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In Defense of Secularism

In Defense of Secularism November 11, 2010

Peter Leithart’s book on Constantine (Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom) makes me a bit nervous at times. He seems to be suggesting that Constantine’s form of tolerance, which is a form of concord in that he gave folks freedom to believe what they wanted but put pressure in the direction of conversion to the Christian faith (which Constantine distorted to one degree or another), maps a good future or pattern for modern democracies or the USA. This is not the Roman empire and there is no need for another Constantine. One was enough.

Take, for example, Muslim women wearing the burqa or niqab or hijab in public. CT has a series on this right now, with some arguing against the burqa ban, some are more concerned with the politicization of Sharia and its implications for women, and yet another contends we should do to Muslims what we would want them to do to us.

What is your view on the burqa? Are you committed to Taylor’s secularist theory for democratic societies? Or would you prefer Constantine’s “concord”?

I would like to probe into this from a slightly different direction: the virtues of a secular society. I am relying here upon Charles Taylor and his recent article in The Hedgehog Review, one of my favorite publications. His article is called “The Meaning of Secularism” and he is the author of the most important book on secularism (A Secular Age). And I want to factor into this the observation of many that cultures that demand one faith or have a State faith those faiths are either coerced or they fall into a thin reminder of a famous past — think Denmark. Religions thrive when choice of religion is most respected.

Taylor suggests that there are three (perhaps four) virtues in a secular world that will create a world of tolerance, but, unlike a dictatorship where the will of the people is largely ignored, it requires a people to be committed to the same virtues:

First, liberty. Coercion and pressure should not be applied by the State (or society) to anyone when it comes to faith and religion. If we apply liberty, we grant Muslim women the freedom to dress as they will.

Second, equality. People of different faiths are to know equality before the State and society. No one faith should enjoy a privileged status. As long as the wearing of Muslim dress does not impugn the rights of others, which might happen if the burqa-wearing women is a public official, equality permits them to wear what they want.

Third, fraternity. Each faith is to be heard in the process of what society is about and how it will realize its goals. Women wearing burqas should know they are welcome to the table and in society.

A fourth possible virtue involves relations of harmony (or comity) between the faiths.

Now Taylor digs into the common method of procedure…

Secularism, he contends, is not about the relation of a State to religion but how a State relates to diversity. It does not deny religion but protects the rights of all to worship as they choose. Secularism should not be seen through the lens of the separation of church and State, esp if that means the church can’t speak into State’s concerns, but of the State protecting the church and other religions in beliefs and practices.

And Taylor speaks of the “fetishization” of things like the so-called “Wall of Separation.” This, he suggests, is working from the wrong perspective. One needs to operate through the three or four points above. The way to deal with pressure points and volatile, sensitive issues is through the three or four virtues or goals of a secular society.


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