In Defence of the Secular State

Toleration of anti-religious speech, equal rights for homosexual couples, the application of anti-discrimination employment law to religious associations, the moral foundations of bioethics, compulsory sex education in schools, the expansion of faith schools and faith-based organisations, bans on religious dress in public: countless recent controversies seem to have set ‘religion’ against ‘secularism’ in a confrontational, winner-take-all stand-off. Yet the terms of this debate are often badly framed. Secularism properly understood – as a political philosophy – need not be anti-religious.

The secular state is not a state committed to substantive atheism or to the marginalisation of religion from public and social life. It is, rather, a state in which citizens share a language – a secular language – for discussing political matters. So, religious believers can be secularists and secularists can also be religious believers. The commitment to secularism is a political position that is compatible with a wide range of personal views and beliefs. It is, I shall further argue, a commitment that lies at the core of democratic politics. But to see this, it is important to be clear about which aspects of the western secular heritage are worthy of our allegiance and which are controversial, substantive positions that run directly counter to liberal democratic ideals. Once we understand what the secular state actually commits us to, we will be in a better position to identify the reasonable, and therefore resolvable, points of contention between the parties on the opposite sides of these controversies.

Let us begin by distinguishing two strands of western secularism. What we may call Reformation secularism emerged out of the Wars of Religion in the 16th century. As Christian sects unsuccessfully fought for unchallenged political hegemony through bloody conflict, they were eventually led to agree a political settlement that guaranteed each of them a form of toleration by the dominant faith. Full political establishment – the fusion of church and state – progressively gave way to a state committed to the recognition of minority faiths such as Catholics, Jews and Muslims. At the heart of Reformation secularism lies the principle of equal freedom of conscience, which can only be upheld and guaranteed by a state that does not itself appeal to the truth of one religion. The state is agnostic about religion, we could say, so that citizens can freely practise (or not practise) whatever religion they have. The neutral, secular state is the best way to protect the freedom of conscience of all its citizens.

There is, however, another strand of secularism, which we might call Enlightenment secularism. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, western states struggled to implement the progressive ideals of equality, democracy and citizenship. Very often, this meant directly confronting the power not only of traditional political and economic elites but also of religious authorities. Allowing for considerable variation among countries and among Christian churches, it is still the case that many churches throughout Europe and North America held considerable power over the social and mental structures of national life, through their control of (or influence upon) education, civil society associations, the conduct of politics, private and family-centred norms of behaviour and so on. Some of this social power was used in a way that flatly contradicted the newly established democratic ethos; it upheld social hierarchies, encouraged attitudes of obedience and deference, frowned on women’s rights and was intolerant of minorities and dissidents. In response, Enlightenment secularism placed democratic values rather than freedom of conscience at the heart of its project. It aimed to liberate the secular state from the potentially anti-democratic, anti-liberal grip that churches historically had over society.

According to the Enlightenment view, then, the secular state fosters allegiance to the norms of democratic citizenship over and above the claims of religious allegiance when, as often happens, the two conflict. The distinction between Reformation and Enlightenment secularism, as variants of the western tradition of ‘separation between church and state’, is more useful than another popular dichotomy. It has become almost a cliché to contrast an Anglo-American liberal tradition with a European republican tradition. It is true that the former is more influenced by what I call Reformation secularism, and the latter by Enlightenment secularism. In practice, however, it is fair to say that both traditions coexist in all countries. For example, it would be impossible to understand the recent British controversies referred to in the opening sentence of this piece without acknowledging the influence of the tradition of Enlightenment secularism in this country, too, and not only via the Human Rights Act. For its part, French laïcité – often described as an extreme version of Enlightenment secularism – also contains a respectable Reformation pedigree, in the form of a doctrine of separation and of state neutrality influenced in no small way by Protestant republicans in the late 19th century.

So the theoretical distinction between Reformation and Enlightenment secularism is a useful one. But does this mean we must choose one over the other? Not at all. There are reasons to believe that neither approach offers a satisfactory and fair way to conceptualise the proper relationship between state and religion in contemporary societies. Reformation secularism was explicitly designed for societies in which the majority of citizens were Christian and is compatible with the coexistence of an established church and tolerated minority religions, a settlement rightly perceived as archaic in multicultural, multi-religious yet also deeply secularised societies. More fundamentally, democracy is not just about freedom of religion. Reformation secularism is too narrow a project for contemporary liberal societies, as it is designed for a world in which religion permeated the whole of social life and provided a shared frame of reference and politico-cultural idiom.

Enlightenment secularism, by contrast, is potentially a modern, ambitious and expansive programme. Unfortunately, it can be too ambitious and too expansive. One way to understand how this can happen is to elaborate on the distinction, drawn from philosopher John Rawls’ theory of political liberalism, between political and comprehensive secularism. In pursuing its democratic ends, the secular state can draw either on purely political views – those that are genuinely agnostic about the truth of people’s beliefs – or on comprehensive views: for example, those that are substantively atheistic or anti-religious. Undeniably, Enlightenment secularism has these rationalistic, anti-religious proclivities. They are, notoriously, very much in evidence among some French laïcistes, who assume that religion is false, oppressive and dangerous, and that the state has a duty to emancipate people from religious beliefs. Yet the Enlightenment project can, alternatively, be formulated as purely political, connected exclusively with the promotion of democratic values. Of course, at times, the implementation of this democratic project will conflict with some religious practices and beliefs, but this does not mean that it is motivated or justified by substantively anti-religious prejudice. Moreover, in a democratic society, freedom of conscience is one of the key values that must be respected alongside those of equality, non-discrimination, children’s rights and shared citizenship.

