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Quotable: Religious and secular co-existence

As an agnostic humanist and mostly probably atheist, there are a lot of things about religion that I think are worth questioning. If there is anything I believe firmly, it is that everything is worth questioning, including religious beliefs and practices. That doesn't mean that I dismiss all religions or religious people as being worthless and wrong. But it does mean that I judge individuals by their own beliefs, actions and values and not by those of others who carry the same label.

In in the introduction to his book Parenting Beyond Belief, Dale McGowan (who also blogs at The Meming of Life) writes about religious and secular co-existence. His clear explanation is today's quotable:
In the Preface to this book, I said that I had "set religion aside." Actually, that's a bit like saying someone who rides a bike to work has set traffic aside. I'm still in it, still surrounded by it, and I always will be. Religion, for better or worse, is likely to be a permanent part of the human world. Our job as secular parents is not to work toward a religion-free world, but to help our kids learn to happily and peacefully co-exist with religion.

Co-existence does not mean silent acceptance of all consequences of religious belief. To the contrary: Silence and inaction in the face of dangerous immorality is itself immoral. We have to engage religious people and institutions in just the way we wish to be engaged ourselves, as co-participants in the world. We should reasonably but loudly protest the intolerance, ignorance, and fear that is born of religion while at the same time reasonably and loudly applauding religious people and instititutions whenever charity, tolerance, empathy, honesty, and any of our other shared values are in evidence. An important part of this is recognizing that not all expressions of religion and not all religious people are alike. Be sure to help kids recognize that the loudest, most ignorant, and most intolerant religious adherents - whether raving radical muslim clerics or raving radical Christian televangelists - do not represent all believers, nor even the majority. Though institutional religion itself is an unfortunate thing, the majority of individual believers are decent and thoughtful people with whom we have more in common than not. Saying that to yourself once in a while, and to your kids, can move the dialogue further forward than just about anything else.

The vision we should encourage in our children is not a world free of religion but one in which no idea or action is granted immunity from discussion and critique - including, of course, our own.

I thought this quote was particularly pertinent in light of all of the recent discussion about Mosques at Ground Zero. I also think it is relevant when we are condemning stoning someone to death, circumcising infants, or teaching children that evolution is "just a theory." These acts, which could all be considered immoral (although not equally so) and which are all done in the name of religion, are all worth condemning. But it doesn't mean that every Muslim, Jew or Christian is an immoral person or is guilty of immoral acts. Just as not everyone who worships or practices a religion is a terrorist. In fact, I think a Mosque at Ground Zero would create a unique opportunity for a group of Muslims to condemn and distance themselves from the horrible acts committed on 9/11 while promoting greater tolerance and co-existence with other religious cultures.

I believe that religion is dangerous when its followers, either by force or by choice, do not question the beliefs and rules that are handed down. Our world is evolving and religion, if it is to survive, needs to evolve too.  That will only happen if people with different beliefs can sit together and learn about each others' beliefs and remain open to a critique of their own beliefs. It will only happen if we can learn to see individuals as individuals, instead of assuming the best or the worst about someone, based on the actions of the best of worst people of the same faith.

For that reason, I am very supportive of the Ethics and Religious Culture curriculum that was introduced in the Province of Quebec a few years ago and that replaces the previous option of either Protestant or Catholic moral and religious education. The new curriculum is a non-confessional program that is used all the way through elementary school and high school and that allows children to:

  • acquire or consolidate, if applicable, an understanding of how all individuals are equal in terms of right and dignity

  • learn to reflect on issues

  • explore, depending on his/her age, different ways in which Québec's religious heritage is present in his/her immediate or broader environment

  • learn about elements of other religious traditions present in Québec

  • grow and develop in a society in which different values and beliefs coexist

Children that have been through that program, whether Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Muslim, Atheist or Buddhist, Pagan or Kuksu, or just entirely unsure, should be more prepared for peaceful co-existence than those who only learn one world view.

Parents who want to teach their children about co-existence can:

I'm sure there is more that they can do. I'm sure that there is more that they should do. But mostly, I think that people need to refrain from making assumptions about someone's character or motives based on their religion alone. If we treated people like people and modeled that for our children rather than spewing intolerant remarks at the dinner table or on the evening news, that would be a step in the right direction.
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Reader Comments (13)

I know some people don't believe there is an objective "truth", but I personally do, and if religion is based on objective truth, I think it accordingly can't (and shouldn't) change as society does. So I disagree on that point.
I totally agree though that we shouldn't judge individuals on actions or attitudes of others sharing their religious beliefs, but on their own actions and attitudes. As a convert to Catholicism I often tire of references to the Crusades, for example, which have no bearing whatsoever on my personal faith or behavior!

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaman A Droit

People often seem to view religious faith as something by definition immune to the necessity of critical evaluation or rational examination. I think it's an Enlightenment hangover of the sense that Reason and Faith are entirely different and opposed things. If we could take a couple aspirin and drink some strong coffee, shake off that nasty epistemological hangover, then maybe we could start being reasonable about religion...but of course, I speak as an unemployed theologian looking for someone to pay me to go about being all reasonable and critical about religious beliefs and practices! ;)

More seriously, I think the best point is that we can identify shared values and practical goals and start working together--on any number of social justice issues--without requiring that everyone's motivation or reasoning process for why these things are worth doing be identical.

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJTB

You put into words things that I think but can't express. And your suggestions for how to teach our children about all the religions of the world so that they are not ignorant, without teaching them to be religious, is something I have been trying to figure out. Thank-you.

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

I have been struggling with these issues recently. I am not ashamed of being a Christian, but I do NOT want to be lumped in with a group of people who boycott stores that don't wish them a Merry CHRISTmas or dare to put up signs recognizing other holidays. I don't want to be seen as part of a group that thinks all Muslims are terrorists and that the "ground zero mosque" is intended as a memorial to terrorists. I plan to blog about these issues because, while most of the people who hold these beliefs are extremely stubborn, I at least want people to know that most Christians are not like them. I think purposefully educating children about coexistence is a great idea. We are going to homeschool, and as our children get older I am looking forward to taking them to events at the university my husband and I attended, which is nearby.

Also, at least here in the southeastern US, many of the people in my parents' generation had hardly any experience with people of other cultures or faiths. My mother's school didn't even desegregate until the year after she graduated. I didn't glean much accurate information about those of other cultures and backgrounds in my home life as a child. Some people I know went to high school/college, met new friends, attended events, learned about others and then went home to educate their parents on diversity. I am hopeful that things are moving in the right direction.

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

I agree. Religion when followed blindly is VERY dangerous. I think the responsibility lies with those of us who consider ourselves religious. One of the reasons I love Judaism so much is its insistence upon questioning itself. I'm not sure what you mean by religion "evolving." Care to expand upon that?

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSara


There are a number of ways that religions can evolve:
1) I think there are a lot of religious beliefs and rituals that were established a long time ago and we may know better today. There are things done in the name of religious tradition that hurt people, that do not treat men and women equally, that pretend away scientific truths.
2) I think a lot of religions are seen by young people as boring or archaic. I think that religious institutions need to work to ensure that they are relevant to today's youth if they want to continue to have an impact on people's lives.

Probably other ways too, but that is what jumps to mind right now.

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I'm Roman catholic and am happy to say that of the many different chapels I've been too, over half of them openly encourage other faiths and denominations and learning from each other - in fact we have a Jewish trumpet player in our choir, a Muslim who attends our Saturday Mass, several Lutherans, a few baptists etc though these chapels are the ones with the majority or the parishioners being younger then 35. It makes a HUGE difference. We are also encouraged to go and meet with other religions on their ground (to the extent we're invited).

