Today’s Secularists Seek to Contain, Not Defeat, Religion

Dec. 21 2015

The Texas state bar recently decided not to allow a class on religion and legal ethics, offered by the law school of a Catholic university, to count toward continuing education requirements, on the grounds that to do so would constitute violation of boundaries between church and state. In his dissenting analysis, Peter Berger explains the underlying conflict between “secularity” and “secularism.”

Secularity is not an ideology but a fact, like it or not. Much of the time there is no choice: you cannot operate in a modern economy by following the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, and you cannot fly an airplane on instructions from the Talmud.

By contrast, secularism is an ideology (as the suffix indicates). It celebrates secularity and seeks to enlarge its space at the expense of religion. It comes in different versions. Its extreme version, from the Jacobin cult of reason to the “scientific atheism” of the Soviet Union, has become quite rare. Certainly in the U.S. it usually takes the form of a program to confine religion to private spaces—churches or other overtly religious institutions—and keep it out of public spaces, especially when these are supported by tax funds.

Probably there have always been tensions between the “no establishment” and “free exercise” phrases of the First Amendment. Secularists rank the first over the second. As in this case: the Texas state bar committee is offended by the intrusion, however academic, of a “Catholic orientation” into a program of necessarily secular legal education. The spokesman of a Catholic institution regards its religious orientation as the right to free exercise. . . . [E]ven if I were a committed secularist, as a sociologist I would observe that a broad understanding of religious freedom is conducive to civic peace (especially in a democracy).

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More about: American Religion, Freedom of Religion, Religion & Holidays, Religion and politics, Secularism


The U.S. Must Maintain the Kurdish Enclave in Eastern Syria

Aug. 16 2018

Presently only two rebel enclaves remain in Syria, and both are dependent on outside powers: one in the northwest, under Turkish control, and an area in the east controlled by the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Only by continuing its support for the latter can America prevent Iranian domination of Syria, writes Jonathan Spyer. Officials in Washington have made various statements suggesting that the White House has no intention of ceding the country to Iran, but haven’t clarified what this means in practice:

Actions . . . are a better guide than sentiments. And it appears that the SDF leaders remain skeptical regarding America’s long-term plans. Last week, the first direct negotiations took place between their representatives and those of the Assad regime, in Damascus.

It is not quite clear where things are heading. But Israel’s interest in this is clear. Maintenance of the east Syrian enclave and the [U.S.] base in Tanf means keeping a substantial physical obstacle to the Iranian hope for a contiguous corridor [connecting it to Lebanon via Syria and Iraq]. It would also prevent an overall Iranian triumph in the war and give the West a place at the table in any substantive political negotiation over Syria’s future. . . .

Specifically, efforts should be made to ensure a formal U.S. declaration of a no-fly zone for regime and regime-allied aircraft east of the Euphrates. This move, reminiscent of the no-fly zone declared over Iraqi Kurdistan after the Gulf War of 1991, would with one stroke ensure the continued viability of the SDF-controlled area. There should also be a formal recognition of the SDF zone, or the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria,” as it is formally known. This entity is not seeking independence from Damascus, so Western concerns regarding the formal breakup of Syria need not be raised by such a move.

As the strategic contest between Iran and its allies and the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East moves into high gear, it is essential that the West maintain its alliances and investments and behaves, and is seen to behave, as a credible and loyal patron and ally.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Kurds, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy