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.


  • YaleMom

    I don’t want my little girl hanging out with you boys! You seem to have forgotten about Jesus! Have you ever heard of Dr. Ray Comfort?

  • TaylorJ

    Thank you gentlemen for a rational, thoughtful response to the previous column. This is an excellent piece.

  • FailBoat

    > How are we to live peacefully among one another?

    By taking human dignity as an essential value, a judgment that can only rationally proceed – either directly or by logical progression – from a transcendent axiom, an axiom that can only proceed from some sort of faith.

    Anyone can observe; without faith, you cannot rationally hold values.

  • SecularStudent

    > without faith, you cannot rationally hold values.

    uhh, citation needed?

    There is no reason to think a transcendental axiom is necessary to have values. There is no reason to think it requires faith. You’re simply presenting philosophical jargon as if it’s an argument. You are in fact in opposition with most modern Philosophers who study Ethics and Value Theory.

    Here’s a logical progression that does not require faith: I value my own dignity. Other’s value dignity. The simple fact that I am I and he is he does not itself require I be treated preferentially. To suggest otherwise is to contain a hidden premise that can’t be justified.

    If you can acknowledge that dignity is valuable to you, you cannot logically justify it is not valuable for others.

  • ac826

    An axiom that is transcendent of what? That is a very convenient phrase, but define your terms.

    You’re equivocating the word faith. Some sort of faith may very well be necessary to hold a value rationally, however this is a very different kind of faith than the kind religions present and the kind you are saying is necessary for holding values.

  • torskrigare

    Wait why is peace valuable

  • 109

    “Anyone can observe; without faith, you cannot rationally hold values.”

    You know, I agree that rational values must come from somewhere, and I would be more than happy to sit down and ponder where it comes from. But labeling it “faith” and calling it solved really doesn’t do anything at all. I’d’ve thought that faith, which is defined by belief without requiring reason (this is correct, is it not?), does not strive to be rational. In that case, how can anything derived from faith be rational?

    “Anyone can observe” is not a good reason, nor a good argument. A Harvard guy once told me that “it’s obvious to any sane man” something about gay attraction being disgusting. Course, what it sounded like was HE found it gross. I’m going to use that same interpretation here, and say that YOU observe your respect for human dignity comes from YOUR faith. But there are others of us here, without faith, who respect human dignity all the same, who have no faith. I certainly hope you are not, for lack of faith, calling us incapable of love or respect or something.

    If you want to say that X-and-such must come from faith, it falls to you to justify your statement, and not up to everyone else to disprove it. Philosophical and scientific statements are NOT assumed true until proven false.

  • FailBoat

    > uhh, citation needed?

    I will cite a dead European male who agrees with me henceforth.

    > There is no reason to think a transcendental axiom is necessary to have values.

    Transcendent axioms are the only way to arrive at essential (ie: transcendent) values. [Kant] Observations about the world can only lead to empirically derived rules and never can be the source of moral obligation [Hume].

    And now I will dismantle your “argument”:

    > Here’s a logical progression that does not require faith: I value my own dignity.

    Observation, and I also assume you’re defining dignity down to some set of behavioral norms.

    > Other’s value dignity.

    Observation, grammatically incorrect, and also not universally true. But I’ll give it to you.

    > The simple fact that I am I and he is he does not itself require I be treated preferentially.

    Huge logical leap. Your hidden axiom here (taken on faith) is that evenhandedness is ethical, or at the very least, the “default” position of ethics – something along the lines of “everyone should be treated the same”, which is basically a bastardized version of the golden rule/Kant’s imperative balled up into a sophomoric hidden assumption. Not only is this a hidden axiom, but it’s not even a correct axiom. If this were the case, then it would be unethical for you to buy yourself but not your roommate an iPod. People do treat themselves differently than they treat others.

    > To suggest otherwise is to contain a hidden premise that can’t be justified.

    And you end… with a towering and nonsensical shift of burden of proof. You’re saying here: “I hold here the only axiomless proof, which is necessarily true because every other proof requires axioms”.

  • FailBoat

    > “Anyone can observe” is not a good reason, nor a good argument.

    This is why grammar needs to be taught at Yale. I didn’t say that anyone could observe my argument.

    I will reprint:

    > Anyone can observe; without faith, you cannot rationally hold values.

    Note the semi-colon. I said that anyone could make observations about the world. Without faith, however, one cannot rationally hold values.