Keeping the Faith: What Secular Law Has Taught Me About Religion

Halim Dhanidina


Note: This and other essays in this series were originally delivered as part of the Leadership and Multifaith Program symposium on Law, Religious Identity, and Public Discourse held at Georgia Tech on September 26, 2019.


There is a current crisis of confidence in our democracy and secular institutions.  We have seen a simultaneous dwindling of enthusiasm in religious practice as well. As these two realms–the religious and the political–struggle for credibility among the population, they are often pitted against each other so that many people often feel they must choose between them in their lives. 

Harmonizing secular and religious institutions may be the solution to what ails them during this troubling time.  This partnership need not require the separation of church and state that has been axiomatic in our view of American constitutional democracy.  Instead, what is needed is a greater understanding of the role faith can play in secular society.

The Founders’ recognition of the church/state relationship  was an acknowledgement of the important role faith can play in our lives.  The separation of religious and civil institutions was intended to protect religion from the corruption normally associated with politics while also creating an environment of freedom where all forms of religious belief and practice could flourish, free from oppression.

It would be a mistake, therefore, to view the separation of church and state as a mechanism through which secular society was intended to exert dominion over religion.  It would similarly be erroneous to believe that religious belief and practice is incompatible with secular society. So, why do so many people hold these views?

The answer may lie in some key defects in our present culture.  We live in a culture of increasing intolerance. We have gone from simply disagreeing with others to, at times, denying their legitimacy altogether.  While our elected representatives give lip service to the principle of compromise in the search for common ground, we have created a disincentive to political cooperation by withholding our support from any candidate that deviates from our political views to the smallest degree.

We also live in a culture of grievance.  We are increasingly quick to lay the blame of our troubles at the feet of those who are different from us and ever less inclined to acknowledge any measure of personal responsibility.

These trends are tearing us apart as a society and as individuals.

Most fundamentally, we suffer from a profound lack of self esteem.  We cling to intellectual absolutism and certainty as a way of feeling secure in an insecure world, looking to various sources of media more for comfort than for information.  In pursuit of shelter, we have abandoned the search for solutions.

These trends are tearing us apart as a society and as individuals.

However, by applying the values enshrined in the Constitution, we can learn to live in a way that is consistent with our most deeply held personal beliefs while achieving harmony with the society in which we all live.

First, we should not be afraid of moderation in our views.  The framers intentionally structured our institutions to protect against the worst in human nature:  abuses of power, passion over reason, extremism in all forms. They also understood that the key to a cohesive society was not sameness, but pluralism.  Moderation of our political, social, and religious views is therefore preferable to extremism because it permits us to live among those with whom we disagree in a climate of mutual respect.  In fact, we should not only tolerate, but value our differences of opinion and belief, because they are the lifeblood of our democracy.

The framers had it much harder in trying to come together to create a unified nation out of opposing interests.  They held many diametrically opposed positions on fundamental questions of law and morality, such as whether human beings could be considered private property.  Still, they negotiated, compromised, and worked together to identify common interests in building a unified nation under the rule of law because they saw the alternative—no nation at all–as much worse.  We should ask ourselves the same question: Is a state of perpetual conflict and stalemate preferable to compromise?

I see the same value of moderation in the context of religious belief.  To be sure, it can be a hard sell to advance the cause of moderation in the context of faith because it sounds like saying we should temper our devotion.  However, I suggest that a person can love God while retaining the humility to acknowledge an imperfect understanding of God.

Perhaps the genius of Creation lies not in sameness, but diversity.  Living in a society where everyone lives and believes the same way may be comforting, but is it fulfilling?  Maybe spiritual advancement requires more than the zealous adherence to rules, but rather an interaction between competing ideas and thoughts among members of society and within ourselves as individuals?

In fact, we should not only tolerate, but value our differences of opinion and belief, because they are the lifeblood of our democracy.

Undoubtedly, this notion is frightening to some of us because acknowledging the legitimacy of a wide spectrum of religious beliefs can resemble a lack of conviction—or worse—doubt.  But, in the same way that bravery is not the absence of fear, faith is not the absence of doubt. It is belief in the presence of doubt.

We protect the right to hold opposing political views in part because the constant test of ideas against each other is the most reliable path to the truth.  In this way, disagreement and dissent in society is a sign of democracy’s health. Similarly, doubt in the religious realm can be a valuable marker of faith.  

We of different faiths should see the value of living among people with  other faith traditions or no faith at all, not only because it reduces conflict, but because it ultimately can lead to a more fortified commitment to our own faith, whatever it may be.

Next, we need to learn how to live with criticism.  If someone disagrees with our belief system, why would we allow it to provoke us?  Being provoked is a choice. Being easily provoked can be a sign of faith’s weakness.  A pluralist society is held together by people who feel comfortable enough with their own beliefs that they see no threat in those who disagree with or criticize them.

The Constitution offers a template for a society where minority views are protected and the integrity of the individual is not compromised by majority views.  We should apply those principles to our personally held religious views.

My hope for our society is that we can change course.  The good news is that the solution lies in a renewed commitment to old ideas.  The fact that these ideas are rooted in the underpinnings of our secular government makes them no less relevant in other aspects of our lives.  After all, the framers understood their mission as one to create a government that would protect divinely bestowed rights. As Alexander Hamilton put it:  “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

If we believe that faith and intellect are both gifts from God—why would we pit them against each other?  By recognizing the symbiotic relationship between our adherence to secular and faith based values, we can’t help but see them to be equally essential to our constant, at times frustrating, but ultimately fulfilling search for truth and understanding.


Halim Dhanidina is an associate justice for the Second District of the California Court of Appeal, and the first Muslim appellate level judge in the United States.  In addition to his judicial work, Judge Dhanidina teaches at several California law schools and is deeply involved in several civic and interfaith organizations.