What is the ideal role for religion in the secular square?

By Donald A. Collins | 29 November 2016
Church and State

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)

As the flurry of powerful, old religious opinions continues to try to push us non believers into some stupid ideological cul de sacs, we keep asking ourselves what can we do to bring these religious zealots to the light? There is urgency in our need to do so.

Far too many of those believers who gain succor from fantastical beliefs such the promise of a heavenly hereafter or a biological inanity about when life begins in the womb want all of us to join in enforcing their opinions when it comes to enacting secular laws such as whether women have the right to determine when and under what circumstances they bear children.

Fortunately there seem to be some religious groups which can live with all of us so long as those religions don’t try to impose their beliefs on secular decisions made as the result of a democratic process.

One group seems to be the Unitarian Universalist Association (commonly referred to by themselves as UU), one of whose members is a lifelong friend of mine as well as a founder of his particular church.

This almost non religious group has strong views against religious groups that commit heavily to influencing secular behavior.

More from my UU friend in a moment.

Doubtless all religious groups’ members as well as the sect to which they belong seek in some degree to influence secular issues. Hey, we all have personal views on many subjects and in the USA so far we have the freedom to express them if we are prepared to take the media or personal heat from others.

However, the question comes down to what degree do religions influence public policy? The history of intervention (and horrible destructive behavior) by powerful long established sects is well exemplified by a column I read on Thanksgiving from the powerful Church and State website in London which published on 11/23/16 an article entitled “Endless Religious Absurdities”, which I shared with the long time friend mentioned above, a friend with whom I share many views on politics, religion and life.

This piece lists horrifying examples through the ages from many religions of behavior based on their particular beliefs that resulted in murder and mayhem of gigantic proportions.

After emailing this piece recently to my UU friend, he replied by saying,

As long and appalling as the list is, it obviously isn’t even close to being complete.

Incidentally, I would forward this article to my ex-Jesuit priest friend except that I know he would agree that it is all foolishness except the part about wine into blood, which he would think to be OK because it is a metaphor and not to be taken literally.

Of course, he has several master’s degrees and a PhD. in Philosophy. His sophisticated understanding of the distinction between metaphor and reality is different than that of many of those in the pews.

He and I have quit debating such things because we inevitable end up in a stalemate. So now we just drink non-metaphorical wine and play chess.

For something over 20 years I have pardoned any turkeys that might have come my way. (Recall the annual White House event involving the President)

Today we will be celebrating our Indo-Euro triumph over the Stone Age natives with vegan chili and pumpkin pie.

As a founder of his particular Unitarian Universalist Association, my friend has edited its newsletter for many years. I found his December 1216 editorial worth quoting.

Liberal Religion and Public Discourse

“It’s always good to be underestimated.” Donald Trump

When news breaks and journalists look to religious personalities for a sound bite their usual subject will be someone like the Pope, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Rick Warren, an Anglican Archbishop or other central or conservative Christian source.

Seldom is a UU, a Quaker or a UCC religious leader a prime subject for the news media. Does that mean that we liberals lack the ability to influence events in a positive way? Not at all!

According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 25.4% of Americans identify as evangelical protestant, 14.7% mainline protestant, and 20.8% Roman Catholic. A surprising 46% are unaffiliated, atheistic, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”.

Prevailing trends point to further losses among traditional Christian denominations along with increases in the un-affliliated and other non-churched groups.

The opportunity to influence public policy and private opinion in ways that support human rights, environmental sanity, ethical treatment of animals and respect for the worldwide web has always been open to us. It now seems to be opening even wider as traditional religions’ influence declines. Our ongoing advocacy of these life affirming positions will raise a strong defense against those who want to deny them to humanity.

Progressive forces have almost always been underestimated by the rulers, but in the long run have prevailed. Consider emancipation, women’s suffrage, desegregation, marriage equality and the many other successes which were derided at the time.

Consistent advocacy of ethical action can and does raise public awareness to the extent that political action follows.

In further conversation with my UU friend, he offered a point worth mentioning.

He mentioned another liberal church, the United Church of Christ (UCC) which has a little more traditional religious orientation than the UUs. Barack Obama is a UCC, some of whose services are quite traditional but on issues of social and environmental justice my friend says UUs and UCCs are quite similar.

Other liberal religious bodies include the Quakers, Reformed Judaism and as my friend claims sometimes Roman Catholic nuns!! Both UU and UCC congregations enjoy “radical congregational polity”. In common parlance, each congregation governs its own affairs, sets its own agenda and chooses its own leaders. None have bishops, archbishops or any ecclesiastical authority or hierarchy.

To me, the groups seem bonded by a wish to face the imponderable in a socially acceptable way, not having to come to grips with a belief in a higher power, which of course suggests they would not wish to bring their entities forward to represent opposition or support for democratically agreed upon secular decisions.

In a world suffused with religious zealots, it is comforting to get this perspective and realize that perhaps, as science continues to deliver cogent proof that the universe was not created in 6 days, the internet education of everyone in the world may continue to erode the numbers of humans who are restricted by their religious cul de sacs of beliefs to ignore the virtue of openly debated and democratically determined laws that do not inflict religious beliefs on non religious citizens.

So in the end, what is the ideal role for religion in the secular square?

Well, clearly there will never be a definition which can suffice to embrace us all, but as today’s record levels of human numbers push us closer (some now argue we are now beyond) to planetary limits of survival, only the implementation of the best scientific thinking about our physical realities will ultimately guide human survivors to whatever future can be salvaged from the looming challenges some prescient visionaries now see swiftly emerging on our tiny orb.

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013

By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
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  1. "What is the ideal role for religion in the secular square?" As an embarrassing set of collective memories.

    We can remember how thousands of clergy told us that only their brand of evidence free faith led to valhalla, paradise, or heaven.
    We can remember that it was vanity disguised as humility to think that only our denomination will be saved at the end of the world.
    We can remember that it was evil and destructive to earnestly hope the world would end so only we could be saved.

    We can remember how religions tried to suppress and deny science when facts and evidence showed religion was wrong. When we could not bend the facts, we bent and broke our own minds in denial.
    We can remember how religions tried to say the world was unknown and unknowable, so be content with ignorance.
    We can remember being told that all people were NOT created equal. That men should lead and women must follow, that women were all tainted by an ancient fable about a talking snake and an apple, that children were property, and that sometimes even owning slaves was acceptable.

    We can remember the moment of shame on realizing that we had been duped by religion, but also the joy that we were not all born evil sinners and that we truly can make our own choices. We are not sheep.
    We can remember that humanity is everyone on earth, not just our own little tribe of familiar church faces.
    We can remember religion, then be ashamed of our past, but also strive to do better with our future.


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