Secularism Attacked

In a column that appeared in the Albany Times Union on March 17, Bishop Howard Hubbard, arguing against maintaining too great a distance between church and state, made the following statement:

Secularists define intolerance as the belief in exclusive truth claims that define right and wrong. They believe that any religious voice in a pluralistic society will either infect the body politic with unhealthy doses of fanaticism and ill will, or will contribute to extremism and polarization along religious lines which have plagued Europe and the Mideast for centuries.

Hence for secularists, if religion is to exist at all in our public affairs, our entertainment, our intellectual and artistic endeavors, they would have it do so uneasily, disguised on its very best and blandest behavior, preferably as a form of vague non-denominationalism.”

Bishop Hubbard does not name any of these secularists so it is hard to see just who has provoked this criticism. I consider myself a secularist and my definition of intolerance is the common one: “unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect contrary opinions or beliefs, persons of different races or backgrounds, etc.” This means that one listens to what others have to say, even when their opinions are not shared, or they are of different race or background.  One does not then begin to attack such persons or hound them out-of-town.

So a religious voice in public debate is perfectly permissible. However, if the argument is to have general force, it has to be at least in part secular. It is no good to claim that the state should enact a law simply to avoid offending the religious feelings of a particular denomination or faith. So, in this country, for example, it is perfectly legal (albeit possibly unwise and churlish) to publish an image of Mohammed, even an insulting one.  Nor can the argument that human life is sacred from the time of fertilization be accepted as a premise for enacting a law to prevent contraconception or abortion. For the non-believer, or the practitioner of another faith, this claim is at least questionable if not absurd.  So the proponent has to come up with a secular argument that is convincing before it would be proper for the proposal to become law.

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