Opinion: "Believers are at Home in a Secular Society"

February 18, 2006

Source: The Times


On February 18, 2006 The Times ran an opinion piece by Rabbi Tony Bayfield, head of the Movement for Reform Judaism. In response to the recent cartoon controversies and hostilities among faith groups, Bayfield writes about the idea of secularism as a "dialogue partner" in interfaith work. He comments, "I would argue that, frightening and humbling though secularisation has been, it is not entirely a bad thing. Religions do not have a brilliant track record when it comes to exercising power; challenging the abuse of power ought to be more our forte. Anyway, the vision statement of the Muslim journal Encounters � 'It is no longer possible today to ignore the other and live in isolation' � points to the imperative for a different structure other than the theocratic.

For me, the key question is not whether secularisation is good or bad but how to respond to this powerful cultural force which has spread so widely across the globe.

The Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue group with which I began had a Jewish-Christian predecessor. One of its members pointed out that Jewish-Christian dialogue does not take place in a vacuum, but takes place in the presence of a third dialogue partner � secularity, or modernity, or post-modern Western culture... Which leads me to the conclusion that non-fundamentalist Jews, Christians, Muslims and the practitioners of secularity have more in common than divides them. Perhaps my Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue group is not as unrepresentative as I thought, and has real significance in recognising that we have a common dialogue partner [secularism] who is neither villain nor saint but a transmitter of fragments of truth and falsehood � just like Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Of course, Jews, Christians and Muslims on the one hand, and many exponents of modern Western culture on the other, are divided over God. But proclaiming violent triumphalism in the name of God is idolatry, and far more dangerous than not naming God as the author of the values on which an including and tolerant society must rest."