Andrew Fiala, Ph.D., is director of the Ethics Center at California State University, Fresno. His recent work includes Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue (2021, with Peter Admirand); Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion (2020); and Transformative Pacifism (2018). Fiala writes a weekly column on religion, politics, and ethics for the Fresno Bee.
Inclusive secularism is important for healing Muslim-Christian relations. We must recognize deep, intersectional religious diversity that also includes non-religion. This inclusive vision was described by President Obama in his first inaugural address: “We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Unfortunately, non-believers have often been excluded, along with Muslims and others.
Some non-inclusive efforts focus on finding common ground among theists in the Abrahamic traditions. A version of this can be observed in the strange alliance between evangelical Christianity and Zionism. Or consider President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia in 2017, where he delivered a speech in Riyadh seeking common ground in shared religiosity. Or consider Trump’s reactionary 1776 Commission Report, which interprets American secularism in religious terms, claiming that the “self-evident truths” of American liberty must be grounded in a theistic worldview. This theo-centric interpretation of human rights and secularism can be understood on analogy with a document such as the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, which articulated human rights discourse using Muslim theology and jurisprudence, including the Quranic principle that there should be no compulsion in religion.
Inclusive secularism is important for healing Muslim-Christian relations. We must recognize deep, intersectional religious diversity that also includes non-religion.
It is useful for theists to find common ground in these ways. But theo-centric accounts of secularism and human rights remain problematic. Theo-centrism explicitly excludes one of the world’s fastest growing “religious” identifications, which is “non-religion.” The growing population of the non-affiliated includes former Christians, as well as so-called “Muslim atheists.” Thus, while conservative Christians and Muslims might unite around a common distrust of non-believers, such an exclusionary approach is insufficient to deal with the deep diversity of the twenty-first century.
What is Religion Anyway?
The fact that it makes sense to speak of “Muslim atheists” reminds us that words like “Muslim” and “Christian” are umbrella terms that contain multitudes. Religious terminology often conceals the intersectional dynamism of the real world. And the idea of “religion” is itself a catch all, family resemblance concept. There is an open question as to whether religion is primarily a matter of dogma, ethnicity, or culture.
There are culturally Muslim atheist women who wear the hijab and Muslim atheist men who fast during Ramadan. There are also culturally Christian atheists who celebrate Christmas and find inspiration in the Bible. All of this becomes more complicated in interfaith families, where identity is fluid and mixed.
There are culturally Muslim atheist women who wear the hijab and Muslim atheist men who fast during Ramadan.
It makes sense to ask which “Christians” are to be put in dialogue with which “Muslims.” It also makes sense to ask whether “Muslim atheists” would be included along with “Christian atheists.” If the conversation about Christian-Muslim relations is conceived in narrowly dogmatic terms, it will leave many people out.
So, an inclusive dialogue must involve an effort to deconstruct categories such as “Islam,” “Christianity,” and “religion.” This inclusive dialogue must also include skeptics, critics, and people with syncretic identities.
American Secularism and the Christian Nation Myth
Recognition of this kind of deep, intersectional religious diversity provides an important argument in favor of inclusive secularism. Intra-religious disputes can be as bloody and intractable as inter-religious conflict. And in some countries, atheists and apostates are liable to be killed. A 2019 report from Humanists International reports that 70 countries have laws against blasphemy and apostasy.
The solution is extensive and inclusive religious liberty. In the United States, the First Amendment prevents an official establishment of religion while also guaranteeing each person’s right to their own religious (or non-religious) belief. Inclusive secularism provides a space for coexistence that tolerates Christians, Muslims, people from other religions, and the growing population of the non-religious.
Inclusive secularism provides a space for coexistence that tolerates Christians, Muslims, people from other religions, and the growing population of the non-religious.
Some Christians maintain that this is a Christian nation. But the First Amendment is bigger than that. And the claim that this is a Christian nation is a myth that ignores the intersectional realities of American history.
American religion was always already larger than the Christian nation myth admits. Islam was present in the Americas long before this country was founded. Christopher Columbus’ interpreter spoke Arabic to the natives of Hispaniola, a language he had learned growing up under the Iberian Moors. Muslims were brought to the Americas as slaves. California was founded on a Spanish fantasy about the legendary Muslim Queen Calafia. And even as the immigration reforms of 1965 allowed new waves of non-Christian immigrants to come here, African American people were embracing Islam, among them prominent celebrities such as Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The American story also includes atheists, agnostics, deists, and free thinkers such as Thomas Paine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Joel Barlow. Barlow was a humanist poet-philosopher who wrote the Treaty of Tripoli, which established peace between the United States and the Muslim nations of North Africa, in the 1790s. That treaty stated: “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” and “it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen.”
Common Ground in a Patchwork Nation
This historic example shows the importance of including diverse voices in developing a more inclusive American secularism. It was the free-thinking humanist Joel Barlow who articulated the first official statement of American toleration toward Islam. Muslims can find common ground with non-religious people in the struggle to be included within the American patchwork. And indeed, inclusive secularism is in the interest of Christian people as well. Christianity itself contains a multitude. The “Christian” umbrella includes not only conservative evangelicals but also liberal Protestants, ethnically diverse Catholics, Black Christians, Mormons, and even a few “Christian atheists.” This patchwork nation will thrive when we all understand the importance of religious liberty and inclusive secularism.