Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Importance of Secularization - and the first amendment.


I believe the founders knew something important when they came up with the first amendment. They understood that all totalitarian movements resemble a kind of religion, and that when an established religion is supported by the coercive power of the state, it invariably becomes intolerably oppressive.  Without the power to compel, religion becomes an individual life-style choice, one that offers great support and comfort to some. In the absence of state-power religious leaders must compete for adherents who, being unable to compel the observance of the population, must make the tenets of the religion palatable and attractive if they are to survive. The power to choose, the power to exit, is what makes religion civil; and the absence of this is what makes religion toxic.

This is what I understand to be the enormous benefit of what we call “secularization.” It is the distinguishing element between toxic and civil religion. In other words, it is not so much the elements of the religious teachings themselves, as the context in which they occur, that is pivotal. Consider the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam (in order of their founding). Of the three, Christianity is on paper the least intrusive (which may explain its rapid explosion after its inception). In terms of actions, observances, diet, etc. it requires much less than the other two religions. Faith rather than action is emphasized. Yet, when it became the religion of state we got the puritans, the inquisition, colonial plunder, the crusades, etc. The claim to be the “one true religion” provided license for all manner of coercion and brutality once empowered by the formidable state apparatus. It then became an all-pervasive (hence totalitarian) force reaching into the most intimate cervices of private life. Absent this power, Christianity, though its adherents can sometimes be obnoxious and annoying in their dogmatism, is associated most prominently with universal love rather than universal oppression.

Islam and Judaism are both incredibly intrusive in their teachings. They both preach all manner of severe rituals and observances. They dictate behavior in the workplace, the kitchen, the dining room, the bedroom and even the bathroom. They offer complete instructions for every aspect of life, no matter how seemingly small and detailed. As such, some people (like me) find them unacceptably intrusive taken as a whole. Yet, in civil societies, secularized societies, one is free to take them or leave them; or to take part of them and leave the rest. Pluralism is protected. I often wonder how Judaism might have turned out in practice had it ever gained a foothold as a state religion (we see some of this in the excessive, though muted, power of the religious parties in Israel, the restrictions they have obtained and the others they desire). Many biblical prescriptions are incredibly harsh (even violent). Yet these play absolutely no role whatsoever in modern Jewish religious teachings in civil societies. The rabbis have no coercive power. Over the generations, lacking state power, the rabbis tweaked biblical injunctions and prescriptions to make them more palatable to people who have a choice. Persuasion rather than coercion drove the evolution of the religion. It may also help to explain why Judaism became an inward-looking religion and foreswore evangelism.

So, I can’t help wondering whether this is an element in explaining the absence of a Reformation in Islam. Sharia law is problematic primarily because it claims the power to compel. It is this rather than the fact that it is so comprehensively intrusive, which is at worst obnoxious to those who do not choose it, that makes it so threatening and dangerous. (It is this desire for the power to compel that makes the Muslim Brotherhood unacceptable as a ruling party). If this is true, then the war for hearts and minds to achieve civil society should focus on selling the importance of something like the first amendment.   

3 comments:

Pathfinder said...

This is a good article and good perspective overall. However, as a Messianic Jew who has worked professionally in religious network television for many years and been a student of both secular and Biblical history, I would like to inject a few additional thoughts: 1. There is no Biblical example of true Christanity being oppressive that I am aware of. i.e. The Crusades and Inquisition were "Christian" in name only. G-d's holy word (the Bible) was not available or even suggested in Catholicsm until a generation ago. To call any religion "Christian" that is based on anything other than the Bible is a misuse of terms. 2. Judaism since WWII, for the most part, has evolved into more of a secular/social/ethnic group that is sustained more as a defensive mechanism that still endures global prejudice that can only be explained on a spiritual level. i.e. How can a people group be so easily be hated, even by those who have never known them? The answer is the same for why Christianity is despised: G-d has aligned himself with two groups; His Chosen (Jews) and His Children (Christians). Although the Quran commands Muslims to "convert or kill" all infedels, it spefically calls these two religions "enemies" of Islam. BTW, if you an American who is neither a Christian or a Jew and think that you get a pass, you are automaticaly a "Christian" by association.
Is secularization of America the answer? No. It will not change America's Christian roots or international perseption, no matter what our current sitting president says or does.

Sister Sunshine said...

Thank you for commenting and clarifying pathfinder. I have never heard anyone else say Islam teaches that all who are not Muslim are considered Christian by default when they are unaffiliated. I thought an infidel was considered to be someone who was of any other (non-Islamic) religious faith or of no faith whatsoever such as atheists or agnostics. Or in other words, according to Islam, an infidel is anyone who does not recognize Allah as their master and creator, basically.

Peter Lewin said...

Hi Pathfinder. Just saw these comments. Sorry, I don't check it often - I post it on FB, so I sometimes get comments there. I hope you are feeding this to you will see my reply.

You and I start from very different premises, so I am not sure we achieve much progress in discussion before reaching a divide. The main import of your comment involves a distinction between what you call "true Christianity" and the illegitimate crusading kind - and you talk as those this distinction is obvious or easily determined. I don't have belief in revealed religion, in supernatural, so I don't see this distinction. I see only social evolution of belief systems that respond to the social environment - the most important element in this case being the power of the state.