Exploring Tensions Between Secular and Religious Values
A reflection on the importance of honest, critical dialogue in contemporary society
Emily Barber NEWS EDITOR
Image: St. Basil’s Toronto
Why is talking about religion so difficult in everyday life? Outside safe spaces like lecture halls and faith communities, religion is often awkwardly danced around or ranted about with embarrassing directness. Religion can quickly become an alienating conversation topic met with discomfort, hostility, or a politeness that often comes across as indifference. In efforts to keep a tactful distance, people tend to try to please all and end up pleasing none. But on the other hand, personal beliefs are just that: personal.
The questions surrounding religion and society are anything but straightforward. In contemporary society, are people still open to respectful, critical dialogue about religion? If so, how do you approach something that is, paradoxically, incredibly personal and deeply communal?
A helpful place to start is the prevailing influence of secularism. Today, in Canada and the rest of the Western world, secular laws are the structure of society. Despite the autonomy generally granted to religious groups, in terms of official laws and practices, the state has the last word.
One can see the seeds of this desire for religion to take a back seat to the dictates of secular life in works like John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration; perhaps understandably so, given the bloody history of Restoration England. At a time when religious differences could mean discrimination or death, it seems natural for Locke to want to diffuse tension. Diminishing religion’s worldly influence was the price Locke was willing to pay for greater state power. It speaks to the shifting priorities of the Western world, the compulsion to usher in an age of secularism. This is the age we live in today.
It is not the case that the period before the Restoration was some idyllic age of religion, far from it. Perhaps it is naive to think such a time ever existed anywhere, or ever will. For poet and professor Christian Wiman, faith and society have never been identical.
“Even when Christianity is the default mode of a society, Christ is not,” he writes in his memoir My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. “There is always some leap into what looks like absurdity, and there is always, for the one who makes that leap, some cost.”
This “leap into what looks like absurdity” Wiman mentions presents another issue: belief. In a society that values facts and evidence, personal belief can be a hard thing to justify, and even harder to talk about.
Joseph Ratzinger addresses the problem when he discusses religious conversations in his book Introduction to Christianity. He writes of the personal challenge of the theologian, of recognizing the difficulty of interpretation but also the insecurity of personal faith. Or as he puts it, “the oppressive power of unbelief in the midst of his own will to believe.”
Not all of us are theologians, but what Ratzinger calls for is universal: understanding and empathy. To see our own uncertainty reflected in others, and to reach out to them despite it. Doubt, difference, and dissention are permanent and natural fixtures in the human heart. But not, it seems, ones we are comfortable admitting, even to ourselves. Perhaps embracing our struggles with belief more openly may bring us closer together.
But this closeness is only possible if people are willing to talk in the first place. Philosophy major Natalia Zambrowicz identifies two reasons for the shortage of conversations around religion and belief systems today: political correctness and fear of imposing one’s judgments on others.
“As young persons and students, we sometimes fall into the trap of extreme relativism which stifles our ability to analyze and examine what is (I believe) a natural aspect of human existence, namely to question whether or not there exists a higher power or a greater meaning to our sometimes mundane lives.”
Zambrowicz brings up an interesting point — are people inhibiting themselves by not engaging in conversations about belief? Is there perhaps something both emotionally and intellectually limiting about remaining closed off, from shying away from these topics?
History and philosophy major Shane Beal considers the political ramifications of this relativism, broadening the focus of the question to a world view. Beal even offers a solution that could emerge through conversation with religion — specifically, Christianity.
“Where the modern right pushes for tacit recognition of moral relativism by refusing to take a political stance, the modern left embraces relativism as a policy of government,” Beal writes. “With only one real side — that of moral ambiguity — being represented from deceivingly different angles on the modern political stage, what Western civilization can take from Christianity is the strength to develop a social moral outlook on human nature that can be translated into political action.”
Even if people are comfortable discussing and incorporating religion and belief in their lives, how does dialogue become more frequent when society often opposes these values? During his Christmas Eve homily at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome this past year, Pope Francis stressed the importance of simplicity in a world that revels in excess. “When sin entered the world with Adam and Eve, ‘mankind became greedy and voracious,’" he said in an article by The Catholic Register.
"In our day, for many people, life's meaning is found in possessing, in having an excess of material objects. An insatiable greed marks all human history, even today, when, paradoxically, a few dine luxuriantly while all too many go without the daily bread needed to survive."
Francis speaks with pointed directness, focusing on the physical poverty of those without while pointing to the spiritual poverty of those with plenty. Making use of his public prominence, Francis is a compelling example of the power of religious conversation. “What matters in life,” he said, "is not material riches but love, not gluttony but charity, not ostentation but simplicity."
Unfortunately, religious groups still generate their fair share of worldly problems. There are aspects of and people within organized religions that society rightly objects to, ones that are often difficult to see past. The Catholic Church is no exception: its history of involvement with residential schools in Canada and the contemporary sex abuse scandals are deeply disturbing, with resonating impacts on the people it affects as well as on society’s perception of Catholics. The Church does not condone these horrible events and professes to be doing everything in its power to remedy them, and it would be harsh and, frankly, wrong to paint all Catholics with the same brush. Just as it would be for members of any religious group to be judged by the sins of some of its members. All the same, it understandably makes conversations about religion more emotional and more tense.
One consideration comes from Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. While discussing the trouble many people in contemporary society have with religion, he offers a suggestion. “Faith itself sometimes needs to be stripped of its social and historical encrustations,” he writes, “and returned to its first, churchless incarnation in the human heart.”
This might seem drastic and anti-institutional upon first reading, but as a personal exercise it may be helpful for those struggling to accept certain religions. By cutting to the core principles of belief, by momentarily discarding the worldly baggage of religion, conversations about faith might become more frequent and productive.
Personal faith is often shaped by the strength of the community around it. Fr. Morgan Rice, Pastor at St. Basil’s Catholic Parish, speaks to the rewards and challenges he faces leading the faith community at St. Basil’s. He first addresses the necessary balance between thought and action in the life of a Catholic.
“Catholics' faith formation and catechesis are important so that they not only know the information to correct misconceptions but also serve as authentic witnesses to what we believe according to the ways of Jesus. Practicing joyfully what we believe and preach gives authentic witness.”
Rice stresses the importance of his Sunday homilies, but also in living out the values he preaches on a daily basis.
“If I can do that, I, too, come to better understanding of how humility, self-denial, and sacrifice allow one to act in accordance with God’s will, which focuses on the common good and leads to greater life, peace, and joy,” he writes. “The more of us who live this way, the more others might be convinced or persuaded to follow likewise. Since none of us is perfect, all we can do is keep trying our best and hope that others are forgiving when we mess up!”
The support and solidarity found within a faith community can be transformative, but needs active members in order to make it a reality.
“Someone once told me, ‘You can’t give what you don’t have.’ The life of community is very much about giving of ourselves and what we have to others for the common good. This is putting our faith into action.”
When asked about how to approach the challenges or outright opposition religious conversation may face, Rice emphasizes the importance of respect and openness.
“Tensions have existed and will continue to exist, but what I would hope is that those who represent Catholics will be open to respectful dialogue that allows greater understanding from either side and promotes working together despite differences.”
Shane Beal addresses another kind of community — that between friends. He identifies tensions between what Catholics often read and hear about, and what gets translated into everyday life.
“While we might look back with respect and awe at the glamorous and idealistic lives of evangelist saints, it is far more difficult to act out these kinds of missions in our own daily lives, where reprimanding a group of friends for their unchristian behaviour seems less like the dramatic act of a martyred hero and more like the nagging of an overbearing mother.”
However, Beal sees opportunities to express faith in a slightly different fashion: instead of harassing people to change, live authentically and sincerely.
“By working to improve our own lives and conform to the Catholic values of self-denial and humility, and by not hiding our Catholic faith in public, we can work to serve as good examples of Christian ethics without having to actively nag and talk down to others,” Beal writes. “If we as Catholics genuinely believe that the values of our faith are the best and most natural state for humans to live in, then no verbal argument for the value of our ethics will ever be better than their being actualized in our day-to-day life.”
It is also worth considering these tensions from another angle: how secular society can learn from religion. While tackling this question, Natalia Zambrowicz references philosopher Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists. She mentions the religious practices of self-reflection, disconnection from noise, and communal singing as being among the ways members of secular society can experience a fuller life.
Working off these points from de Botton, Zambrowicz offers her own insights on how the paradox of holding personal beliefs within a faith community can help secular society.
“As an individual, in meditation and prayer one takes the time to reflect about one’s lived experience in the day to day,” she writes. “Where the community comes in is in supporting the individual through possible difficult times in a society misaligned with one’s values and lastly create an embodying place of warmth, belonging, and support.”
As you may have noticed, many of the points made concern Catholicism and Christianity in general. I am entering this conversation via my own experience, not because I think I have the best insights or that as a Catholic, I have some kind of monopoly on morality and goodness. Rather, I believe in the case of religion, complete objectivity is impossible. Everyone has their own faith tradition — or no faith tradition — and like everyone else, my beliefs colour my perspective of the world.
One of the features of Canadian society is how individual expression is encouraged but often made uncomfortable if it strays from mainstream public opinion. The most influential media outlets and workplaces are careful to remain, for the most part, value-neutral. As someone who has their faith represented in public life, I would consider myself fortunate: I went to a Catholic high school, and I am affiliated with the University of St. Michael’s College (USMC). But it would be naive and disrespectful to assume everyone at my high school was Catholic, just as it would be incredibly reductive to assume everyone at USMC is Catholic.
Speaking from personal experience, even in academic environments that are technically religious, personal beliefs are seen as strictly private, and seldom discussed other than in an abstract, neutral way. On one level I am incredibly thankful for that: I’d consider myself a reserved person, and am not ordinarily comfortable sharing details about myself, let alone publicly, an opinion which I daresay many others share. I also think ostentatious displays of piety risk straying closer to pride than the humility such actions outwardly profess.
But on another level, I see a missed opportunity for honest, respectful dialogue. There is so much to be learned from others, whether they share your beliefs or not. Seeing people openly express their faith is a rare and beautiful sight, a chance to witness the strength of their convictions through their words and actions. Expressing faith does not necessarily mean trying to convert people either, it could be as simple as sharing the joy and love you get from your faith with those around you. It could be disengaging from the capitalist society we live in for a moment — instead of worrying over what we lack, rejoicing in the gift that is life. Noticing the beauty of the world we live in and encouraging others to do the same.
Ultimately, I’m seeking a balance. Not to meekly acquiesce to society’s every whim, nor to sneer with moral superiority from an ivory tower. But to have the courage and resolution to live and affirm my Catholic faith while appreciating those of others.