The Secular Life and the Holidays

Phil Zuckerman, author of LIVING THE SECULAR LIFE and Mark Juergensmeyer, author of TERROR IN THE MIND OF GOD, discuss how secular and religious individuals can coexist during the holidays.

Welcome to the Penguin Press panel discussion, looking at religious and secular life during the holidays
With me is @jurgensmeyer professor of sociology at UC-Santa Barbara and author of TERROR IN THE MIND OF GOD
And of course we have our own @phil_zuckerman author of LIVING THE SECULAR LIFE just out this month
Lets get started. @phil_zuckerman can you explain just what secularism is?
There are two main kinds of secularism: political secularism is about church state separation and govt. neutrality concerning religion; the other kind if just basic “anti-religion” ideology, movement, or vibe...
So @phil_zuckerman what is the main complaint of secular Americans during the holiday season?
Actually, I think most secular folks aren’t complaining. They enjoy the season: the celebrations, parties, gifts, etc. But for those who are complaining, I’d say they are irked by the incessant religiosity that feels imposed everywhere: like nativity scenes in front of city hall
It’s nice to hear most aren’t upset. But @jurgensmeyer what are your thoughts on religion in public spaces?
well a lot of religious people are irked at the secularism of religious holidays
the whole issue of religion in public culture is complex
The philosopher Chas Taylor makes a distinction among secular state, sec society and sec person
it’s secular persons--people for whom sec is a deep part of their identity--who can be offended by symbols of relig in public life
and paradoxically relig people are offended by the superficiality of relig in public life. you can’t win
Can I ask Phil a question?
Go for it @jurgensmeyer
First, @phil_zuckerman, congrats on the book, Living the Secular Life. It’s an important topic
But my question: do you have a Christma...uh, holiday tree.. in your house?
Thanks so much, Mark. And thanks for joining me in this conversation...
We don’t have an x-mass tree in our home; I was raised Jewish, so I don’t have a feel for that. But I love trees, I love pagan rituals, and so I wouldn’t be opposed to it. If my wife wanted one, I’d enjoy it. Love the smell of pine. We spend x-mss with Grandma; large tree there
Why do you ask?
Nice. I’m Christian but my wife is Buddhist and she’s not into Christmas trees
But my Buddhist mother-in-law used to love them. Green trees, red and gold colors, family, reciprocity of gifts-- Christmas is a great Buddhist holiday!
Interesting @jurgensmeyer so are holidays really a time for us to open up to different religions? And non-religions?
Actually Christmas is a pagan holiday, the Christians just took it over when they Christianized Europe
The Japanese love Christmas. Hong kong is ablaze with lights right now as we speak
So this is the complexity of religious symbols in public life
@phil_zuckerman you talk in your book about how some secular people take religious holidays and retool them for new purposes. Can you talk about how that’s done?
Its all about innovation. Creativity. Taking the “spirit” of the holiday and shaping it in ways that work for your secular orientation. On Yom Kippur, we don’t go to synagogue; we take the day off and hike in the woods. It’s a meaningful tradition, but devoid of all the God stuff
Some folks celebrate the winter solstice this time of year. When I lived in Denmark, it was all about elves….
@jurgensmeyer do you think it is acceptable to take “the God stuff” out of originally religious festivals? Even if elves are added in their place?
It is about picking and choosing, and keeping the heritage while letting go of the supernatural stuff
But @Phil_Zuckerman at what point is too much religious symbolism just...too much?
It all boils down to public vs. private. I think people should be free to celebrate their religion as much as they like on their own property or house of worship. Where it gets problematic is when it bleeds into city hall, the courthouse, jail, public schools...
I can get it if there’s a nativity scene, but If there’s a tree with lights in front of a courthouse is that ok?
I’m curious, Mark, when you said that people are irked by the “secularism” of the holiday. hat did you mean?
Indeed… and I have no
problem with a tree…or santa…on public grounds. My only issue is with the specifically Biblical stuff.
For many Christians the season is a time for quiet waiting, that’s what advent means
For the public culture Christmas is just one big consumer orgy. Not quiet waiting, no “silent night, holy night”-- so Christians are offended by the secularism of the season
OK. But why do you equate “big consumer orgy” with “secularism” ?
Putting up nativity scenes in public places is an attempt to re-claim Christmas for Christians
Alas, though, as you say it appears to show preference for one relig over others
So @jurgensmeyer you think it is important for SOME part of Christmas exclusively for Christians. Can you talk more about that?
Nativity scenes are great -- on a person’s front lawn or church lawn..but not public park. No one’s taxes should ever go to supporting or establishing a religion they don’t subscribe to...
I agree with Phil about nativity scenes in public places.
Or even one that they do. It is the first amendment.
But you can see the frustration of religious Christians in a secular culture that takes a religious holiday and makes it a consumer orgy
Yes, absolutely. It must be hard/painful to see something that has deep spiritual meaning turned into an excuse to buy a bunch of crap. I understand...
Seems like rampant consumerist capitalism is winning, not “religion” or “secularism,” per se.
Yep. So it’s interesting-- secularists can feel overwhelmed by the religiosity of public culture..
and religious people are offended by its secularism
Sounds like we agree about some of the basics here. This is a tough space and everyone’s perceptions are king.
Phil, do you think it’s wrong to characterize consumer culture as secular?
Lets try changing direction here.
I guess I just take issue with your use of the word “secularism.” I have never seen it defined/used the way you are….
@phil_zuckerman What are the specific ways that secular Americans can navigate this time of the year?
1. Focus on the good -- joy, snow, egg nog, Burl Ives, latkes, etc.
2. Set clear boundaries with religious family members, and be polite and gracious about it. No need to be defensive to snarky.
3. Create your own family traditions
4. Find other humanists in your community
What about you @jurgensmeyer? Are there specific ways religious people can deal with their non-religious brethren? In a civil and friendly manner?
This is a good list for everyone, secular or religions
A lot of religious people are not very gracious about religious holidays, alas
They think that’s their time to shine.
Phil’s list of 4 holiday “do’s” should be required of religious people as well as secular ones
Remember that these are public holidays for everyone
@jurgensmeyer Do you think it would be better for secular Americans to share the holiday season with their religious counterparts, or make up their own at different times?
Christmas--and all public holidays--should be a time to bring people together not try to convert them or push your religious views
I think it also boils down to how comfortable a person is in his/her orientation. A centered humanist should have no problem experiencing a religious ceremony or ritual, just as a centered religious person should not feel threatened or angered by an atheist’s lack of faith..
Phil- let me relate an incident in our office and get your opinion on it
Here’s what happened-- In the program I directed, two staff members wanted to put up a tree and lights
They did it in their work space, I didn’t do it.
But along came a secular prof colleague who said he was offended and they had to take it down
The two staff member who put up the tree--one was Jewish and the other Muslim
Should I make them take the tree down?
No way. Keep the tree. It is their work space. I have little tolerance for people “being offended” in such settings. The secular prof has no legal grounds. If s/he is offended, too bad. S/he should see a therapist.
They hid the tree behind their desk
There are belligerent, unhappy people of all faiths, and of no faith...
Yeah, people don’t want to get into fights over Christimas symbolism if they can avoid it
I wonder if the “secular prof” would have been offended if they had erected a large bust of John Lennon or Che…or the Buddha?
Back to my incident-- if they put up a nativity scene rather than a tree, would that cross the line? The Univ of Calif is a public university
Their work space is the main office that you come into when you come into the program, so they don’t have a separate office. Can they put up religious symbols by their desk?
I believe that there are legal guidelines here -- if it is a person’s “personal space” -- like a desk or cubicle, such explicit religious iconography is permissible. It only become an issue when it is in a public/shared space, like a front lobby or by the coffee machine...
But I’m not sure…given your description of the location…yeah, a baby Jesus would probably cross the line….
There are a lot of grey areas in the presentation of relig symbols in public arent there?
Indeed. I am curious, Mark. As a Christian, what would be your “ideal” version of how Christmas is celebrated in our country? What would that look like?
