THE BLOG
10/28/2014 05:04 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

You Don't Have to be an Atheist to Be An Authentic Progressive

Most citizens with progressive politics want policies predicated on the philosophy of humanism, not religious dogma. They want modern ethical approaches to abortion, contraception, embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage, sex education, recovery programs, and the right to die.

Internationally, progressives want full recognition of human rights.

Secularism is seen as the only way to achieve these ends, since institutional religions -- fundamentally conservative and traditional -- are reactionary, a protector of the status quo.

Does this mean that only atheists can be authentic progressives?

Consider the 2002 Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Chris Hedges, one of America's most vocal social critics, activists and humanitarians. Once awarded the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism, Hedges is an exceptionally loud voice for progressive ideas as anyone who follows him on Truthdig can testify. His articles have titles such as "Sacrificing the Vulnerable, From Gaza to America," "The Imperative of Revolt" and "The Myth of the Free Press."

In May, Hedges wrote:

The political and economic systems are subservient to corporate profit. Corporations, no matter which politicians are in office, loot the Treasury, escape taxation, push down wages, break unions, dismantle civil society, gut regulation and legal oversight, control information, prosecute endless war and dismantle public institutions and programs that include schools, welfare and Social Security. And elected officials, enriched through our form of legalized corporate bribery, have no intention of halting the process.

The government, by ignoring the rights and needs of ordinary citizens, is jeopardizing its legitimacy. This is dangerous. When a citizenry no longer feels that it can find justice within the organs of power, when it feels that the organs of power are the enemies of freedom and economic advancement, it makes war on those organs. Those of us who are condemned as radicals, idealists and dreamers call for basic reforms that, if enacted, will make peaceful reform possible. But corporate capitalists, now unchecked by state power and dismissive of the popular will, do not see the fires they are igniting.

Chris Hedges is a radical. He is also -- as of October 5 -- an ordained minister,
a designation he has wanted ever since he took a Master's degree at Harvard Divinity School over twenty years ago; an achievement for him that boggles the minds of atheist progressives who can't quite connect the dots.

But similar to Iranian-American religion scholar, Reza Aslan who identifies as Muslim; British physician/scientist, Professor Lord Robert Winston who identifies as an observant Jew; and British former Catholic ex-nun and historian, Karen Armstrong who identifies as a mystic, Hedges says that our understanding of the transcendent is a private, personal matter.

Faith for Hedges is about fighting for the good and he sees America's Christian Right as the anti-Christ.

Substitute the general Religious-Right for America's Christian Right and you have the premise for a recent conference in London that Hedges would probably have appreciated. Speakers and panelists at The Religious-Right, Secularism and Civil Rights were from the Diaspora or countries as diverse as Algeria, Bangladesh, Canada, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Poland, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Switzerland, Syria, Turkey, Tunisia, UK, USA and Yemen. Conference participants convened for two days to reflect upon secularism as a minimum condition for a truly democratic society.

Women's rights and gender politics were a major topic since all institutional religions throughout the world are fundamentally misogynistic. One of the conference speakers was international law professor, Karima Bennoune who called on the conference participants to observe one minute of silence as tribute to the many who have fallen, globally, fighting the Religious Right for women's rights. Bennoune is the author of Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, a must read for anyone who wants to really understand the role of Muslim fundamentalism and women's rights.

Muslims, however, are not monolithic. While the majority identify as "moderates," (which means traditional and conservative), there are an increasing number of progressives in a wide variety of organizations throughout the world. One is BMSD, British Muslims for Secular Democracy that see British procedural secularism as critical protection.

"As British Muslims we are able, for the most part, to practice our faith in an atmosphere of respect and security," said Tehmina Kazi, Director of BMSD in an email. BMSD takes a progressive stand on many issues such as honor killings, forced marriages, sexual abuse as well as matters affecting human rights and citizenship.

BMSD categorically stands up for the superiority of law-based societies over theocracy. Kazi is quick to differentiate, however, between procedural and ideological secularism. One is legal, the other is conceptual. One wants to make sure that religion does not interfere with politics or politics with religion. Ideological secularists want religious voices banished altogether from public places and because they are atheists, they want religion ultimately to disappear from human experience.

Indeed, there were some participants at the London meeting who voiced a complaint about the conference's lack of a rigorous stance against religion per se, in spite of A.C. Grayling's robust speech supporting atheism and the presence of Richard Dawkins in the audience. It is to the credit of the conference's conveners and organizing committee that secularism was not allowed to be conflated with atheism.

In a second presentation on the second day, Karima Bennoune drew attention to another progressive Muslim organization whose members are vocal supporters of LGBT rights, both in Los Angeles where they are headquartered and throughout
the world where they have chapters. MPV - or Muslims for Progressive Values -
is just another example of faith-based progressives. "Please! We must acknowledge that not all secularists are atheists," said Bennoune.

Procedural secularists might have been in a numerical minority, but they were present, agnostics and believers both. Another faith-based progressive was Imam Taj Hargey from the Muslim Educational Center of Oxford who asked the audience to support MECO's campaign to outlaw full face veiling.

Hopefully there will be more conferences like this one. Not only does it underscore the need for a clear separation of church and state, it provides a forum for the two types of secularism where they can rub elbows and engage one another in debate; not the boring, worn-out debate about the existence of God, but debates about strategy and tactics to achieve social justice.

Eventually, historians will write about this dialectical struggle. And we can only wonder what will they say since the battle for hearts and minds is as old as the history of human consciousness. Secularism -- the separation of church and state -- is obviously a requirement for democracy and the protection of human rights.

But there is clear evidence that people of faith do have a role to play in the unending campaign for justice, fairness and equality.