Chituc and LeCounte: Peace: a secular goal

How are we to live peacefully among one another? There are many ways to approach the problems of war, exploitation, famine, terrorism and the rest, but what remains fundamentally true across cultures, borders, religions and ethnicities is that we — for the most part — value peace, tolerance and fairness.

And insofar as we value these principles irrespective of culture and religion, we enshrine them — from the United States to Turkey to India to Japan — as secular values.

Tuesday’s column “Faith in the 21st century,” therefore, entirely misses the point. Although we can certainly use religion to help promote justice and peace in certain parts of the world, this strategy only works when the focus is on promoting inherently secular values that are independent of a given faith.

From an empirical standpoint, there seems to be little evidence for arguing that faith should or will define 21st century politics. For one, although religious conflict may be a rising problem in certain countries, such religious struggles are becoming increasingly irrelevant in much of the world, especially in more developed countries. The United States is one of few remaining highly religious First World countries, and many Americans are only nominally religious: A poll released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, for instance, found that roughly half of “Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions – including their own.”

Moreover, it is difficult to comprehend why we should or how we could forget that the values we promote in “interfaith” dialogue are fundamentally secular, even if they are occasionally couched in religious language. We also shouldn’t forget that liberalism and constitutionalism are as much “secular ideologies” that shaped the 20th century as “fascism, communism, Nazis.” (Not to mention that Nazism was not especially secular, given that Hitler frequently invoked the will of God in his speeches, used Christian symbolism and had “Gott Mit Uns” — God with us — inscribed on the belt of the Nazi uniform.)

Worse, this “interfaith” picture of the 21st century seems strikingly incomplete. According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 15 percent of Americans are not religious. The non-religious are steadily growing and are, in fact, the fastest-growing group of any religious identification in the country.

What room would there be in the 21st century for the more than one in seven Americans who aren’t religious? What of the one in five non-religious Americans between 18 and 25 (a proportion we suspect is larger among college students and larger still at a liberal university like Yale)? The idea that more than a fifth of Americans and a near-majority of Europeans are to do without “the currency with which international relations are dealt” seems impractical at best and a ham-fisted attempt to give legitimacy to a shrinking tradition at worst.

This is not to understate the value and importance of interfaith work and dialogue. But we would be better served by a broader, less rigid form of cooperation than the Abrahamic alliance espoused by Tony Blair. Admittedly many of the steps that Blair and his collaborators propose are necessary for interfaith work, but these steps do little more than mitigate the harmful aspects of religion while focusing on secular roots shared by all humanistic traditions. If Blair and the authors of Tuesday’s article truly wish to create a world of mutual respect and cooperation, perhaps they should focus less on what the religious share, and more on what everyone shares: secular ideals and principles.

Global discourse about the nature of peace and cooperation is incredibly important, and it is certainly a dialogue we should have at Yale. But let’s be serious about it. Needless and counterproductive swipes at secularism do not display a sophisticated or nuanced understanding of the Enlightenment values we profess to hold dear. Rather, they demonstrate little more than stubborn opposition to the progress secularism has demonstrated globally.

We need to find a way to live peacefully anywhere in the world, confident that we as human beings can subscribe to a set of values of mutual respect that transcend religious, spiritual and other differences. Any discourse in which the faithful and the irreligious are not welcome alike could never yield lasting peace and harmony.