Good question, Phil.
I guess I have no problem with Christmas being part of public culture (tho the tawdry consumerism turns me off, but it turns me off even when it’s not Christmas)
And I would like to see other religious traditions play more of a role in public culture. I love Hanukkah and Yom Kippur, for eg
I was pleased when Pres Obama recognized Ramadan, and when local radio stations in So Calif announced the times for the call to prayer
As a Christian, the more recognition of all religious traditions, the more I feel that the Christian holidays are recognized for their specific religious historicity
The acceptance of all religious traditions is good for each of them
Well-said. (the secular version of “Amen”?)
But do you think that more diversity of relig in public culture is bad for secularism?
No, I think it is good for secularism. Pluralism means more freedom and acceptance of a diversity of beliefs and orientations. And that will, by nature, include non-believers, as well.
Ame...uh, well said
So perhaps we can agree that its all about moderation. Most religious and secular people can and SHOULD tolerate and accept those around them.
Lets change direction again
As we’ve seen, you both are experts on the ‘moderates’ in religious and secular life. That everyone can meet in the middle. But how do we deal with extremists who DON’T agree? Lets start with @phil_zuckerman, is there something to be done about extreme atheists? Should there be?
Hm…that’s tough. While “extremist” atheists may be annoying in the workplace or around the dinner table, they don’t have any real political power that I am aware of. And they just want to keep religion out of the public/governmental sphere. Right? Or do you see it differently?
well, in the university atheists have a lot of power
..and they are using to destroy or attack religion?
When I was at the Univ of California at Berkeley, the sociologist Bob Bellah and I tried to create a religious studies grad program
A philosopher on the grad council objected-- relig was not worthy of studying on its own, he said
As we left the room, Bellah muttered to me, “those damned secular fundamentalists.”
So there are secular fundamentalists
In France and in Turkey they have shaped public policy against any display of relig in public, including headscarves.
That’s been changed in Turkey, but secularists are protesting on the streets
Unbelievable. Absurd. I am embarrassed by such a position…hard for me, however, to dub such an idiot a “secular fundamentalist.” Ignorant, yes. But “fundamentalist”? Really? Guess I reserve that word for different sorts of people...
Interesting @juergensmeyer. What about religious fundamentalists in America? Those who think there is a ‘war on Christmas’?
Well I’m not a fan of any kind of ideological extremism
Though most “extremists” don’t regard themselves as extreme. Just protecting their culture, what they believe in.
So here’s the dilemma-- how can you stay true to your values without becoming a pain in the ass?
So what can be done to protect this ‘moderate’ culture we spoke of before, the secular and religious Americans who can agree to disagree? What can we do to help THAT culture thrive? What do you think @phil_zuckerman?
Simple: by using words, not bombs. Votes, not bullets. To me, there is a vast universe of difference between orthodox Jews who spit on women for dressing a certain way, or Islamists who shoot Malala in the head -- and a curmudgeony philosophy prof who opposes a del studies dept
religious studies dept
Though the curmudgeon philos prof was metaphorically trying to shoot our plans for a relig dept in the head
I’ll take a “metaphorical” bullet anyway over a real one.
By the way, I think that any good religious studies dept should include courses on secularism. Do you agree?
opposing something is legitimate. He was out-voted. And he complied, right? He didn’t bomb...
(The Berkeley relig graduate program was approved, the prof didn’t bomb it, but it was never estab for lack of funding)
Yes, absolutely. When I started my secular studies program, people criticized it and said: well, you can’t understand secularism if you don’t understand religion. I agree! We’ve been offering courses in religion for 100 years…let’s add some on secularism/seculatity...
Sounds great, you two.
I think we need to study and understand both: religiosity and secularity...
Any last thoughts to sign off with before we part ways?
I like what Phil is doing in creating courses on secularism
So grateful for the exchange. Thank you so much, Mark. And thanks, Ben.
We need to study the whole diversity of public culture
Thanks to you both, we’ve all learned a lot. Best to @jurgensmeyer and @phil_zuckerman into the new year!
Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas
Yes, Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas….