The New Atheists want to get rid of religion by deploying science-based critique. A much more effective way, however, is to address structural inequalities.
Issue 35, Belief
Around the globe, we are witnessing fascinating developments in the area of religion and belief. Despite the drive towards the secularization of society, informed by the spirit of the Enlightenment, there is clearly no uniform decline in religious belief worldwide. On the contrary, while the numbers of people who identify with an organized religion has in fact decreased, we are simultaneously witnessing a widespread resurgence of religion across the globe. Most notably, religious people are becoming more religious, viewing religious identity as integral to their self-image, their perception of the world, and their participation in public life.
Religious revival has been accompanied by an increase in the politicization of religion and in violence waged in the name of God. Religion is playing an increasing role in demarcating who belongs in a nation, often imagined as associated with one religion or one ethnic or racial group. In many countries, religious minorities are racialized and otherized, often with the presumption that “they” will not integrate into society, or “they” do not belong. We see examples of this type of formulation of the nation in disparate regions such as Nordic countries and India. In India, for instance, long hailed as the largest secular democracy with a wide plurality of religions, the Hindu right is not only in power, but they are successfully enforcing their narrow view of Hinduism on citizens while also persecuting religious minorities, especially Muslims. In Nordic countries as well as many others, Muslims are often racialized, and religion becomes the predominant identifying characteristic, whether an individual is devout or not. In the U.S., we see the rise of white nationalist movements that want Christianity to guide politics and policymaking; simultaneously, violent anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. have significantly increased. Instead of the pulpit, religious decisions are being made in courts, and in some countries, governments still use blasphemy laws to persecute atheists and religious minorities.
What is to blame for this increased religious violence? Views are as varied as adherents themselves are. Those alarmed by religion’s resilience and politicization blame the states for failing to secularize their societies. Secularization, they argue, would give non-religious people and minority groups protection and freedom. In a secular state, all religions and beliefs are given protection. What more could be expected for our diverse, multicultural world than freedom and protection?
At the same time, however, the role of secularism and freedom to practice religion in a multicultural society is being debated in Europe. In France, for example, strict adherence to secularist principles has reinvigorated a debate among its religious population about where to draw the line between religious freedom and state neutrality towards religions. In Sweden, the recent Qur’an burning has reignited questions about a multicultural country’s commitment to freedom of expression and its responsibility to the religious sentiments of Muslims at home and abroad.
In contrast, some skeptics attribute the increase in religious violence to the ideology of secularism itself, which they claim is an elitist project with Western roots. The secularist project, they argue, is informed by a Western cultural and political history and fuels conflicts by claiming specific Western values and ideas to be universal while banning religion to the peripheries. This argument is often made in Islamic countries in the Middle East. Secularism is considered another imperialist project. Despite the value placed on secularism in Bangladesh and India upon their respective independence, current political rhetoric often equates secularism with atheism.
Worldwide, atheists have been regularly condemned as immoral and anti-religion and, in some countries, subject to persecution under law. The New Atheists grabbed considerable attention by staunchly advocating for the demise of organized religion, which they claimed was the root of many social evils as well as the antithesis of science and critical thinking. Many other atheists and agnostics disagree with the New Atheist project. Atheists and non-believers are as diverse as believers.
As religious and secular agendas are being debated on various fronts, increasingly more citizens identify as non-religious or as unaffiliated. The religiously unaffiliated, a group dominated by younger generations, want religions to adapt and allow diverse expressions and choices. Many consider the influence of religion on everyday life – from abortion access in the U.S. to clothing in Iran – to be suffocating. Moderates and unaffiliated find it infuriating that states, including secular states, dictate boundaries around joyous and solemn occasions, such as weddings and funerals.
For this younger generation, diversity is more the norm, even among the religious. Inclusion is expected despite the challenges to get there. Sexual minority groups are demanding, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to tie the knot at religious establishments with traditional matrimonial rites. Women are defending their rights to be priests and officiate in ceremonies.
As the number of religious adherents decrease and the voices of the religious get louder, it’s important to remember that society is not always polarized. In many regions, religion is often practiced as a part of everyday culture. Despite the rise of religious nationalisms in South Asia, many people continue to respect diverse practices and embrace more humanistic or pluralist approaches. In many countries, folk church culture has been less about belief per se than about community belonging and ceremonies. A similar observation can be made of Japan, where Shinto and Buddhism are practiced side-by-side but often for distinct purposes (blessings or funerals, for instance) with no apparent contradiction in belief systems. In fact, everyday folk traditions tend to be more inclusive and notably less dogmatic. In the cacophony of outrage about belief, these other examples need to be remembered.
In this 35th issue, Shuddhashar FreeVoice focuses on BELIEF by critically examining the role of religion, secularism, and atheism in the 21st century. Several questions about the role of belief in contemporary society motivated this issue: How does religion influence politics in a globalized world where adherents of different faiths live side-by-side? What role should the state play in a multi-religious society? Are science and religion necessarily in perpetual conflict, or can they co-exist peacefully? Is secularism the only approach that can successfully regulate the interactions between different faith communities and the state? How do non-belief and some non-theist beliefs orient people’s lives and choices in our contemporary complex societies?
Shuddhashar FreeVoice took considerable care in soliciting articles. Beliefs tend to be firmly defended by believers, and debates about religious beliefs can easily bleed into outrage, condemnation, and even violence. We are committed to freedom of expression and freedom of belief and non-belief. We know these freedoms come with responsibility toward others, and for that reason, we do not publish speech that expresses hatred, especially toward minority groups.
As always, we acknowledge there are gaps in this issue and many perspectives that are not represented. The collection published here includes thought-provoking analyses and original contributions by several renown writers. We are especially proud of the writings presented by our contributors.
Raised in a Baptist family that valued diversity and social justice, educated during the 1960s period of anti-war student unrest, Vanderbilt Divinity School professor emeritus reflects on higher education, critical thinking, and belief. When faced with expansive debates and diverse lived experiences, how can one claim to be in possession of the absolute truth?