Scholars Probe Religious/Secular Tensions at The New School

Derek C. Araujo, Ibn Warraq, Nathan Bupp

On May 5 and 6, 2009, several hundred scholars, intellectuals, and interested members of the public attended a special conference on “The Religious-Secul ar Divide: The U.S. Case” at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research. Edited papers from the conference will appear in the Fall 2009 issue of Social Research. The conference was funded in part by the Russell Sage Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation. Many of the panelists’ presentations were framed by the keynote address of philosopher Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age, which won the 2007 Templeton Prize.

The conference’s first panel, “Origins of the Secular,” featured Harvard Law School’s Noah Feldman; George Kateb, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University; Richard J. Bernstein, professor of philosophy at The New School; and Jose Casanova, professor of political science at The New School. The panelists explored the early historical development of secularism as a political theory and philosophical position. They were perhaps less successful in demonstrating that history’s relevance to church-state issues in the modern United States.

Feldman’s presentation investigated secularism’s earliest roots as a theological category. He argued that historically, the sacred/secular divide was not hostile. St. Augustine’s City of God, for instance, presupposed a secular city that is necessary for the flourishing of a spiritual community or “City of God.”

Kateb traced the political origins of secularism to John Locke, who argued in his Letter Concerning Toleration and Second Treatise on Government for a tolerant model of secularism that would allow religions to prosper. Locke argued that religious belief should stem from individual conscience, not coercion, and that church and state should not exercise any authority over each other. These arguments obviously influenced Jefferson, Madison, and the Founders.

Bernstein addressed the influence of Immanuel Kant on modern secularism. Bernstein argued that although Kant was a firm Christian believer, he did perhaps more than anyone else to make nonbelief a socially viable option. Kant set out to prove that God’s existence cannot be proven by reason. By placing religion beyond reason and in the realm of faith, Kant made it possible for secularists to affirm a deep skepticism about religious beliefs. Kant also undermined a core belief of the religious worldview—namely, the belief that God is the source of morality—by setting forth a thoroughly secular and rational theory of ethics’ foundations.

Casanova’s occasionally rambling presentation addressed “secularism as ideology,” i.e., the belief that religion must be banned from the public sphere because it is allegedly dangerous. Casanova contrasted the radical disestablishment of many European countries with the religion-friendly church-state separation in the United States.

The second panel, “Religious Selves, Secular Selves,” featured Adam Seligman, professor of religion at Boston University; Peter van der Veer, university professor at Utrecht University; William E. Connolly, professor of political theory and international relations at Johns Hopkins; and Daniel C. Dennett, Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. The panelists explored the conflicting narratives of selfhood and their emergence in relation to religion, society, and science throughout different historical periods.

Seligman spoke on “Ritual, Sincerity and the Self” and defended religious practice insofar as it protects and supports human ritual. He argued that ritual provides the “self” a buffer against disillusionment and what he called the “fundamental brokenness of the world,” enabling us to accept and even play with the inherent ambiguity of the world.

In “Spirituality in Modern Society: The Spiritual Self,” van der Veer noted the typical difficulty one has in defining the spiritual (as distinct from, say, materialism), yet went on to suggest that this very vagueness has proven productive in enriching various discourses across religious and cultural boundaries. Van der Veer tried to show how the very concept of spirituality has supported a universalism conducive to mutual understanding and interdependence in both Western (the United States and Britain) and Eastern (India and China) settings.

Connolly (author of Why I Am Not a Secularist) struck an apprehensive chord in his talk “The Human Predicament.” Clearly wary of increased secularization worldwide, Connolly questioned the ability of what he called “shallow secular pluralism” to facilitate and support the kind of societal engagement needed to ameliorate the “veritable minoritization of the world.”

Connolly’s talk illustrated a problem that, unfortunately, dogged significant portions of the conference. While flashes of genuine insight could be found scattered across the various panels, many presentations were marred by a rather meandering and unfocused quality.

Asked by conference organizers to speak about the “soul,” Dennett began his talk, “The Human Soul, a Unique Biological Adaptation: The Psychological Self,” by deploying his by now well-known metaphor of the soul as a “bunch of tiny robots.” Dennett sought to disabuse those in the audience of any notion of mind-body dualism or disembodied selfhood by declaring: “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.”

Dennett held the audience’s rapt attention by showing a computer-generated realistic animation of these “mindless little nano-robots” (trillions of these proteins exist within us) traversing highways within the cellular structures of the brain. “These robots don’t have free will, they don’t know us, don’t care about us; yet we know, we care,” said Dennett. “Answering the question of how do you get from those trillions of robots to us—the self or ‘soul’—is the task that science is now addressing with ever greater success,” Dennett informed the audience. Illustrating his classic “skyhook vs. crane” metaphor (first discussed in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), Dennett went on to affirm the importance of memes or “cultural software” (along with genes) in the search for an adequate explanatory framework for the evolution of human civilization, morality, and politics: “We are apes with infected brains,” stated Dennett. “Thinking tools are software.”

Charles Taylor, a Catholic philosopher of the Left, delivered the keynote address, titled “The Polysemy of the Secular.” In his talk, Taylor wove a thread that was punctuated by many qualifications and subtle nuances, making it exceedingly difficult to summarize his arguments. In any case, by “polysemy” Taylor means to distinguish between coexisting notions of the secular: one refers to the scientific program of arriving at a purely secular understanding of the material world; the other refers to a later polemical context, particularly in the modern Western world.

Taylor is essentially a multicultural, multireligious accommodationist. He sees the main challenge to secularist regimes as that of managing diversity (religious or otherwise). Taylor finds plenty to lament in the modern secular age: while interested in preserving the wall of separation (in so far as it protects against state establishment and ensures the right of religious expression) Taylor expresses reservations about what he calls the increasing “fetish of (movement) secularism,&rdqu
o; by which he means an all-too-naked public square; he fears that modern society has allowed the pendulum to swing decidedly too far toward separation. Stating that it is “tyrannical in a democratic society to suggest that debate about public issues must somehow be purged of references to religious convictions,” Taylor believes that people “have to be able to speak the language that is most meaningful to them.”

The upshot of this is that Taylor feels the need to preserve, within the democratic political process, allowances for individual religious or “spiritual” conviction (he is ecumenical in this regard) as it relates to public policy and public morality, while simultaneously guarding against fanaticism. In contradistinction to this is the idea—enshrined by our Founding Fathers—that religion ought to remain a private matter, set apart from the precepts of society and government. This separation remains as vital today as ever; sectarian divisions over God’s moral law can lead to entrenched animosities capable of sparking violent social acts with devastating consequences.

The second day of the conference began with a panel on “Religion, Politics, and the Democratic State,” featuring Judge John T. Noonan of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals; Winnifred Sullivan, director of the University at Buffalo’s Law and Religion program; James A. Morone, professor of political science and urban studies at Brown University; and Ann Pellegrini, associate professor of performance studies and religious studies at New York University.

Judge Noonan’s presentation focused on what he termed the United State’s “national religion.” He argued that in the United States, the secular is sacred. Courts, for example, are sacred and have the power both to recognize new religions for purposes of First Amendment analysis and to secularize religions (e.g., by holding that Christmas holiday displays are really about Santa Claus and gift-giving, not about celebrating Jesus’ birth). In most constitutional cases, says Noonan, a court’s view about what is good for the nation trumps individual beliefs.

Sullivan argued that in modern American politics, accommodation of religion, not strict secularism, has become the default position. For example, presidents Bush and Obama each have embraced charitable choice and faith-based initiatives. Sullivan also spoke at length about the difficulties courts have in separating religion from nonreligion in establishment clause cases.

Morone argued that the prevalence of “morality politics” in American political discourse unfairly privileges religion. Yet in the United States, religious claims are argued on all sides of political debates. Both abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates, said Monroe, defended their position by citing the Scriptures.

Pellegrini’s presentation focused on the impact of the religious/secular divide on the American debates over sex and sexuality. Pellegrini argued for a rethinking of the relationship between secularism, religion, and sex. For Pellegrini, a robust religious freedom is crucial in order to guarantee sexual freedom for all. Many churches and religions, for example, view their right to perform and recognize same-sex marriages as a free-exercise issue.

A conference session on “Moral Crusades: Then and Now” featured David L. Chappell, professor of history at the University of Oklahoma; Susan Harding, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz; and Yvonne Haddad, professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.

Chappell gave a talk on “The Prophetic Tradition and Civil Rights: A Transracial Challenge to Democracy.” The first part of his talk was taken up with the civil rights movement (CRM) in the United States, while the second examined the implications of his work on prophetic religions. The main thrust of his arguments was that there was no absolute gulf between religion and secularism; there was perhaps a greater gulf between religions themselves. He emphasized the religious element in the CRM, believing that the self-sacrifice inherent in that movement had a religious origin, although the goal was a secular one: civil rights and equality before the law. Many Black leaders had contempt for worldly success, and their self-sacrifice was a source of inspiration for their followers.

In his account of the CRM, Chappell was careful to point out that there was no monolithic Black church. Some Black churches were conservative; many were seen to have failed since they had compromised with the powers and were said to house traitors. Some of the church leaders drew their inspiration from secularists and atheists like French philosopher Albert Camus.

Susan Harding titled her talk “Temperance to the Moral Majority.” She argued that the period between the 1930s and 1960s was crucial for the emergence of a secular social gospel, a period when the state retreated from interfering in “private sins,” personal morality moved into private hands, and the separation of state and church was firmly reasserted. Harding sketched the nineteenth-century historical background of state-church separation legal battles.

Haddad talked about the Muslim identity of Muslim immigrants, who were often led in their new environments to ask themselves what they could salvage from their old religion. Haddad hastily filled in the background of the arrival of Muslims into the United States. Most arrived in the 1960s and preached Islam against a background of civil unrest and protest. But now, post-9/11, Haddad argues, Muslims feel watched and sense that they are not accepted as a part of the American community.

Haddad also sketched an outline of Western foreign policies toward the Islamic world from colonial times to the period of the cold war when Islam was seen as a bulwark against communism, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Rushdie affair of 1989, and onto the terrorism of September 11, 2001.

Haddad would have rendered us all a greater service if she had given us a factual analysis of the history, size, and makeup of the various Muslim groups in the United States. Instead, we were subjected to an anti-American tirade and tendentious arguments without any factual basis. Haddad also displayed self-pity, an unattractive quality of many Arab intellectuals and an exaggerated sense of Arab victimhood, perhaps learned from Edward Said, who milked it to an indecent degree.

Despite some stumbles and a noticeable emphasis on non-U.S. cases of the religious/secular divide, The New School conference provided a welcome opportunity for cross-disciplinary dialogue on some of the most pressing social issues of the moment. Open exchanges on the relationship between religion, government, and society are crucial to helping our world navigate the dangers posed by the rise and spread of religious radicalism. We hope that symposia of this kind will become a more frequent occurrence.

Derek C. Araujo

Derek Araujo, president of the Campus Freethought Alliance, has organized a new humanist group at Harvard University where he is a student.

Ibn Warraq

Ibn Warraq, Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Qur’anic criticism, was a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of many books, including What the Qur’an Really Says (Prometheus Books, 2002) and Which Koran? Variants, Manuscripts, Linguistics.

Nathan Bupp

Nathan Bupp is vice president of communications at the Center for Inquiry and an associate editor of Free Inquiry.


On May 5 and 6, 2009, several hundred scholars, intellectuals, and interested members of the public attended a special conference on “The Religious-Secul ar Divide: The U.S. Case” at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research. Edited papers from the conference will appear in the Fall 2009 issue of Social Research. The conference was funded in …

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