Bagg: ‘Secular bubble’ popped

A common thread ties together recent events at Yale. In the same week Tony Blair spoke to a packed Woolsey Hall about faith communities cooperating and potentially solving our collective problems, Eboo Patel delivered a speech about the necessity of interfaith dialogue to a crowd of 500 at the Ramadan banquet. Patel warned that if we fail to emphasize our commonalities, we will be locked in a struggle over our differences. In his view, the famed “clash of civilizations” is not inevitable, but it will become so if we do not act now to encourage religious pluralism.

It is a sad sight, then, when calls for pluralism are written off as militant secularism. This was the case last Thursday, when Bryce Taylor responded to my column of the day before, claiming Yale’s “secular bubble” was actually a “bubble of secularism” just as intolerant as the Christian one of its past.

Pluralism, where the secular are treated as normal citizens alongside the religious, is different from secularism, where all citizens are forced to be secular. That he saw my expression of the former as an affirmation of the latter is distressing, because that misunderstanding represents exactly what Blair and Patel campaign against: a mindset that seeks to paint the battle of extremes as inevitable.

The “secularism” bogeyman, which enforces secular dogma while claiming neutrality, is outdated and harmful to discourse. The pluralism for which Patel and Blair fight makes no claims to neutrality. It bravely asserts the value of all traditions and the necessity of finding common ground. Their essential hunch is that, while a few extremists will never be brought around, the majority of humanity is kind and thoughtful enough to prefer talking to killing.

The problem is in the way the conflict is framed. If we accept Taylor’s claim — that there is no space for cooperation or understanding, and that any possible structure is necessarily exclusive to certain groups — then we give people of different faiths no choice but to fight for their beliefs on the battlefield. If the “secularism” bogeyman is presented to deeply faithful Muslims or Christians as the only alternative to theocracy, then it is no surprise that theocracy tends to triumph.

If, however, we follow Patel and Blair in rejecting such claims, then we see the conflict is not between Christians and Muslims or believers and non-believers. Instead, it is between pluralists and anti-pluralists: those who are willing to accept the fact of their coexistence with those of different worldviews, and those who are not.

The fact that pluralism is an option, of course, does not imply it is easy. Yale’s journey from Christianity to pluralism was a difficult one, but it has ultimately been quite successful. Yale is a “secular bubble” because unlike the nation at large, it allows atheists like me to exist as normal citizens, the same way it does for Muslims and homosexuals. It is not, however, a “bubble of secularism” where religious traditions are disrespected or discouraged from participation in public discourse.

What can attest to this better than the Ramadan banquet itself — a rich expression of religious tradition shared by many? Institutionally, Yale encourages engagement with spirituality in all its forms. Sometimes, decisions have to be made that will cause rancor either way — like whether or not to put condoms in entryways. But in the process, the concerns of religious groups are heard and taken seriously.

This is the crucial difference between the Christian intolerance of 1701 and the “intolerance” of today, which Taylor posits as equivalent. In the former, who does not support the decisions of the administration is excluded, whereas in the latter, it is only those who reject the entire process for making that decision. It’s hard not to see an improvement in tolerance here.

Pluralists don’t know which, if any, ideas will triumph in the long run, but we know the world will be a better place in the meantime if people of different faiths seek compromise instead of conflict. This is not a value-neutral statement, but it is one I am prepared to defend.