The current fashion appears to be to describe our current situation as “post-secular.” Secularism, it appears, cannot adequately accommodate the equal citizenship of conservative religious populations in a time of religious resurgence. Secular claims of neutrality between religious stances ring hollow. And however it might be defended, secularism cannot be honestly presented as a requirement of reason or an essential feature of a technologically advanced civilization.

All this is correct, as far as it goes. But that’s not the same thing as saying that we have a notion of post-secularism that will do a better job in a pluralist environment. There are, for example, multicultural ideas that try to recognize community identities. Something like that may well be an increasingly prevalent political option. But I know of no way to do everything: accommodate the conservatively religious without forcing them into a liberal personal choice/private association pigeonhole, and also consistently support a liberal conception of individual rights, including gender-related rights, across the board. This might not be possible.

Consider some of the recent controversies involving medical matters. Conservative religious practitioners often demand a right to opt out of secular professional demands as a matter of conscience. Pharmacists want to decline to fill birth control prescriptions. Psychologists want to be able to reject gay and lesbian clients, or to be able to tell them that they consider their lifestyle immoral. The common liberal response is to say that these professions have their internal standards and certification requirements, which are neutral with respect to religion, and that conservative religious people have no business trying to carve out exceptions for themselves.

But the standards are not entirely neutral. They affirm secular liberal values such as not being judgmental about personal sexual choices. The very notion of health as understood within a conservative religious context is different. Politically speaking, a conservative health-related practitioner can either join efforts to change standards in a way that bends towards their moral views, or to try to carve out a conscience-based exception for themselves. Secular liberals are in a similar position when the standards or laws regulating their work are linked to conservative religious values—for example, when abortion providers are required to provide all sorts of “information” to a woman.

So, how would a post-secularism resolve such conflicts? What principles apply?

Here’s another example, now involving the conflict over women wearing hypermodest Islamic dress. Feisal G. Mohamed proposes a post-secular approach:

Might there be a third way? If, as several thinkers have suggested, we now find ourselves in a “post-secular” age, then perhaps we might look beyond traditional disputes between political and ecclesiastical authority, between religion and secularism. Perhaps post-secularity can take justice and equality to be absolutely good with little regard for whether we come to value the good by a religious or secular path. Our various social formations — political, religious, social, familial — find their highest calling in deepening our bonds of fellow feeling. “Compelling state interest” has no inherent value; belief also has no inherent value. Political and religious positions must be measured against the purity of truths, rightly conceived as those principles enabling the richest possible lives for our fellow human beings.

Perhaps—but all too vague for comfort. Mohamed admits that “Humane action is of course open to interpretation,” but I suspect the difficulty runs deeper.

Consider two of the parties to the debate: secular liberals vs. religious conservatives. We have some overlapping ideas concerning justice and appropriate forms of equality, but nowhere near a widespread agreement, and especially no agreement on principles that might help us extend our intuitions beyond paradigm cases. Agreeing to respect justice and equality would, I dare say, do next to nothing for resolving conflicts about medical practice or public dress.

In particular, I doubt that “humaneness” or any such principle can do a lot of work. You end up either with a vague principle that is endlessly contested in its particular applications, or deciding that you’re just going to favor a particular cluster of interests or ways of life: which is what secularism did in the first place.

I think that attempts to resolve such conflicts by appealing to some sort of principle—a principle of justice based on public reason, for example—can enjoy only very limited success. At best, candidate principles are expressive: they can help express and make more coherent views of one tendency or other. There is a political contest here, which cannot be bypassed by trying to take the discussion to a more abstract level.

Post-secularity is, in my view, an accurate enough description of our present social circumstances, where neither conservative religious nor secular liberal constituencies are about to fade away. But in this environment, post-secularist, multiculturalist etc. views do not enjoy any superior standing at any abstract level. They are political positions, with attractive and repulsive qualities, just like any other. And good-old-fashioned secularism also remains a political option.

Now, secularism of some sort will likely remain the favored political option of people more-or-less like myself: secular liberals. Secularism is not neutral, nor is it uniquely reasonable or pragmatic or universally desirable or anything. A secular order favors some people (us) and disfavors others (the conservatively religious). Nonetheless, I could defend it as a form of living together most suited to the broad interests of myself and people like myself.

So I remain a defender of secularism, though sometimes a more lukewarm defender than others might like. But this is a political stance. I don’t conceive of secularism as an overarching principle that regulates the legitimacy of all politics.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Keith Parsons

    Suppose that there is a society where one faction wants everybody to dress the same way, and if empowered to do so, will back up that demand with force, fining and jailing sartorial non-conformers. The other side wants everybody to choose for themselves how to dress, so long as fairly loose standards of public decency are met. The latter side, let's call them "choicers," accuses the other side, the "no-choicers," of attempting to impose their own narrow values on everyone. The no-choicers reply that this is precisely what the choicers are trying to do to them. Their no-choice god demands that everybody dress the same, so the choicers are imposing alien values on them, i.e., allowing people to choose how to dress, which, for the no-choicers, is an abomination.

