Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

108: Jocelyn MacLure & Charles Taylor Part I:
Secularism and Freedom of Conscience; Moral Pluralism, Core Beliefs, and Political & Social Secularization

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

Canada and in fact the whole liberal democratic world is grappling with questions of moral and religious diversity. There are nearly countless examples of large and small problems and solutions that are routinely reported. Secularism is widely believed to be a virtue in a liberal democratic world. “…there is broad consensus that ‘secularism’ is an essential component of any liberal democracy composed of citizens who adhere to a plurality of conceptions of the world and the good,…” (Q1)

Secularism, as a starting point for the authors, involves “a political and legal system whose function is to establish a certain distance between the state and religion…” Secularism further involves certain formulas such as “separation of church and state,” “neutrality of the state on moral or religious maters,” and distinctions between the public and private spheres. But all of this can lead to a multitude of solutions both good, appropriate and sound as well as bad, inappropriate and lacking in social justice. “The objective of this book …is …to demonstrate that a more precise conceptualization allows for a better grasp of the options available to societies facing dilemmas associated with how to manage moral and religious diversity.” (Q2)

To start the authors begin by defining several concepts. 1) Moral pluralism is the fact that in our society people hold different (and sometimes contradictory) notions of the Good. Societies with moral pluralism have many internally consistent value systems that are often in tension with each other. A reasonable pluralism understands reason’s incapacity to decide once and for all fundamental questions (such as, the meaning of life, what is a good life, etc.) “The question of secularism must therefore be approached within the broader problematic of the state’s necessary neutrality toward the multiple values, beliefs, and life plans of citizens in modern society.” (Q3)

However the neutrality is not absolute. Almost by definition a liberal democracy must hold at least three values of political association: human dignity, human rights, and popular sovereignty, as core, sacrosanct, and non-negotiable. These values allow for and set the conditions for legitimate moral pluralism to exist. “The challenge of contemporary societies is to ensure that everyone comes to see the basic principles of political association as legitimate, based on his or her own perspective.” (Q4)

A second notion the authors introduce is 2) “‘core or meaning-giving beliefs and commitments’ … the reasons, evaluations, or grounds stemming from the conception of the world or of the good adopted by individuals that allow them to understand the world around them and to give a meaning and direction to their lives.” These individual core beliefs are to be considered higher and more important to the moral life of any individual than their preferences, desires, or whims.

One flawed solution to the challenge of contemporary society to have everyone see the importance of the basic principles is their “elevation” to a state secular civic religion one that replace all others. The authors find this notion problematic because it would no longer be neutral in terms of the fundamental principles or the values, beliefs and life plans of citizens. (Q5)

3) Political secularization is “the process by which the state affirms its independence from religion” and 4) social secularization is “an erosion of the influence of religion in social practices and in the conduct of individual lives. Where political secularization finds its expression in positive law and public policies, social secularization is a sociological phenomenon embodied in people’s conception of the world and modes of life.” Social secularization destroys the autonomy of individual moral entities and seeks to destroy other (unofficial or unsanctioned) moral claims. Political secularization, when successful, maintains a non-absolute but ideal neutrality. The “non-absolute” means the state must take the sides of equality and autonomy when people chose their life plans and modes of life. This allows religious and non-religious people to act on most of their convictions without imposing their own values on others (the best of relativism). But, since there is still a tension with the principles of equality and autonomy the right balance needs to get worked out in every case (to prevent the worst of relativism).

A further corollary of the authors’ view in support of political secularization and against social secularization is the realization that national unity does not require unanimity of national aims, values or beliefs. (Q6)

Part of the authors’ project is to teach us of the conditions necessary to manage moral and religious diversity and prevent us from a polarization that could tear us violently apart. (Q7)

Q1 How do you define “secularism”? And do you believe it an essential component of any liberal democracy?

Q2 How do you feel about some recent issues: the niqab and hijab issues, the recent mosque shooting by a white French guy; private arbitration based on Sharia law; anti-blasphemy laws; sexual and bio-ethics; immigration: have this issue been handled well and appropriately?

Q3 Should the secular state necessarily be neutral towards the values and beliefs of its citizens? Is soft relativism (the notion that all values are equally valuable and beyond moral judgment) acceptable to you?

Q4 Is there an overlapping consensus that these basic secular values can be arrived at through many different paths (religious, spiritual and secular) but that there might not be agreement on how we got to these results? Is this really a major contemporary challenge?

Q5 Perhaps you have heard that atheism is a religion and the only one sanctioned by the state. Perhaps you have heard that political correctness is forcing a war on Christmas. Do you believe this? The authors believe that the current Turkish state, Jacobinism, some communist and nationalist states and the third French republic were examples of what the authors call social secularization (which included a secular civic religion) which ought to be resisted and not confused with political secularization.

Q6 One of the solutions to the European religious wars of the 1500s to 1600s was the recognition that the people of a principality must be unanimously united with their princes’ religion. Communist and fascist governments demanded a unanimous unity from their people. Even in Canada Quebec had to recently go through a quiet revolution to break up the unanimity. The idea that we can differ about life’s deepest questions and still be united without unanimity is relatively new. Does our young system today seem stable or unstable to you?

Q7 Does Canada need a test of Canadian values? Certainly it does if we want unanimity in our unity. Do you agree or disagree?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren