About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Uthman Badar on religion (5): Secularism

All good things must come to an end, so this will be my final post on Badar's article. In a sense, it's the most important, because it deals with the concerns that led to my original article that provoked his response. My article attracted a very healthy 400+ comments, despite appearing on Christmas Eve. Badar's has now received over 1200. The response he's receiving is largely unfavourable, as far as I can tell without putting in a lot of time, but the total number of responses to these two pieces certainly suggests that they raise issues that worry a lot of folks out there in the wider public.

In my own piece, I noted that many religious individuals and organisations have reasons, from within their respective views of the world, not to accept secularism ... but rather to jockey for the power of the state and attempt to impose their views by political coercion. As I wrote:
Unfortunately, however, they often have good reasons, judged by their own lights, to oppose [...] a strict secularism. Some churches and sects do not distinguish sharply between guidance on individual salvation and the exercise of political power.

They may be sceptical about the independence of secular goals from religious ones, or about the distinction between personal goals and those of the state. They may be sceptical about the danger that liberal-minded people see when adherents of competing worldviews jostle to impose them by means of political power. Some religious groups do not accept the reality of continuing social pluralism. Instead, they look to a day when their views will prevail over others. 
If anyone doubted this, they only have to look at Badar's response, and perhaps find out something about the organisation that he represents, Hizb ut-Tahrir. Badar opposes secularism, with its functional separation of religion and state power, arguing that it has no rational basis, that it is nothing more than a compromise that settled problems in a particular time and place, and (if I understand him) that it need no be accepted by Islamist and other theocratic groups today. Unfortunately, similar views are very popular among the religious, though seldom advocated so explicitly. Many people will not give up their theocratic thinking without first giving up their actual religious views. Other folks will wonder what the fuss is about, mistakenly believing that democracy is essentially majority rule and that the majority should get to impose their religion on minorities.

Against that background, when so many religious organisations and leaders claim moral and even political authority, we ought to ask very pointedly where that authority could possibly come from. That will cause offence, but so be it. It also causes offence when religious organisations pronounce on matters of righteousness and sin. Offence is pretty much inevitable in these territories.
But what of the merits of Badar's arguments? Surprisingly enough, they have some merit to this limited extent: secularism does not purport to settle which of the many competing religions (if any) is actually true. There was no compromise reached at a particular point in history, introducing secularism in the West (the 1648 Peace of Westphalia did not go so far, and even the First Amendment to the US Constitution has its murky aspects, apart from applying in only one country). But there was something like the gradual, tacit emergence of a compromise after the Peace of Westphalia, as the various warring religions came to see it as wise to leave the question of which of them might be true essentially without a decision in the political sphere.
The general idea was that the state would concern itself with citizens' worldly interests and make its decisions on the basis of worldly considerations. It would not try to identify the correct religion, and liberalism gave this a natural extension: that the state would not try to identify the correct moral system, either, among the various competing rivals. The state's remit would be narrower than the identification and imposition of an entire worldview.
Islamists can point out two things at this stage of the discussion. First, this messy, more or less tacit, compromise did not purport to settle the correct worldview, religious or otherwise. That remains to be settled. And of course, they'll say that the true religion is Islam (and that this is demonstrable). Secondly, they'll say that Muslim organisations and leaders were not parties to a compromise reached among the warring Christian denominations of the West. They are not bound to honour the outcome.
So far, so good. But even if secularism were just a compromise, that would not make it irrational for us to continue to adopt such a compromise or to demand that Islamists accept it. There may still be many good reasons why the state should not attempt to identify the correct religion or impose its verdict on citizens. It seems apparent enough to me that overt attempts to do so can only lead to social disaster. That is not just a top-of-the-head intuition I have, but an educated assessment of how people respond when an alien view of the world is comprehensively forced on them. In some times and places, perhaps, dissenters can be suppressed, but we are far past that situation in the Western liberal democracies.
And in any event, secularism and liberalism are not merely compromises. They are based on a plausible view of the functions and limitations of the state. As a social institution, the state may be reasonably effective in enforcing a property regime, protecting us from internal violence and external enemies, and in some kinds of economic matters (including the implementation of policies that work against the harsher outcomes of economic competition). These areas of action may not be resolvable to a single description, but they at least bear a family resemblance:  generally speaking, the state functions to protect interests in the things of this world, or some of them. This can be refined further, but it's a plausible conception of the point of the state and its whole apparatus of power and authority.
What the state is not well designed or positioned to do is settle the truth about otherworldly claims. It is better (by plausible standards of "better") if it doesn't even try, and if it avoids being influenced by otherworldly doctrines when it makes decisions within its relatively narrow remit.
While a very powerful historical-cum-anthropological argument can be developed for this secular conception of the state, it's not a knock-down argument. It will not be persuasive to all comers, irrespective of their starting points. Many religious people will accept it, but others will reject it as incompatible with their fundamental theological premises - specifically, as incompatible with the teachings of their religions about the role of the state. Such people cannot be expected to embrace secularism unless they first put aside their religious views of the world.
In the upshot, many people can be persuaded that it is still rational to embrace secularism, even while remaining attached to their religious views of the world. This especially applies to mainline Protestant Christians (and, to some extent, progressive Evangelicals). It will apply to most atheists, agnostics, religious sceptics, and the like. Others won't be so persuaded. A secular conception of political power is not the official Vatican doctrine (though many Catholics doubtless accept it as individuals). Historically, it's quite foreign to Islam.
We need to make us much progress as we can in advocating secularism and liberalism, while also understanding that there are religious people, such as Islamists, who will never be brought to agree unless they first alter their more fundamental theological positions - which won't happen soon. We're fooling ourselves if we think that all religious people can embrace secularism (let alone a more full-blooded liberalism) from within their existing comprehensive views of the world. That's a problem faced by every Western liberal democracy, and we'll go wrong unless we see it clearly and factor it into our thinking.
Uthman Badar has done us a service, inasmuch as he reminds us of what we're up against.


Greywizard said...

Yes indeed, Uthman Badar has at least provided that service. But what a thing to be up against at this stage in history! It's like rolling the clock back to the seventeenth century! Surely, people who come to Australia, Canada, the US, etc., should be clearly told what the limits of their participation in democratic process must be, that we do not discuss whether or not this or that religious belief is rational, or can be proved. This may be a good way to spend a rainy afternoon, but not a good way to decide which laws should govern us. The latter would be a certain recipe for disaster, especially if the goal is to establish a Muslim caliphate, which is the goal of Badar's group Hizb ut-Tahrir. If Uthman really needs to know why we don't want religion gumming up the works he should take a look at Pakistan, where religion does play a central role in the political process. It's time people started learning some of the basics of the political theory underlying democracy. Unfortunately, we are not managing to convey this even to those who are the children of the children of the children who founded the democratic processes on which the great Western democracies are premised. Time to do a bit of remedial education.

Dimitri said...

I agree, I am sorely unimpressed with today's U.S. schools. I have been tutored, been mostly to private and boarding schools, but I see the results of most public educated folks. Some who are in financial circumstances that only allow them to be in public school still go far, but they also don't just skate by and take everything at face value, plus they associate with the right folks. I agree with the person above when he said "If Uthman really needs to know why we don't want religion gumming up the works he should take a look at Pakistan, where religion does play a central role in the political process." The only place differ is in that our country's (the U.S. for me) politics were founded upon religious principles. The problem with Islam is that there are parts to it that are wholly immoral, and that's in part where Pakistan's politics screwed up. Of course there is something to be said for the fact that since Billy Graham, Christianity is not pushed far into the political and governmental realm, and they tend to have more respect for the simple wishes of many people. I am not saying that all Muslims don't, just certain Muslim Organizations, which unfortunately can give a bad name to the large Muslim community.

Blamer .. said...

I agree with Russell that "theocratic thinking" is the nub of the issue.

My suspicion is that successful church/state separation hinges more on raising public awareness of what democracy really means (beyond "majority rules").

Yes liberalising people's religious views is certainly part of the equation, but presumably trending in the desirable direction (albeit at a slower pace than I'm personally comfortable with) and arguably already at an acceptable level (locally I mean, certainly not everywhere).