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113: Charles Taylor Part IV:
Why We Need A Radical Redefinition of Secularism

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

Charles Taylor, in his essay “Why We Need A Radical Redefinition of Secularism” reflects on the meaning of “secularism”. He starts off by listing two models: A) the separation of church and state and B) the neutrality of the state to religion. Then he lists three necessary goods or goals of secularism based on the three founding principles of the French revolution, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity: “1. No one must be forced in the domain of religion or basic belief…. 2. There must be equality between people of different faiths or basic belief…. 3. all spiritual families must be heard, included in the ongoing process of determining what the society is about (its political identity), and how it is going to realize these goals….” He also adds a fourth goal related to the third: “maintain relations of harmony and comity between the supporters of different religions….”

Because there are three (or 4) good goals that need to be balanced but (a) there is no one solution to that can be arrived at by reason alone for (b) every situation, therefore (c) dictating principles and solutions violates goal 3 and (d) leaves us with many possible conflicts between our goals. In practice this often means that new immigrants get mixed messages: on the one hand they are told that they cannot practice some religious duties but on the other are invited to the consensus building process.

The problem with secularism is that “We think that secularism … has to do with the relation of the state and religion; whereas in fact it has to do with the (correct) response of the democratic state to diversity….There is no reason to single out religion, as against nonreligious, ‘secular’ …, or atheist viewpoints. Indeed, the point of state neutrality is precisely to avoid favoring or disfavoring not just religious positions but any basic position, religious or nonreligious.”

Modern secularism’s fixation (or “fetishization”) with religion is unfortunate because it tends to focus on the institutional arraignments that then are used as mantras to stop debates on the real issue of the 3 (or 4) goals. Yet, “We should be aware that this fetishization reflects a deep feature of life in modern democracies.” We need some common ideas, purposes, and/or reference points from our state to legitimately feel at home in our society. It does not matter if these ideas, purposes, and/or reference points are true or really widely held – what is important is that we imagine that they are. This is a relatively new phenomenon: pre-modern states did not seem to need this shared overlapping imaginary.

The author defines “political identity” as “the generally accepted answer to the ‘what/whom for?’ question….In other words, a modern democratic state demands a ‘people’ with a strong collective identity….And this identity is usually defined partly in terms of certain basic principles (democracy, human rights, equality)…”

At this point the author takes some time to criticize Habermas’ conception of ‘the political’ in which “originally political authority was defined and justified in cosmic-religious terms….Habermas seems to think that modern secular states might do altogether without some analogous concept, and this seems to me [the author] not quite right.” The author suggests that for Habermas the secular modern state has eliminated the cosmic-religious foundation of ‘the political’. However, the author believes that the cosmic-religious foundation has rather been changed, secularized, replaced by “a strong ‘philosophy of civility,’ enshrining the three norms, which in contemporary societies are often expressed as 1. human rights, 2. equality and nondiscrimination, and 3. democracy.”

For the author, Habermas wants to allow a cosmic-religious discourse that has been translated into secular language back into ‘the political’. “The problem is that a really diverse democracy can’t revert to a civil religion, or antireligion … without betraying its own principles. We are condemned to live an overlapping consensus.”

Diverse multicultural societies in the west that have matured in their secularism are no longer in danger of moving backward into a dominant state religion and therefore our secularism does not need to worry so much about the strict separation of church and state. One reason for the need to redefine secularism is to focus on the goals of secularism (freedom of conscience and equality of respect) “Otherwise we risk needlessly limiting the religious freedom of immigrant minorities, on the strength of our historic institutional arrangements, while sending a message to these same minorities that they by no means enjoy equal status with the long-established mainstream.”

Another reason for a redefinition is “our fixation on religion as the problem.” The logic of this sentiment that religion is the problem goes like this: “religious reason either comes to the same conclusions as secular reason, but then it is superfluous, or it comes to contrary conclusions, and then it is dangerous and disruptive.” The author believes that many modern day philosophers (including Habermas) make a mistake by holding this sentiment. The author does believe that a secular language needs to exist in government as part of state neutrality; but state neutrality needs to be thought of as the best response to the larger category of diversity, not just to the smaller category of religion. The “how” of neutrality should focus on the 3 (or 4) goals not just the institutional goals.

The sentiment that religion is the problem is a myth. And it comes from several myths of the Enlightenment. The first is the view that the Enlightenment was “a passage from darkness to light…from error and illusion to one where truth is at last available.” The author (jokingly) points out that the argument could easily be made in reverse. The real problems and faults of the Enlightenment that are widespread are: a. that “nonreligiously informed Reason [can] resolve certain moral-political issues in a way that can legitimately satisfy any honest, unconfused thinker and b. [that] religiously based conclusions will always be dubious and in the end only convincing to people who have already accepted the dogmas in question.” If a + b were true then and only then would it make sense to “restrict the use of religious language in the sphere of public reason.”

Science, the premier method of “nonreligiously informed reason” cannot properly speak to moral or political issues; Marxism or Utilitarianism, two “nonreligiously informed reason[s]” still do not come to agreements with honest and unconfused thinkers. Similarly “If we take key statements of our contemporary political morality, such as those attributing rights to human beings as such, the right to life, I cannot see how the fact that we are desiring/enjoying/suffering beings, or the perception that we are rational agents, should be any surer basis for this right than the fact that we are made in the image of God.” In short, statements of fact do not lead logically or reasonably to statements of value. The facts on the ground do not mean that (correct) normative actions will automatically emerge – or let alone that the best values (from our western perspective) of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (or Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; or peace, order, and good government) will form the basis of the state; or that they will be justly or adequately pursued; or let alone agreed upon by reasonable people.

Religion is not a problem. Religion is a category of diversity; modern secular states need to manage diversity. Secularism needs to be redefined to better accommodate increasing diversity in society.




© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren