In many respects, our society strives to protect difference. We are protected against discrimination on the basis of our gender, sexual orientation, race and religion. At least on paper, it is acknowledged that difference contributes to a richness of community life.
However, legalised protection against discrimination on the basis of difference does not prevent ‘othering’ on the basis of difference. A recent colloquium at Cumberland Lodge considered religious othering and ways to move beyond the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy. The colloquium brought together a great diversity of academics, practitioners and policy experts, contributing to a very rich discussion of a complex issue.
For me, the most difficult aspect of the discussion was recognising a way forward. A recurring theme was that it is counter productive to ‘manage the religion problem’ by pushing religion out of public discourse. This is because the promotion of secularisation of public life can in fact lead to the formation of ‘resistance’ identities, which further entrenches the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy.
The exclusion of religion from public discourse troubles me. I have studied and worked in two disciplines that are avowedly secular: law and science. I have often found it disappointing to observe the readiness with which religious thought is dismissed as ‘ignorant’ by practitioners in both these disciplines.
While I see a role for religious viewpoints in public discourse, I found the discussion of the ‘problem’ of secularism concerning. There is a real need to define what is meant by secularism.
A clear separation of religion and state seems to be the necessary outcome of centuries of experimentation where entwinement of matters of faith with matters of public governance led to considerable societal discord. In particular, how does one envisage a non-secular state that sits comfortably with religious pluralism?
At the same time, a society that excludes religious views from public discourse promotes religious othering and fails to draw from a rich intellectual, moral and cultural perspective. Religious views should be part of the cacophony of viewpoints that are heard as matters of public interest are discussed. Religious views should not be seen as any more legitimate than any other viewpoint; neither should religious views be dismissed.
I do feel that religious groups themselves have an important role to play in moving beyond the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy. Religion should not be seen as a problem to be managed. But it is also for religious communities to ensure that they engage openly with the broader public and do not end up being perceived as othering those that do not conform to their religious beliefs or practices.