Is Secularism Unprincipled?


From Of the Nature of Things, by Thomas Creech, T. Lucretius Carus, 1682–3
Engraving by Michael Burghers.

by Ian Pollock

The secular movement is a cause that, by and large, I support. I think a more secular society would be a better one. But I think some of the purported arguments for secularism are in one way or another bad arguments. Here, I attempt to prod secularists into some critical reflection on their ideas.

As secularists would be wise to point out more often, secularism does not mean the promotion of atheism in anywise. In fact, the historical roots of secularism lie in the desire of non-dominant faiths to enjoy legal protection against the persecutions of majority religions. This is a very good reason to enforce a firewall between the promotion of atheism and the promotion of secularism — both may or may not be worthy goals, but they are not the same goal.

The modern secular ideal goes roughly as follows: “government institutions and individuals charged with them should be separated from religious institutions and the people charged with them.” This idea has a long pedigree that includes ancient and mediaeval thinkers such as Epicurus and Ibn Rushd, as well as moderns such as Locke, Jefferson and Rawls.

The modern secular movement is committed to two main principles: (1) religions are welcome to participate in moral and political debate in the public sphere, so long as they use language and arguments that are at least in principle accessible to all participants in the public sphere; (2) the state may not endorse any one religious perspective over any other.

As an example of principle (1), if a Muslim wishes to ban artistic portrayals of Mohammad because such betrayals are considered morally wrong by their faith, they can’t simply argue that “This contravenes my faith.” Rather, they must come up with a secular argument that does not directly use a faith perspective (though it may still mention it). For example, they could opt for a quasi-utilitarian argument along the lines of “Depictions of Mohammad are deeply offensive to most Muslims; ceteris paribus, it is bad to egregiously offend people; therefore, depictions of Mohammad should be banned.” This may or may not be a good argument, but it is at least valid, and in principle a Christian, Hindu or atheist could go along with its logic.

As an example of principle (2), if a Christian wishes to promote the Ten Commandments, they must do so using private resources and on private property; they may not, for example, put up a statue of Moses with the TC on a public space such as a courthouse lawn, with public money.

(One important note regarding principle (2): state promotion of atheism counts as promoting a religious perspective, so regimes such as the former Soviet Union are in violation of the principles of secularism.)

As Julian Baggini points out in the Guardian, this vision of secularism is probably the best way to move societies with a plurality of religions forward while preventing sectarian gridlock and possible violence. It is imperative that religious people, moderates in particular, be convinced of such a view, which is why it may be a good idea to pick one’s fights by steering away from battling the more trivial violations of these principles in order to focus on the really serious violations.

The pragmatic adequacy of this ideal is, I think, very easy to argue for and very robust. With much relaxation of the above two principles, one ends up at best with sectarian conflict, and at worst with some shade of theocracy.

There is just one problem with it, which is that whatever its pragmatic worth, both of its principles are ultimately founded on special pleading — i.e., both of its principles are unprincipled. Certain groups of religious people notice this lack of principle. Because of this, the above understanding of secularism leads to inevitable pathologies in political debate.

Let’s start with principle (1), that religions and worldviews may participate in the public sphere so long as they “translate” their views into secular language accessible to all participants.

Our first and most important objection is that there is no principled difference between religious beliefs and secular beliefs. Religious beliefs can (according to their proponents) be backed up by some sort of line of reasoning, even if it’s a bad one, just like secular beliefs.

Suppose I wish to defend my view that non-marital sex is a moral evil. All I have to do is explain that my holy book says that, and then give evidence for the miraculous predictions my holy book has made which verify its general trustworthiness, and I have (contrary to appearances) completed a fully secular argument. (Not a good one — but that is no criterion for automatic exclusion!)

How is that any different from a pundit weighing in on economic policy, then explaining why his Keynesian approach has always been successful in predicting the effects of economic policy? Why is one of these people required to “translate” or shut up, and the other not?

