Interfaith work needs to include the nonreligious

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New York mayor Eric Adams recently objected to the idea of the separation of church and state at an interfaith breakfast event at the New York Public Library. Library President and CEO Anthony Marx offered a welcome that celebrated libraries as places of inclusion, diversity, and freedom of thought. In his speech, the mayor acknowledged religious diversity. But he did not seem to acknowledge either the basic principles of American secularism or the presence of nonreligion. This leads me to wonder whether the interfaith tent is big enough to include nonreligion.

As book bans and Christian nationalism grow across our country, we need to recommit ourselves to the separation of church and state. The interfaith project needs to grow to include nonreligious people, and nonreligious folks need to show up at interfaith events.

The problem of The New York interfaith breakfast

The video of Mayor Adams’s February 28 speech is worth watching in full. After the Library’s CEO welcomed people to the event, a Christian pastor gave a prayer that concluded by invoking “the name of Jesus Christ.” Other prayers and invocations were provided by speakers from Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and in both Spanish and English. Before the mayor spoke, a member of his staff celebrated “the power of the faith-based community” and the “power of prayer.”

Then the mayor gave his speech.

The mayor’s worrying remarks about religion were connected to comments he made about raising children. He said, “when we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools.” He suggested that we need to “instill” in children “some level of faith and belief.”

Mayor Adams continued: “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies. I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official. When I walk, I walk with God. When I talk, I talk with God. When I put policies in place, I put them in with a God-like approach to them. That’s who I am.”

The crowd applauded.

Religio-normativity and the faith assumption

Perhaps this applause is to be expected at an event that was intended to celebrate the faith communities of New York City. But it is worth considering what this says to nonreligious people, including nonreligious parents, teachers, and kids. Can we, the nonbelievers, feel welcome in a world that suggests that we ought to “instill” faith in our children? And how inclusive is an interfaith event in which the keynote speaker suggests that the church is the heart of the body politic?

The applause in response to Mayor Adams’ comments is a sign of what I’ll call “religio-normativity.” I’m coining that term here to help describe the problem faced by nonreligious people. I model the idea from discussions about LGBTQ persons and the challenge of “heteronormativity.” Heteronormativity is the idea that heterosexuality is normal, natural, and ubiquitous. Religio-normativity makes it seem that nonreligion is abnormal, unnatural, unusual, and weird. But, as I discussed in another column, it is not reasonable to assume that faith is natural.

Religio-normativity is the assumption that everyone has a “faith” or describes themselves according to some religious classification. Religio-normativity is obviously inadequate today. As is well-known by now, social scientists and demographers who study religion have recognized the growth of the “nones,” those who do not identify with any religion and who mark “none of the above” when asked. About 30% of Americans now identify as “nones.”

The future of interfaith

This growth of the nones challenges the assumptions of religio-normativity. We should no longer casually assume that everyone has a religion or belongs to a community of faith. And when 3 out of 10 people are not religious, it makes no sense to suggest that kids should pray in school or that faith should be instilled in children.

One would think that those who are actively working in interfaith communities would recognize the need to avoid religio-normativity. But they may need reminders. In my work with interfaith groups, I usually encounter progressive, thoughtful, and sensitive people. Fundamentalists do not typically seek out this kind of thing. But nonreligious people also often fail to show up to interfaith events. And so they are easily overlooked and forgotten.

One powerful interfaith group is the Interfaith Alliance, currently led by Paul Raushenbush. Raushenbush, who is also a Baptist Minister, spoke out in response to Mayor Adams’ remarks. He said, “Every person has the right to religious freedom, including the mayor. However, I encourage the mayor to stop imagining himself as the servant of God and instead take seriously his obligation to serve the diverse people of New York – people of all faiths and no faith alike.”

Thank you Rev. Raushenbush, for recognizing and including nonreligious folks. Public figures need to more actively work to include nonreligion.

Conclusion: the atheist in the front row

Interfaith work needs to include the nonreligious. But the inclusion of nonreligious people in interfaith groups will make things more difficult, since the idea of interfaith includes faith. And some atheists bristle at the very idea that their lack of belief could be described as a kind of “faith.” We will need to work out the details of how nonreligioius people can be included. And we won’t be able to resolve every issue. But nonreligious people can benefit from showing up and demanding representation in interfaith events. And interfaith gatherings can be cured of their religio-normativity, when atheists show up and sit in the front row.  

Can War Be Justified? A Debate

Announcing my new co-authored book, Can War Be Justified? , a debate with Jennifer Kling, professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

In this book, we debate this question, drawing on contemporary scholarship and new developments in thinking about pacifism and just war theory. Fiala defends the pacifist position, while Kling defends just war traditions. Fiala argues that pacifism follows from the awful reality of war and the nonviolent goal of building a more just and peaceful world. Kling argues that war is sometimes justified when it is a last-ditch, necessary effort to defend people and their communities from utter destruction and death. Pulling from global traditions and histories, their debate will captivate anyone who has wondered or worried about the morality of political violence and military force. Topics discussed include ethical questions of self-defense and other-defense, the great analogy between individuals and states, evolving technologies and methods of warfighting, moral injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, broader political and communal issues, and the problem of regional security in a globalizing world. The authors consider cultural and religious issues as well as the fundamental question of moral obligation in a world saturated in military conflict. The book was written in the aftermath of the war on terrorism and includes reflection on lessons learned from the past decades of war, as well as hopes for the future in light of emerging threats in Europe and elsewhere.

The book is organized in a user-friendly fashion. Each author presents a self-contained argument, which is followed by a series of responses, replies, and counter-arguments. Throughout, the authors model civil discourse by emphasizing points of agreement and remaining areas of disagreement. The book includes reader-friendly summaries, a glossary of key concepts, and suggestions for further study. All of this will help students and scholars follow the authors’ dialogue so they may develop their own answer to the question of whether war can be justified.

What the stickiness of nonbelief says about the ‘religious instinct’

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A recent article in the Guardian suggested several reasons for the general decline in religion. It may have something to do with the hypocritical moralizing of religious patriarchs and the changing values of a younger generation. The mandatory church closures of the Covid pandemic seem to have accelerated church attrition. But non-religion is not a passing fad. Non-religion is both sticky and contagious. As a critical mass of people come out of the nonreligious closet, others will follow, and will likely stay out. Social scientists suggest that people who become nonreligious tend to stay that way and pass their nonreligion on to the next generation.

If this is true, then our way of understanding religion as a natural function of human experience needs to be revised. Religious belief was once taken for granted as fulfilling a kind of natural human instinct. But as nonbelief is normalized, the assumption that human beings have a natural religious instinct no longer makes sense.

The sociology of non-religion

Sociologists have been studying the rise of the nones for a couple of decades. Studies of “nonversion” (conversion away from religion) remind us that there are lots of individual stories and no single cause for the decline of religion. And yet, non-religion seems to be both contagious and sticky.

To say it is contagious means that it catches on. When people are exposed to non-religion and realize it is an option, they may choose it. To say it is sticky means that once people become nonreligious, they tend to stay that way. Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion, explains the generational stickiness of religion as follows: “For people who say they were raised Christian, there is a 45 percent chance they will end up identifying as nones, but for those raised with ‘no religion’ there is a 95 percent probability that they will stay that way. Thus, ‘no religion’ is currently ‘sticky’ in a way Christianity is not.”

As non-religion grows, it comes to seem normal and unexceptional. Phil Zuckerman concludes his study of why people reject religion as follows. “Obviously many people, from various walks of life, can live without religion—in fact, prefer as much. This bald fact strongly counters the notion that all people—as people—are somehow intrinsically religious or that religion is some sort of necessary, universal, or inextricable component of the human condition.”

People who say they were raised Christian have a 45% chance of ending up identifying as nones. But those raised with ‘no religion’ have a 95% probability of staying that way. Thus, ‘no religion’ is currently ‘sticky’ in a way Christianity is not.


How natural is the religious instinct?

This runs counter to a theory that sees religion as a “natural” feature of human thought and culture. Scholars used to take it for granted that religion was a central and universal aspect of human experience. That assumption was sometimes supplemented by a neuro-physiological and evolutionary approach that claimed that religion is hard-wired in the brain.

