In South Africa we celebrate diversity, though at times it raises problems that besmirch our ‘rainbow nation’. In fact, there are those that see no room for this diversity, normally relegated to the far right of our political sphere. However, by and large, diversity is accepted; the preamble to our constitution says, “We, the people of South Africa, recognise the injustices of our past; honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity[i].”
How does one experience diversity in a way that doesn’t lead to oppression or marginalisation? How do people of different cultures, races and creeds live together in harmony? The answer touted by the ‘smart guys’ is secularism. Secularism basically says, “Let your religion give you strength and inspiration in your private life, but don’t bring it into the public discourse, don’t try to argue for values in society based on your particular religious belief”.
Secularism is the idea that no one should try to impose their beliefs on anybody, rather we should look for a way to live together that works. Leave your views of truth and morality, right and wrong, essentially your religion at the door when you come into the public arena because these things are based on faith, and no one can ever adjudicate those kinds of issues. If you want society to work,find strategies that work. Consider the problems that face us like education, poverty etc. Don’t look for policies that are in line with your religion, but rather for what works best.
Now there is a huge problem with that. It comes across as plausible, because we live in a society where right now that’s the only solution we hear. Yet it is doomed to fail because it is ironically completely impractical. Consider this: What is religion? Religion is a set of answers to the big questions: Why are we here? What is right and wrong for human beings to be doing? What is wrong with the human race and what will fix it? Nobody can operate in life without a set of answers to those questions, and those answers are at least implicitly religious since they can’t be proved in a lab. Whatever your answer is, it’s a faith assumption, the spectre of religion hangs over this ideal despite our best attempts to be irreligious.
Mull over this example of how impossible it is to leave your religious beliefs at the door when you go out to the public world.
Thing about divorce laws. Secularism says, “If you are working on divorce laws you do not bring your religion to bear on divorce laws, just decide on what will really work for people”. But what you believe works will depend on your view of the purpose of marriage, and this is rooted in deeply held beliefs about human nature and thriving. So if you are like people in individualistic western societies, you believe that the needs of the individual are more important than the needs of the group, and you will see the purpose of marriage as the happiness and emotional fulfilment of the adults who enter it. Therefore you will make divorce easy, because that’s the purpose of marriage, and if it becomes something that is not fulfilling what it was meant for people we should be able to get out of it easily. But what if you are from a traditional society? In a traditional society they believe the family is more important than the individual, more important than individual happiness. And the purpose of marriage is to create a safe and secure space for the nurturing of children, for the extended family and for society as a whole. If you believe that the family is more important than the individual you are going to make divorce really hard. Suddenly you see something don’t you? You can’t come to any conclusions about what will work in divorce except on the basis of deeply held beliefs about human thriving and about what makes people happy, and what’s right and what’s wrong with people. And therefore if you say keep your religion out of the public realm what you are really saying is “my enlightenment western individualistic faith assumptions about human nature are privileged over yours. I can bring mine into the public realm, but you can’t bring your more traditional religious values in.” Do you see it the stark hypocrisy in secularism?
The point is this: Everybody has a take on spiritual reality which is based on a set of religious assumptions, they are based on faith. And everybody thinks there take on spiritual reality is the best and that other people should adopt it to make the world a better place.
Now if everybody has a set of exclusive beliefs the real issue is which set of exclusive beliefs can produce loving, inclusive, reconciling, peaceful behaviour. In my next post I would like to suggest just such a belief. I think I have shown how secularism has not created loving and exclusive behaviour. In this post, but I don’t want to leave the discussion in a wormhole of hopelessness.
Important Note: the ideas in this article are not my own, but are a rehashing of Tim Keller thoughts in the book “The Reason for God”, with a particular drive at the South African context.