I recently attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto. That organization aims to cultivate harmony among religions. Harmony does not require unity. But it rests upon a foundation of liberty.
When the Parliament was founded in 1893 in Chicago, the Indian Swami Vivekananda gave a famous speech where he suggested that all religions are true and that all paths lead toward the same God. This is a nice idea. But it seems false.
Consider the conflicting claims among the Abrahamic faiths. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ is the messiah. Judaism denies this. Islam teaches that the Prophet Mohammed was divinely inspired. Christianity denies this.
Even among Christians there are deep disagreements. Some follow the Pope in Rome. Others claim Joseph Smith is a prophet. Some follow ancient Orthodox traditions. Others claim you must be “born again.”
These differences run deep. Further divergence is found when we include atheists and non-Abrahamic religions.
There is, nonetheless, common ground with regard to ethics. Every religion espouses some form of the Golden Rule. Every religion values children and family. Atheists and theists will agree that truth is valuable and that lying is wrong.
So it is not necessary for us to believe that all religions are saying the same thing in order to achieve harmony. We need, rather, to affirm our freedom to believe. Even if we will never agree about religion, we can agree that religious liberty is essential for peaceful coexistence. This is the basis of what is called secularism.
Unfortunately, secularism has gotten a bad reputation. Some people continue to falsely accuse secularism of rejecting key values such as justice and truth.
As the Parliament was meeting in Toronto, Matthew Whitaker was appointed as the new acting attorney general in the United States. When he was a candidate for the Senate in 2014, Mr. Whitaker maintained that he wanted American judges to have a “Biblical view of justice.” He said, “if they have a secular world view, where this is all we have here on Earth, then I’m going to be very concerned about that judge.”
The former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, would likely agree. In 2014 Sessions said, “if you don’t believe in the truth, if you’re an utter secularist, then how do we operate this government?” In 2016, Sessions said, “You see, this is a postmodern, relativistic, secular mindset and I believe it’s directly contrary to the founding of our republic.”
Critics of secularism such as Whitaker and Sessions want Christianity to guide law and government. But as we’ve seen, even Christians do not agree about the meaning of Christianity. Which Biblical worldview should we put in charge?
The virtue of secular governments is that they don’t pick sides in religious disputes. They remain neutral about religion. And they should create conditions that permit people to freely practice their own faiths.
In fact, Mr. Whitaker’s reasoning would seem to make it impossible for diverse people to get a fair trial. Can a judge who bases his judgments on a Biblical worldview be fair in a trial that concerns an atheist or a swami like Vivekananda?
Furthermore, Mr. Sessions is wrong to say that secularism is relativistic. A relativist says that there is no way to judge because our judgments are made relative to a given perspective. Swami Vivekananda offered a soft and inclusive kind of relativism when he claimed that all religions are true.
But secularism is not so soft. It begins with a fundamental commitment to liberty. This commitment is not relativistic. Secular political systems maintain that religious freedom is a basic right. This means that secularism is not so inclusive as to allow theocrats to pick sides in religious disputes.
It is secular political systems that make something like the Parliament of the World’s Religions possible. In some countries religious orthodoxy is imposed by the state, minority religious are prohibited, and atheists and heretics can be executed.
But here in North America where the Parliament of World Religions was born, we affirm religious liberty. It is liberty that allows us to talk about openly about our differences. It is secularism that allows us freely discuss whether there is anything we share in common.