Justifying secularism

I’m trying to decide how much to agree or disagree with this post by Russell Blackford:

I don’t want someone else’s values and practices imposed on me whether these values and practices are “delusional” or not. I don’t want them imposed on me because they are not my values and practices. All religious believers, as well as atheists, have a stake in living under a political system that allows each person a great deal of latitude to live in accordance with her own beliefs and values, and engage in her own practices. It is better all round if the state does not get too far into this, and most of us could agree that the state does not do a good job of it. For a start, it should not be identifying and imposing the “correct” religion.

I said “a great deal of latitude” because the state does, in fact, require some things, such as that we not murder each other, that we look after our children, and that we pay our taxes. But modern secular states do not impose comprehensive systems of thought on their citizens, and they do not impose specifically religious standards of morality (or at least they have tended to move away from imposing such standards). If these states have a legitimate interest in imposing a morality at all, it is a rather minimal one related to avoidance of worldly harms and requiring some basic mutual cooperation. That leaves all sorts of other decisions to the individuals concerned. Hence such catchphrases as, “Don’t like abortion. Don’t have one!”

A lot of that sounds plausible, but I can think of a few issues with it. On Russell’s view, I take it, religion is just one subset of the set of things that are none of the government’s business. He thinks secularism needn’t involve putting special restrictions on government interference on religion. Locke had a similar view.

This gets a bit sticky for anyone who isn’t a hard-core libertarian, though. For example, whether or not science is a comprehensive system of thought, the government does things to promote science that definitely end up promoting certain ideas. And it would be incompatible with secularism for the government to promote religious ideas in the same way, even if it were just promoting a view specific ideas and not a “comprehensive” system.

In fact, the US constitution (as currently interpreted by the courts) places fairly strict restrictions on government promotion of religion, yet leaves the government free to promote all kinds of other nonsense–to promote a whitewashed version of American history in public schools, for example, or run public service annoucements claiming that marijuana will ruin your life. So, at least as currently practiced in the US, secularism isn’t a matter of religion being one of many things the government can’t promote.

Similarly, you have to stretch the meaning of “some basic mutual cooperation” pretty far to include everything most people want the government to do. I don’t actually have a great sense of Russell’s political views, so maybe he’s much more libertarian than I am, but it’s hard to see how “basic mutual cooperation” could stand for a view most people would endorse.

Finally, there’s just no way to avoid certain questions in setting government policy: Is abortion murder? Are Africans people? etc. As you already know, I think there are multiple independent arguments in favor of the legality of abortion. However, I’m unable to see how “as a matter of principle, we should set aside our disagreements and leave it up to the individuals concerned” could be one of them.

  • piero

    I haven’t read Russel’s full post, but on the basis of your quotation I would observe the following:

    1. “I you don’t like abortion, don’t have one” is a non-argument. “If you don’t like murder, don’t kill” is obviously silly; hence the problem is what criterion we agree upon to determine whether abortion is or is nor murder. As I’ve said sometime before (amongst accusations of misogyny, male-chauvinism, who-the-fuck-do-you-think-you-are, etc.), abortion is not merely an issue of a woman’s right to control her body. Whether we like it or not, we have to consider the possibilty that a pregnant woman is not one person, but two. That’s a biological accident, not my decision. I won’t go to silly extremes such as declaring a fertilized egg or a morula a person; but neither will I go to the extreme of declaring an 8-month foetus a tumor. Do I have any right to tell a woman what to do with that thing growing inside her body? I’m not sure, until we agree on what that “thing” is”. Does she have the right to do whatever she wants with that thing? I’m not sure, until we agree on what that “thing” is.

    2. I don’t think promoting secularism is equivalent to state intervention. In that case, preventing or trying to prevent murders would also be a case of state intervention. Any community must accept some restrictions of their rights in order to preserve more important rights. My stock example is the secrecy of the ballot. In my country, at least, divulging your vote is punishable by law. Why? Because otherwise you would be liable to bribes and blackmail; in order to protect some fundamental principles of democracy, your rights must be somewhat restricted. Similarly, imposing secularism in state institutions is a way of ensuring that no fundamentalist nutters take hold of them.

    3. I agree with you: the purpose of government is not mainly to promote mutual cooperation; on the contrary, its main purpose is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, i.e. the privileges of the rich. But then, what the fuck do I know: I’m a just a Marxist.

  • http://www.diigo.com/user/royalhall1128?domain=deweycrosby36787.webs.com Hugh Liebold

    i like your post but cant you please be more specific next time not veryone is an expert like you

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