Freedom from Religion

In our age of reflexive multi-culturalism on the one hand, and “clash of civilizations” rhetoric on the other, “religious freedom” has become at once a critically important yet unnavigable issue.

Last month’s “Islam Awareness Week”—organized by the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS)—bears sufficient witness. Ostensibly an attempt to promote intercultural understanding and generate positive public relations for a culture allegedly besieged by ill will due to its terrorist associations, Islam Awareness Week organized several spectacles one would otherwise seldom see on campus.

Allying with several other student groups, including many Christian chaplaincies, HIS coordinated a Fast-A-Thon, where students forewent dining hall fare for a day and donated the marginal cost of their unused board to Save the Children, all the while learning about one of the five pillars of Islam. Any sacrifice entailed by this good deed, thankfully, was ameliorated by a celebratory catered meal enjoyed upon the call to prayer that evening.

More striking than several hundred students selflessly giving up food—fasting might be uncommon at Harvard, but charitable gestures are not—was the Muslim call to prayer, the adhan, issued through the Yard from the Widener steps.

While even the most inveterate atheist could no doubt appreciate the adhan for its cultural value—and the warm, oriental Eurus it breathed through the Yard, liberating, if even for only a moment, a campus oppressed by vestiges of a Western and patriarchal past.

But some of these self-admitted unbelievers—who themselves claimed “God is imaginary”—recently argued in a Crimson editorial that the publicly-broadcast adhan poses a grave threat to religious pluralism.

Religious freedom, these grad-student editorialists contend, should consist solely in private beliefs—to which they concede unimpeachable liberty—which, when loudly proclaimed in such public venues as Harvard Yard from the exalted library portico, bring division to the pluralistic campus community.

Although these writers decry such public acts of faith simply because they “might be offensive to some,” they point toward a more fundamental problem in the regime of toleration and multi-culturalism.

In a pluralist community such as ours, multiple and conflicting views on such critical issues as morality and theology exist, sometimes uncomfortably, more often harmoniously, alongside one another. The only or at least most important principle that compels universal recognition is “tolerance”—a “live and let live” ethic.

Such a compromise might seem reasonable for all sides. But really only a skeptic, or one not fully committed to the truth of his convictions, could deem such an arrangement a positive good. Christians, used to the dominant secularism of this age, have conceded it, if not as a principle, then at least a dictate of prudence.

But even the most ardent skeptic or even atheist—to whom this tolerant regime agnostic to moral or religious questions might first seem appealing—must confront difficulty when this “tolerance” applies to sects not historically seeped in such cultural relativism.

The Islamic call to prayer entails some very confident and exclusive claims about truth and revelation. Of course, the HIS students themselves have no intention to undermine pluralism. Yet such an act of faith as a prayer call is not only public; it implies no separation between the private and public, that the ideal society is not the pluralistic one, but one which universally assents to the truth of the religion.

A society that privileges no truth claim above any other—and is sincerely convicted to such a policy—should happily accommodate the viewpoints of various groups, no matter how intolerant, or “offensive,” they may be. But a community like ours—”pluralistic” in nature and committed to respecting differences—cannot as warmly embrace viewpoints that undermine our deeply-held principles.

We can either forbid private beliefs, on issues such as theology and morality, from public expression, so as not to offend any member of our community who may disagree. Or we can plead ignorance as to whether any standard exists to confirm that any beliefs are sufficiently “respectful” and “inoffensive” and therefore acceptable. The fundamental question, therefore, remains thus: which is more important?

A wise man once distinguished between two man versions of “toleration”: one which promotes tolerance as a principle that permits all sorts of divergent and incompatible beliefs but accordingly forbids intolerance; and the other, which sees no reason to privilege any belief, even the objective good of “tolerance,” and puts “tolerance” and “intolerance” on equal moral footing.

Advocates of “tolerance” here at Harvard and beyond ought to be very mindful of which version they inadvertently are promoting.

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09 is a history concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.