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).

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Steve Zara reviews Freedom of Religion and the Secular State

A favourable, but certainly not uncritical, review of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State has appeared on Steve Zara's very worthwhile blog, "Steve's Posterous".

Steve asks a good question: what would a truly secular and liberal state look like, since no existing state acts in quite the way I propose, and how do we get there from here. Perhaps he's right that another book could be written on this. Briefly, though, I do think that my own country, Australia gets it right most of the time, as do most of the other liberal democracies.

There are glaring exceptions where laws are made that cannot be justified on secular grounds or which move away from the liberal principles that I think a secular state should adopt. Thus, I am always railing about attacks on freedom of speech, and Steve is correct that I don't support sweeping bans on wearing the burqa publicly, as we now see in France (though I also don't support the idea that wearing the burqa is a positive right that should prevail over the secular interests of others in all situations - for the nuances of this, you'll need to read the book). The book contains numerous criticisms of specific laws and court cases where I think the wrong outcome was reached.

In some cases, our liberal democracies get a bit crazy, with quite draconian restrictions on the self-regarding behaviour of adults. Some of these cannot be justified on what I consider good secular grounds.

For the moment, though, it's important to notice that they get things about right the vast majority of the time. By getting things right, I don't mean that they produce the optimal policies. They don't. But they do tend to produce policies that I think are reasonably open to them to adopt through the democratic process. Or if not, the reasons that certain policies are not reasonably open to them will be something different from what I discuss in the book (e.g. some policies are simply harsh, counterproductive, poorly thought out, etc., though not in breach of the state's role of protecting and promoting worldly interests).

Part of the problem is that so many forces in society want to turn the governments of the liberal democracies away from the direction that they were travelling in through the twentieth century, with the result that we now find ourselves in something of a culture war. It's worth going back to first principles to look at the justification for secularism in the sense of a separation between the functions carried out by the state and those carried out by religious organisations, and to look at what else might follow from those first principles. That's not, by itself, going to get us "there" from "here", but talking about what we are trying to achieve and why is a good start.

Still, there's (even) more to be said about this. One area that does, perhaps, deserves exploration in the future, if the main arguments of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State are about right, is the relationship between legitimate policies (in the sense that they are not based on otherworldly considerations ... and perhaps in the sense that they conform to liberal principles such as freedom of speech) and the best policies (which is going to require a much more complex value judgment). Secular governments may legitimately adopt very different policies on, say, economic management or the funding of education and healthcare, and some of these policies - judged on other criteria - are going to be a lot better than others.


Jason Streitfeld said...

Certainly a favorable review, and interesting. But, as usual, I find some of the terminology strange. Zara seems to use "secularism" to refer to pluralism. Odd. Perhaps Zara's usage makes sense in the context of your book, but in that case, I think he could have explained it a little in the review. I'm guessing that you make a sort of argument as follows: The ideal of a secular state is based on Locke's separation of church and state, which requires giving a certain liberty to religious institutions. In that case, secularism is properly a pluralistic and liberal ideal. But that is not the only way we talk about secularism today. If Zara is not ready to hop on board your kind of secularism, he could still say he prefers a different variety of secularism. Instead, he says he's not a secularist because he is not so tolerant of religion. Again, odd. I guess this is just semantics, but it also has a political edge.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of your book!

@blamer said...

Hi Jason, I'm reading SZ a little differently.

It seems Steve rejects the label secularist on the basis that he doesn't support the central "secular value" of states permitting local religious organisations to persue their mission of social dominance (over their congregation and infidels alike).

That is, it's a rejection of the naive pluralism of the past which is merely passive.

I think Steve is instead advocating for the state to start actively protecting itself in response to the influential groups who we see working zealously to weaken church/state separation.

This sounds to me like a call for a New Secularism.