That being said I've been asked to leave bible study b/c I argued that 'preaching' to people who don't believe the same as I do is wrong. I've had ppl stop talking to me b/c my husband is not catholic, and I've had ppl tell me it's wrong to introduce my children to any view point other thant he RC view.

My children attend mass (sometimes) we read bible stories and talk about God and Jesus. Last week we (My 3 yr old and I) also had a fabulous discussion about Buddha and some basic views from that camp. To me it is amazing that my little girl has the opportunity to learn these different views, she will be able to form her own world view, and I hope it will be one of openess and tolerance. Ultimately what I feel is one of the most important points to remember about my own religion.

We're also very lucky to live in an area where there are so many diverse people. My children have talked with people from different countries, different backgrounds, and different skin colours and for that I think I am on the right track.

But ultimately the way I knw my kids are 'getting it' is one day my 3 yr old came to me and said "Mommy A (her very pale little sister) is just like Tiana" (Princess & the Frog). Me "Oh, really? But htey have different skin." Her (rolling her eyes) 'No they don't. They both have beautiful skin and that is how they're the same. They are both beautiful."

Whether we are talking beliefs or appearance, it rolls into one. The world needs to learn acceptance and tolerance of anyone who is different.

September 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

Thank you for pointing this out, it is amazing what the press and mass society can get wrong. Keith Olbermann's insights are great about tolerance and co-existing is America today.

September 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

Thanks for the book recommendation. I came from a very religious upbringing, but don't practice religion in our daily life today. I want to expose my kids to spirituality and teach them about morality/ethics, but I don't want to do so by joining a church. I'm looking forward to reading more on this.

September 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle @ The Parent Vortex

Co-existence does not mean silent acceptance of all consequences of religious belief.
It certainly doesn't. But the difficulty lies in determining the consequences. It's the belief of groups who have misinterpreted religion, or who twist religion for their own sick gains, that requires action on behalf of the religion's adherents as well as outsiders. Terrorism is practiced by a ridiculous minority of Muslim groups - but is the furthest thing from being Islamic.

Coexistence however also means not condemning an entire religion based on the actions of a few. 

This quote also reminds me of the difference between multiculturalism (silent acceptance of belief/culture) and pluralism (active engagement with belief/culture). 

I think that people need to refrain from making assumptions about someone’s character or motives based on their religion alone.

A curriculum based on religious CULTURE and ethics is indeed important. This is one of the reasons why we are probably not going to be sending Eryn to an Islamic school. While she will have exposure to many faiths and cultures (babies of our friends), the last thing I desire is for her to have an incomplete Islamic religious education. One possibly based solely on the religious opinion of a school teacher, who may be quick to argue that Eryn's Omi and Opa are going to hell for being Christian (which has no basis in Islam). She should be learning her religion from how we practice at home, at the mosque and from critically engaging the Qur'an.

September 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWoodTurtle


The distinction you make in your last point is so important.

I grew up in the (old) religious school system in Quebec. The elements of our curriculum (not the same one as is used today) that focused on religious culture were excellent. I remember vividly doing my Grade 6 project on Islam and remember the projects of some of my classmates on other religions. Our religious education, however, was significantly lacking. We were supposed to be learning to be good protestants, but the reality of teachers with different beliefs and a mix of Sunday-school-attending Christians, non-religious children from a Christian background, and children of other faiths meant that the "religion" aspect of our education didn't really meet anyone's needs. Those who were Christian were getting much better quality religious education in their homes or on Sunday at church. Those who were not religious were not learning enough about Christianity to call it a religious education. Those who are not of Christian faith/background at all, were bored, confused or out of place.

September 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Awesome. This is kind of what I was trying to get at in my recent post: http://www.breastfeedingmomsunite.com/2010/08/religion-the-things-that-define-us-and-goodness/
We should all be accepting of others beliefs. Learning about one another should only serve to bring us closer together than further apart. It is why I ask the questions that I do and appreciate anyone who will share their religious beliefs with me.

September 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMelodie

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