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date: 27 February 2017

Religious Freedom in a Secular Society

Abstract and Keywords

In the West, the distinction between the forms of secularism in France and the United States is instructive. The attitudes and legal approaches of both have their roots in the European Enlightenment, but their treatment of religion is significantly different due to their distinctive views on human reason. The first takes reason to be intrinsically liberating. Its watchword is human freedom and autonomy, but it takes these as given, just as it assumes a fundamental equality among all people. The second understands reason, freedom, and equality within a religious context. Freedom is God-given and must be respected as such, so freedom of religion must be recognized. Beyond these two positions, aggressive secularism regards all religious claims as beyond reason or even irrational and potentially dangerous. That kind of secularism can never achieve the neutrality to which aspires and always creates second-class citizens out of some religious believers.

Keywords: secularism, Enlightenment, freedom, state neutrality, religious liberty, equality, rights

The secularist project can be interpreted and put into practice in many different ways. A common motive, however, is the need to manage disagreement about religion in a society. The latter can take the form of rivalry between different religions or versions of the same religion. It can also constitute an attempt to deal with fundamental disagreement about the worth of all religion. Some forms of secularism start with the assumption that religion, as such, is harmful and must be rigidly controlled. At its extreme, this attitude can result in an explicitly atheist society, that of its nature becomes totalitarian, because of its need to control some of the most fundamental beliefs its citizens may have.

Different countries with varying religious backgrounds claim to have a secular foundation. Turkey, with an Islamic background, and India, with a Hindu one, fall into this category. In the Christian West, however, the distinction between France and the United States is instructive. The attitudes and legal approaches of both have their roots in the European Enlightenment, but their treatment of religion is significantly different.

Two Enlightenment Influences

France has a policy of what it terms la laïcité. It stems from the overthrow of the ancien régime, which was not only monarchist but in thrall to the authoritarian structures of the Roman Catholic Church. The French Revolution at first tried to remove all religious influence, converting churches to “Temples of Reason.” The modern dispensation under which France no longer defines itself as a Catholic country dates from the law of 1905, when laïcité took firm root in French institutions.

Religion was to be treated as a private matter and the public square swept free of any religious presence, let alone positive religious influence. The banning of Islamic dress such as the headscarf, coupled with ban on wearing large religious insignia such as crucifixes, is an example. The banning of symbols is, however, more than symbolic. It is evidence of a determined and more wide-ranging policy. The institutions of government in general, and education in particular, are insulated from any semblance of religious authority. Specific religious (p. 303) education in French state schools is regarded as a potential challenge to the secular character of the state. State ceremonies are not going to have a religious character, in contrast to many of those in the United Kingdom.

The French Enlightenment in the eighteenth century took on a decidedly atheist and materialist tinge. Religion was seen as the enemy of reason and hence of freedom itself. The idealist slogan of the French Revolution—liberté, égalité, fraternité—which can still be seen emblazoned on French government buildings was thought to proclaim the new spirit of a new age. Yet it remains a paradox that each of those principles had Christian roots. Most strikingly, the notion of brotherhood hardly makes sense outside a theistic framework with belief in a common Father. Similarly, the idea of equality surely has to derive from an idea that we are equal in the sight of God and that of freedom from a Christian notion of free will. Given that historical root, a perennial question is whether those concepts can make sense, let alone survive and flourish outside the religious framework that lay at their origin.

The American approach to secularism took a different course, although it crystallized at much the same time as the French Revolution. Above all, the founders of the United States, such as Thomas Jefferson, had a significantly different view of the source of human reason. Jefferson was particularly influenced by a philosopher of a century before, John Locke, the British empiricist. The latter can certainly be viewed as an apostle of the Enlightenment, although in this case in its early form. Locke was particularly influenced by the Cambridge Platonists, a group of philosophers and theologians who were among those involved in the founding of the Royal Society in London in 1661. For them, as much as for the later advocates of reason in France, human reason was of central importance, and faith in its capabilities fuelled the rise in empirical science. Newton was a scholar at Cambridge University and was influenced by them. These thinkers did not view reason as inimical to religious belief but instead adopted as their slogan: “reason is the candle of the Lord.” The phrase was used several times by Locke (see 1690 [1924]: 722f). It grounded human reason, however imperfect, in the creation of humans in God’s image. Reason was seen as validated by God. Echoes of this idea that reason, and indeed rights, are validated by God can be heard in the famous words of the American Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal” and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.

