If not secularism, then what?

Brian Britt delivered an enlightening talk at our meeting three weeks ago on, among other threads, the evolving interpretations of holy texts and the clash between dominant religious communities and institutional secularism that has become a mainstay of the Enlightenment.* Following a question from Zack at the Leopard discussion afterward, i’ve been wrestling with my own embrace and promotion of secular values—a core element of this club.

Here’s the dilemma Dr. Britt posed: In the hundreds of years since its inception, the secular agenda has failed to realize the hopes of its founders. Now, it may have been too much to hope for an end to religious strife or guidelines for the founding of happiness-maximizing societies. But to get the point across it’s enough to reflect on just how successfully the largest nation to codify secularism—the United States**—has overcome the religious intolerance that has defined it since inception. This failure, Dr. Britt argues, has ushered modernity into a post-secular phase.

This isn’t to say that secularism has been anything but an immense net good for modern societies. But it does seem to say that secularism will not be the final word on interfaith coexistence. Dr. Britt characterizes post-secularism by a defining problem: Religious strife and discrimination—which include the marginalization of the irreligious—require a solution. If not secularism, then what?

Borrowing from a different kind of critique by Ian Pollock, we can characterize secularism by two principles, which boil down to how the people affect the state and how the state affects the people:***

  • In order to engage in public policy, religious people and organizations must express their values and arguments in universally accessible terms. I think of this as the translation principle.
  • The state (at all levels) must not favor (by endorsement or by unequal treatment) any religious position or people over any other. In the United States this impartiality principle underpins both the establishment clause and the free exercise clause.

I find the former of these principles problematic and perhaps even incoherent, while the latter has been interpreted in ways that are outright damaging.

My gripe with the translation principle is that it excludes religious arguments by decree. Why are only our myths and values required to be universally accessible, while in contrast scientific evidence only accessible to an elite community of experts is not only permitted in policy discussions but actively encouraged, and culturally competent policy must by definition recognize the distinct experiences and needs of different groups? Even in isolation the principle poses problems: Once religious ideas are considered abnormal, it becomes easy to pathologizing religious believers.

Meanwhile, incautious interpretations of the principle of state impartiality on religious matters have infringed severely on the rights of minority and majority religious groups alike. In the former heart of the Enlightenment, laïcité (French secularism) has been taken to such extremes as the banning of personal religious symbols in state institutions. On the other hand, state neutrality toward religion in countries dominated by one tradition has tended to reinforce that dominance at the expense of minority traditions, for instance in Roanoke and Bedford Counties. Both can lay claim to being impartial, but neither (in my view) is at all defensible.

Is secularism still maturing, in need only of consist and responsible application? or is secularism unsalvageable, in need of discarding before the next wave of advancements is possible? I’d like to think that “good” secularism, whether as “universality” or “impartiality”, doesn’t need to be seen as a self-justifying principle, but can be recovered from some more essential principle(s) that people both irreligious and religious, both self-interested and community-oriented, can get behind. But what do y’all think?

* One thing Dr. Britt conveyed to me was that the trends and clashes with which we describe the Enlightenment continue to this day; that, in a real and useful sense, the Enlightenment is still unfolding.

** If i remember correctly, the U.S. is only just the second-oldest nation to have adopted a secular constitution, behind an island nation that had a few years’ head start. Bonus points if anyone can verify/refute this!

*** See also Obama, 2006.

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