Varieties of Domesticated Religions and Smart Secular Strategies

September 12, 2011

In an earlier post to this blog, I distinguished between “wild” religions still bent on totalitarian control and the “domesticated” religions capable of co-existing within democracies.

This distinction is crucial when engaging in dialogue with religious people. Some religious people still expect their religion to manipulate or even dominate their country’s social and political agendas. Strategies to combat against that “wild” religious spirit are not well-designed for dialoguing with people whose religion is domesticated. Domesticated religions form people capable of much toleration and cooperation with others, sufficient for proper functioning of democracy. Advocating secular politics, for example, is much easier among those of domesticated religions, since they can appreciate how a neutral government serves their lives just fine.

Having an intelligently designed strategy for dialogue with religious people is absolutely critical in a diverse country such as ours, and in a world that is even more religiously pluralistic. If every religious person was just like the Bible-waving and gun-toting fundamentalist depicted in some atheist literature nowadays, aggressive and confrontational tactics would be the only resort, perhaps. Since that’s far from accurate, however, thoughtful secularists will instead be prepared with more nuanced talking points, depending on the targeted audience.

To be more precise, we can break down the family of “domesticated” religions into three species. We can even label them with names that are familiar and memorable:

1. Cultural Religions

2. Humanistic Religions

3. Religious Humanisms

Here’s a brief guide to telling them apart.

1. Cultural religions expect believers to follow traditional religious authorities and conform to traditional social practices. These religions try to supply a culture of habits and practices to thoroughly shape believers’ lives. Dogmas and creeds of the past are applied to pass judgments on what counts as righteous and ethical today. Churches are powerful centers for socializing and political activism. Loyalty to one’s cultural religion, the good of the religious group, and preservation of the religious culture is supposed to be the top priority for believers. Cultural religions try to maintain that enveloping culture for their social groups across generations despite the wider social environment’s indifference or hostility. Preferring indifference to hostility, cultural religions prefer democracies where they cannot have their own nations. Cultural religions do prefer their own control over statutes and laws. Given the opportunity, a cultural religion can set up its own politics and national government, for it retains the know-how to dictate everyone’s life. Even within democracies, where they enjoy religious liberty as a group, they prefer to restrict the liberties of their own faithful, and struggle for special privileges (or “group rights”) so that they can impose different laws on their own groups. Ideally, they would love “separate but equal” status, enjoying domination over their conclave of believers and keeping out alien ideas and influences. Some kinds of secular democracies can permit religious sub-groups to have this special status.

2. Humanistic religions expect believers to follow religious practices and religious ethics because those things promote human happiness and spiritual advancement. Unlike cultural religions, humanistic religions don’t try to supply a complete culture for believers, they don’t demand exclusive group loyalty, and traditions are viewed as flexible guidelines to be thoughtfully selected and shaped for contemporary use. Contemporary humanistic standards are applied to pass judgments on what is living and what is dead in a religious tradition. Churches are modest attractors for some socialization, and they infrequently build effective political solidarity. Believers in a humanistic religion may not look or behave much differently from anyone in the wider society, and loyalty to one’s religion is not the top priority, since one’s family, career choice, and/or citizenship (etc.) may be even more important. Humanistic religions have lost the drive and capacity to set up controlling cultures or totalitarian states. Under favorable conditions, humanistic religions will try to set up constitutional democracies with skeletal frameworks providing basic civil rights and liberties for all. Humanistic religions seek equality and justice for their believers, of course, but only in the course of seeking greater equality and justice for everyone. Most kinds of secular democracies are good harbors for humanistic religions.

3. Religious humanisms expect believers to prioritize spiritual enlightenment and fidelity to high ethical ideals. Here we are focusing on the kind of humanism that  falls within the broad definition of religion as a belief system that orients believers towards a supreme reality and offers spiritual practices to have a rewarding relationship with that reality. [Religious humanism can shade into religious naturalism by de-emphasizing spiritual practices, but it remains distinct from secular humanism’s disdain for orientation with any supreme reality.] Unlike humanistic religions which update traditional religions by modern ethical standards, religious humanisms are largely liberated from traditional conformity, offer vague creeds or no creeds at all, and can even ground ethical principles on non-religious foundations. Religious humanisms may not use churches at all, and any churches are at best weak attractors for socialization and rare political activism. Believers in a religious humanism are simultaneously ordinary members of society and good citizens, distinguished only by certain quasi-religious practices and advocacy of one or another ethical agenda. Religious humanisms have no resources for supplying a fuller culture or politics, and they lack the structures to formulate any particular kind of governing (beyond small organizations such as communes). Religious humanisms borrow their political frameworks from humanistic religions, and largely agree that secular government is the best for all. Most kinds of secular democracies are good harbors for religious humanisms.  

An old and vast religion such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism can produce all three kinds of “domesticated” religions, besides totalitarian religious nations, in different ages. Today, both Christianity and Buddhism display all three varieties of domesticated species, in various parts of the world (and all three simultaneously in America, for example). Hinduism and Islam have produced all three varieties, but only cultural Hinduism displays any prominence; neither humanistic Hinduism nor humanistic Islam has much influence at present. And many more of the world’s religions, too many to list here, have produced and continue to produce cultural and humanistic variations.

There cannot be a one-size-fits-all strategy for defending and advancing secular democracy in such a pluralistic environment.

Advocating secular democracy to members of a cultural religion cannot be just about preaching the value of personal liberty and toleration of blasphemy. Cultural religions won’t appreciate those things. If they feel forced to choose between a country where their culture and control over youth will erode, and a country where they can dictate politics, they tend to choose the latter. The smart strategy is to avoid forcing them into that choice. Secular democracy can mean both human rights and protection of cultural groups enjoying the ability to pass on their traditions. [Because human rights include freedom of speech, criticism of religion is to be expected, but freedom of belief is protected too.] If “secularism” must instead mean public intolerance of religion and political antagonism against religion, cultural religions will abandon secular democracy.

Advocating secular democracy to members of a humanistic religion or to those in a religious humanism cannot just be simply about warnings of irrationality and violence inherent to religion. Humanistic religions and religious humanists feel quite rational and civil about their enjoyment of faith and spiritual practices. If they feel forced to choose between a country where their faith is disrespected and abused by seculars, and a country where their faith is respected by a dominant cultural religion, they may ally with the latter, and not with seculars. The smart strategy is to avoid forcing them into that choice. Secular democracy can mean promotion of universal humanistic principles and rights by a united coalition of people of faith and secular people. If “secularism” must instead mean atheism, humanistic religions will not join the coalition and religious humanists might not either.

Secularism doesn’t have to equate with public intolerance of religion or with acceptance of atheism. It doesn’t in the dictionary, and needn’t in practice. Secular democracy and robust civil liberties can be advanced by everyone in a pluralistic society, with only the “wildest” religions left behind. As for atheism, its quite appropriate criticisms of faith have an important place in democratic discourse. But atheism is not all of secularism, or even the core of secularism.

The distinction between “wild” and “domesticated” religions, and distinguishing among varieties of domesticated religions, is essential to formulating effective and persuasive strategies for defending secular democracy. If secularists indeed take reality as a guide, as we claim to do, then we’d best start with recognizing the reality of pluralism. There’s many winning strategies ahead, for the good of the whole world.