    So, is it six of one, half-a-dozen of the other? Are the choicers wrong in claiming that their position is the fair and neutral one, while the no-choicers are the enemies of freedom? Are the choicers and the no-choicers merely engaged in a power struggle to see whose values get to be imposed?

    No. There is a crucial and undeniable difference. The choicer position is not a rival of the no-choicer position. The choicer position is not demanding another form of dress. It is entirely consistent with the choicer position if everyone were in fact to dress ad the non-choicers want.

    The only thing that the choicers would deny the non-choicers is the right to use force to make others conform to their dress code. The ONLY alternative to such a rule within a given society is precisely a power struggle in which different factions struggle to impose their own sectarian values, with the outcome decided by the strongest. The long, bitter, bloody history that led us to secularism and liberalism is precisely that the ONLY way to avoid endless factional strife, besides the imposed hegemony of the strongest faction, is to insist that we agree to disagree. That is, we may do our best to persuade our neighbors to adopt our values, but we cannot try to force them. Such a rule is the ONLY alternative to endless sectarian conflict, and this is the verdict of history.

  • Taner Edis

    Keith, let's try a perhaps more realistic sort of conflict over dress.

    Many conservative religious people are appalled at "revealing" dress, by which they can mean something as innocuous to liberals as shorts or sleeveless shirts. They consider that level of exposure a small but significant moral corruption of the public environment.

    When I'm in Istanbul (a pretty cosmopolitan city in many respects) in the summer, I notice that it's very unusual for Turks, including my secular liberal friends, to wear shorts. I do (it's hot!), but that immediately marks me out as a "tourist," and I get surprised comments from shopkeepers about my perfect knowledge of Turkish.

    What's happening is that wearing shorts is just not the done thing in a public environment where there are a lot of conservative people. Secular liberals will wear shorts all the time—but in resort towns, private parties, and so forth. That is, not in public areas accessible to all equally (commercial districts of Istanbul), but in spaces implicitly understood to belong to the secular "community."

    What's wrong with a situation like this? Turkish conservatives who informally enforce the no-shorts behavior do not think of themselves as arbitrarily imposing rules on people. They think that a public environment requires modesty because that is where people interact. We are not isolated from one another, and it simply is not true that immodesty hurts no one but the religiously hypersensitive. (Think of the children!) Modesty is integral to the public moral climate conservatives want to promote; they don't see "choice" as something that trumps those concerns. (They're not liberals.)

    In the Turkish situation, the nonliberal outcome, in this minor example, is what prevents strife. The verdict of history is not, I think, as univocal as you make it. There are many ways of managing conflict.

  • Crinis

    Perhaps completely irrelevant, but while in Turkey (Kuşadasi) we were very, very lost tourists and a Turkish woman in a tank top, shorts, and two dogs on a leash–though she spoke not a word of English and we were limited to the five words of Turkish my friend had written down for me–helped us find our hotel. As did a cab driver. And a restaurant proprietor. If there were gods, the Turks would be Zeus's favorites. I have never encountered a more friendly culture on the planet and I have yet to met a Turk I do not like.

  • Keith Parsons

    Taner, I think the key is your statement that the dress code is "informally" enforced. If someone wears shorts in a place where the locals wear full-length everything, and then must endure frowns, disapproving clucks, and perhaps the occasional direct comment, then that person has no one to blame but him or herself. In fact, I think it is good manners, to say the least, to try to respect local customs and mores; after all, you are in their country. The line that liberalism draws is with physical coercion. You may apply as much informal pressure as you like to promote your god's agenda, however goofy. Once you start pushing people around, though, a line has been crossed.

    Also, the conservative Turks' idea of "public" space seems rather odd. "Public" is where you don't get to have people act, look, dress, or talk just as you like. A few years back I was in a restaurant with my elderly aunt and uncle. A very large woman entered wearing, essentially, underwear and a fishnet mini-skirt. Now, Houston is quite warm in the summer as well, but I thought she was a bit under dressed. Then there are the people, all too common, who sit in public places and talk about very personal matters at top volume on their cell phones. Most common of all are the rude drivers–the tailgaters, obsessive lane-changers, and the ones who cut you off and then slam on brakes to make a turn. But all of this is the sort of thing you endure if you choose to go into public. The idea that public is where things must be done my way is odd indeed.

  • Taner Edis


    I should clarify: the dress you see in most public areas in Istanbul is a compromise, not doing things the conservatives way. In neighborhoods dominated by conservative religious people, the informal dress demands can be considerably stricter.

    And I'm not convinced by the sharp distinction between informal and physical coercion. Quite a lot of behavior in the world that offends secular liberal sensibilities takes place informally, under the sanction of tradition, with very little need to unveil the clubs and even less to call in the police.

    OK, liberals are notoriously overly simplistic about coercion. But liberals usually (with the exception of libertarians) do not just draw the line at violence. For example, liberals typically consider it legitimate to interfere with informal ways of coercion if they discriminate against women or minority groups. If the local, informal customs heaped heavy disapproval on unchaperoned women appearing in public, some liberals at least might be uncomfortable.