by Dave Belden, 1 November 2004
Not long ago, humanists could feel that theirs was the way of the future. But now, Dave Belden argues, we will need to relearn how to make common cause with religious progressives
For many humanists, it may be time to rethink some fundamental attitudes: the world’s poor are the engines of population growth and most of them have religion. The rich can’t function even in their own countries without bringing in working armies from the global south; through this flow of people, religion is returning to the sacred (or is it the scared?) homelands of secularism.
This process raises serious questions for humanists. Will it mean that the tide of traditional patriarchal values, of conservative religiosity, will become irreversible? That the incredible struggle previous generations waged (and more than half–won) for freedom, democracy, feminism, and human rights will be overwhelmed?
In my first column for the online magazine openDemocracy back in November 2002 I wrote: “Religion is back. The Falling Towers were only the opening thunderclap of the 21st century. Pundits tell us that what secular ideologies — Communism, Nazism — were to the 20th century, religious ones will be to the 21st.” This is the reality we must learn to live with.
Current projections predict more than one billion Pentecostal Christians alone by 2050. Christianity is growing faster even than Islam. We can expect religious wars as well as mass conversions in this century. Crossing the bridge from traditional to modern society is dangerous: appetites awake before they can be fulfilled, scapegoats are sought. Europe’s passage over was attended by some of humanity’s foulest horrors. Can the rest of the world’s journey avoid them? Demagogues today use the language of God more than Marx or master race: expect more religious pogroms.
With the globalisation of capitalism — and of enthusiastic religion — all the old battles that were waged in Europe and America are now to be fought again in every country of the world. The struggles for democracy, the rule of law, social safety nets, trade unions, human rights, freedom of speech and of religion all go together.
It is a humanist vision that in every culture people can attain freedom and enable all to achieve their potential in their own chosen way. If it is all to be done again, let us look at how it was done before.
If you are the argumentative type, you may choose to remember the first openly atheist MP, Charles Bradlaugh, who used to stride onto the stage, take out his pocket watch and challenge God to strike him dead in 60 seconds. Wonderful entertainment, but it misses the main point.
Arguments are not the primary way that humanism progresses. Doubts about traditional and imposed beliefs are there already in many people’s minds. The primary path is through expanding freedom to choose, so that people can act on their private thoughts, educate themselves, branch out, argue, live large.
Throughout history a majority of those who have acted to expand freedom have expressed some kind of religious belief. This is hardly surprising. Religious belief can help individuals to create freedom.
Therefore it pays not to make enemies by denying religion altogether. In Islamic communities today, whether in London or Karachi, are you going to have more success in expanding areas of freedom for women by throwing over the whole religion, or by arguing that the Prophet himself gave women much more freedom than Wahabis do? Even some thorough doubters may choose the latter as the better tactic. For in the breadth of religious traditions there is room for variety and dissent.
In truth Mohammed was more liberal towards women than many of his followers today. All the great religions stress compassion. All religions have their mystical traditions that contradict creedal rigidities. There is room for compassion and questioning: religious humanism. To many that is more attractive and convincing than the complete unknown of agnostic humanism.
And then there is the question of how people get the psychological, inner strength to go against the conformities of their families, society, time. We are a tribal species. Few things are harder for people who were traditionally subservient to their ‘elders and betters’ than publicly dissenting and struggling for rights. Innumerable reformers have found in their religious faith the positive inspiration to risk reputation and even life.
If people are acting to expand liberty and free thought, why grouch that it is their religious faith that is inspiring them to do so? Why not instead welcome them as allies?
Two years ago the Guardian reported on a support group for Muslim gays in Britain. “We believe that homosexuality is not a religious problem, it’s a social taboo,” Adnan Ali, who runs the group, was quoted as saying. “So we started this group because we thought we’d explore what the Koran says. For many of us, our link with our Creator, with Allah, is still important to us. And we are determined to remain Muslim and gay.”
It is no recent news that faith can help the cause of freedom. Michael Lerner edits Tikkun, one of the best magazines for understanding what a progressive religious outlook can be. He calls the second century BC struggle of the Jewish Maccabees “the first national liberation struggle in recorded history”.
