WHY SECULARISM IS NOT ONLY A GOOD THING, BUT A NECESSARY THING
The Challenges and Opportunities of Religious Pluralism
Ronald A. Lindsay
Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do (Pitchstone 2014).
There is one indisputable fact about the religious composition of most Western countries, including the United States: we are becoming more religiously pluralistic, with religions other than Christianity, especially Islam, growing significantly. Moreover, in a phenomenon without precedent in human history, large segments of the population of many Western countries are now nonreligious, that is, they reject belief in a deity or any transcendent beings. This phenomenon is truly revolutionary. As far as we can tell, belief in God or gods was nearly universal up until the end of the eighteenth century. In some of the Scandinavian countries, the nonreligious now constitute a majority or near-majority of the population. The percentage of nonreligious in the United States is much smaller, but even the most conservative estimates indicate that over 12 percent of the American population is now nonreligious, and this segment of the population is growing rapidly.
Some may view this increasing religious diversity of our population as a cause for concern. Certainly, differences in religious beliefs have resulted in horrific acts of sectarian violence in many parts of the world. Given this background, one might legitimately fear that increasing religious diversity will cause deep divisions within our societies. Even if we can avoid outright violence, there may be tensions and disputes that may lead to ugly confrontations and, perhaps, an impasse in resolving important public policy issues. In the long term, this could threaten our democratic form of government.
But this need not be the outcome. People with different religious beliefs can live together in peace and, in addition, can engage each other
with respect in public policy discussions. Successful democracies can have religiously diverse populations. However, to ensure the proper functioning of democracy in countries with religiously diverse populations, the majority of the population must embrace secularism.
What Secularism Is and Is Not
It may seem strange to recommend secularism as a means of overcoming religious divisions because for some “secularism” functions as the ultimate scare word. For some religious fundamentalists, secularism represents some sort of insidious menace that threatens them and their faith.
These fears are unfounded. Furthermore, at least to some extent, these views are the product of a mistaken equation of secularism with atheism (compounded by the belief that atheists want to suppress religion). But secularism and atheism are distinct views that don’t even belong in the same category. Secularism is an ethical/political philosophy; atheism is a belief about the ultimate nature of reality. Espousing one of these views does not entail acceptance of the other. One can be religious and still embrace secularism, and, in fact, there are many religious people who are secularists.
Indeed, those who framed the United States Constitution were secularists to the extent that they believed firmly in the separation of church and state. Even though the overwhelming majority of the founders were religious, they were also convinced that to preserve domestic peace and tranquility it was necessary to prevent religious bodies from interfering in government matters and government from interfering in theological matters. This separation of church and state has served the United States well. Although it certainly has not eliminated all religious prejudice and violence, the United States has suffered less from sectarian conflict than other countries.
That said, the United States is now much more religiously pluralistic than it was in 1789, when religious diversity essentially meant diversity among Protestant denominations. Although a secular state is a key component of secularism, the principle of separation of church and state may no longer be sufficient to have a truly secular, democratic society. Given our religious diversity, to achieve secularism, to have a truly secular society, we need a society in which religious doctrines play no role in shaping public policy and discussions about public policy are carried out entirely in secular terms.
Far too often, when both ordinary citizens and public officials discuss public policy, they inject religious doctrine into the discussion. In a religiously pluralistic society, this short-circuits the democratic process. Here’s why: If we want a democratic society, that is a society in which the government justifies its policies to its citizens, and, more importantly, a society in which the citizens themselves debate and discuss public policy, there is one clear prerequisite: for democratic discourse to be successful, citizens must be able to understand, evaluate, and debate the reasons that others offer for their viewpoints. That can only happen if all the participants in the discussion are speaking a common language. That common language must be the language of secularism, that is, a language that makes no reference to religious doctrines. As soon as you introduce religious precepts into a public policy discussion, you’re essentially shutting out of the discussion anyone who does not share those precepts—which in a religiously pluralistic society means shutting out a large number of people. As some have observed, religion too often serves as a conversation stopper. Once someone has invoked a doctrine based on religious faith as a justification for a public policy position, effectively that is the end of the conversation. You can’t argue with someone’s faith.
The conclusion is inescapable. Religious discourse is meaningful only to members of a particular religion, and a public policy position based on religious precepts cannot be “justified” except by reference to the teachings and scriptures of a particular religion. In other words, religious discourse is a private language. It prevents true democratic discourse from taking place and inhibits understanding between those with different religious beliefs.
Urging our fellow citizens to keep religious doctrine out of policy discussions implies no disrespect to their private religious beliefs, nor is it a surreptitious means of promoting atheism. To the contrary, it is simply a way— the only way— to ensure we are actually talking to each other, engaging each other, as we try to formulate laws and policies that will be fair to everyone and benefit all of us.
In addition, it imposes no hardship on religious believers to insist that they use the common language of secularism when they participate in public policy discussions. The language of secularism is no esoteric, specialized language that one must learn, like Esperanto. It is the language of everyday life, which is spoken by everyone already. It is the language of cause-and-effect, of
Admittedly, insisting on the common language of secularism will require some to break their habit of invoking religious doctrines when discussing public policy. They must reformulate their arguments in secular terms. But there is nothing onerous about that requirement. In fact, it operates as a much-needed check on the soundness of one’s reasoning. If one cannot reformulate a religiously based policy position in terms that a nonbeliever might find persuasive, one should pause to consider whether one’s views are correct. Perhaps you have misinterpreted God’s commandments. After all, why would God ask you to adhere to a position that does not make any sense when you try to explain it to someone else?
Secularism as the Only Way Forward
Of course, secularism cannot guarantee progress, either with respect to economic prosperity or recognition of human rights. But it is the only way we can hope to achieve progress in either of these areas. Trying to apply divine directives to public policy just will not work. Some believers may resist this conclusion because they think they are in touch with God, either directly or through their religious leaders or sacred texts. However, believers need to recognize that even though they may think they are in touch with God, those communications are not accessible to others who do not share their beliefs. Either God is not speaking to the rest of us or he is saying something different. If we are to live together in peace, if we are to work together to foster a productive society which benefits everyone and respects fundamental human rights, we need to reason together. God can’t tell us what to do. We need to figure that out for ourselves.
Ronald A. Lindsay
Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do (Pitchstone 2014).