The problem I see is this: “Religion” has become an escape clause from civil conversation and civic tolerance.

Benignly, it can be used like this: “Religion is personal and sensitive; therefore, I’m turning the conversation away from potentially offensive content.” Unfortunately, it’s increasingly used not-so-benignly: “Religion is irrational; therefore you are irrational, and I’m shutting you out of the conversation.” I can respect the first instance; the second instance is intolerant and unworthy of respect, for reasons I will attempt to explain.

Learned people will rightly quibble with my use of the term, but for simplicity and illustration I use the term “religion” here to mean a set of assumptions about myself and the world around me. In this very broad sense, everyone has a religion, even if it is not organized into a creed, institution, or society. Every person thinks, feels, and acts according — and often in contradiction — to this set of assumptions. In this sense, everyone’s religion is rational to a degree and also irrational to degree.

The problem with the second statement above is this: it’s not stating that all belief systems are a mixture of rational and irrational assumptions; it’s actually claiming that the speaker’s assumptions are more rational (and that the recipient’s assumptions are less so). In other words, it establishes the speaker as superior and freezes the recipient out of the conversation. If we aim for a secular, pluralistic society, it is incongruous to make such a claim — even if it is done in the name of secularism or pluralism. Put another way, even if it the statement was facially neutral, its effect was discriminatory.

My point is that it would be better to acknowledge that we all come to conversations and controversies with a set of assumptions about our own being and the world around us. That takes some humility and bravery, but it enables us to “negotiate” solutions that allow us to truly “tolerate” our differences in a diverse society.