Why do secularists think their view should be privileged in debates?

This is a good article from Matt at MandM.


[Secularism] is the view that citizens of liberal democracies may justly support the implementation of a law only if they reasonably believe themselves to have a plausible secular justification for that law. Further, they must be willing to appeal to secular justifications alone in political discussion. The upshot of this perspective is that it is perceived to be unjust to support or advocate for laws for theological or religious reasons.

[…]This raises an obvious question, why the asymmetry? On the face of it secularism appears to privilege secular ideologies and doctrines in public debate whilst relegating religious or theological perspectives to the private sphere.  What is the basis for this? Two reasons are typically offered and neither is terribly compelling.

The first is that it is dangerous to allow theological or religious concerns into public debate. Defenders of secularism raise the specter of the wars of religion that tore Europe apart during the 17th century or they mention episodes such as the Inquisition and Crusades, which are said to be consequences of allowing religious reasons to influence public and political life. It is argued that the only way to keep social peace and prevent the kind of violence that Europe witnessed is to ensure religious reasons do not influence public life and that all political discussions take place on secular terms.

[…]The fear of religious wars is not the only argument typically offered for the secular public square. The main reason offered for secularism is that religious reasons are not accessible to all people. Auckland Law Professor Paul Rishworth observes, “some have contended that the nature of religious belief is such that, while it may be integral to individual autonomy and development, it has no proper role in public policy debates and that these ought to be conducted exclusively in secular terms that are equally accessible to all.” [Emphasis added]

Something like this is also evident in defences of secularism. Leading secular Philosopher Michael Tooley states, “For it is surely true that it is inappropriate, at least in a pluralistic society, to appeal to specific theological beliefs of a non moral sort… in support of legislation that will be binding upon everyone.”

Ever heard this argument that only secularism is allowed in public? I actually try to respect their standards of evidence, but I draw conclusions that implicate theism. But Matt and Madeleine disagree with me – or at least they say that neither of these two reasons is enough to rule out reasoning based on religious premises. Intriguing, isn’t it?

7 thoughts on “Why do secularists think their view should be privileged in debates?”

  1. In addition, the “secular only” argument fails because:

    1. That pesky 1st Amendment thingy, which explicitly protects, not restricts, our rights to have our religious views inform our political views.

    2. The illogical conclusion that we should vote the opposite of our religious views. I think my religion forbids me to ask the government to put atheists in jail and take their stuff. Must I vote the opposite of that?

    3. Have you ever noticed how the secularists don’t complain about the theological Left and their support for unrestricted abortion, open borders, legal recognition of same-sex unions, etc.? They generally just oppose religious views that they disagree with, which demonstrates that their tactics are more about bullying than principles.

  2. Everyone is influenced by religious ideology – whether it’s theistic or atheistic. If you really believe something is true it ought to affect your public decisions or else it’s not something you really believe. If you want to persuade, however, you need to appeal to values shared by those who don’t already share your theological viewpoint. And secularists? Who are they? I am persuaded that they don’t exist – except in theory. Neil’s point 3 illustrates that. I think another fear relating to religion coming into play is the assumption that religious activity will be forced on others in public policy. This is unfortunately something which has happened in the past and has been perpetrated by those calling themselves Christian. However, from a Christian point of view, this is actually unbiblical. So if the Bible is understood properly and applied correctly, non-christians need not fear having anything religious forced on them by Christians. Something else that comes to mind is that when it comes to the government organizing religious activities, I get suspicious. I’d rather they stayed out of it -particularly since many of them are not Christian. We don’t need state-sponsored days of prayer. Christians can and should organize things on a national level themselves. I’ve seen it happen in my country. Otherwise you get these interfaith prayer travesties or you get someone like Barack Obama choosing who gets to pray on behalf of the nation…

  3. I should clarify that when I say that secularists don’t exist I mean to say that the views they hold are actually theological in nature. I’m using a similar line of argument to John Blanchard in “Does God Believe in Atheists” – and hopefully not mangling it. ;-)

  4. If a law is to be justified on explicitly religious grounds, how do we avoid privileging any religion above the others?

    For example, consider a law that establishes a national dress code on the basis of some religious scripture. How should lawmakers figure out which scripture to use? How should they defend against the accusation that the law has “no secular purpose”? They must either provide one or, in opposition to the very idea of necessary legal secularism, argue that their religion simply is the best one for the interests of the citizens.

    (That’s partially a response to point 2 made by Neil, above: Laws which prohibit the jailing and thieving of persons (including atheists) obviously have a secular purpose, unless you wish to argue that ethics is necessarily religious, in which case nearly all laws are religiously based.)

    Or… is there such a thing as “generic religion”? For example, if a Defense of Marriage Act is to be justified on solely religious grounds, perhaps this is legitimate, because it is the general consensus of religions that marriage should only be between opposite sexes. (Not IMO, though.)

  5. Lenoxus, the example of dress code illustrates very well how both overtly religious and secular motivations can lead to oppression. In muslim countries, certain islamic standards of dress are enforced by law. On the other hand, in France (the archetypal secular state) islamic schoolgirls are not allowed to wear a headscarf in keeping with their religious convictions because it offends the secular humanists who supposedly don’t make their decisions with religious considerations in mind. It’s a secular tyranny. So much for liberty, equality and fraternity…

  6. If a law is to be justified on explicitly religious grounds, how do we avoid privileging any religion above the others?

    For example, consider a law that establishes a national dress code on the basis of some religious scripture. How should lawmakers figure out which scripture to use?

    If a law is to be justified on explicitly secular grounds, how do we avoid privileging any secular ethical theory above the other secular and religious theories?

    For example, consider a law that establishes a national dress code on the basis of some secular ethical theory. How should lawmakers figure out which theory to use?

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