War on Christmas, Diversity, and Secularism

Americans have always been divided over morality, politics and religion

Fresno Bee, December 1, 2017

Our country seems more divided than ever. Recent polls from the Pew Center and the Washington Post make this clear. The Post concludes that seven in 10 Americans say we have “reached a dangerous low point” of divisiveness. A significant majority of Americans think our divisions are as bad as they were during the Vietnam War.

But let’s be honest, we have always been divided. Free people always disagree about morality, politics and religion. We disagree about abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, drug legalization, pornography, the death penalty and a host of other issues. We also disagree about taxation, inequality, government regulation, race, poverty, immigration, national security, environmental protection, gun control and so on.

Beneath our moral and political disagreements are deep religious differences. Atheists want religious superstitions to die out. Theists think we need God’s guidance. And religious people disagree among themselves about God, morality and politics.

As an example, consider the so-called “war on Christmas.” President Trump declared victory in the war on Christmas this week during a speech in St. Charles, Missouri. Standing in front of American flags and Christmas trees, he said “You don’t see Merry Christmas any more. With Trump as your president, we are going to be celebrating Merry Christmas again and it’s going to be done with a big beautiful tax cut.”

DISAGREEMENT IS AS DEEP AS CHRISTMAS ITSELF.

Some will cheer this on as a triumphant moment in the culture wars. Others will say, “bah humbug,” claiming that the war on Christmas is fake news. And others will wonder what tax cuts have to do with the birth of Christ.

Christmas has always generated controversy. Different Christian traditions celebrate it on different days. Some Christians – the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example – do not celebrate Christmas at all. They point out that the apostles did not celebrate Christ’s birth. They view Christmas as a pagan celebration.

Disagreement is as deep as Christmas itself. The Christian “good news” was viewed as fake news by the ancient Romans. The history of Christianity is full of heretics and dissenters who offered alternative facts. Each religious sect claims special access to the truth. Each views the other as delusional.

And of course, we disagree about the value of disagreement. Some value diversity of opinion. They are interested in new ideas and interpretations. Others see diversity as a decadent sign of liberty run amok. They resist change and avoid innovation.

And so it goes. Social cohesion is rare. So let’s not be surprised by our divisions. The ideal of a cohesive social, political and religious identity is a myth that creates frustrated expectations. People disagree about important stuff. We always have – and probably, we always will.

The desire for social cohesion is a pipe dream, cloaked in sepia-toned nostalgia. It is fun to imagine a Norman Rockwell Christmas scene. But life is not a painting or a Christmas card. We change, argue and diverge.

WE SHOULD VIEW OUR PRESENT DISAGREEMENTS
AS A SIGN OF THE HEALTH OF OUR SECULAR SYSTEM.

There is wisdom in admitting this fact. We might stop hyperventilating when we realize that the current crisis is nothing new. It is wise to stop expecting conformity.

It is also wise to support safeguards that protect liberty against oppressive power. The Christmas story includes a warning about political oppression in the presence of Herod the Great, the murderous king. Of course, such warnings are routinely ignored in the effort to purge heretics and dissenters.

Our secular system safeguards us against would-be Herods. But secularism means that disagreement will persist. This does not mean we should give up on arguing about the truth. But we must admit that disagreement is part of the human condition.

In fact, we should view our present disagreements as a sign of the health of our secular system. People are free to criticize or praise the president, the Congress and Christmas itself. This is not true in other parts of the world.

Freedom leads to controversy. Freedom without disagreement would be paltry and phony. Along with the freedom to say “Merry Christmas” we also have the freedom to say “Happy Hanukah” or even “bah humbug.” Take your pick. Stake your claim. Realize that other people will say different things. And be thankful that in our country the war on Christmas is merely a war of words.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article187350558.html

Luther’s Reformation: Conscience, Truth, and Modernity

A thriving democracy stems from understanding the power of protest

Fresno Bee, October 20, 2017

These are contentious times. We argue about athletes and flags, racism and sexism. We dispute climate change, economic policy, sex and gender, reproductive rights, and immigration. And of course we disagree about religion.

This is what it is like to live in a thriving secular democracy. The modern world is founded upon the value of individual conscience. We are encouraged to question religious and political authority. We understand the power of protest.

One important milestone in the evolution of the modern spirit occurred 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517. That is when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. This legendary act is the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

FOLLOWING LUTHER, WE MODERNS TEND TO BELIEVE THAT TRUTH AND CONSCIENCE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN ALLEGIANCE TO INSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY.

Luther’s protest was based on his Christian faith. But he also asserted a fundamental claim about truth and individual conscience. In the prologue to his Theses, Luther declared his love of truth. He published his Theses in an effort to bring truth to light.