The difference to the two approaches to human reason is profound. One sees reason as intrinsically liberating. Its watchword is human freedom and autonomy, but it takes these as given, just as it assumes a fundamental equality of all humans without giving any justification. The Lockean approach is more nuanced. While extolling reason, freedom, and equality, it tends to understand them within a theistic context. For example, Locke firmly believed, as a practicing Christian, that God wanted worship and service to be freely given, not compelled. He comments that the way to salvation is not any “forced exterior performance, but the voluntary and secret choice of the mind” (1689 [1997]: 138). Outward conformity was not enough from a theological point of view, and he could not accept that God would approve of what was obtained through force rather than voluntary choice. Freedom was God-given and had to be respected as such. In particular, freedom of religion had to be recognized, because God, at least according to Christian theology, wanted sincere devotion.

The French path to la laïcité in the eighteenth century was rather different. It took a path that was independent from religion. An official report titled Laïcité et République on this subject to the French President, composed by La commission de réflexion sur l’application du principe de laïcité dans la République, stated that la laïcité is a “republican principle (p. 304) constructed by history” and indeed constitutive “of our collective history” (Stasi 2003: 25). It went on to refer to the influence of the Enlightenment (les Lumières) and pointed out that the French Revolution marked the birth of the modern concept of la laïcité. The French word carries nuances that are difficult to convey in English, but the idea of secularism is very much to the fore, and that is how the word is often translated. Yet the reference to “laity” implicit in the word certainly suggests an anticlerical and even antireligious bias. The message that comes across is that the state is the ultimate authority and can decide what rights to allow its citizens. It wishes to maintain an “absolute neutrality” with regard to all religion and will accept religious freedom only insofar as it does not conflict with the demands of the official policy of secularism.

Religious Freedom and Democracy

The American approach to religious freedom is quite different. The “free exercise” of religion is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. As a result, religious liberty is often proclaimed as America’s “first freedom,” and it is often argued that its appearance first in the Bill of Rights is no coincidence. James Madison, along with other Founders, was in no doubt that religious freedom was central to the proper exercise of all democratic freedoms. Madison had been much influenced, as was Thomas Jefferson, by the rigid way in which the establishment of the Church of England was enforced in their native Virginia when it was still a colony (Trigg 2012: 72f). Local landowners, such as George Washington himself, served on the church vestries, and they were used as organs of local government, as well as the administration of the Church. The growing population of Presbyterians, Baptists, and then Methodists was effectively marginalized as citizens while being compelled to pay taxes to support the official Church. The 1689 Act of Toleration passed at Westminster seemed to have little effect in Virginia, and the policies toward America from Britain were a constant source of tension, culminating in the Revolutionary War of Independence.

For Madison and many other colonial leaders, everything had to be traced back to the freedom that was the natural right of every human being. It was not the gracious grant of a tolerant society. A state that was tolerant at one time may very easily withdraw its toleration at another for political reasons. “Toleration” implied an authority that could decide how much freedom could be allowed and which beliefs could safely be accommodated and which could not. For Madison, “before any man can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the universe” (Church 2004: 61). No doubt Madison was trying to be as inclusive as possible with his theism and does not invoke a specifically Christian view. Even so, he was basing his defense of religious freedom on a theological vision of the relationship of humans to God.

This means that our obligations to God must precede any to the state of which we are a citizen. Yet that position immediately challenges the authority of the state, in a way that must be anathema to any totalitarian regime. Sometimes religious authorities have claimed to be acting on behalf of God and in virtue of that claim power for themselves. Such a regime has been called a theocracy. As that term refers to rule by God, it raises the question as to whether the authorities really are able to reflect the will of God and are not following a constant temptation for humans to grab as much power and prestige for themselves as possible. (p. 305) More liberal societies, following the views of philosophers such as Locke, have stressed the importance of the individual conscience and have put in place protections for those who may find themselves in positions where they could be required to go against their fundamental religious beliefs. Even if the state is forced to accept limits on its own jurisdiction, in that situation it still recognizes the special force of religious considerations in the beliefs and practices of its citizens. A failure to take religion seriously in public life may even strike at the very roots of democracy. Religious concerns and obligations are always at the root of what individuals consider most important in their lives. For most atheists, too, the fact that they deliberately have rejected any religious belief must itself be of central importance. Religious belief, or the lack of it, is intimately linked with the way people live their lives. If it makes no difference to some, such people seem to have no clear belief. Religion deals with what is of ultimate concern.

A democracy in which religious practice is restricted precisely because it is religious is a sham. Democracies depend on the judgment of their individual citizens and the ability of those citizens to advocate what they think is wisest and best for their country. That will be influenced by their most fundamental judgments about what is worth pursuing and what enables their fellow citizens to flourish and escape terrible harms. That in turn depends on their understanding of what is good and bad for humans. They need an implicit, or explicit, concept of human nature and what is conducive to its good. That has to be linked with judgments about the place of humans in the scheme of things, bringing theistic considerations into play. Whether we were or were not created by God for a purpose, and whether each individual has an intrinsic dignity because of that, are questions coloring everything else.

Some would still dismiss religion as the idiosyncratic interest of a few, to be ignored in wider society. The fact that some may worship in a church on Sunday (or a synagogue, a mosque, or wherever on other days) may, it is said, tell us something about their interests but is of no greater relevance to the rest of us than the fact that some play golf every Sunday morning. This is to deny that religion is in any way “special” and that acting out of a religious conscience is of any greater moment that acting for any other reason of conscience, such as vegetarianism.

Why should religion be regarded as special, beyond the fact that it is important for those who have a religious faith? A democracy that cares for the interests and desires of all its citizens equally may well take into account that some of them value their religion. A democracy does so because some citizens care about religion, just as it will take into account the passion of some of its citizens for soccer. This is not a matter of government engagement with religion or agreeing that religion has truths applying universally, but democracy should find that religious citizens may have insights valuable for the whole community. What democracies often focus on is the fact of belief, not the content. Yet for believers who want to contribute to public debate, and live according to what their religion preaches, it is what the religion is about that matters, not just the fact that it is their religion. They want to join in public debate and tell others about what they think is important.

Modern governments may want to disengage themselves from any particular religion because they want to respect diversity and embrace “pluralism,” Democracy as a system assumes the existence of divergence, not unanimity. It is a device for managing disagreement. Yet its mechanisms in the modern world have at times seemed inadequate. The “dictatorship of the majority” is a real danger. What is the fate of minorities under such a system? When what is stake is who should form a government, everyone has to accept that one side (p. 306) will win, and there will be losers. When matters of conscience come to the fore, are we similarly to accept that there must be one law for all, and that is simply decided by majority vote, with no consideration for minority objections?

A secular approach might want to subsume all conscientious objections into one category, discounting those that are perceived as founded on religious belief. It might feel that that is fairer to all citizens, religious and nonreligious. All should be treated equally, in pursuit of what some see as “equal liberty.” In that case, a religious conscience would be seen as no more, or less, important than a secular one. Conscientious objection to killing even in time of war, resulting in a refusal to serve in the armed forces of a country, can be respected as much stemming from a humanist position as a religious one. In one sense, that is quite right, but the danger is that the very idea of conscience can become so attenuated by covering too many things that people may sincerely believe and want to act on. It cannot then be respected as a trump card to be produced in order to justify ignoring a law applying to everyone.

The wider the term “conscience” is stretched, so that it covers anything thought important by anyone, the less meaningful it becomes. If the content of a commitment is discounted, all that then matters is the sincerity with which a belief is held. Yet as people can have sincere and strongly held beliefs about most anything, mere sincerity provides a fairly vacuous criterion with which to sift out different objections to laws. A secularism that tries to discount religion will in the end place less weight on the fact of conscience as such. It will no longer be able to separate out the crucially important cases of conscience, exemplified by religion (and its denial), from the spreading penumbra of ever less convincing cases where people do not like a law and do not want it to apply to them.

It is no coincidence that a state that does not respect religion as a separate category will tend to want to enforce its laws equally on everyone and be impatient with claims of conscience. The latter can too often be viewed as indistinguishable from objections to the democratically expressed will of “the people,” As such they cannot be accommodated, it will be thought, without putting in jeopardy the view that all are equal before the law and must be treated in the same way in similar situations without exceptions. Yet being forced to go against not just political or other views but one’s most basic views about how humans must behave can easily be seen as creating a substantial burden on the believer that most people do not carry.

The role of minorities in a democracy is important. That does not just apply to minority religions, cultures, and other groups. It is also important to protect any views that at a given time are held by a minority. All must be able to contribute to public discussion, and the people holding them must be respected. That is part of what is meant by taking human dignity seriously. Yet secularist efforts to sweep religion out of public discussion, and to assume that “public” reasons can never be religious reasons, marginalize religion by rendering it a private matter.

Part of what is at stake here is an argument about the epistemological status of religion. The spirit of logical positivism, made fashionable by the so-called Vienna Circle before World War II, has lived on. The Vienna Circle had what it termed a “scientific world conception,” according to which only science could set the standard of what was meaningful let alone capable of claiming truth. What was not susceptible to scientific test, and the production of scientific evidence, could not register as a meaningful statement. As a result, all metaphysical statements, even those that might underpin science, were proscribed as essentially nonsensical (Trigg 2015). Although logical positivism no longer has much acceptance (p. 307) among philosophers, its preoccupation with science has had an enormous influence. Public reason is too often associated with what science can validate. Moral, religious, and aesthetic judgments can easily be dismissed as “subjective,” telling us more about the person holding them than the world we are facing. It is pointed out that there are agreed methods for settling scientific disputes, but none in the religious arena. “Faith” is hence separated from “reason.” This association of reason with what can be established through science, and explained in a way that can gain public acceptance, effectively pushes religion outside the sphere of rational discussion and public debate. That push goes very well with an aggressive secularism, which regards all religious claims as not just beyond reason but even going against normally accepted canons of reason. Religious beliefs are seen as intrinsically divisive, with no way of resolving those divisions. They can then easily be dubbed “irrational” and positively dangerous if permitted entry into the public square.

The prioritization of science is explicitly brought into the picture by some who query why the law of the land should make any special provision for religion. An American legal philosopher, Brian Leiter, argues that governments should make no special provision for a religious conscience nor allow exemptions from general laws on grounds of grounds of religious belief. He says that “it is not obvious why the state should subordinate its other morally important objectives—safety, health, well-being, equal treatment before the law—to claims of religious conscience” (2013: 103). His position is obviously supported by his accompanying claim that “religious beliefs, in virtue of being based on ‘faith,’ are insulated from ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, the ones we employ in both common sense and in science” (34). He infers that when arbitrary claims, made without possible justification, demand exemptions or special treatment from the law, those claims do not deserve to be taken seriously in public debate. Leiter relies on a highly contentious picture of the place of religion. Most religious believers think that their beliefs are beliefs about what is true, and not mere expressions of private taste or emotion (Trigg 2014). They are based, many think, on a rational understanding of human nature and its place in the ultimate scheme of things. Logical positivists may have been treading in the footsteps of the later Enlightenment, with its inbuilt revulsion to religion as such. The decision to make science the arbiter of human rationality certainly goes against the Lockean view that reason is itself set up by God in human minds as a natural faculty, which can be relied on, at least to some extent, because it reflects in a small, flickering way (like a candle flame) the mind and reason of God.

State Neutrality?

Should the law of a land take account of religion and even give special respect to those who wish to remain faithful to the obligations of their religion? Should it, on the other hand, simply treat all its citizens equally whatever their beliefs? The second alternative may mean that religious believers of various kinds have to conform to the secular standards of a secular law imposed by an avowedly secular society. That is the French way, and France is in fact the only European country to have explicitly “consecrated” the principle of secularism in its constitution (Stasi 2003: 71). The use of the term “consecrate” is an odd one in that context. It suggests that even in repudiating religious influence on the public stage, religious ideas cannot be wholly excluded even if they become transmuted into a secular guise.

(p. 308) Behind the French alternative lurks the notion of neutrality: the state is neutral between all religions (and none). The state somehow stands above them and detached from them. The state could easily come to see itself as itself the embodiment of Reason, once it has been detached from any theological base. It may even regard itself as a benevolent referee standing between opposing ideas. Yet opposed ideas never compete in a vacuum. A secular state has itself to stand for something, as clearly the French Republic does, when it echoes the principles of the French Revolution. By definition it cannot regard itself subservient, or even accountable to, any deity, let alone the Christian God. Therefore it has to set itself up as the final authority, graciously recognizing (or creating) rights as it pleases. Unlike the United States, it cannot see itself as “one nation, under God,” as the Pledge of Allegiance puts it.

