Rules of engagement between secular and religious ideas

17518034_6d9144cd43The AWARE saga has taught us a few lessons but also left some unanswered questions. Do religions have a role to play in the public realm? Is faith an exclusively private issue? Jesus himself said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. Does it not mean that religious and social matters should be kept separate?

Once a religion is adopted by the majority of the population, the temptation is to simplify matters by mixing or even equating legal policies with religious issues. That well intentioned merging comes at a price. The history of the western world is plagued with conflicts brought about by the confusion of the religious and the secular realm. Emperors claimed religious authority and religious authorities invoked God to rule over secular matters. In fact, it took Europe a few centuries to realize that church and state are better kept separate.

However, we are still wondering whether religious beliefs and customs should be allowed to creep into the secular arena. Crucifixes and scarfs in public places are just two examples.

After a long history of the erroneous mixing of secular and religious matters, we have reached a point of no return and other states that still use religious laws are more likely to move on to secular states. The reason for this is not simply practical but one of fairness. The secular realm has its own goals and methods and this gives it an autonomy that religion should respect. By the same token, the secular law should guarantee freedom of religion and freedom in religion.

Christianity has understood the theological reasons for this mutual respect. God himself respects human autonomy. He does not force His way into human history.  The God of Israel is the God who “left man free to make his own decisions” (Ecc 15:14) and the church echoes this divine respect in her last ecumenical council: “God left man in the hands of his own counsel” (Gaudium et spes, 17). If God respects human autonomy, so must the church or any other religion for that matter.

However, in the typical pendular movement of history, we are now starting to swing in the opposite direction: from uncritical mixing to complete divorce. In fact, there is a suspicion that religions muddy the naturally peaceful waters of society, that religions bring about more  conflict than solutions, and that the world would be much better without any religion at all. So, until that day arrives, we’d better confine the burden of religion to a minimum. Now is the time of secularism. Indeed, some have call it the new religion. The slogan seems to be “Confine religions to the sacristies of their own private spheres where they should learn to live and let live.”

That attitude is a false solution. That divorce will end up crippling religions, depriving societies of a transcendental purpose and creating a kind of bipolar citizens: private believers but social practical atheists. But do we seriously believe that religion, even if it is not my religion, is better than no religion? Don’t we have enough of discrimination, riots and dissension of religious origin?

Religions have something to offer. Aquinas said that if God did not reveal Himself, only a few people would reach the truth, after great efforts and with a mixture of errors. Religions offer answers that are easily accessible to more people, in an easier way and with greater guarantees. It is not for nothing most great religions agree on most important matters.

Of course there are also differences among them. And there has been manipulation of religion to push private agendas. But we should not blame religions for the sins of religious people. It is better to believe that there is a God than not to believe at all. It is better to believe that God is a merciful God than believing that God is an avenging God. The whole truth about life is impossible to achieve in this life, but the more we have of it, the better. Religions do certainly bring a true aspect of life than the secular may find it difficult to achieve on its own.

By understanding the transcendental destiny of the person, religions advocate a kind of human dignity practically inaccessible to a materialistic secular mentality.  An awareness of a superior Being, necessarily fosters an understanding of equality among people that cannot be matched by the secular version. In fact, today,we are witnessing a kind of equality in which “some are more equal than others”, where the absolute right to life is being compromised by the quality of life one is judged to have.

It is not by chance that this version of “unequal equality” happens in our secularized world. Where there is a lord, the rest are all servants; if the lord disappears, all will fight for Lordship. As Vatican II put it, “when the idea of God vanishes, so does the dignity of man.”

On the other hand, secular ideas and criticisms help religions to be more reasonable. The Catholic church even finds herself thanking atheist critiques for helping her purify some misunderstandings in the practice of faith. Let us recall how a misunderstood sense of the next life withdraws some believers from social commitment. The criticism that religion was the “opium of the masses” was the wake up call for a right understanding of social progress and development in this world perfectly compatible with the hope of the after-world.

In other words, religions have something to offer to the secular arena; but the secular arena needs to be respected in its autonomy. Both are bound to live together. Now, religions and secular institutions have similar ends: the betterment of human life. They do this with different understandings and through different means. So religions and secular organizations are bound not only to encounter each other, but to often disagree and contradict each other. So, if religions and secular institutions must learn to live together, what are the rules of engagement? 

The goal of these rules can be reduced to one word: integration. Integration is opposed to confusion where both parties interact without respecting their boundaries and autonomies. Integration is also opposed to divorce or disintegration. Integration implies that the parts remain distinct but they make up a whole. Integrating religion and secular affairs entails that both respect their boundaries and autonomies through a mutual understanding of their own proper goals and at the same time, they both play a role in the whole of the society, making society more cohesive.

It is not enough not to cross each other’s boundaries. Religions do not become integrated when their believers become lukewarm. Compromising their believes and practices, religious people simply send out the message that religion is subordinated to practical goals. They become means to be utilized and compromised. What is supposed to be a witness of the absolute, fails to fulfill its role by compromising. Muslims who don’t take their fast seriously, send a message that faith is something superficial. When Catholics cooperate with activities that contradict their beliefs in the name of an “inclusive” mentality, not only do they betray their own faith, but fail to exercise the role of religion in the secular world.

There is often the illusion that because this believer in a different faith does not care much about his beliefs, he becomes closer to our  faith. In fact the opposite is true. Lukewarm Muslims, if converted to Christianity, tend to be lukewarm Christians. Committed Buddhist, if converted to other religion, would become a committed believers. Dilution is confusion, not integration.

There are some minimal rules of engagement that should be preserved. The right to conscientious objection for reasonable matters is one of them. Not to impose particular beliefs on others would be another. But the fruitfulness of the engagement lies not so much on respecting the rules of integration as it does on learning the skills of engagement. What are those skills? Many, I suppose, but one stands out: dialogue.

And that deserves more detailed consideration.

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2 Responses to “Rules of engagement between secular and religious ideas”

  1. lydia Says:

    V good Fr David, and impressive paragraphs too!

    • fr. david Says:

      OH yeah? It took me two weeks to give birth to that and the next twin. What’s impressive about that?


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