Following Luther, we moderns tend to believe that truth and conscience are more important than allegiance to institutional authority. We believe that protests and questions can help to reform corrupt structures of power.

Truth has often been manipulated by the powerful. Today dishonest leaders deal in fake news, while feathering their own nests. In Luther’s day, crooked clerics enriched themselves by peddling indulgences—a scam through which rich people bought their way out of purgatory.

The antidote for corruption is honesty and decency. Luther suggested that without a commitment to truth and morality, authorities and institutions leave themselves open to ridicule, slander and doubt.

It is obvious that leadership requires respect for the truth and a commitment to virtue. But we also need bold protestors who have the audacity to speak truth to power. We need intrepid gadflies like Socrates and Luther who sting the powerful with probing questions.

When Luther testified at the Imperial Diet of Worms, in 1521, he asked for an open and honest debate about his interpretation of Christianity. If he was wrong, he asked to be shown his error. He declared, “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” His speech concluded with the legendary words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”

Luther’s request for reasonable dialogue and his declaration of conscience are central features of modernity. We believe that progress is made when free persons debate the truth. But corrupt authorities are not interested in dialogue. They value conformity. And they occasionally resort to violence to enforce orthodoxy.

MODERN FREEDOM IS A REMARKABLE AND RARE ACHIEVEMENT OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT.

To say “here I stand” is to affirm that individuals can discover wisdom without institutional intermediaries. This invites attacks from those who prefer us to sit down and shut up. But progress occurs when we refuse to be silent and stand up for truth.

I’ve been talking about Luther with a group of scholars and clergy who will participate in a discussion of the legacy of the Reformation. One of my collaborators on this project is the Rev. David Norris, a Catholic priest who works at the Saint Paul Catholic Newman Center.

Father Norris sees similarities between Luther’s time and our own. He says, “Calls for reform soon became disrespectful argumentation, power plays and name calling, mutual condemnations and politicization of issues.” In Luther’s time as in our own, he explains, there is “an unfortunate disregard of factual information, as well as a decline in civil discourse.”

Despite these similarities, I think that things are better today. Our secular system respects freedom of conscience. We have established a wall of separation between church and state. And instead of repressing dissenters, we admire those who have the courage to say, “here I stand.”

The modern secular world developed out of long centuries of violence and intolerance. Heretics were burned. Wars were fought. Genocide was invented along with totalitarianism.

Modern freedom is a remarkable and rare achievement of the human spirit. Political and religious authorities continue to want conformity and obedience. But modern democratic people continue to question authority.

Truth is a fragile flower. But it is persistent and perennial. And it flourishes when bold individuals speak their minds and take a stand.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article180023061.html

Religion and Education

Are education and religious liberty mutually exclusive?

Fresno Bee, May 5, 2017

College education generally makes us less religious, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. Educated Christians are more likely to go to church on a weekly basis than uneducated Christians. But college graduates are less likely to say religion is “very important” in their lives.

College graduates are also more likely to be atheists. Fifteen percent of those with advanced degrees do not believe in God, while only 6 percent of noncollege grads are atheists. Meanwhile, 42 percent of those without college education think that religious scriptures should be taken literally, compared with 14 percent of those with college degrees.

Science education make religious fundamentalism difficult to sustain. The Earth is a speck among hundreds of billions of stars. Our species evolved long after the dinosaurs went extinct. The land was once covered by ice powerful enough to carve out Yosemite Valley. None of this is recorded in ancient scriptures, which teach that the gods have a special interest in this planet and in human beings. 

HISTORY AND ANTHROPOLOGY ALSO CHALLENGE RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM.

Traditional accounts of the soul are also being explained away. Biomedical science locates consciousness in the brain. And evil is explained in neurological or psychological terms instead of as a matter of demonic possession.

History and anthropology also challenge religious fundamentalism. The ancient Chinese or the Aztecs never heard of the Christian scriptures. Nor do Christian scriptures mention these ancient civilizations. This makes simplistic declarations about God difficult to understand. When we say “In God We Trust” in our diverse world, which God are we are talking about: Jehovah, Allah, or Quetzalcoatl?

Even within the Christian tradition there are disputes about God and revelation. Mormons, who comprise about 2 percent of the American population, believe that the Book of Mormon is a holy Christian scripture. Other Christians claim this is false.

Scriptural interpretation has evolved over time. The book of Joshua explains that God held the sun still in the sky in order to allow Joshua’s troops to slaughter their enemies. But after Galileo debunked the geocentric model underlying this story, it has been subject to reinterpretation.

Others have questioned the morality of a God whose miraculous power is used to slaughter an enemy. Evolving moral standards have led many Christians to reinterpret scriptures that contain morally problematic passages about slavery, the subordination of women, homosexuality, polygamy, divorce, and so on.

Religious belief has often been flexible and subject to reformation and reinterpretation. Religions evolve to take in new information and reflect new norms. We make sense of ancient texts in light of modern ideas.

Atheists may view all of this as an argument against religion in general. And indeed, a quarter of Americans have left religion behind – either affirming atheism or simply giving up on organized religion.

But religions are persistent. The diversity and flexibility of religious belief is a key to this persistence. Religions that don’t adapt go the way of the dinosaur. No one worships Zeus or Quetzalcoatl any more. But Christianity thrives because of the variety of Christian denominations. There are over 200 different versions of Christianity in the US. You can pick an interpretation that suits your preferences.

LIBERTY ALSO ALLOWS PEOPLE TO CHANGE RELIGIONS.
INDEED, ABOUT A THIRD OF AMERICANS CHANGE THEIR RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION.

Religious liberty thus helps religion to persist. Liberty allows for innovation and development. Liberty also allows people to change religions. Indeed, about a third of Americans change their religious affiliation.

In the free marketplace of religious ideas, religions sell themselves to people and reflect changing tastes. Catholics no longer say Mass in Latin. Protestants have embraced pop music. And Western faiths have incorporated meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices from Eastern traditions.

In the modern democratic and capitalist world, we value educated and informed choice. We want informed consent in health care, in financial transactions and in elections. We should also value informed choice when it comes to declarations of faith. In a democratic culture, we ought to learn about other faiths and shop around. We also ought to leave each other alone to pursue the religious quest in our own way.

Things may have seemed simpler when a common piety was enforced on the uneducated masses. Freedom and science do undermine traditional religious conformity. But modern democratic people have faith in the power of education and religious liberty to make this a better world.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article148835959.html

Celebrating the Virtue of Secularism

Is secularism a danger or an opportunity?

Fresno Bee, May 28, 2016

  • Secularism allows religious and nonreligious people to coexist
  • Science, reason and secularism foster innovation and technology
  • Secularism and godless communism are not the same thing

Nonbelievers are coming out of the closet. The number of admitted atheists and agnostics in the U.S. has nearly doubled in recent years – from 4 percent of the population in 2007 to 7 percent in 2014. Roughly one-fourth of Americans do not have a religious affiliation. In England, non-religious folk now outnumber Christians.

This is seen as a sign of a robust secular system in which nonbelievers are free to express themselves. But some view secularism as a danger. The Rev. Franklin Graham recently complained, “Secularism and communism are one and the same. Secularism is godless. Secularism is taking over our country.” Pope Francis has warned that secularism “has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism.”

Franklin Graham-Prayer RallySecularism is not relativism. Secularism is a political system grounded on basic principles of liberty and toleration. These principles allow for a free choice of religious belief – or disbelief. But secular principles are not weak or relative. Secular political life rests upon fundamental claims about the human right to freedom of conscience.

Graham is right that secularism has taken over our country. Secularism became the law of the land when the First Amendment was ratified in 1791. In the subsequent two centuries, we have worked out the details of a political system in which the law states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Graham is wrong to suggest that secularism is necessarily godless or to equate it with communism. Communist governments sought to eradicate religion. But our secular system protects the freedom to worship God, so long as religion does not become entangled with political power.

SECULARISM … CELEBRATES THE FACT THAT IN A FREE SOCIETY
THE FAITHFUL AND THE FAITHLESS CAN WORK TOGETHER.

God-fearing people should support secularism, since secularism allows them to pursue their faith in their own way. Public religious power is curtailed in our system. But individual citizens are free to practice any faith they want – or no faith at all.

NDR_slide2016-2Robust secularism does allow non-religious people to be more vocal. Rationalists and agnostics are finding their voices. One example was the recent call for a “National Day of Reason” on May 5. The Day of Reason idea was initiated by a congressman from Silicon Valley, Rep. Mike Honda, as a response to the National Day of Prayer. In defense of the idea, Honda explained that the success of Silicon Valley was based on “the scientific method and the application of reason.”

Honda has a point. The innovative spirit and technological prowess of Silicon Valley is related to our secular system. Many of the scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley are immigrants who come from diverse religious traditions but who share the common language of science. It is difficult to imagine the same sort of entrepreneurial efflorescence and technological prowess developing in non-secular nations such as Saudi Arabia.

Atheists are more vocal under robust secularism. They are displaying growing social power. An atheist donor gave the University of Miami a $2.2 million endowment for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics. The donor, Louis J. Appignani, stated that he wanted to “eliminate discrimination against atheists.”

OUR SECULAR SYSTEM PROTECTS THE FREEDOM TO WORSHIP GOD,
SO LONG AS RELIGION DOES NOT BECOME ENTANGLED WITH POLITICAL POWER.

That’s an important cause in a country where several states have constitutional language preventing atheists from holding office. For example, the Constitution of Tennessee stipulates, “No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishment, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.” Laws like this remain on the books in Tennessee and seven other states, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled over 50 years ago that such laws violate the secular spirit of the Constitution.

Atheists obviously benefit from an inclusive secular society. But the same is true for a wide variety of faiths that have been discriminated against in the past and which suffer discrimination today.

Secularism is opposed to discrimination. It allows for the peaceful coexistence of diverse religious and non-religious people. The fear that secularism is relativist or communistic is misplaced. Secularism rests on the bedrock of liberty. It permits religion and non-religion to flourish. And it celebrates the fact that in a free society the faithful and the faithless can work together, as they do in places like Silicon Valley.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article80280257.html#storylink=cpy

Secular Values are Worth Defending

Fresno Bee, May 29, 2015

According to new data from the Pew Research Center only 70% of Americans are Christian. That’s down from 78% in 2007. Non-Christian religions — Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus — grew slightly from 4.7% to 5.9%.

The number of “unaffiliated” people grew more rapidly. More than 22% of Americans do not belong to any religion — up from 16 % in 2007. In California, 27% of us do not claim any religious affiliation. The number is even higher for young people.

Some unaffiliated people are spiritual but not religious: they have turned away from organized religion. But the unaffiliated also includes a growing number of atheists and agnostics, who make up 7% of the population — that’s more than all non-Christian religious believers combined.

These statistics have alarmed conservative pundits such as Pat Buchanan. In a recent column, he cited this data as portending the death of American Christian culture. Buchanan links declining Christianity with moral decay, citing broken families, assisted suicide and abortion. He concluded, “As Christianity dies, individualism, materialism and hedonism replace it.” Buchanan fears a wave of “barbarians” threatening Europe and America “from the south.” He ominously warns that we are committing cultural suicide.

This rhetoric is dangerous. Fears of barbarian hordes and cultural suicide can prompt the need for radical — and possibly violent — reaction. Beneath the fear-mongering, Buchanan fails to see that many come to Europe and America to escape religious fundamentalism in their home countries. They come here because of our secular system.

Even if immoral “barbarians” were really attacking core values, the solution is not reactionary religious intolerance. We can’t make church mandatory, as an Arizona legislator recently proposed. Rather, the solution is better secular education. We defend against “barbarians” by teaching them the virtues of secular democracy.

Modern secular culture is complicated. Science has opened new vistas unimagined by ancient scriptures. Technology creates new ethical challenges. And new voices join our public debates. All of this is difficult. But it is much better than a cramped world of forced conformity.

A secular legal system recognizes religious liberty as a basic human right. This means that some people will choose new religions or will leave religion behind. That sort of diversity is the price of liberty. And it is a great improvement over the stifling orthodoxy of previous centuries.

The worry about religious decline is based upon misplaced nostalgia. It is a myth that there ever was a time of religious harmony and homogeneity. Galileo was threatened by the Inquisition. Columbus left a world where Christians fought Muslims and slaughtered Jews. He discovered a world with completely unknown religious ideas. The world has been fractured by religious controversy for millennia.

Long centuries of violence within Christendom eventually gave way to our secular system, which allows us to live in peace despite deep differences. One result of secularism is that people will question traditional pieties. So what? As long as we treat one another kindly, tell the truth, pay our taxes, and take care of business, it makes little difference whether we are Christian or not.

And yet, Buchanan is right that individualism, materialism and hedonism are problematic. But you don’t have to be a Christian to understand that. The Roman Stoics warned of similar dangers — as did Confucius and the Buddha.

The great moral traditions teach a core of ethical common sense. Love your neighbor. Find something larger than yourself to believe in. And recognize that there is more to life than short-term pleasure.

Critics may argue that without God, morality loses its anchor. But basic moral truths do not rely upon any particular religious story. And secular culture does not require anyone to give up his personal anchor. It merely allows each of us to find our own way forward within common moral limits.

The growth of religious diversity and non-religion is not a sign of cultural suicide. Rather, it reflects the robust health of our secular system. In some parts of the world today non-believers are massacred. But we have found a better way.

Hedonism and materialism are problems. But intolerance and religious violence are worse problems. The only acceptable solution to any of these problems is more freedom, better education, some historical knowledge and a healthy dose of ethical common sense.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him: fiala.andrew@gmail.com