To search, type one or more key words below.
Search Search the web.
 Page Bottom 

Secular Society Gets Religion

The Secular Society Gets Religion

The New York Times Sponsored by Starbucks

August 24, 2002

The Secular Society Gets Religion


FROM the recent Supreme Court decision supporting vouchers for religious schools to a lower court objection to the phrase "one nation under God" in the pledge of allegiance to wrangling over cloning, stem-cell research, euthanasia and genetic engineering, religion has been re-entering the public arena in complex and unforeseen ways.

The flirtation between the secular and the sacred has traditionally set off alarm bells among American academics, who have often regarded any intrusion of religion into politics as dangerous. In the last century, intellectual giants like John Dewey and Sigmund Freud dismissed religion as infantile and predicted an increasingly secular modern society. In his book "Human Nature and Conduct" (Henry Holt, 1922), Dewey said of religion, "It has been petrified into a slavery of thought and sentiment, as intolerant superiority on the part of the few and an intolerable burden on the part of the many."

But lately a growing number of social scientists, philosophers, historians and other scholars are trying to account for the energetic re-entry of religion into the public sphere, and some are viewing it with as much delight as distress.

"There was a convention until 20 years ago in academic circles and journalism, that you didn't raise religious convictions," Michael Novak, a philosopher who writes about religion and public policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "Now there is more freedom and people go out of their way to talk about religion."

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest who is the editor in chief of "First Things," a monthly journal on religion, culture and public life, agrees that the atmosphere has radically changed. In 1984 he wrote "The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America," complaining about the exclusion of religion from public life.

"The dominant idea securely in place then was that we are rapidly becoming a secular society, that religiously grounded ideas have no place in the public square," Father Neuhaus said. He said that was no longer the case.

He pointed to the report in July from the President's Council on Bioethics as an example. That "very straightforwardly said we are dealing with frankly moral questions, and religious and philosophical perspectives have to enter into it now," he said, adding that such an open nod to religion would not have been made two decades ago.

Some have found the change among academics, often a bastion of secularism, surprising. In the last 10 years there has been greater study of religious phenomenon and more scholarship with insights and norms drawn from religion, said Jean Bethke Elshtain, a conservative professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago.

"Many of the arguments being made that the religious voice had no place in public arguments have been forcefully challenged by not only those with religious convictions but those who say if we want to hear all voices speak, how can we say those from a religious perspective should shut up," Ms. Elshtain said.

Many people believe that the advance of science, with its morally freighted questions, is as much responsible for bringing religion back onstage as age-old debates about the family. "There will always be questions about personal existence and objective moral reality," said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington research center.

Mr. Novak said: " 'How do we bring up our children? What is a man? What is a woman? What is a family?' are questions tied to policies about day care, gay rights and adoption. All of these questions have religious roots and religious echoes, so we all tend to be discussing religious issues more."

The swing back to discussing religion doesn't surprise Wilfred M. McClay, a professor of history and humanities at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. "Before the 20th century we needed greater protection from the excesses of religion," he said. "We now see the need for a greater balance against pure secularism that has no probable basis for affirming human dignity." Professor McClay is the co-editor of "Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America" (Woodrow Wilson Press, 2002), a book due out in November in which scholars explore the expanded role of religious institutions in welfare and education and questions like the relation of Islam to American values in the shadow of Sept. 11.

His co-editor, Hugh Heclo, a professor of public affairs at George Mason University, points out that it was only in the 20th century that religion increasingly became a private matter. Before then the widespread presumption was that a direct connection between religion and public policy existed as the country tackled issues like prohibition, child labor, slavery and women's rights.

That was a far cry from the atmosphere in 1960 when John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, ran for president and was compelled to assure the public that he respected the wall between church and state. In 1962, the Supreme Court banned school-mandated prayer and in 1963 it struck down bible reading in public schools.

Now, according to Professor Heclo, the pendulum has swung the other way. His research, he said, has turned up polls showing that people are more willing to see religious views expressed by public officials and to see religion promoted by government than at any time since the 1970's. "It's not the old values debate of the culture wars," he continued, "but 'What do we think are the grounds for deciding if something is right or wrong?' It's inescapable if you're representing a democracy in which people believe in God."

Professor Heclo embraces the latest shift. "Religion is now in the public square," he said, "in that there is some divine truth we need to worry about as we charge forth into all these policy decisions about genetic engineering, man's relation to the environment and obligations to end suffering around the world."

Many social scientists and scholars, not surprisingly, are disturbed about religion's role in public life.

"Religion is intruding in areas that are very disturbing," said Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Center for Inquiry, a secular humanist group committed to free inquiry in science and other areas. Mr. Kurtz, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said: "The intrusion of religion into science, with a ban on cloning, involves the censoring of scientific research in the name of religious morality. Hark, hark back to the days of Galileo."

Wendy Kaminer, author of "Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety" (Pantheon Books, 1999), said that religion had been in the middle of the public square for at least a decade and that its re-emergence was "a red herring" for the bigger threat of government sponsorship of sectarian religion.

"Vouchers are about government support for religion," said Ms. Kaminer, a former scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. "Bush talks about faith-based initiatives, but we are not a country of one faith. If we saw a lot of Muslim schools springing up, there would be less support for school vouchers."

Even Father Neuhaus expressed caution. "Religion is riddled through and through with nonsense and fanatics, like anything else," he said.

Mr. Kurtz blamed the "increased influence of the religious and Christian right on the Bush administration and the courts." But Professor McClay argued that religion's resurgence in public life would not necessarily give a greater voice to either liberals or conservatives.

Both have passionately invoked the connection between moral obligations and laws, whether to support civil rights in the 60's or to oppose abortion. And most of the moral opposition to the war on terrorism comes from more liberal quarters, Professor McClay noted.

When it comes to the American public, both liberals and conservatives have often displayed deeply contradictory attitudes about the relationship between religion and politics, Professor Heclo pointed out, and many are skeptical about the sincerity of politicians' religious statements.

A Gallup Poll last year, for instance, showed that 82 percent of Americans thought of themselves as Christians, 10 percent belonged to other faiths and 8 percent were atheists or agnostics, Professor Heclo said. But they also said no dogma, religious creed or denominational commitment guided their beliefs. On the other hand, while majorities were willing to support a black, Jewish, female or gay presidential candidate, only 48 percent said they would vote for an atheist.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company ¦ Permissions ¦ Privacy Policy

Copyright 2001 The New York Times CompanyPrivacy Information

horizontal line
What's New Page to home page e-mail  Page Top