03/08/2009 07:27 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Religious/Secular Divide at the New School

The New School For Social Research just concluded a conference on the Religious/Secular Divide in the United States. The Conference was held for two days, 3/5-6, to standing room only crowds at the Tishman Auditorium in New York City. The New School brought in many well known names, including Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age, Daniel Dennett, who is often seen as part of the new wave of atheist attacks on religion, two federal Court of Appeals Judges, John Noonan and Michael McConnell, as well as a host of academic heavyweights.

The speakers were for the most part either secularists or sophisticated believers who share aspects of a secular outlook. Of course this is typical of academics in North America. That is why their conclusions about the Religious/Secular divide were a little surprising.

In general, one can describe the relationship of religion and secularism in four basic ways: a hard secular view that religion is a negative phenomenon--irrational, obscurantist, violent--that should be confronted, a hard religious view that secularism is man's latest rebellion against God that will lead to disaster, a separatist view that the realms describe mutually distinct aspects of human experience--for example, science describes the world while religion describes the self--or blended, in which secularism and religion are describing the same reality in different terms with differing emphases. This is a crude division and most of us hold some or all of these views to differing extents at different times, but this is a useful schematic.

With the notable exception of Daniel Dennett, who gave a powerful materialist account of reality consistent with his book, Breaking the Spell, and who thus spoke out of the first category, almost all the speakers at the Conference described the relationship of religion and secularism as blended and indeed predicted that religion and secularism will be increasingly blended in the future. For example, one of speakers summing up the Conference, Sheila Davaney of the Ford Foundation, referred to the "so-called" opposition of religion and secularism. (In the interest of full disclosure, my recent book, Hallowed Secularism: Theory, Belief, Practice belongs in the blended category and that is where my sympathies are).

Consistent with this blended view, most of the speakers did not foresee increasing struggle between religion and secularism in church/state issues. There was no talk of taking God out of the Pledge of Allegiance, for example, and Winifred Sullivan of the University of Buffalo Law School even referred to the "de-constitutionalization" of church/state issues.

What might account for these accommodationist views? In other ways--as in, for example, support for gay marriage--the speakers were certainly on the very left side of the political spectrum. And many of the questions from the audience were quite critical of religion. But the speakers mainly were not.

Certainly the reasons for this had little to do with any personal religious commitments. None of the speakers testified to any personal faith and there was little evidence of deep belief.

I think the reason for the blended view is the familiarity of the speakers with history. Many speakers either came from that discipline or had deep grounding in it. So, the audience was reminded that current secular critiques of religion are similar to the old Protestant critique of Catholicism. The audience was also told of past progressive contributions to political life by religiously motivated people, as in abolition, labor and civil rights.

Another reason, perhaps, is the academic tendency to take the long view. The speakers did not seem too concerned about Ten Commandments monuments or references to God in public life. We have had these things in the past and will have them in the future and there will not be any immediate change in such phenomena.

I have been painting here with a broad brush because I did not want to try to present the views of each speaker. The reader can judge these things directly by obtaining the special issue of the journal Social Research that will contain the papers presented at the Conference. The special edition can be ordered by calling 212-229-5776 or contacting The New School For Social Research.