Reason, Prayer, and Secularism

Fresno Bee, May 2, 2021

Prayer and reason will each enjoy the spotlight this week. The National Day of Prayer unfolds on May 6. The National Day of Reason follows on May 7.

The National Day of Prayer began in the 1950s when Christianity was taken for granted as the American religion. The idea evolved to be more inclusive. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan said in a Day of Prayer proclamation, “Our land today is more diverse than ever, our citizens come from nearly every nation on Earth, and the variety of religious traditions that have found welcome here has never been greater.”

This growing diversity includes nonreligious people. Nonreligion is quickly spreading. According to a 2019 poll, 65% of Americans are Christian, while 26% of Americans are not religious. Other religions (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus) make up the rest. A more recent Gallup poll reported that fewer than half of Americans belong to an organized religion.

As nonreligion grows, humanists have become more assertive. The National Day of Reason is a response to reactionary religiosity. A congressional resolution supporting the idea maintains that reason is essential for cultivating democracy, justice and peace. It condemns “irrationality, magical and conspiratorial thinking, and disbelief in science.”

The conflict with science is important. Vaccine skepticism is common among some Christian faiths. Atheists are much more likely than evangelical Christians to get COVID-19 vaccinations.

Other forms of polarization trace the religion/nonreligion divide. Republicans are more religious than Democrats. Midwestern and Southern states are more religious than coastal states. Younger people are less religious than older people. More educated people also tend to be less religious.

Faith and reason can co-exist. But the modern scientific world view creates significant challenges for traditional religious belief.

Science teaches that our sun is one star among billions and that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Darwinian biology explains how life evolved, including dinosaurs. Medical science is a powerful tool for saving lives. Neuroscience provides a non-spiritual explanation of consciousness. And so on.

Religious texts and dogmas are disconnected from the growing body of knowledge we call science. Religion is, of course, more than an explanatory system. It is also about community and shared meaning. But increased diversity makes this more complicated. Which tradition should we choose? As nonreligion grows, it becomes easier to pick “none of the above.”

As more people choose this option, social conflict will follow. To manage these conflicts, we need a robust secular system of government such as is provided by the First Amendment. Secularism allows diversity to flourish. In the bad old days, atheists and heretics were burned. Today they are coming out of the closet.

This is probably not what the Founders imagined. American secularism was originally about Christian liberty. Early Americans were concerned with the repression of Christian dissent in the Old World. Americans also engaged in religious persecution. Mormons were driven out. Indigenous people were killed and converted.

As American secularism grew more inclusive, it reflected the best values of this country. We value nonconformity, innovation, and imagination. Reason and science are also deeply American.

Creative freedom is a powerful force. But liberty means different things to different people. The National Day of Reason proclamation quotes James Madison as saying that knowledge is the best guardian of liberty. The National Day of Prayer website quotes the apostle Paul in saying that liberty is grounded in God.

Is liberty a gift of the Creator, or is it the product of social and political evolution? We’ll continue to disagree about the metaphysics of freedom. But despite our differences, religious and nonreligious people share an interest in secularism. It is freedom of thought and religion that allows us to argue and think about those disagreements.

The one thing we might all agree on is the idea that the state should stay out of these arguments. It would be wrong for the state to impose either religion or nonreligion. Individuals also ought to learn to leave each other alone to think for ourselves.

This creates challenges, as with vaccine skepticism. But those challenges are worth it. In a free country, prayer and reason should each have their day in the sun.

Atheism and Diversity: How Big is the Non-Religious Rainbow?

The growth of non-religion will create a significant source of polarization.  Many Americans are leaving religion behind (as I discussed previously). This will exacerbate social conflict, as we sort ourselves into religious and non-religious camps.  

Consider, for example, polling data that shows that atheists are more likely to get a Covid-19 vaccine than evangelical Christians.  90% of atheists say they will get vaccinated, while only 54% of white evangelicals will do so.

This makes sense: atheists tend to trust science and medicine, while evangelicals do not. A similar result has been found with regard to climate change: atheists tend to be more engaged and alarmed about climate change than Christians who read the Bible literally.

But let’s be careful about overgeneralizing.  Atheism can be as fragmented as the rest of society. Religion also contains a multitude. 

And yet, the tendency to oversimplify is common. Theists sometimes simplistically dismiss atheism as the work of the devil.  Atheists also dismiss theism in simplistic terms.  But when it comes to religion and non-religion, complexity is the rule.  Oversimplification obscures much that is important and interesting. It also prevents us from finding common ground.

Consider a recent skirmish among atheists.  Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist, posted a tweet appearing to disparage transgender people.  Some atheists were appalled.  The American Humanist Association publicly disavowed Dawkins and retroactively withdrew a “Humanist of the Year” award they gave him in 1996.  Other prominent atheists leapt to Dawkins’ defense including Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker.  This provoked further backlash among atheists, with some accusing contemporary atheism of being a bastion of white male privilege. 

