While secularism works implicitly to keep religion out of mainstream culture in the West, there are more specific measures in place to keep it out of the work place. The Equal Opportunity Act prevents employers from discriminating on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion and disability. This is a noble effort to ensure fairness and fight prejudice as people work to eke out a living. The Equal Opportunity Act helps keep questions surrounding these topics out of interviews. They become taboo topics on the job thereafter. The other side of the coin is that taboos such as this can bury issues and make discrimination implicit instead of stamping it out.
My place of employment seems to be somewhat of an exception in regards to the religion component. On my first day my boss walked me around the office. He talked about what great people the other employees were. He told me there was something for everyone here. The employees had a bunch of different passions. Some were family guys (a few having as many as 5 children), some were into video games or fitness, some were working to finish school. My boss said two guys, a set of brothers, were really into church. He said they were faithful people and active in their church community. I guess my boss’ point was that my company employs a variety of people, and that no matter what, I would find a place there. To me it signaled that the topic of religion was not taboo here like in other places I’ve worked. While we don’t pray at work or sing praises (which I appreciate), it is okay to acknowledge and share your spiritual life at work, though it still largely takes place outside of work. For example, I am not afraid to include church activities when people ask about my weekend plans. And come Monday I’m not afraid to tell my colleagues how much I enjoyed them.
Perhaps because of my openness in this area is why my boss, one day out of the blue, asked my interpretation of a bible quote. Apparently the topic had come up at his breakfast meeting that morning. He and his fellow diner had some differing opinions and now my boss was looking for another viewpoint. I did feel that I had been put on the spot a bit, probably because nothing remotely like this had ever happened before. But I gave him my interpretation, explaining the best I could. There was no judgement, only curiosity. It feels good to not have to live with religion as a taboo at work. There spirituality is not proclaimed, but it isn’t cloistered either. This is the original goal of secularism: to create enough separation to provide freedom of belief and expression for all. Instead it seems it has become a reason to keep things hush-hush and swept under the rug, allowing issues to fester rather than preventing or eradicating them.
“God is always simple, but we think of Him as complex. The entire cosmic Game, is extremely simple, but we look at it from a different angle in an obscure way. For us, everything is complex because we always use the mind. We do not want to walk along a straight line. If a path is simple and straight, we feel that it has no value. Unless we zigzag in a serpentine way, we get no joy. Just because we value complexity, we do not take the sunlit path – the simple, straight path.” (Sri Chinmoy, pg. 25).
I am partial to the argument that the myriad of religions on our planet are varied, cultural expressions of divine belief and human’s interaction with that divine source. This quote by Sri Chinmoy connects these various cultures with a ‘base’ human characteristic. A building block that transgresses cultural variances: our love of complication. Even things that are simple are made complex in our societies as we discuss, debate, build social structures and ritual customs. Social scientists are thrilled to study and understand these complexities. But from a spiritual standpoint Sri Chinmoy encourages us to seek out simplicity.
The challenge becomes, discerning the simple path. To some this means finding ‘the path’. In our society the simple approach often becomes the exclusive approach. Simple becomes black and white. People hold one belief system over all others. But the way this quote talks about simplicity entails removing emphasis from belief systems and placing it on direct relationship and personal experience with the divine. In some circles following New Age ideals, this may mean following ‘spirituality’ rather than ‘religion’. It is this notion, thinning out man’s clutter to uncover the spiritual core, rather than one religion claiming superiority above all others that bring us closer to the simplicity Sri Chinmoy speaks of.
While social science can lend itself to the existence of base-level human characteristics common among all people. Those spiritually inclined like Sri Chinmoy often argue that there are base-level similarities among all religions. New Agers and those partial to interfaith dialogue often share this notion, and illuminate this shared spirituality to create cooperation and goodwill across divides. This simplicity brings people together rather than choosing one tradition over all others, at the expense of believers (or non-believers). In light of election season, secular society seems more complicated than ever. It may take some extra effort to find the sunlit path. But the effort will be better than getting dragged through the brambles.
Sri Chinmoy. The Divine Hero: Winning in the Battlefield of Life. 2002. London: Watkins Publishing.
From a functional perspective there are many benefits of a spiritual life. Those that follow a religious or spiritual tradition are provided with comfort, moral guidelines, a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging in the world. With advances in science, we have also been able to discover mental and physical benefits from aspects like prayer and meditation. These are the topics that are usually employed to defend religion in the face of extremism, bigotry, and terrorism. But one element I don’t often hear about is the ability to ‘think big’.
Those active in their spirituality get a lot of experience thinking about big ideas like justice, honor, love and sacrifice. Trying to comprehend the expanse and depth of the divine, or just glimpsing the divine mingle with the mundane, takes thought to a new level. People start to think beyond themselves and beyond the life they know. Without participation in religious or spiritual activities, people are less likely to think ‘think big’. Perhaps because they are unable, or at least because they are not conditioned to due to a lack of practice. Practice that a spiritual life can provide. In our individual-centered culture, we can unknowingly be sucked into self-centeredness, selfishness, and ignorance. People experience major anxiety and lash out at others over the most trivial issues. A bit of perspective from religious or spiritual activity would help us focus on and solve big issues, while helping us recognize the things that matter most and let the trivial things go.
None of the elements discussed here are exclusively reached through religious or spiritual means. But to achieve these things through purely secular channels would involve intentionality and effort, whereas they are natural part of spirituality. However, I think the interconnectedness of our world and the concept of a global village is changing this. Issues have new opportunity to be visible near and far. (It should be noted however, that popular media leaves much to be wanted here). People make new connections and consider the effects of their actions (both good and bad) in a global and holistic way that was not possible previously. If the world continues on this trend, we may find ‘big thinking’ more common through secular means, perhaps making spiritual and religious traditions obsolete in a new way in the future. But in the present, I maintain that spiritual activity fosters ‘big thinking’ in a way secular activity does not.
Of the Western, secular nations, the USA seems the most inclined to mix the religious and secular. At least as far as grassroots are concerned. A lot of citizens express an interest for the two realms to intermingle more. We see some of this creep up into higher leadership when religious fueled morality finds its way into law making. Given the variety of moral compasses in this nation, this is the biggest reason for keeping religion and government an arm’s length apart. And yet we see notions of faith and God wrapped up in patriotism. Many patriotic songs and national regalia mention God and heaven. Unfortunately, these historical instances of overlap are used to push not only integration, but something more like domination.
Over the 4th of July weekend, I saw multiple church signs with this message, “Blessed is the country whose God is Lord.” Many if not most religions have positive messages on how to live life in an upstanding way. The core tenants of many world religions are eerily similar. For example, many promote principles like: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t hurt others, help those less fortunate than yourself, treat your neighbor as yourself, etc. A country ruled by these principles, is not a bad idea… maybe even an improvement on ‘man’s law’.
But in actuality, the principles and resultant system we would end up with would not be holistic or inclusive. It seems Americans that support bridging the secular and religious, wish to do so with a very specific type of religion from the wide spectrum of spiritual traditions in America. The masses of spiritual traditions would not only face the boundary of secularism, but the boundary marked by this narrow, sanctioned expression of spirituality. When ‘solutions’ bring only a small portion of spiritual inclinations into the public sphere, we would find divisions increase. The religious / secular divide is not easily overcome. I like to entertain thoughts of crossing this divide with inclusivity and holism. Even this scenario is precarious and would have its share of challenges. The narrow, Christian ideal many Americans have would be downright dangerous.
I’m all for, “God Bless the USA”. But no authority can dictate how to express faith in that God, so long as it is done peacefully.