Nicholas Wade called this “the faith instinct.” He claimed that even though non-belief is spreading “the religious instinct, the inherited propensity for ritual and belief, is still wired into the human mind as much as ever before.” Pascal Boyer is another important defender of this idea. He suggests that processes in the brain make religious belief “natural.” Boyer concluded, “Disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.”

But Wade and Boyer seem to ignore the contagious and sticky nature of disbelief. It only really takes “deliberate, effortful work” to break away from religion when religion is taken for granted. Once religion is off the table, disbelief and nonreligion may in fact seem more “natural.” Perhaps some very general disposition toward ritual activity and transcendent experience exists. But these social and cognitive functions need not manifest themselves in “religious” ways.

Behind this claim is the insight that social conditions matter with regard to what we take for granted as normal, natural, or plausible. In a world with increased non-religion—and in a world in which political power is not used to prop up religion—it may turn out that religion is not so natural after all.

The history of non-belief

Non-belief has a long but easily-overlooked history. Indeed, the history of religion includes the effort to convince non-believers to believe. The famous Psalm (14:1) about “the fool [who] says in his heart ‘there is no God’” provides a clue. This text only makes sense in a world where such non-believing “fools” exist.

Nonbelief is clearer among the ancient Greeks. Socrates is not exactly an atheist but he was killed for his lack of traditional belief. The Cynics were more explicit in their disdain for religious practice and belief. And there were famous atheists such as “Theodorus The Atheist” who had an influence on the Epicurean school.

Tim Whitmarsh has argued that atheism was not uncommon in the ancient world. One problem in documenting this, however, is that nonbelievers don’t build temples or erect statues commemorating their gods. Ancient religious and political powers built the pyramids and the Parthenon, which can make it look as if religion is pervasive and all-powerful. The same is true of Medieval European art and architecture.

But this may be changing with the democratization of art, architecture, and thought. Today, every atheist with a blog leaves a trace. Artists don’t need church patronage. And cities are no longer organized around a central cathedral.

New forms of nonreligious meaning are easily created and disseminated in our world. Nonreligious people can easily avoid religion. And nonbelievers are not persecuted or killed, as they were in the time of Socrates.

SEE ALSO: Phil Zuckerman, “Is atheism unnatural?

Hope for the future of non-religion

Things are better today for nonbelievers. But it was not always easy to be a nonbeliever. In the U.S., Schools used to teach Bible lessons and lead prayers. The prevailing view until recently was that religion was natural and that nonreligion was aberrant. Things are different now, thanks to the growth of secularism.

Challenges remain. The Supreme Court seems more sympathetic to religion. But nonreligious people need not fear being burned at the stake as they once were. The fact that non-religion is both sticky and contagious explains why. As more people leave religion, it is likely that this change will persist and spread. The current critical mass of nonreligious people makes it easier for other nonbelievers to come out of the closet. Hopefully, this will also make it more difficult to stuff us all back into that pigeonhole.

Anti-woke education wars and democratic schools

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The anti-woke education wars are a symptom of a broken community. We don’t agree about schools because we don’t agree about the value of education or about what it means to be American. This is a fraught time to be a teacher, as polarization and distrust reach into school board meetings, libraries, and classrooms. It’s also a difficult time to be a parent and a student, in a world where schools are a focal point of political divisiveness.

The anti-woke school movement

The Trump era was a time of polarization, and Donald Trump’s divisive message has not abated. The former President recently warned that American schools have been “taken over by radical Left maniacs.” He announced that if he were re-elected, he would ban federal funding for any “school or program pushing critical race theory, gender ideology, or other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content onto our children.” Trump’s anti-woke alarmism seems to echo and amplify what we are hearing from Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, has been waging a war against woke.

Trump took this to another level, however, when he suggested in his recent speech that what was being taught in the schools was antithetical to “Judeo-Christian values.” He said that woke ideology resembled, “an established new religion.” Trump concluded, “If we have pink-haired communists teaching our kids we have a major problem.”

I doubt that many pink-haired maniac teachers are trying to establish a new religion, or subvert Judeo-Christian values. The teachers I know, and have worked with, are acutely aware that we live in a diverse world. They often avoid discussing race, religion, and gender because they know that these things are divisive in a world that is increasingly polarized.

The shifting First Amendment

Most teachers are aware that the First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits them from imposing a religion at school. The Establishment Clause of that amendment means that Judeo-Christian values cannot be pushed in schools. Nor can any other religious ideology.

Yet recent Supreme Court rulings make it easier for educators to bring religion into school. A recent case (Kennedy v. Bremerton) involving a Christian coach leading a prayer at a football game was decided in favor of the coach, who claimed that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause gave him the right to pray with students. In an essay about this for OnlySky, I suggested that this opens the door to a contest of religious views in the schools.

That’s not an optimal outcome. It would be better if the Establishment Clause were interpreted more firmly to keep religion out of schools. But in the present legal environment, the result appears to be that conflicts of religion will creep into the educational space.

Are Trump’s warnings about “woke-ism” as a religion a case of the chickens coming home to roost? Hardly. I doubt many teachers are actively pushing any religion, woke or un-woke. But our legal system is shifting and the world is becoming more polarized, making conflict more likely.

What are schools for in a democracy?

None of this will be resolved easily or soon. The Court has shifted its understanding of the First Amendment, and polarization makes it harder to find common ground. This is especially true with regard to questions about the purpose of education in a democracy.

This politicized debate includes the fundamental question of whether schools exist to teach what parents want them to teach or serve some other social purpose. A school board member in Iowa got lots of pushback when they said, “The purpose of a public ed is to not teach kids what the parents want. It is to teach them what society needs them to know. The client is not the parent, but the community.”

Despite the pushback, this idea is not absurd. It can be traced back to Plato, who thought that education was about the well-being of the whole community. Plato went so far as to suggest taking kids away from their parents in order to give them a proper education. This proposal should be read in light of the fact that Plato’s ideal republic is more dictatorship than democracy.

But defenders of democratic education have made a similar point. John Dewey, America’s most important philosopher of democracy, put it this way:

Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife. Moreover, it is only education which can guarantee widespread community of interest and aim. In a complex society, ability to understand and sympathize with the operations and lot of others is a condition of common purpose which only education can procure.

John Dewey, “The Need of an Industrial Education in an Industrial Democracy”

Dewey’s point is that in modern democracies, education brings diverse people together, helps them to understand each other, and encourages them to discover a sense of common purpose and identity. Parents may want their children to be protected from this. But it is good for society for kids to become citizens of a broader community made up of diverse others.

Our broken community

Of course, the problem is that the American community has been corroded by polarization, identity politics, disinformation, and distrust. What after all, is the American community? We don’t seem to know anymore. And if we don’t know what the community is and what it stands for, then we will not be able to agree about the value of education.

There is a paradox lurking here. The solution to our broken community is an education that can help us understand our shared values. But that solution will only work if there are shared values to be understood. And it is becoming apparent that we don’t agree: about who we are, what we value, and what we want our kids to learn. The next generation will pay the price of more polarization and fragmentation unless the adults can agree about what it means to be an American, and why American schools exist.

Secular freedom, compassion, and controversial spiritual symbols

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A recent controversy over Islamic art raises the question of how we ought to deal with art and images in a world of deep diversity. At Hamline University in Minnesota, Erika López Prater lost her job teaching art history because she showed students artistic representations of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed. A Muslim student took offense. The University’s Dean of Students accused the instructor of Islamophobia. And she was not rehired. How should we deal with controversies involving art, including Islamic art, and other controversial symbols?

Academic freedom and the study of religion

This case has prompted critical commentary, including on OnlySky by Hemant Mehta and Barry Purcell. In my contribution to this discussion here, I suggest that we need to think more carefully about the spiritual power of art and images. The secular principle of freedom of expression allows us to disagree about symbols and their spiritual power. But the symbolic realm is a place of controversy because art and religion are ways that we imagine who and what we are. Controversial symbols require us to respond with compassion, as we work out what it means to be human.

Academic freedom is central to this. So we should applaud those who responded to the Hamline case by calling for greater respect for academic freedom. Indeed, academic freedom is good for the study of Islam and other traditions. Without that kind of freedom, we would not be able to learn that there is diversity within Islam and that not every Muslim was offended by the Hamline case. Recent commentary also teaches us that despite a common canard about Islam, it has not always been considered blasphemous to represent the Prophet. 

One expert in Islamic art, Christiane Gruber, analyzed the artwork in question, explaining that the image was created by medieval Muslim artists as part of a Muslim art movement in which it was not uncommon to portray Mohammed. Professor Gruber concluded that these artworks are not Islamophobic but are in fact “Islamophilic.” She points out that these Islamic artworks are not equivalent to anti-Muslim cartoons that have been condemned as Islamophobic.

It is fascinating to learn more about diversity within the Muslim world. It is academic freedom and freedom of expression that allows this lesson to be learned.

The magic of words and images

Behind this lesson is a deep question about the power of symbols and how we ought to manage that power. Are some words and images so important or powerful that they should not be uttered or seen? And how should we handle controversial symbols in a world in which people disagree about their meaning and power?

There is no doubt that words and images are powerful. Poetry, music, and art transform the world and move our hearts and minds. The Greeks thought that art and poetry were divine gifts, associated with the Muses. Many people still believe that sounds and objects possess magical power. Prayer and worship can be understood on a continuum with spells and incantations. Some people hold on to good luck charms. And political life is pervaded by flags, pledges, and anthems, which unite and inspire.

Social life rests upon a kind of symbolic magic. Consider the power of a wedding ring to define a whole web of relationships. Some words (“the n-word”) are so offensive that they should not be spoken. Political imagery can provoke emotions and empower violence and hate (for example, the swastika). And religious imagery can give meaning and purpose to life.

Religious belief tends to trace the power of words and images to some divine source. Religious texts are often supposed to be gifts of God. And religious words and images are thought to possess spiritual power. Some think it is blasphemous to spell out the name of “G-d” or to “take the Lord’s name in vain.” People venerate icons and holy books. And religious violence is linked to the desecration of those symbols.

A respectful humanistic explanation of symbolic magic

Atheists often roll their eyes and scoff at all of this. Humanists tend to think that there is no such thing as magic. Words are simply sounds. Art is form and color. And prayers and pledges are merely hot air infused with wishful thinking. From this perspective, the magic of words and images is entirely human. It resides in our brains and in the way that symbols work in human cognition and social life.

But humanism cannot deny the powerful emotional, social, and cognitive force of the symbolic realm. Poems, books, and songs move people and unite them in social groups. So do representational artworks, monuments, and film. There is indeed “magic” here: the magic of thought and imagination.

This can be explained in terms of cognitive processes, the evolution of which is connected to our existence as social beings. Cooperative social animals like ourselves communicate across distances. A raised eyebrow has meaning, as does a raised fist, or a sob, or a shout. Human beings have supplemented visceral, vocal, and immediate communication with technologies such as art, writing, and electronic media.

This humanistic explanation does not appeal to divine powers. But it reminds us of the need to respect the cognitive and social processes that inspire art, religion, and other works of the human imagination. Even if words and images are entirely human, they are nonetheless of fundamental import. Symbols matter. They give shape to social life and are deeply embedded in human psychology. That’s why we should do our best to understand and respect the values that different people place in words and images.

A compassionate secular response

So, what about the case of Islamic art with which we began? Well, we’ve seen why academic freedom is important. Compassion and understanding develop when we are able to explore the symbols of the world.

Furthermore, it is disrespectful simply to ignore the claims of those who are offended by certain uses of images or words. The mystical tendency to venerate symbols is a natural and near-universal occurrence in human thought and culture. Words and images move us. We ought to take that fact seriously. 

And if some people are offended by certain symbols, let’s try to figure out why by inquiring more deeply. This does not mean that those who are offended get the last word on the matter. Freedom of expression is a basic value in a world in which people who inhabit different symbolic orders must live together. But the project of secular living-together works better when we are generally more attentive to the power of words and images.

It is always a good idea to be careful in what we say and considerate of the responses of others. Freedom of expression needs to be supplemented by principles of civility and compassion. Disagreement is inevitable. The power of symbols to inspire and unite is linked to the way that symbols also divide. And if someone is offended, let’s listen to them and try to understand why.

Human beings will never agree about the significance of our symbols. That’s why we need secular principles of freedom of thought, expression, and religion. Those freedoms allow us to coexist in a world in which the mysterious power of the human imagination is always busy making meaning. And compassion helps us build bridges of understanding among the diversity of symbols that structure the human world.

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