This is the process by which all things religious are pushed further and further out of public areas of interest and into the dark, quiet corners of the individual private lives of the citizens.
The causes of the process of secularization are too complicated to explore in much detail here, but we can summarize by saying they go back a few hundred years to the wide scale intellectual movements like the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. These are all capitalized because they are ‘biggies’ in the history of Western thought and culture.
One of the consequences of these was the emergence of a novel way of thinking in which religion itself might be optional for individuals or public society. This was a new humanism with the spiritual stripped out, or at least privatized to a place of invisible irrelevance. The more that this secularized understanding of life has gained prominence in government, media and entertainment sectors over time, the more rapid the process of secularization has become.
The visible fruit of this in my lifetime is hard to miss. People from a few generations ago would quickly notice the difference if they walked through our cities today. All of the old vestiges of religious heritage (specifically Christian) are notably missing, the secular ‘temples’ having been cleansed with steady legal zeal over the decades.
I am not fighting those battles in this article, but pointing to them as glaring sign posts of secularization. Note also how our historical reflection is increasingly sanitized of the religious elements that should be present. In a culture that gets most of its impressions of history via on-screen depictions, the entertainment industry has managed to propagandize the entire society into a redacted, secularized version of the past.
The historical advisor for the wildly popular “Downton Abbey” admitted frankly that the executives and producers told him from the beginning that they were to “leave religion out of it” so as not to offer any discomfort to the secular British audience. So over several seasons a global viewership of some estimated 120 million people have watched an inaccurately secularized version of early 20th Century English aristocracy (and their servants), thereby getting a false notion of what life was like then.
And this happens repeatedly in period pieces covering all different eras of history. Historians and biographers know better, and I suspect that many people today would be shocked and even put off by the overt nature of the personal religious language of so many revered people of the past, from founders and presidents to social reformers.
And it’s not just depictions of history that are secularized. Pay attention to the legion of movies and television depictions of present day disaster stories, and note the lack of spiritual concerns on the part of characters facing dire odds, immense tragedy or immanent death. These depictions simply do not reflect the lives of most people even today. Statistics tell us that people are still far more religious than fictional depictions of our own culture would have us believe.
And the main point is that all of this is to be celebrated according to those who see a completely secularized society as the best possible world in which to live. Let religion fade into irrelevance and oblivion, they say, and then we will live the good life in a much better society.
What is Religious Pluralism?
In one sense religious pluralism is simply a fact, and a fairly obvious one. American society, like the world itself, includes people of various religions. But the term “religious pluralism” is not merely descriptive. It is a politically loaded term for the attitude we are supposed to have if we are to fit the politically correct profile of a model citizen today.
The goal of religious pluralism is to see equal representation and esteem for every religious point of view, even if it means forced inclusion and a patronizing feigned interest in the theologies of all sorts of different religious groups. In service of this ideal the religious pluralist will pretend to celebrate any religious cult as an equally wonderful faith that enriches the overall tapestry. Do you claim to be a “Pastafarian” or a member of the new “Jedi” religion? The pluralist will seat you at the table of diversity in between the Jew and the Hindu.
This doesn’t mean, mind you, that religious pluralists take actual interest in or make actual study of different religions. They remain mostly ignorant (and to be honest, apathetic) about the specifics of religious belief systems. They just want it to be seen by all that they are showing the required equal respect for all possible religious views. In the crudest sense, they are trying to avoid any potential danger of being ‘racist’ against anyone’s religion.
Here’s where the two different views have direct connection: The effort to embrace and celebrate religious pluralism and diversity is motivated to some extent by a reaction against the heavy-handed secularization of society. The modern era spread secularization, and the postmodern response has been to bring every possible religious expression out of hiding, and lead them all down Main Street hand-in-hand as part of a Diversity Parade.
Where secularists do not want to see religion as a visible part of the public arena at all, religious pluralists want all religions portrayed equally and respected equally. The greatest enemy for the pluralist is overrepresentation of historically ‘privileged’ groups (e.g., Catholics, Evangelicals, and now secularists) and/or underrepresentation of minority groups (all others). Any imbalance or perceived favoritism must be addressed. Intolerance is our biggest threat.
Religion for the pluralist is not about truth-claims but cultural diversity. Different religions represent different choices, preferences and expressions of our identities. Pluralists like to ignore the contradictions in the stated beliefs of different religious worldviews, and they sometimes offer a backhanded insult to all religious traditions by strongly implying that all of their core cherished beliefs either don’t matter or are basically all the same as every other religion.
The Big Problem
Both secularism and religious pluralism have their share of problems. We could spend a lot of words breaking down each one and critiquing it. But there is a larger and more glaring concern with these two as they appear together in the overall agenda of the class of citizens that sees itself as most “progressive.”
That big problem is that these two ideals are logically at odds. A secularized society will not be religiously diverse and pluralistic. A pluralistic society will put a lot of religious ideas into the atmosphere, put a lot of religious symbols on display, and put a lot of religious practices within everyone’s frame of reference – which represents the opposite of the secular dream.
