Friday, May 7, 2010

Religious pluralism in a secular democracy

What does pluralism mean to you? Secularism?

Generally speaking secular refers to that which is not directly under the control of a religious authority. But it has come to be associated with an irreligious or even anti-religious outlook on life.

Religious diversity is allowed to thrive in a secular state. This is connected to the notion that by not having an official state religion means there is a respect for personal liberty in choosing and expressing your religious views and the possibility of pluralism (the coexistence of multiple distinct and sometimes contradictory beliefs and behaviors).

But does that mean that being agnostic or non-religious should be considered neutral?

This question takes us to the all or nothing approach to honoring religion in the public square. That is, either all religions get equal opportunity for and degree of expression in all places at all times within the state or none get any expression anywhere at any time. But are these the only options and are both views equally neutral? Does history, cultural relevance, or proportional representation have any place in the debate?

If you are religious then your worldview naturally includes elements that are absent among the irreligious. This worldview would seem natural and right -- the basic default. To claim that an affirmed irreligious perspective is neutral rather than hostile to a religious worldview is nonsense. To claim the reverse is equally absurd.

The challenge of the pluralism project isn't to neuter opposing or incompatible views nor to privilege one by giving it the status of "default". Nor does the lack of a state religion through the separation of church and state require the absence of religion in daily life, public or private. And in a real sense the wall between public and private life is often fast and loose. While the state itself may not endorse a particular religious worldview, this includes an irreligious one.

There is no way to create easy answers on balancing these concerns without trivializing them, but moving toward a proper frame in which to discuss them is essential as we try to accommodate religious pluralism in a secular democracy.

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