According to the French Commission that composed Laïcité et République, the neutrality of the state is the principle requirement (la premiere condition) of secularism. All citizens are to be treated equally, whatever their religion, and the public space of government and public administrators have to be seen to exercise a strict neutrality toward religion in their public duties. “Republican principles” have to be respected so that in public service the agents of the state can give no sign of any views about religion and certainly not wear any religious insignia or dress. Wearing a cross or headscarf would thus be forbidden. Arguments about the right to manifest one’s religion in this way always stand proxy for more fundamental issues. What principles are to guide government policy? Those derived from religion are clearly proscribed.

While the neutrality of the law is a fundamental part of justice, a wider-ranging neutrality raises large questions. Law must be administered “without fear or favour,” and it would be monstrous to treat Muslims differently from Christians or atheists in yet another way. The idea of the basic equality of all before the law is a constituent part of justice. Does this mean that in order for all citizens to be held as truly equal, all citizens must expect their beliefs to be equally respected by the state? Does the distancing of the state from religious views, for example, mean that the state attributes equal dignity to all its citizens and values all religious and nonreligious views equally? Is a secular state fairer to its citizens than one that is religiously aligned? It is easy to assume that neutrality brings the detachment that is requisite for true justice. However, that assumption only throws into confusion the issue of how people should be treated in a country with these principles at work.

For a state to be truly “neutral,” it would not be able to uphold any principles, because otherwise it would appear that it is being unfair to citizens who do not share some of them. Even an adherence to secularism, and detachment from all religion, is clearly a substantive principle. It is animated in France, as we have observed, by very definite ideals with a clearly delineated historical origin. What about Catholics in France of a traditionalist disposition who would like to see greater recognition given to the Roman Catholic Church, and its principles, in the affairs of state? Right or wrong, they may feel marginalized in a secular state, where they are forced to keep their religion to themselves, particularly when serving in a public capacity. They are in no different position than that of fervent atheists in a country where more official recognition is given to religion.

The issue is that, even when people are equal before the law and no one is treated as a second-class citizen, the question still remains as to what kind of country the citizens are living in. No one can expect their nation to be organized exactly in accordance with their beliefs. As already mentioned, the whole point of democracy is that it tries to mediate between the varying desires and beliefs of its citizens so that rational decisions can be made. Disagreement is (p. 309) likely to remain. No one supposes that the citizens who are on the losing side, and in political opposition, are any less citizens, let alone second-class citizens, than those in the majority on a particular occasion. Because of the nature of democracy, it is crucial not just that minorities be respected but that the individual conscience of each be nurtured and cherished. Just because certain policies cannot gain broad agreement does not mean that the consciences of those advocating them should not be respected. Those citizens in the minority still have the potential to contribute to the common good and may win the day on another occasion. Democracy cannot thrive through extinguishing unpopular or unfashionable views. One of its problems is that fashions can all too easily come and go. A stable society needs an appeal to principle, and principles do not fade away just because enough people do not embrace them at a given time. The rejection of one principle should occur in the name of another. Yet that means that neutrality is an illusion. A state has to commit itself to one approach or another, simply because governmental paralysis is not a practical option. The application of principle also results in greater consistency for government action over time.

Despite these sound considerations, both philosophers and policymakers try to set up neutrality as an intrinsic element in a secularist approach. In the European sphere, the French secularist emphasis has been pronounced in the development of the European Union. The French were among the most vociferous in objecting to any reference to the Christian foundations of Europe, despite the wishes of countries such as Poland. As a result, in the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union in 2009, the Preamble eschews any mention of Christianity. It simply states that it draws inspiration “from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe.” It rather curiously goes on to enumerate universal values which “have developed.” If values exist universally, it is hard to see how they could have changed or developed. Otherwise the values as they are now could once not have been universal, if they had existed at all. Either they are just what happens to be valued in a particular place and time or they are built into the scheme of things as “natural” rights. The European Union appears to want it both ways, holding that such values include “the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.”

The list may appear reminiscent of rights “endowed by their Creator,” but they are not grounded. Indeed, it looks as if they might be unjustifiable, because their recognition has only happened due to so many arbitrary factors to Europe’s past. They are the result of history, or even current sociological trends. Even so, they appear to provide a list of rather substantive rights and principles, and their neutrality is far from apparent. Belief in freedom or in equality are not universally recognized. They may be an integral part of modern Europe politics, but that does not negate the fact that they offer a distinctive moral and political approach. A neutral state would have to be neutral about such principles. What is the status of citizens who are disinclined to believe in equality and may even believe in the superiority of one group of people over another? Are they second-class citizens, or are they incapable of being citizens? Their views may be repugnant, but that only makes the same point: that nations upholding definite principles, principles that may be right, would not be neutral at all.

