Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Andrew Brown on secularism

I have only just noticed this old piece by Andrew Brown. Brown writes (slightly patronizingly) about disagreements at a meeting of the Council of Ex-Muslims at Conway Hall:

"The only time these disagreements were overcome was when someone made a little speech about how no one minded religion as a private activity: it was only obnoxious when the religious tried to force their opinions on everyone else. The whole hall joined in applauding this sentiment, so obviously and unarguably right.

Perhaps it's just my limited tolerance for high-mindedness that gave me a sudden flash of insight that this doctrine was in fact obviously and unarguably wrong."

Actually, I think Brown is wrong and the applauded doctrine was largely right. In this article it becomes clear that Brown (though perhaps also his target) is muddling up the kind of secularism (my kind) that makes equal public space for religious and non-religious views without privileging either [and which says you shouldn't, by state or by other means, compel others to adhere to your specifically religious, or atheist, views], with the kind of secularism that insists that only atheist and/or non-religious views can be publicly expressed. The religious must bite their tongues. This is a muddle that anti-secularists promote and trade on.

Shame Brown is perpetuating it (incidentally, how many secularists do you know who believe people should not be allowed to publicly express a religious point of view? I have only ever come across one. Yet that's how opponents of my kind of secularism typically caricature it.)

The bit about "forcing doctrines on everyone else" is interesting. But of course secularists don't typically want to force secularism on society, but to persuade society to embrace a religiously-neutral, secular position (which is not to say such a society is officially neutral on everything of course - it clearly isn't [it's not neutral on the value of secularism and freedom of religious belief, for a start).

True, as a result of a society being secular, some freedoms will be curtailed. I won't be free to send my child to a state-funded school promoting atheism, for example. Good thing too.


wombat said...

There remains the issue of religions which espouse opinions the expression of which would otherwise be considered a crime - "Our Holy Book commands the faithful to kill all infidels wherever you find them." - or whatever the unfortunate group happens to be. It's all very well for some religious authority figure to read out the passages and the say "-but of course that's against the law so don't do it please." but how much weight will that carry? Will all copies of holy books be annotated with suitable warnings?

Mats 'mcv' Volberg said...

"incidentally, how many secularists do you know who believe people should not be allowed to publicly express a religious point of view?"

John Rawls?

Stephen Law said...

Maybe Rawls. Got a quote/reference? The only other I know of is Robert Audi.

Point is, you have to look very hard to find this kind of secularist. They are comparatively few in number. Neither the British Humanist Association, nor it's philosophers group (which includes many notables) endorse that sort of secularism. In fact they reject it (in their pamphlet on secularism). Yet this is how secularists are endlessly portrayed by religious conservatives. When I debated Philosopher Roger Trigg at the Ox Lit Festival, he expressed surprise that I didn't want to prevent religious people from expressing religious points of view in public.

Mats 'mcv' Volberg said...

I have to admit that I don't have a specific quote/reference at the moment. But I clearly remember reading about it from the introduction of Political Liberalism (the paperback version).

From SEP "In Political Liberalism, Rawls admits that at one point he inclined toward accepting an ambitious version of the DRR according to which each citizen of a liberal democracy ought not to appeal to religious reasons when deliberating about matters of basic justice and constitutional essentials (see Rawls 1993, 247 n.36)."
And Audi would have been my second guy, although I am not that familiar with his work.

M. Tully said...

Rawls was an American.

As such his views on political philosophy frequently reflected the American ideal of constitution (the "veil of ignorance" not withstanding).

His position reflected the debate at the time in the US over where the dividing line should be between free expression and non-endorsement when comes to government action.

His final position by the way, "...that while an agent may appeal to religious reasons to justify coercive law, he may not appeal solely to these reasons", pretty closely (although not as forcefully) reflects the Lemon Test, which the Supreme Court uses as a precedent in deciding such issues.

I tend to agree with Rawls and the Lemon test. If someone wants to enact coercive legislation and her/his only argument is that their faith tells them that it should be done, it's a weak argument and should be disregarded.