Wednesday, 12 January 2011

"Weak" Secularism.

Sometime ago I posted an article called "Weak" Democracy. This described my idea about what is sufficient for a way of organising society to hold democratic, moral legitimacy. Here I describe an analogous concept concerning the role of religion in society, and the extent to which it is necessary or desirable to exclude particular religious or ideological opinions from the public sphere (for a society to have fair, moral legitimacy), and also why this is important.

“There is no such thing as a right to pretend something you oppose doesn't exist, and no such thing as a right to be shielded from the fact that most people reject your values. So nonbelievers simply do not have a right to live in a society free of religious sentiment. And public displays of religious sentiment - the Ten Commandments, Nativity sets in public parks, the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance - are a straightforward First Amendment issue. Freedom of speech, which is not, I believe, limited only to individuals. Government agencies and bodies have it too. The public exercises of religion listed above involve an absolutely trivial expenditure of public resources and don't infringe on the rights of non-Christians in the slightest. Opposing these exercises is not about protecting the rights of the minority but about suppressing the rights of a majority, using the courts because opponents have failed to make their case on its merits. But public displays of religious belief send an exclusionary message. Maybe. But the last time I checked, messages of all kinds were protected by the First Amendment. Even exclusionary ones. And if you find yourself being excluded, maybe you might even ask whether you're on the right side of the issues. You'd feel differently if you were in the minority. I've spent a total of two years of my life in Islamic countries. If you're expecting me to buy into the idea that it's a violation of my rights to have the majority express a different religious sentiment, you have definitely picked the wrong person.”
Professor Steve Dutch: Some Issues Where Liberals are missing the boat.

The above passage by Professor Dutch precisely encapsulates my beliefs on Secularism. I support Secularism. The Secularism that means giving each member of society a level playing field and avoiding all use or threat of force against them, or the restriction of basic opportunities on grounds of their faith or belief, is a good thing and an essential element of society.  The same is true of avoiding every type of discrimination on grounds except the direct defense of that same society from immediate force or the threat of immediate force; and the obvious discriminations we make daily on grounds of immediate merit.

This Secularism is about respecting the dignity of each person and that their potential to contribute to society is based on their fundamental and basic identity as an individual human person and not on the basis of belonging to any privileged group, whether defined by heritage or belief. This Secularism is based on the understanding that honest and good men may disagree about complicated issues without one being either evil or stupid, and that it is not the nature or even the coherence of the beliefs one holds, nor the backgrounds one identifies with, that makes a man good or evil, or competent or incompetent, but rather the specifically moral actions he takes and the words he speaks and the knowledge he holds and the merit for the task he outwardly displays.

The idea is to accept that each man holds his conscience in good faith and make as much accommodation for the fallen, fallible but essentially decent nature of humanity as possible. From this basis, and an appreciation of human dignity, secularism wishes to avoid forcing any man to become a martyr because of his conscience. To not force any man to give up his chance for opportunity because of what he believes or who he is.  In other words, to construct a society with the least force must be deployed as possible, on the basis that ideas are the correct means to combat ideas, words the correct means to combat words and force only correct when absolutely necessary to combat force or the immediate threat of force.  This is a pacifist notion, only desiring to use force when it is most necessary, to restrict other immediate force or threat of force, and to utilise different methods the rest of the time.

On the other hand, Secularism that is based on banning anything that may be of religious inspiration or association specifically from the “public sphere” is neither desirable nor necessary. It is the repression of cultural expression that serves no purpose apart from to harass a majority or minority. Culture and belief are almost universally things which have public expression written into their nature. A person’s beliefs should affect how they think and act and as far as a person or group has a public life the expression of a person’s or group’s religious or cultural identity will be public.

Furthermore a majority in a society, or even a minority with a position of authority has the right to express their belief or culture within the fabric of that society. There is no theory of the state or government that says everything it does or associates with must be acceptable to all members of that society, as long as it does not use force, threat of force, or discrimination of opportunity then those of different opinion have no grounds to object on the basis of a lack of moral legitimacy.

The difference between these two types of Secularism, the first I call "weak" secularism and the second "strong", is simple.  It is the difference between what they are trying to achieve.  My idea here is that the driving good behind secularism, and much secularisation that has occurred in society, is not that removing religion or other ideologies from a position of prominence or privilege in society is a good in itself, but rather that it is a good as far as it provides opportunity and space for all persons's to flourish and fulfil potential as their conscience dictates they must.  It is the principle of minimising the force needed to maintain society and maximising the space for opportunity it holds.  It is also a pluralist notion, to trim ideologies back to create as much space and freedom for merit and individual potential to flourish and shine.  

  Weak secularism is based on a mutual respect, and a desire to give each the space to express oneself. This applies both for an established and majority faith and belief for a different or individual faith and the different or individual faith for the majority faith or belief, even if it is embedded in society and the expression of that society. This respect and tolerance goes both ways. Each admits the other the chance to pursue opportunity and human flourishing as they believe they must. It seeks to maximise the possibility for expression, whether minority or majority, whether official or unofficial.

The 2nd, on the other hand, claims to seek to provide space for public expression and flourishing by restricting that same expression and flourishing. It, hence, seeks to restrict what expression may be acceptable just as much as any establishment of religion or another ideology. Its attempt is not to maximise freedom for all, which is the basis of a good secularism, but rather to restrict it. It hence fails as a basis for a society built around a core of eternal moral truth of seeking peaceful co-existence between people, that is seeking to build a society that provides all space, and works with the nature of human beings.

It must also be noted that this applies to other ideologies as well as religions.  As far as a way of organising society restricts potential for development for those who hold certain (metaphysical) views it is not secular, regardless of public religious content or not.  In this model the old Soviet Union was less secular than today's Britain, because in the first you must hold to certain official ideologies and pieties to be allowed space in society, whether Marxism or the rule of the Communist party, whereas in the 2nd you do not.  This is despite the official atheism and 'Secularism' of the first and the Established Religion, and Bishops in the legislature, of the 2nd.

The point is that restricting one type of expression is only a good as far as that expression is directly restricting another.  Beyond that it is just restricting expression for the sake of it and thus directly opposed to the creation of as free a society as possible, with as much opportunity as possible for all.  This is the true aim that makes so much secularisation a good thing, not the underlying removal of religious content and expression itself.  And it is only when we realise this true nature about what is good about the phenomena that we can realise precisely what to do to maximise this.


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