WASHINGTON — Three esteemed thinkers from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths warned about the threats that radical secularist ideologies pose to religion, faith and the state of humanity in a "trialogue" on Tuesday.
Baylor University kicked off its brand new initiative on faith, ethics and public policy — named after prominent social conservative Catholic thinker and Princeton University law professor Robert George — with a panel discussion on "faith and the challenges of secularism." Other panelists included British lawmaker, rabbi and author Jonathan Sacks and the president of the United States' first accredited Muslim liberal arts college, Zaytuna College's Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.
George, who had previously served as the chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, asserted that as societies throughout the world become increasingly secularized, some militant secularists are not content with simply allowing people of faith to worship in their own homes and temples.
While briefly discussing arguments laid out in Rod Dreher's 2017 book The Benedict Option, George refuted a notion that people of faith should respond to increasing secularization in society by breaking off into their own enclaves.
"I think that the traditions of faith and [their] people have essentially three options. One is to capitulate. One is to separate ourselves in the hope that we will be left to our own families and to our own traditions. The third, engagement. That is, active engagement. I think it has to be the third," George explained. "[It's] clear that militant, evangelizing, missionizing secularism has no intention of leaving Jews, Muslims and Christians alone to retreat to the monasteries, to get through the dark ages, raise our own families, pass our own traditions. They want your kids."
Earlier in the segment, George detailed a time when he learned that there are fundamental differences between the worldview of secularists and the worldviews of those who follow most major religions.
The fundamental difference between the worldviews was revealed to him when he was inundated with hate messages after he voiced his disapproval with a German court's ruling in 2012 against the right of a Muslim family to circumcise their son.
George said that he called on religious and secular leaders in Germany to voice their outrage with the ruling, stating that it is unconscionable that a German court would rule against the legality of a practice that is also widespread in the Jewish community.
"I expected at least in our own country and in the West more broadly that for once in my life I had done something that was not controversial. I thought everybody would agree that we have to protect the Jewish community in Germany of all places from this ruling. But it turns out I was wrong and was wrong in a way that was very instructive for me," George admitted. "I was deluged with hate email, phone calls on my office voicemail from outraged people, mainly in this country, who not only supported the German decision but were accusing me of [supporting child abuse]."
"This got me thinking about what is going on here. Why are they so fanatical about this? Is it anti-semitism? Is this targeting the Jewish community? Or is it something else in which the Jewish community is essentially collateral damage?" George asked. "It did turn out mainly, but not exclusively, to be the latter."
The latter was a "kind of secular progressive" belief that "the human person is essentially a chooser, that the obligations we have are the obligations we have chosen."
"The idea of unchosen obligations is problematic for this [extreme secular] point of view," George stated.
"The idea here is that ... the serious choices must not be made for the child unless the child can make choices for himself or for herself," George explained. "This imposition of circumcision on the male infants is what the intactivists were objecting to."
The backlash that he received for voicing his disapproval with the German court's decision revealed to him that there is a "fundamental difference" between the secular worldview and that of Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of other religions.
"The intactivists looked at the baby and saw what political philosopher Michael Sandel calls an unencumbered self — a future chooser, a blank slate, tabula rasa, who needs certain care and preparation to become what he eventually will be, to make choices for himself," George said. "From their point of view, let the child grow up and when the boy is 18, he can decide whether to be circumcised or not. I would imagine that there wouldn't be a lot of circumcision at 18."
"How do religious people look at the baby? A very different way. The Jewish family looks at that baby and doesn't see a tabula rasa [blank slate] or an unencumbered self, it sees a Jewish baby, a Jewish infant," George added. "[The baby is seen] a member of this community as it was already encumbered by a family and tradition and community. As a member of that community, this child must be and needs to be circumcised in keeping with the ancient convent of the Jewish people who goes through Abraham."
These two fundamentally different worldviews "will have a lot of trouble living side by side," he warned.
"Among the things that bind Jonathan, Hamza and I together is the effort to overcome those problems and cooperate with each other on the basis of our many, many, many shared principles and beliefs and values," George stated.
Sacks, who has authored 30 books and serves in the United Kingdom House of Lords, warned that religious belief and church membership among people in the U.K. has hit such lows that it shows that the U.K. is in the "pre-Christian ages."
"It is not going forward bravely to the future. It is marching heedlessly to the past," Sacks stated. "This is troubling."
Sacks pointed out a recent example of how extreme secularist thinking can hinder the religious freedom rights of civilians.
Earlier this month, it was reported that a student union at Oxford University barred a Christian group from setting up a stall at a campus event on the grounds that the group's religious beliefs were "an excuse for homophobia and neo-colonialism." The decision to ban the Christian group was later reversed.
"This is so outrageous," Sacks said of the ban. "It was only three years ago when I gave testimony to the House of Commons on religious liberty and I said the degree to which Christianity is being banned from public spaces ought to remind us that America began when people set sail in 1620 on the Mayflower so that they could find somewhere else the religious freedom they were being denied in England and elsewhere. I said, 'If you carry on the way you are going, we will need to book our passage on the next Mayflower.'"
Yusuf, who is also an adviser to the Center for Islamic Studies at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, said during the discussion that some of the greatest challenges that religion faces is the "stupidity" of some adherents.
"I think there are a lot of challenges that secularism brings but I think the greatest challenges that religion faces is the stupidity of some religious people," he argued.
Yusuf said that the bad actions of those who claim to be worshipers give secularists more fuel to their arguments, whether that be Islamic extremists who commit terrorist attacks or a conservative Christian who films himself burning Qurans.
"One of the problems with religion is that when people study religion they tend to study the history of religion and they don't study the religion themselves. A lot of people know about the Crusades but they don't know about St. Thomas Aquinas. ... When they think of Islam now, they think of ISIS," Yusuf contended. "Religion is the victim of a lot of really poorly practiced religion. I think the secularists, this is what they latch onto when they attack religion."
"Atheists like to invert things and I can see them having a conference: 'Secularism and the Challenges of Faith.' This is part of the crisis that we are in."