Democratic reasoning

All this begs the question: how can we properly justify the secular state? A secular state is not defined by its substantive commitments, institutional settlement or specific policies. Rather, it is defined by the type of justification it offers for them. So, following Rawls and other theorists of public reason, we can say that in justifying laws and policies, the state and its officials should not exclusively appeal to comprehensive, substantive views about the truth (or falsity) of religion. Secularism is a meta-theoretical doctrine about justifications and reasons, rather than a set of specific normative prescriptions about correct institutions or policies. More precisely, it is an appeal to public justification or public reasons, where such reasons are defined as drawing on certain forms of widely accepted epistemic standards. Neither atheism nor theism can be appealed to as sole reasons in public debate, while a kind of agnosticism – the view that posits epistemological incompetence about the truth of atheism and theism – is acceptable in public reasoning.

Taking this view, the secular state offers the only democratic way to justify the exercise of political power to all citizens, regardless of the particular beliefs and conceptions of the good to which they are otherwise committed. By exercising religious restraint when we are sincerely unable to provide secular reasons for our views, we show respect for our fellow citizens, only seeking to appeal to public standards. Neither the view that religion is true, nor the view that religion is false, counts as a public reason on this account, as neither can be proven according to widely accepted epistemological standards. By contrast, freedom of conscience, non-discrimination, freedom of association and equal citizenship are acceptably democratic political values to which we can legitimately appeal in public debate.

In what sense is the secular state an important democratic ideal that we all have reason to endorse? It implies neither hostility to religion nor an intention to exclude it from public and social life. Freedom of conscience is one of the pillars of the secularist tradition (and is particularly central to Reformation secularism). Respect for freedom of conscience should not, however, be interpreted as a substantive claim according to which particular beliefs are true and should be politically entrenched as such.

Rather, religious believers, when engaged in public debate about a particular controversy, can appeal to the importance of particular beliefs to them personally and can then explain to others how they relate to the issue at hand. What they cannot reasonably expect is that their views will prevail, or that religious rights will automatically trump other rights, in particular those associated with the tradition of Enlightenment secularism.

In a liberal, pluralist society, it is legitimate that the relative ordering and weight of different political values in relation to particular controversies be a subject of democratic deliberation. So, contemporary debates about abortion, sex, homosexuality, education, faith-based associations, religious exemptions, free speech and so on must be fought democratically, by appeal to public (secular) reasons. Religious believers, while they hold profound, comprehensive beliefs about what the demands of morality entail in these cases, should be prepared to offer political, secular reasons to justify their views in public, given that these will be used to justify the exercise of state coercion on all citizens. For example, they can invoke such values as the right to life, the social good of marriage and reproduction, freedom of association, the social role of religious charities, the wrongness of offensive speech, parents’ rights and the particular harm suffered by citizens forced to act against their conscience, all of which are secular and can be legitimately and relevantly invoked in public debate.

They do not, however, carry greater weight than other democratic values, whether these are women’s rights, children’s rights, equality as non-discrimination, the social good of all loving relationships, freedom of speech and so on. So, by appealing to the justificatory structure of the secular state, we can keep recent controversies on the plane in which they belong: that of the legitimate and reasonable discussion of citizens’ rights and liberties in a democratic society. This is very different from the winner-take-all, almost existential stand-off between secular democracy and religion that the media, in particular, often like to portray.

Take the example of funding. Can a case be made, in a secular state, for the channelling of public funds towards religious organisations and activities? The answer depends on the context. What is not permissible is to subsidise religion on the grounds that it is intrinsically valuable, or that it promotes important truths, since this would violate the requirement of state neutrality.

By contrast, it might be permissible to argue for state support of religion by appeal to public, secular values. For example, one might claim that faith-based associations that provide a public service on the same terms as similarly situated secular organisations should not be discriminated against as recipients of public funds simply on the grounds that they are religious. So there might be good secular reasons for state support of religion, but only on the basis of (and conditional upon the respect of) democratic values. Likewise, if religious believers are to make a claim for exemption from the application of general laws, it will not be permissible for them simply to say that claims of conscience should trump other values. Rather, religious believers must explain to others the sense in which theirs is a rightful claim, one that respects and promotes the values of freedom, equality and reciprocity. Generally, while a secular state must make space for conscientious objection, this space will be narrowly constrained by, on the one hand, the demands of reciprocity and, on the other hand, those of equality.

The secular state speaks both to believers and to atheists. It reminds believers that, although they may have good reasons to resent the growing secularisation of society, the secular state does not forbid them from defending their views and values in the public sphere. In a democratic society, however, nobody can impose their substantive non-negotiable commitment on others unless secular reasons can justify it. The only non-negotiable values, politically, are those of reciprocity, mutual respect and the willingness to find fair terms of social cooperation that can be justified to everybody. Atheists, too, have something to learn from my defence of the secular state. It shows them that anti-religious sentiment can be as suspect a political justification as appeal to religious truths, in that it takes a substantive position on matters of faith so violates freedom of conscience, itself an important democratic value.

In sum, the secular state asks all of us to be bilingual, politically speaking. We must be able, in addition to and alongside our particular views about religion, to speak the secular language of democratic politics: the language of democratic rights, freedoms and obligations. While the secular state is, by definition, anathema to religious fundamentalists, it should appeal to the great majority of believers of all faiths. It should give secularists reasons for hope, as well as for restraint. In the current offensive against the secular state, secularists should stick to their guns, but not blaze them in all directions, for religion has a legitimate place in the secular state.

Cécile Laborde is professor of political theory at University College, London

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