This reminds us that atheism is not a monolith.  Like everyone else, atheists have intersectional identities.  Atheists can be Black or white, straight or gay, trans or cis, rich or poor.  The same is true, of course, for religious people.  Some religions embrace LGBTQ people.  Others do not.  Some religions embrace science, medicine, and Covid-19 vaccines.  Others do not.

Generalizations about religion and non-religion are only vague approximations.  Consider, for example, how atheism is colored by the religion that it rejects.  It makes sense to ask whether a nonbeliever is a Christian atheist, a Muslim atheist, a Sikh atheist, a Jewish atheist, and so on.  Some atheists want to avoid this complexity and state that they do not believe in any God or gods at all.  But the binary logic of God or no God oversimplifies. It also helps to know which God and which tradition.

One could reject Christian or Muslim dogma, for example, while remaining culturally attached to Christianity or Islam.  A culturally Christian atheist could enjoy the hymns and rituals of Christian holidays while also turning to the Bible for spiritual insight.  Or an atheist with Muslim roots could fast during Ramadan.  Things become even more complicated when religious identity is connected to ethnic identity—as in Judaism or in the diverse indigenous religions of the world.

Scholars have also pointed out that self-identification as an atheist depends on social privilege.  Member of racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to publicly identify as atheist.  This is not simply a matter of what people believe.  It is also connected to the social need to be more (or less) closely identify with a religious tradition. White men may find it easier to affirm atheism than Black women or members of native American tribes. 

These issues are intriguing and they will likely become more complicated and intense as non-religion grows.  As more people leave religion behind, the diversity of the non-religious will grow. 

Celebrating diversity among nonbelievers may in turn lead more people to leave religion behind, especially those who self-identify in nontraditional ways.  One worry about this possibility, however, is that it may leave religious congregations more homogeneous than they already are, further increasing polarization. 

Perhaps there will be some convergence among the non-religious.  The fact that 90% of atheists plan to get vaccinated points in that direction.  But despite convergence around science, increasing diversity will pose a challenge for the broad community of non-belief. 

We find ourselves in the middle of an unprecedented experiment in secularization.  Let’s keep our minds and hearts open. Let’s try to resist increased polarization and avoid oversimplifying the complex rainbow of human experience.

War on Christmas, Diversity, and Secularism

Americans have always been divided over morality, politics and religion

Fresno Bee, December 1, 2017

Our country seems more divided than ever. Recent polls from the Pew Center and the Washington Post make this clear. The Post concludes that seven in 10 Americans say we have “reached a dangerous low point” of divisiveness. A significant majority of Americans think our divisions are as bad as they were during the Vietnam War.

But let’s be honest, we have always been divided. Free people always disagree about morality, politics and religion. We disagree about abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, drug legalization, pornography, the death penalty and a host of other issues. We also disagree about taxation, inequality, government regulation, race, poverty, immigration, national security, environmental protection, gun control and so on.

Beneath our moral and political disagreements are deep religious differences. Atheists want religious superstitions to die out. Theists think we need God’s guidance. And religious people disagree among themselves about God, morality and politics.

As an example, consider the so-called “war on Christmas.” President Trump declared victory in the war on Christmas this week during a speech in St. Charles, Missouri. Standing in front of American flags and Christmas trees, he said “You don’t see Merry Christmas any more. With Trump as your president, we are going to be celebrating Merry Christmas again and it’s going to be done with a big beautiful tax cut.”

DISAGREEMENT IS AS DEEP AS CHRISTMAS ITSELF.

Some will cheer this on as a triumphant moment in the culture wars. Others will say, “bah humbug,” claiming that the war on Christmas is fake news. And others will wonder what tax cuts have to do with the birth of Christ.

Christmas has always generated controversy. Different Christian traditions celebrate it on different days. Some Christians – the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example – do not celebrate Christmas at all. They point out that the apostles did not celebrate Christ’s birth. They view Christmas as a pagan celebration.

Disagreement is as deep as Christmas itself. The Christian “good news” was viewed as fake news by the ancient Romans. The history of Christianity is full of heretics and dissenters who offered alternative facts. Each religious sect claims special access to the truth. Each views the other as delusional.

And of course, we disagree about the value of disagreement. Some value diversity of opinion. They are interested in new ideas and interpretations. Others see diversity as a decadent sign of liberty run amok. They resist change and avoid innovation.

And so it goes. Social cohesion is rare. So let’s not be surprised by our divisions. The ideal of a cohesive social, political and religious identity is a myth that creates frustrated expectations. People disagree about important stuff. We always have – and probably, we always will.

The desire for social cohesion is a pipe dream, cloaked in sepia-toned nostalgia. It is fun to imagine a Norman Rockwell Christmas scene. But life is not a painting or a Christmas card. We change, argue and diverge.

WE SHOULD VIEW OUR PRESENT DISAGREEMENTS
AS A SIGN OF THE HEALTH OF OUR SECULAR SYSTEM.

There is wisdom in admitting this fact. We might stop hyperventilating when we realize that the current crisis is nothing new. It is wise to stop expecting conformity.

It is also wise to support safeguards that protect liberty against oppressive power. The Christmas story includes a warning about political oppression in the presence of Herod the Great, the murderous king. Of course, such warnings are routinely ignored in the effort to purge heretics and dissenters.

Our secular system safeguards us against would-be Herods. But secularism means that disagreement will persist. This does not mean we should give up on arguing about the truth. But we must admit that disagreement is part of the human condition.

In fact, we should view our present disagreements as a sign of the health of our secular system. People are free to criticize or praise the president, the Congress and Christmas itself. This is not true in other parts of the world.

Freedom leads to controversy. Freedom without disagreement would be paltry and phony. Along with the freedom to say “Merry Christmas” we also have the freedom to say “Happy Hanukah” or even “bah humbug.” Take your pick. Stake your claim. Realize that other people will say different things. And be thankful that in our country the war on Christmas is merely a war of words.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article187350558.html

Peace and Love at Christmas

Embrace the Deeper Meaning of Christmas

Fresno Bee, December 12, 2014

The state of Texas recently passed a law making it legal to say “Merry Christmas” in schools. The law grows out of a misguided worry that secular schools should not even mention Christmas. Some even fear that there is a secular war against Christmas.

Peace, Love, Joy, Christmas

The Reverend Franklin Graham, for example, recently wrote: “The war on Christmas is a war on Christ and His followers. It’s the hatred of our culture for the exclusive claims that Christ made.” This dispute is not surprising given the history of religious conflict and ongoing divisions in our diverse culture.

It might help to recall that disputes about Christmas have a deep history. There is no consensus about Christmas, even among Christians. Eastern traditions celebrate Christmas on January 6. The manger scenes we see around Christmas take liberties with the story. Jesus was most likely born in a cave, not in a stable. The animals are also a later addition, not found in the Bible. The Gospels themselves contain different stories.

This is not surprising for people who study religion. Religions and religious stories evolve over time. This helps us gain some perspective on the so-called war on Christmas. Christmas and Christianity itself has never been just one thing.

But the point of Christmas, it seems to me, is to find a way to look beyond our disputes. We celebrate peace, love, hope and joy during the Christmas season. It would be great to focus on those shared valued and leave the divisiveness for the rest of the year.

In our diverse world, not everyone accepts the exclusive theology behind Mr. Graham’s interpretation of Christmas. But we can all benefit from peace and love, joy and hope. Indeed, it is those values that allow us to coexist despite our deep theological differences.

You don’t need to take the nativity story literally to understand values celebrated at Christmas. We can all understand the dramatic moment when Mary and Joseph are turned away from the inn. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand that this story shows us the need for hospitality and that giving birth is momentous joyous and mysterious.

In some sense, Christmas has already become a secular holiday. It is a regular part of our yearly round of holiday closures and vacation scheduling. We all know that “winter break” coincides with Christmas. Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, made this point in a recent essay discussing the difficulty of managing religious holidays in our multi-religious culture. His solution is to be equitable, hospitable and respectful of our differences.

I corresponded with Mr. Haynes about this. He pointed out that schools should be free to teach about Christmas, while also teaching about other holidays in an academic fashion. Such teaching might include historic debates over the meaning of Christmas among Christians themselves. The colonial Puritans, for example, banned Christmas because they viewed its pagan elements as un-Christian.

While Christmas is inextricably linked to a celebration of the birth of Christ, the holiday is much more than that — it includes Santa and his reindeer, jingle bells and evergreen trees. These later additions have no connection to the Bible story. Christmas has evolved to be a secular — and universally accessible — celebration of joy, peace, love and hope.

The First Amendment guarantees that conservative Christians like Mr. Graham have a right to point out that Christmas originates in stories about the birth of Christ. Atheists also have a right to argue against Christmas and Christianity, if they like. But the Christmas spirit is more inclusive and welcoming than any exclusive religious or anti-religious diatribe. The values of Christmas encourage us to be warmer, gentler, kinder and more friendly. Inclusivity, hospitality, peace and love are important values for all of us.

The deep and universal message of Christmas is the hope that in an inhospitable world, we might find a peace, love and refuge. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand that. Christians layer theology onto the nativity scene, directing hope beyond this world. But the magic of Christmas is found here on earth in the joyous love of mothers and in the peaceful and hopeful faces of children, who have not yet been hardened by the world and its divisions.