A few weeks ago, I participated in a private convening with multifaith leaders who are working for justice. We were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh; sprinkled among the participants and facilitators were a few secular humanists, agnostics, and atheists. The passion for justice among all of us was fierce. Leaders in the group are fighting anti-Muslim bigotry; striving for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, equality; working to reduce poverty; and more. We are allies in the struggle for justice.
And yet, during one of the small discussion groups, a man who isn’t religious confessed that he often feels judged by his religious colleagues. It is never overt, he said, but rather a subtle hinting that his moral code—coming as it does from nonreligious sources—is somehow inferior to theirs.
He said this in the mid-afternoon—typically not a high-energy time of day. But all of us sat up in our chairs, and several people started talking at once. He had hit a nerve.
Another man who is religious responded that he often feels disrespected, too—by secular colleagues who subtly imply that religion is a major source of bigotry and intolerance in the world.
Welcome to the religious-secular divide.
For many of us who work on justice issues, this divide feels like a pebble in our shoe—an irksome, sometimes painful nuisance that can be ignored for a while but eventually hobbles our work. While the sides are not neatly drawn—many of us identify with aspects of both the religious and the secular worlds—the gap in understanding, trust, and mutual respect is not a good thing.
In the hope that understanding will help us shrink this gap, here is a brief description of each viewpoint.
Let’s start with people who are not religious, or are no longer religious. Their complaint that religion is a source of bigotry and intolerance should not be surprising, given that the vast majority of religious voices that have dominated the media and public sphere for more than 30 years are right-wing, self-appointed morality monopolizers who rail against LGBT people and abortion. No wonder young people are staying away from institutional religion in higher numbers than ever before. Who wants to join a club of bigots?
In addition to driving people away, the prominence of such voices denies visibility to religious voices unlike their own. These other voices are marked by compassion, open-mindedness, intellectual rigor, and curiosity—and they actually have more followers than those of the religious right. Unfortunately, you’d never know it because so few of these leaders get a platform in public debates.
It’s a vicious cycle: The lack of visible justice-minded faith leaders feeds negative stereotypes about religion, which, in turn, exerts a chilling effect on many everyday people of faith. These people could dispel the stereotypes, but are hesitant to identify as people of faith because they fear being painted with a negative brush. As a woman in our discussion group explained, “I usually say, ‘I’m a Christian, but …’”
Which brings us to people of faith. Many say that their secular counterparts do not understand or appreciate the profound relationship between religion, politics, and society that has existed throughout our history. In fact, religion has inspired virtually every social justice movement in America—from abolition to civil rights to anti-war efforts. Religion has spurred educational achievement and a robust civic sector. What’s more, religion has been a source of social cohesion, community, inspiration, and purpose from our nation’s founding until today. Cesar Chavez, for instance, was a deeply religious man who urged supporters to follow the example of Jesus and “‘hunger and thirst after justice’ in the same way that we hunger and thirst after food and water.”
People of faith assert respect for the separation of church and state. But they argue that just as their secular colleagues bring various identities to the work they do, people of faith bring their religious identity as a source of inspiration and strength.
As our group’s conversation continued, it became clear that many of our concerns stemmed more from a lack of familiarity with each other than from principled disagreement. It also became clear that, on an everyday basis, we usually work well together—whether the issue is immigration reform, poverty reduction, climate change, or economic justice.
It also became clear that, no matter their source, we share both common values and common goals to achieve a more just, equitable, and merciful world. After a lively time of listening and sharing, perhaps the most important point of agreement was this: We need to listen to—and respect—each other’s experiences and beliefs.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.