Second, the demand to “translate,” even if accepted, leads to pathologies in public debate. Specifically, it forces religious believers into a position of insincerity. Given that I believe non-marital sex is morally bad and should be prevented, how am I to make my case without referencing my faith? By sheer sophistry, of course. Perhaps I opt for a utilitarian sophistry: sex outside of marriage leads to depression and suicide. Now the public sphere is polluted not merely with mistakes but with lies.

What about principle (2), that the state should take no position on religious questions?

This principle fails due to the same lack of a principled distinction between secular versus religious questions. Suppose I believe that 2015 will be the beginning of the End Times, when the world will be consumed in a great war involving all countries. Is this a religious question? Not for me. It’s a practical question: I already started buying the cans of lentils for my bomb shelter.

Suppose further that enough of the population agrees with me that they elect me Prime Minister. On what earthly basis can I “take no position” on the question of the End Times because it’s a “religious question”? Am I to abandon my country to the massacre and famine I know is coming?

This example is extreme, but the same applies to more mundane concerns. When it comes to policy, every question is potentially a religious question.

How could we ever think otherwise? I think the mistake arises from the differing epistemic status of “belief” among two groups of people, whom I will call True Believers and Professors (borrowing the terminology from Daniel Dennett).

True Believers are people who are convinced of religious propositions in the same way that they are convinced of any other proposition, such as that Mexico is to the south of the USA. They have seen some evidence which convinces them, and they are now willing to act as if the religious propositions are straightforwardly true. You know those people, so beloved of the atheist blogosphere, who pray for their kids instead of taking them to the hospital? Those are classic True Believers.

Professors are people who nominally adhere to some system of religious doctrine as part of their identity, but whose epistemology does not, when push comes to shove, actually contain all of those doctrines — particularly as concerns worldly affairs. For example, Professors believe in the power of prayer, but as a way of dealing with loss, not as a means for deciding whether to bomb Damascus. Somewhere in their heart of hearts is a bit of common sense, and it holds an override switch.

We can see that the distinction between “religious questions” and “secular questions” makes a great deal of sense for Professors. Religious questions are basically de facto questions of identity, however much they are dressed up as propositional belief. John F. Kennedy is loyal to the Catholic identity, which theoretically includes papal infallibility, but don’t worry! He isn’t literally going to do whatever the Pope tells him to.

To True Believers, such a distinction is sheer gobbledigook. I’m forced to admit they have a point, at least on this question.

The ultimate unprincipledness of the two tenets of secularism is beginning to be noticed. For example, Michael Sandel has recently begun to argue that irreducibly religious (as well as, presumably, antireligious) arguments should be acceptable in political debate. It is hard to argue with his logic: policy proposals depend on moral claims, and moral claims depend on some substantive vision of the good life. Philosophically, it all rings true; pragmatically, it sounds like a potential recipe for sectarian civil war.

How did we get into this bizarre situation in which the only way to have a workable, non-sectarian political process is to exclude, via outright special pleading, explicitly religious viewpoints from the public sphere and from the law?

I believe that secularism, as imagined above, arises more or less as follows:

• Participation of citizens with differing views in political debate is supposed to be part of the democratic process.
• However, a large fraction of citizens hold some views that are (in the judgment of more sober minds) straightforwardly insane, and would not hesitate to impose the policy implications of those views upon the rest of society if given the ability to do so.
• Religious moderates, religious minorities and non-believers, tacitly recognizing these two facts, promote secularism as a compromise, despite its philosophical bankruptcy and practical pathologies.

Seen in this light, it is obvious why secularism cannot really be principled. It is an attempt to consign certain groups of sincere but deluded religious believers to a rhetorical sandbox.

Sometimes a matter of great practical import must override a matter of principle, however. The philosophically correct picture, as far as I can see, is a public policy debate in which any argument (religious or not) is permitted, and there is no false distinction between religious and secular questions. The sanity of the majority prevails, epistemically bad views lose to epistemically good ones in the marketplace of public opinion, and we all ride our unicorns into the sunset.

We should probably just stick with the old, unprincipled hack. But let us at least be honest with ourselves about what it is.

Piece originally published at Rationally Speaking | Creative Commons License