The Canadian political philosopher and social theorist Charles Taylor is adamant that “the question of secularism must be approached within the broader problematic of the state’s necessary neutrality toward the multiple values, beliefs, and life plans of citizens in modern societies” (Maclure and Taylor 2011: 11). Yet again it is important to distinguish between two matters. There is the freedom of people to live as they choose by the fundamental principles (p. 310) to which they are committed. This freedom is a necessary feature of any democratic society. There is also the question of the justification of those principles. The state’s neutrality means that it should not use the force of law to impose its own favored viewpoint on recalcitrant citizens. One can be a good citizen while departing from the general consensus. Using an older religious manner of speaking, a free society could make room for “nonconformists” even when the state prefers or establishes a mode of religion that they cannot accept.

Secularist Principles

The secularist may still protest. Why should a state set certain standards that make some citizens feel that their views are departures from the norm, even if they were tolerated? For the Founders in the United States, this form of toleration was not itself enough. It was not the free exercise of religion, since what was “tolerated” suggested a lack of recognition of genuine freedom. It was something to be allowed, and what happens to be allowed could also be later prohibited by the same authority. That contingent toleration is not a recognition of a natural right to freedom of religion but rather a tacit assertion of the ultimate authority of the state, which is manifested in a potentially threatening manner.

During the Revolutionary period, James Madison of Virginia advocated the complete dismantling of the religious establishment of the time there, that of the Church of England. He argued even against any general support by the new state Virginia for all Christian teachers. Widening the establishment, or even the scope of state recognition of religion, was not for him a recognition of true individual freedom. The government was still in control. He trenchantly asked, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?” (Church 2004: 63). Indeed, it might be argued that once a state has assumed for itself the power to determine which religions are, or are not, officially approved, there is in principle nothing to stop its progression down a very slippery slope to the totalitarian enforcement of a particular religious, or antireligious, point of view.

This latter point, however, brings us back to the question of the nature of a secularist stance. Can it, even in principle, embody any form of neutrality? Taylor’s position is that, given great diversity of belief in a pluralist society, “the state must avoid hierarchizing the conceptions of the good life that form the basis of citizens’ adherence to the basic principles of their political association” (Maclure and Taylor 2011: 13). That is the classic liberal position in political philosophy, and it gained the most attention through the work of John Rawls. Maclure and Taylor conclude by asserting that “in the realm of core beliefs and commitments, the state, to be truly everyone’s state, must remain ‘neutral.’” They say that “since the state must be the state for all citizens, and since citizens adopt a plurality of conceptions of the good, the state must not identify itself with one particular religion or worldview” (20). They explain that this is the reason that the “state must be separate from religion.”

This last point echoes the well-known phrase “separation of church and state,” which has had a major influence on American Constitutional thinking, although the phrase itself does not occur in the US Constitution. The First Amendment prohibits the government’s establishment of religion. Maclure and Taylor (2011) consider the principle of separation to embody far more than the refusal to give particular recognition to any particular (p. 311) religious denomination. It does rule out, for example, any possibility of Anglican bishops in the US Senate, on the model of the British House of Lords. Yet the word used in the First Amendment is not “church” but “religion,” and that is a far broader thesis. Refusing favoritism for individual Christian denominations is not the same thing as the separation of religion from the public sphere, as is found in the French model. Maclure and Taylor are writing in Quebec, Canada, where the French example is likely to be influential. Even so, their secularism is striking. They say that secularism has to rest on two major principles: “equality of respect and freedom of conscience” (2011: 20). These seem to be important principles, though one issue is the focus on equality of respect. We have already stressed the importance of the principle of equal importance for all citizens before the law. That, however, cannot mean that we respect equally every view they happen to hold. Democracy may involve listening to citizens carefully and certainly letting all of them argue their case. It cannot involve thinking that each view is as valid as any other. There is too easy a step from the sound idea that that each citizen has an innate dignity that has to be respected to the mistaken idea that any criticism of the views they hold is an offense against that dignity. Taking that step implies that we must suppose that it does not matter what beliefs someone has, as there is no such thing as being mistaken, which degenerates into the subjectivist position that whatever seems right to individuals is right for them, and one cannot speak at all about anyone being right or wrong.

People are equal, but beliefs are not. If we truly take freedom of conscience seriously in a democracy, we have to recognize the right of those to espouse views with which we profoundly disagree and refuse to hold ourselves. Freedom is worthless if it just means the freedom for everyone to agree with each other. True freedom involves difference and diversity. In that sense, it involves the mutual respect for the right to hold views that differ from the conventional and the fashionable. The problem for mutual respect arrives when it has to be recognized that even in a free and tolerant society, limits on what can be permitted must be set. Human sacrifice in the name of some religion could never be allowed, for example, and no appeal to conscience, let alone a religious one, could justify that.

In pursuit of the “equal moral value or dignity” of all citizens, and the need for them to be respected, Maclure and Taylor place great store on the state’s neutrality to “all religious and secular movements of thought” (2011: 20). Yet we have seen that a state trying to be neutral toward any and every conception of the good is rudderless. It can produce no principled reason even for upholding basic principles of democracy. Why should equality and freedom loom large? How could talk of the equal moral value or dignity of all citizens serve as a neutral starting point? That already expresses a substantive conception of what is good. Moreover, a reference to the intrinsic dignity of all expresses a characteristically religious, even Christian, viewpoint. That is not say that human dignity only makes sense from a particular religious point of view. It is to say that religious beliefs have provided a powerful impetus to belief in it. Perhaps the secularist hope is that, as with values of the French Revolution such as “fraternity,” we can discount the manner in which such convictions were produced. Once we have them, it may be thought, they can appear self-evident, and their origins become irrelevant. This hope is not enough. Either such beliefs are universally self-evident or they have to be argued for. We dare not rest on the assumption that what happens to seem obvious at the moment will remain so. The values of democracy always have to be argued for and justified. The equal moral worth of all humans can all too often be called into question.

(p. 312) State neutrality is an illusion. The pursuit of secular neutrality toward religion, involving the total detachment of the state from all religion and the purging of the public square of any religious presence, must itself be motivated by a powerful vision of the common good. It can become self-contradictory, when it invokes principles that could easily have a religious basis in order to remove religion from the scene. Without religious reasons for respecting human dignity, equality, and freedom, it might be hard to provide resources for passing on these values to future generations. Even if a society proves successful in doing that, it is hardly staying neutral about the kind of society it wishes to see.

Again, it might argued that those who dissent from an official doctrine purveyed by the state are “second-class citizens,” so therefore the State must have no official doctrine. Yet we have just seen that a form of secularism that stands back from all religion in the interests of “human dignity” is in fact pursuing a very definite vision of the common good. Its official doctrine may appeal to abstract principles of equality and freedom, stressing an individualism that many non-Western societies might reject. In so doing, it has to disagree with those of its citizens who could have a different, perhaps more collectivist, vision. But that disagreement simply leaves them in a second-class status as citizens with fewer rights.

Freedom for Religion?

Secularism, even its most benign aspect in a democracy, can never achieve the neutrality to which aspires. No view that rules out alternatives can ever be neutral. If one wants a view that does not do that, one is seeking a totally vacuous position that says nothing. By definition, a secularist view takes up a particular approach to the place of religion in public life by declaring that it has no such place. The idea of the separation of church and state pursued in the United States has not proved as extreme. It gives opportunities for all types of religious belief, and not just one favored version, to gain public influence. Presbyterians have had as much right as Anglicans to allow their religious faith to influence their public actions. This required that the public space had to be cleared to allow a proper freedom for religion. It could not be the province for a monopoly, and indeed the American Founders believed that their policy would aid religion in general. Both Jefferson and Madison were vociferous in complaining that official establishment has led to complacence and atrophy within the Anglican Church in Virginia.

Many debates in the United States over questions about the official recognition of expression of religion occur between a more aggressive secularism and those who hold to the traditional American view that the government should be open to all religion. The latter generally take a welcoming and supportive stance toward the idea of religion underpinning the country and its government institutions. They are happy to see “In God We Trust” on their coins. Other, more thorough-going secularists do not want just to see the acceptance of different Christian denominations and, indeed, different religions making their impact in the public arena. They want something much more like the French model enforcing freedom from religion. In the French case, that ideal had definite historic roots with an explicit rejection of traditional religious authority and its harms. The common good, it was thought, was not upheld by the religious conscience but was threatened by it.

