If Rick Santorum, candidate for the U.S. Republican presidential nomination, has brought anything to the forefront during his time in the spotlight, it is a new awareness and acknowledgement of the deep religious divide in the U.S., extending globally. Santorum is running on a predominantly fundamentalist Christian moral ticket, citing those tenants as arguments against issues like abortion and gay rights, while his opponents base attacks against Santorum on those same Christian beliefs, claiming they should not influence political policy. Clearly, both sides are lobbing assaults through the lens of religion.
Despite the harsh rhetoric around religion on both sides, there are some who see the religious divide shrinking, or at least coming to a greater understanding in our contemporary society. As New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in a recent column, “Yet lately I’ve noticed a very different intellectual tide: grudging admiration for religion as an ethical and cohesive force.” The basis for this comes from the fact that while atheists have often approached religion as harmful and a blight on society, new movements are meant to show atheists can learn from religion, and visa versa. A new book by Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists, sees the divide between religious and secular society/institutions not so much in terms of beliefs, but purpose. While secular institutions like universities and laboratories are great for the dissemination of factual information, they lack in the area of moral training and wisdom. This leaves it to individuals to come up with their own morality/philosophy, which is a tall order and contains its own flaws/issues.
De Botton is not a revivalist or segregationist, where universities are the land of the mind and churches the land of the spirit. Rather, he sees room in current secular society for more emphasis on pedagogy and ritual from religions to feed the soul as well as the mind. He presents several practical ideas for how atheists can use certain religious practices and ritual ideas to strengthen their own community. How reasonable or effective these are is an entirely other discussion.
What I choose to focus on from this book is not the way atheists can become more ‘socially moral,’ but simply the respect and communication that must exist between both groups for such an endeavor de Botton proposes to even be possible. Religious and secular societies are not mutually exclusive, and do not have to exist primarily as antagonists. With open communication brought on by the Internet and other devices, people have become exposed to a vast new array of worldviews. A bounty of knowledge and information will hopefully lead to better understanding and respect between disparate groups; the concept that at least being knowledgeable about another group is the first step to accepting and respecting their right to exist, and how they contribute to society. Instead of seeking victory of one group over another, compromise and sharing between groups will strengthen both groups individually, and the larger sector we all belong to: mankind.