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The “secularism” bogeyman, which enforces secular dogma while claiming neutrality, is outdated and harmful to discourse.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.


  • Anonymous

    I'm glad Mr. that Bagg has with this article clarified (if not completely revised) the extreme position of his former article, but I think that he still overlooks a central problem of that original article in his rebuff of Mr. Taylor's response. That is, though he now says that what he meant by "secular" was "pluralist", he still confounds the definitions to favor the false neutrality of secular. (Indeed, I was most surprised by the following statement: "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" - I fail to see how Mr. Bagg could find the misunderstanding so distressing, since he did not once actually mention pluralism in his original article.)

    Secular, however, is not a term meaning "respects both religious and non-religious diversity", but rather:

    sec·u·lar /ˈsɛkyələr/
    1. of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.
    2. not pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to sacred): secular music.
    3. (of education, a school, etc.) concerned with nonreligious subjects.
    4. (of members of the clergy) not belonging to a religious order; not bound by monastic vows (opposed to regular).
    5. occurring or celebrated once in an age or century: the secular games of Rome.

    Unless he means that Yale celebrates centennial anniversaries in a non-biased manner, his differentiation between "secular bubble" and "bubble of secularism" is essentially meaningless. Both presume that religion is not important or involved on a public or private level, missing out on the subtlety of the establishment and free exercise clauses of our Constitution. That "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" does not in any way prohibit religious practice, but essentially says "To each his one" whether in private or public life.

    Again, I appreciate Mr. Bagg's clarification, but I do wish he would give up the strongly-held (and as far as I can tell untested) assumption that the Yale of 1701 was, or any religious institution today is, inherently intolerant while the secularism of today is all-embracing. Moreover, if he truly believes that "The 'secularism' bogeyman, which enforces secular dogma while claiming neutrality, is outdated and harmful to discourse", might I suggest he look to Europe, or perhaps even closer to home to the outlawing of school prayer (if all religious and non-religious views are to be treated equally, how is that move "neutral")?

    In closing, the fact that we are able to have this mutually respectful disagreement and discourse is a good sign for the pluralist potential of Yale and our country as a whole. I was very impressed by Eboo Patel's mission of re-framing the secular vs. faith (or faith vs. faith) argument to one of pluralism vs. totalitarianism (whether secular or theocratic), and I look forward to building stronger bonds of understanding and respect between people of all communities. It is a testament to America's enduring tradition of tolerance that we can express ourselves so freely and look forward to the possibilities of inter-faith dialogue and service. (And yes, I am including agnosticism and atheism, at least of the non-militant kinds, in that dialogue.)

  • RC

    Perhaps Mr. Bagg is deliberately misunderstanding the previous editorialist's point. At Yale, the university policy is one of pluralism. The administration does go out of its way to avoid stepping on toes. But the official policy of an organization and its climate are two very different things. As an Agnostic, I am frequently made to feel uncomfortable, stupid, and frankly unwelcome because of my inability to accept militant atheism and a wholly secular life. This is not just in the dining hall or the common room, but also in the classroom. If Yale really cares about consistent and real tolerance, it's going to have to try a little harder.

  • Eboo Patel

    Sam - this is an exceptional piece. Thank you for making the case for pluralism in such an urgent and eloquent manner.