But wait. Isn’t it possible to have a secular public square while the citizens have diverse religious traditions that they all practice privately? The answer is Yes. There is no logical contradiction in those two. But this would not be an acceptable compromise for either group of leading voices for the two sides. The leading advocates for secularization do not want a society of diverse yet devoted religious people who simply keep their religion private. They despise religious views, commitments, traditions, writings, practices, ethics. They don’t just want it out of public sight. They want it gone from people’s minds and perspectives. They want people to stop believing in all of those religious tenets that they hold dear, even if they never make outward show of it in public.
Likewise the vocal religious pluralists will never be satisfied with the agreement to merely allow private devotion to various religious traditions. They want visible inclusion, recognized diversity, a display of the tolerant embrace of people’s rich religious backgrounds and customs. They would call it oppressive and bigoted for the secularist to tell Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Wiccans that they are forbidden to bring this important part of their lives into the open.
“Progressive” Cat Fights
At key moments we have witnessed the open warfare between these two sides of the socially “progressive” coin. One example of genuine liberal-on-liberal animosity was the widely viewed verbal showdown on Bill Maher’s show pitting himself and Sam Harris, on one side, and actor Ben Affleck on the other. Maher and Harris, operating from the secularist camp (in this specific case debating Islam), got in the crosshairs of Affleck’s wrath, the latter being of the pluralistic persuasion.
In terms of the merits of Islam’s doctrines, the two sides would be in agreement. Neither thinks that the primary beliefs of Islam are true. The difference is that Maher and Harris simply chalk that up to it being a religion, all of which is bad to one degree or another, while Affleck would never dare speak about his disbelief in Islam’s doctrines, because the pluralist simply doesn’t considers religion on the basis of the contents of its beliefs.
Here’s another way to put it. Maher and Harris were presupposing the secularist reasoning that says, more or less, that “Islam is a religion, religion is the problem, secularism is the solution, so let’s try to undermine all religions [including Islam of course] and persuade everybody to embrace secularism as their way of life,” while Affleck was presupposing the pluralist reasoning that says, more or less, that “Islam is a religious tradition, all religious traditions are cultural phenomena and part of the identities of different communities, all equally deserving of our full support, admiration and celebration.”
It was very entertaining, I will admit, but not surprising, as these two opposing visions for social progress are necessarily on a collision course. They cannot both be realized since they contradict one another.
So Which Do We Want? The Answer is Neither
The incompatibility of secularism and pluralism need not concern us if we do what we should, which is to scrap both of them. They are both wrong-headed and foolish campaigns to force something on society that is unnatural and not beneficial. We can do a lot better. People are spiritually and religiously inclined by nature and design. And they have all sorts of differences among them when it comes to questions of God, man, life, death, origins, end times, spirits, angels, demons, afterlives, revelation and salvation.
Instead of trying either to make it all go away out of sight or make it all come together under the guise of deep harmonious agreement as if the differences are only cultural, why not place the emphasis on the freedom of people to believe and practice as they wish along with the security of knowing that the law will not privilege or officially endorse any specific religious institution?
Don’t look now but these brilliant insights have been the basis for the free society Americans have been enjoying for generations, ever since the wise architects of our republic made sure that they guaranteed in the First Amendment that congress would make no laws establishing a state church or prohibiting citizens’ free exercise of religion.
That is all we really need. They did not suppose, nor should we, that this arrangement needed further tweaking in order to banish visible evidence of people’s religions from the public square or to push a campaign to force them to hold hands and celebrate each other’s various worldviews. The simple but profound amendment they crafted allows people to discuss and debate religious topics in a civil way without fear of state reprisal. Everyone is free to believe as he or she wants, to preach, teach, and write about it, to even try to persuade other people of it, to disagree with whomever might have different views, etc.
This is exactly the kind of social setting that Christians should want, and it is why from the early colonies through the adoption of the American constitution, hordes of people from different denominational backgrounds longed to live under an arrangement like the one Americans have enjoyed. That arrangement did not and need never include banishment of everything religious from the public eye nor efforts to force every known religious viewpoint into a hand-holding love-fest in which everyone pretends either that their beliefs are the same or that they don’t really matter.
When you hear among the public chatter the sound of the confused two-headed monster of secularism and pluralism, the first question you should remember to ask is, “Which is it going to be – secularism or pluralism? Logically we can’t have both.” And after letting that sink in, you should explain why neither one is what the founders intended nor what reasonable people should advocate.
Clint Roberts has taught Philosophy, Religion, Ethics, Critical Thinking, Apologetics, and a few less interesting subjects over the last decade plus. He long ago attended a fine theological institution. Later his doctorate focused on famous arguments by Clive Staples Lewis. He and Wanda lived in Texas, Idaho, & Utah before coming to Oklahoma. They have six kids & several species of animal. You can find him ascending weekly unto the Free Methodist pulpit on Sundays & continuing to teach at local universities.