(p. 313) This form of secularism involves more than a distancing of the instruments of government from any specific religious identity. Religion is taken to be divisive and possibly even antagonistic against the state. Insofar as a religion refuses to accept the supreme authority of the state but subjects itself to a higher (divine) law, there is some reality to that antagonism. The irony is that, unless this conflict degenerates into a mere power struggle, the principles to which secularism appeals, particularly in the French context, gain more salience in a religious context. Indeed, as we have seen, it becomes questionable how far they can be justified outside of that context. Even more to the point, however, is the fact that secularism within a democratic context has to appeal to the importance of human freedom. That was, not surprisingly, one of the three great principles of the French Revolution. Freedom of conscience must clearly be an important constituent part of freedom. Yet a basic principle of a strong form of secularism is that the religious conscience must be restricted down to something personal and private, with no influence in the public realm. In the name of freedom, freedom has to be restricted in a fairly sweeping way, so that many citizens are unable to publicly express the views and values that are most important to them.

How has this paradoxical state of affairs been reached? Some would fear the idea of the State as the supreme authority, answerable to nothing except the will of the people (which changes over time). Others would welcome state supremacy. Faced with what they perceive as the absolutism of religious fundamentalism and “extremism,” they interpret appeals to religious law only as a defiance of the law of the land, a defiance inimical to democracy. One legal writer on threats to national security says that “an individual accused of violating state law should find little recourse or comfort in claiming that he or she was adhering to religious law” (Guiora 2013: 16). When a country is faced with suicide bombers and the like, that may seem reasonable. This writer goes on to enunciate a dangerous principle, affirming that the “essence of civil society is the primacy of civil law rather than religious law” (15). He may have in mind the judgment that Islamic sharia law should not be allowed to take precedence over national law; there must be one law for all. As he states his principle, unfortunately, it sounds as if religious conscience must be ignored by civil lawmaking. This is reminiscent of the pronouncement of the Council of Europe, with the encouragement of French and Spanish secularists, that “states must require religious leaders to take to take an unambiguous stand in favour of the precedence of human rights, as set forth in the European Convention on Human Rights, over any religious principle” (Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly 2007: para. 17). Since freedom of religion or belief is a basic human right acknowledged in the Convention, the contradictory nature of this statement is clear. Human rights as such cannot trump religion, since the freedom of religion is itself one of the rights. The bias to an aggressive antireligious secularism is evident.

A secularism that expels religion from the public sphere, without allowing it a voice in democratic debate, regards religion as a danger and a threat to civil society. Religion, it decides, has to be controlled by the state and be subservient to it. That secularism may at times masquerade as neutrality, but a “naked” public square, swept clean of all religious encumbrances, is a friendlier place to the atheist than to the religious believer. This is neutrality aligned against religion. Certainly, not all religious belief and practice is good. There is so much diversity to religion that the supposition that all of it is beneficial to society is as unhelpful as condemning all religious expression. That diversity in fact provides all the more reason for exposing it to public debate and rational examination.

(p. 314) Conclusion

The idea that “rights” must override “religion” ignores the fact that a prime motivation for talking of such rights and the human dignity from which they spring is a religious view of humans and their place in the world. The nonreligious may be motivated by other considerations, but it is madness for a state to ignore a prime source of support for the principles of democracy. The idea of human dignity, encapsulating a commitment to the unique worth of each individual person, has always been at the root of any agenda concerning human rights. This idea of dignity can not only be justified in religious terms, because it also makes little sense to speak of dignity if people are prohibited from publicly expressing their most basic understandings about what is important in life.

There is much evidence to suggest that religion, so far from being the private hobby of a few, is deeply rooted in characteristic features to the way human beings think about the world. Religious belief is “natural” (Trigg and Barrett 2014: ch. 12). Religion comes easily to us even if we try to shake it off as we become more sophisticated. This can explain the apparent universality of religious belief and practice in human history. If that is the case, any aggressively secular campaign to expunge traces of religion from public life is likely to fail in the long run. Instead of trying to free everyone from the “shackles” of religion, it is more realistic to make space for religion in the polity. Religious claims can never override every other consideration. There can, and should, always be scope for a reasonable accommodation of their presence.


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