The Incredible Lightness of Being....secular
We complain quite a bit in the United States about the absence of God from public venues. And when one travels to Europe the void is, by comparison, substantial. While I've been here, the village church bells have greeted each morning, Catholic and Protestant bells both heralding the new day with great fanfare at 7AM. There's another fanfare at noon, and a final at the closing of the day at 6PM. The bells at the top and quarter of every hour all day, and even in the middle of the night, if you happened to be up because you're bothered by jet lag, or because you want to check the Seahawk score, the bells are ringing - more quietly, but still active at the top of each hour.
Then there are the crosses on the summit of mountains. A new cross has just been installed on the top of the Dachstein, and I'm told it was greeted with much fanfare, including the presence of the local pastor to bless the event. Don't forget the prayer days in school, religion and Bible classes for all children, and holy holidays. Whenever I hear statements, made by the religious right in the US, about secular Europe, it's hard not to start laughing.
Whenever I'm here I ponder the relative value of the respective models on both sides of the Atlantic. We think we have culture wars in America, but ours are child's play compared with what's unfolding in Europe. Because the symbols of the state are the symbols of Christ, there's no way for Muslims not to feel completely marginalized in Europe. Thus, the Christian symbols are challenged, sometimes violently, by those who reject them, resulting in heightened cultural/religious tensions. What's a European government to do? Take the crosses off the mountains? Take the bells out of the churches? Or should the symbols of Muhammed and the Buddha be added to mountaintop, along with daily calls to prayer, and Tibetan gongs ringing in the villages? Neither option will be acheived without intense grief, anger, perhaps even bloodshed (there's been some already).
And so, in light of the culture wars on this side of the pond, our secular state, in the present moment, seems quite appealing. When the state is careful to sanction no particular religion, the playing field, in theory at least, is levelled. Thus there's room at the table for Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, and Christian. All can drink from our cultural fountains because they stem from a river of neutrality. Are there liabilities to this secular state? Too many to name in this short space. And it's nice to wake up each morning to church bells.
On the other hand... in a shrinking world and global economy, it seems that any state that is deeply grounded in one particular religion is sure to face tensions and turmoils that would have been inconcivable even 50 years ago, when the world was much larger, cultures more monochromatic, and answers easier if only because the dialogues unfolded amongst people with a general cultural consensus. Those days are gone forever. In their place: pluralism - and I'm wondering what you think - is secularism a more workable model for times such as these?