Until recently, it was widely assumed in the West that the whole world was becoming ever more secular, and that religion would fade away or become a purely private matter as people embraced the rational, scientific worldview associated with liberal democracy and the market. But religion has not only resolutely failed to disappear: in recent years it appears to have made a comeback, sweeping the developing world and increasingly sparking controversy in the West. Debates rage about veils, religious hatred, creationism and so on. Religious extremism, and more generally ‘faith-based politics’ are seen as a threat to secular liberalism. Meanwhile, religious communities often feel under siege, with their values not recognised or respected by wider society.
Some argue that the very tenets of Western secular liberalism, from human rights to freedom of conscience, are rooted in religious traditions – whether Protestant, Judeo-Christian or more general. The philosopher Max Horkheimer argued that there could be no ‘unconditional meaning’ or value without God. Against this, the atheist writer Sam Harris argues that anything of value to be had from religion can be had more honestly without it. Does arguing ‘from belief’ invalidate one’s opinions in a secular society, or can religious ideals transcend particular faith traditions? Is religious belief archaic and delusional, and so incompatible with liberal democracy? Or is atheism just another fundamentalism?
The chief critics of religion today are not revolutionaries and reformers, but scientists and other rationalists, seemingly bewildered by people’s willingness to believe without evidence. Whereas progressive critics once argued that religion breeds passivity, detractors now worry that it inspires a little too much political activism and fosters conflict. Does this signal a loss of faith in secular politics? Have recent developments shown that religion is an unchangeable part of human nature and also reflect something missing from secular society? Is the defining conflict of our times indeed between the religious and the non-religious, or does this obscure more important questions?
religion correspondent, The Times; journalism tutor, City University
|Professor Frank Furedi|
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history
|Dr Austen Ivereigh|
Catholic commentator; joint co-ordinator, Catholic Voices
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
|Alex Hochuli communications consultant, researcher and blogger based in São Paulo|
|Dolan Cummings associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)|
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