Post-secularism?

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.

What Explains God's Moral Grounding Power? Part II
A Very Rough Sketch of an Objection to Quentin Smith's Argument for Moral Realism
Praise from Matthew Wade Ferguson
Geisler & Turek Rebuttal: Chapter 9 (Part 2)
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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