“These were people who could not submit to the rule of the imperialist, and whose religion taught them that they need not, because the central power of the universe was a power that rejected the reality of oppression. The Torah told the tale of their origins in a slave rebellion against another imperialist power thought to be invincible — the Egypt of the Pharaohs.”
Jewish social justice traditions have inspired countless movements since. They buoyed up the courage of enslaved Africans in the US and were central to the inspiration of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, led mainly by Christian pastors and congregants.
The humanist movement itself has its roots in the Ethical Societies of the 19th century which grew out of Unitarian congregations. Those believers had campaigned for free speech and an end to the slave trade. And some of their most valuable allies in that great cause were evangelical Christians.
Likewise, the nonconformist churches in England were central to the struggle to remove religious qualifications for office or voting. From the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party, there are numerous examples of socialist heroes who had deep Christian beliefs.
Across the Atlantic, the godless constitution of the United States enabled religion to flourish there as nowhere else in the rich world, as Fletcher Crossman correctly notes in this New Humanist. What is often forgotten is that influential Christians of the revolutionary period knew it would. There were religious enthusiasts and minorities who greatly feared establishing ruling state churches. It was only because freethinking politicians like Washington, Adams and Jefferson made common cause with them that the US has a secular constitution.
And let’s remember that those freethinkers were mostly Deists: they believed in a God of some kind. So a secular constitution was made by believers. Outright atheists like Tom Paine were few.
In short, in England and in America, the freedoms we have won were won often by alliance between freethinkers and religious progressives. This will be necessary in all the countries of the world that are now rising economically. Is Falun Gong not going to be involved in creating religious and political freedom in China? Of course it will be, along with the rapidly growing Chinese Pentecostal movement. Let the humanists make common cause with them to achieve freedom.
The argumentative Bradlaugh approach does not foster such an alliance. If your attitude is that religion is simply wrong and there is nothing for you in talking with religious people, then you cut yourself off from some great people and much of the past and present wisdom of humanity. But worse than that, you lessen your own influence on the future.
There are skills involved in politics that many humanists must relearn if they are to make common cause with religious progressives. In alliances with believers, it is vital to focus on the things you have in common, not those that drive you apart. For example, you could make a donation to Al–Fatiha UK, a group that supports gay Muslims, without asking that they drop the Muslim part. You could investigate web sites that present religious progressive ideas: examples include pcnbritain.org.uk, safraproject.org, tikkun.org, sojo.net. Think of the charities and welfare movements that had religious origins, from Quaker prison reformers to Christian Aid, the Red Cross to the hospice movement.
In my openDemocracy column I have told stories of religious people who pioneered freedom, democracy, human rights, and compassionate creative solutions.
The purpose has not been to promote religion — I’m an agnostic, for God’s sake! — but to bring into the arena of public discussion the fact that there are great religious traditions of prophetic and compassionate championing of the oppressed and the poor.
You might be forgiven for thinking that these traditions have been forgotten in the United States. Multitudes of people have been induced to vote against their own economic self–interest — for example to vote for massive tax–cuts for the rich and against universal health care — partly because the Republicans, the party of big money, have successfully dressed themselves in the raiment of religion. The party’s more vehement ideologues claim God as its own. Don’t be surprised if Bush wins this election.
How did this happen? That is too long a story to tell here. But I have to say that an important element in it is the fright that overtook middle America when the 1960s generation questioned authority, war and tradition. Like Bradlaugh on stage, the hippies and war protesters were flamboyant. It was great theatre. But it scared the horses. Modern life, with its supermarket of ideas and moralities, is frightening enough. Having your kid take up drugs, free sex, New Age notions, long hair, and questioning God — that’s too much. So appeals to traditional certainties could be used to derail the whole liberal project.
To rerail the humanist agenda, a less adolescent approach by the carriers of the humanist tradition would help. Humanists who mostly read about the ills and evils of religion and other superstitions, need to be challenged to remember that there are decent folk among the religious, and that we need to work with them if we want to achieve our larger goal of a more just society. Openly gay Muslims and Anglicans, anti–imperialist and anti–slavery evangelicals, feminist Hindus and peace–seeking Jews need not be among our enemies. We have enemies enough. Religious progressives are our natural allies.
Dave Belden is a carpenter, novelist, web and corporate writer living in New York State. This article first appeared in New Humanist magazine – an edited version of an article which first appeared on openDemocracy.