Philosophy Hammer
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109: Jocelyn MacLure & Charles Taylor Part II:
Secularism and Freedom of Conscience; Ends and Means

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

The distinction between the aims of secularism and the means to realize those aims is a key to understanding what is at stake in debates of religious accommodation and in helping to articulate a way forward through stalemated debates.

“In our view, secularism rests on two major principles, namely, equality of respect and freedom of conscience, and on two operative modes that make the realization of these principles possible: to wit, the separation of church and state and the neutrality of the state toward religions.” Although the principle aims are of a higher and more important level, the means are not optional or second class. Rather their function is different. The operational means, (separation of church and state and the neutrality toward religion) are meant to realize the aims and principles of secularism (equality of respect and freedom of conscience) without affronting the values of human dignity, human rights and popular sovereignty. (Q1)

From the perspective of human dignity: the aim is to give all people the same respect and dignity to be moral agents therefore the separation of church and state is meant to reduce or eliminate the privilege of any dominant religion. From the perspective of human rights: justifications for equal respect (or lack of respect) must be derived from the most common or potentially minimal acceptable public and political morality (that is a morality that is open to all to understand and agree to – and again it is the job of the state to make everyone realize that human dignity, human rights and popular sovereignty are in everyone’s best interest), therefore human rights must be taught, promulgated and respected at every opportunity. Lastly from the perspective of popular sovereignty: the state must be recognized as incompetent to decide maters of the aims of life. The state must never assume (or it must abdicate) that power and leave it to the individual to decide. “[The state] will also seek to defend that freedom of conscience when it is illegitimately impinged upon, just as it defends the equality between women and men or freedom of expression. It is from that standpoint that religious accommodations are sometimes justified.” (Q2)

An analogy could be made to the notion of the separation of the executive, legislative, and Judicial branches of government: this is an institutional arrangement designed to protect personal freedoms and prevent tyranny. In other words, the separation of powers is the means to the aim of preserving freedom and preventing of tyranny. The actual boundaries of the three branches do shift, adjust, and often come into conflict as needs and times change. Likewise, “It must,…be recognized that, in certain situations, the ends and operative modes of secularism cannot coexist in perfect harmony; compromises favoring maximum compatibility between these two ideals must then be sought. Because secularism is not a single, simple principle, dilemmas are generated, and secular states must find ways to resolve them.”

The authors define “Regimes of secularism” as “ the set of political systems whose aim is to realize the principles of equal respect and freedom of conscience” and point out there is a vast spectrum of such states: from the UK and Denmark that have official churches to the US and France with their “firm” separation. “[The authors’] conceptual choice is based on the ends of secularism as a political mode of governance rather than on its operative modes.”

In the authors’ experiences those states that focus on the operative modes of secularism tend to be much more rigid or strict when it comes to the free exercise of religion. Conversely regimes that focus more on the aims of secularism tend to be more open and flexible when it comes to the separation of church and state and the notion of neutrality. The authors privilege the more open and flexible as the better option and refer to the strict side of the spectrum as having a “‘fetishism of means’: the separation of church and state and the state’s religious neutrality become values that must be defended at all costs rather than means that, though essential, are to be defined as a function of the ends they serve.”

Historically, this fetishism of means may have developed because secularism was given up to two other aims: 1) the emancipation of individuals from religion and 2) civic integration. The authors suggest that these two ends may have been needed more in the past than today and that their lingering sentiment contributes to social secularization and the fetishism of means that often grip debates.

The term “public” as used in the phrase “the public sphere” has at least two meanings: 1) for the common good and 2) accessible or usable by all. The first is usually in reference to institutions and the second to people. Both of these senses should be in mind when we speak of secularism and/or religion in the public sphere because the phrase, the public sphere, should apply differently depending on the object referred to. (Q3)

Consider a case where a student at a public school or university wishes to wear religious symbols or preform religious acts like prayer. The authors suggest that: “The essential thing, if we wish to grant students equal respect and protect their freedom of conscience, is not to remove religion from the schools completely but, rather, to ensure that the school does not espouse or favor any religion….In the liberal-pluralist view, the requirement of neutrality is directed at institutions and not at individuals. In the republican conception, the individuals are also obliged to exercise self-restraint and display neutrality, by abstaining from displaying their faith when they frequent public institutions or, in the most radical view, when they enter the public sphere.”

The authors speak against the republican view because in reality there is no clear boundary between the private and public spheres. Even in the most ridged republican regimes there can still be found places for spiritual contemplation in public institutions such as hospitals, prisons and the armed forces. “In societies where freedom of conscience, expression, and association prevails, religion quite simply cannot be contained within the strict limits of the home and place of worship.” (Q4)

Q1 The distinction between the ends and the means is central to the authors’ concepts of religious accommodation. Do you accept that there are levels of principles and that some are more important and others are meant to bring about the ends?

Q2 Do you believe that we should make special accommodations to religious demands? Ontario has four school boards. How do you feel about tax dollars supporting Catholic education? How about French language education?

Q3 Should the niqab be allowed to be worn in school? By students? By teachers?

Q4 Do you believe that there is a hard and fast demarcation line between the private and public spheres? Pierre Trudeau famously said “the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation” do you agree or disagree? Or is it better to hold the feminist notion “the private is the public”?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren