Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Should Religion Be Kept Out Of Politics? (1)

More and more I find myself coming across the view that “religion should be kept out of politics.” The idea is that religion is something you should keep to yourself, if you must have it all; you shouldn't bring it into the public square, and should certainly keep it away from our politics. Something about it is supposed to make it particularly inappropriate for participation in that arena. Religion, supposedly, properly belongs to the private existence of those individuals so inclined. "We don't do God", as Alastair Campbell said. Although these are just my subjective impressions, I sense that this stance is gradually becoming that of accepted "common sense". The slide towards this understanding of religion's role (or lack thereof) in politics is understandable, but I think regrettable.  

To explain why, I'm going to draw upon an on-the-money analysis given by Charles Taylor in this lecture, entitled "The Future of the Secular". Taylor has quickly become my main man philosophically. Not only is he familiar with a broader range of philosophical perspectives than most, he is also well versed in history, sociology, and politics. Things are understood better when put into perspective, and Taylor has such a grasp on where the West is in relation to the unfolding of history and to the wider world that his insights are penetrating. Additionally he co-chaired the The Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Difference in his home province, Quebec. My aim is to summarise, clarify, and commend what he says on this topic. Although the man is bursting with learning, I aim to make my exposition of his thought very readable. Hopefully I'll do a good enough job that you won't need to have seen the lecture to follow along, but of course you may wish to view it for a deeper understanding (in particular, my version will miss out a lot of the historical details that nourish the account). A shorter but very similar lecture is available in audio over here as well if you prefer. 

So what is the lecture all about? It is an analysis of "secularism", something that's often brought up or invoked when the role of religion in political life is being discussed. We might describe our government as "secular", or call for it to be "secularised". But just what is secularism? What is it about, or for, or aiming towards? Well guess what, we're in luck: that's the very thing Taylor hopes to explain.

He puts on the table two views of what secularism is really all about. As you can probably guess, one of them is the "bad guy" in the story he wants to tell and the other is the unsung hero. The bad guy is the view of secularism that many of us, if we have an opinion about secularism at all, are used to working with, and the hero is the more unusual one, but he pleads, has far more going for it. I'm going to run with these two accounts while taking some liberty (and perhaps presumption) in explaining their relation to one another in a way which I think makes Taylor's understanding of them more transparent than his own language sometimes allows.

The more familiar way to understand secularism, Taylor says, is that it is fundamentally about religion. That is, it is about restraining religion, or setting the parameters of its legitimate practise, or marking the space in which in can operate, or something generally along those lines. Kind of like how you'd be careful to separate different materials into different sections for recycling (plastics, paper, glass or what have you), so you have to separate religion from politics, this view says. Supposedly, religion is a special problem which makes politics very messy and that if we can just push it out, things will run more smoothly.

What Taylor advocates is a breaking of this special connection between secularism and religion. He wants to steer us toward a view of secularism which doesn't see religion as a particularly special case, or a central point of concern. This might involve breaking some long built-up habits, but while Taylor proposes this as an alternative view, he understands it as the original view which we need to recover. It's like we've been teaching ourselves a musical instrument all the while developing poor techniques that need to be undone to truly progress. What he's arguing is that this other, older view is secularism, properly understood. What he's claiming, rightly in my opinion, is that the special concern with religion is a contamination within proper, pure secularism. To make this clearer it will be good to explain further Taylor's view of secularism-minus-the-special-religious-connection which he calls the "diversity view" but which I will call the "healthy" view (although "diversity" correctly emphasises the aims of proper secularism, "healthy" emphasises its visionary priority over the contamination).

A healthy secular government, arrangement, or regime, has two main goals or values;

1) Freedom of conscience: This is the understanding that everybody should have as much freedom as possible to live out their lives in whatever way strikes them as best. For instance people should be free to be Christian if they want, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or atheist, or vegetarian, or conservative, or some strange possibly not well-articulated combination of certain views, or something new entirely. That is, they should be free to live out their lives according to whatever ethical or ideological sources that happen to impress them.

2) Impartiality between outlooks: This is the understanding that there should be no special priviledge given to persons of one stance over another. So, Muslims shouldn't be treated differently to agnostics, Buddhists no differently to Kantians, the uncertain spiritual seeker no different to the convinced deist etc. And of course, this even-handedness should especially apply to how the state itself is operated. 

And on the healthy view, the concerns generated by these two goals are negotiated by a third value;

3) Freedom and Equality in Participation: This is the understanding that, in the process of determining how these first two goals are to be put in practise in a particular context, people should be free to have a maximally open discussion in which they are allowed to stake out their concerns with reference to whatever aspect of their own beliefs they wish. 

That then is what real, pure, healthy secularism looks like, according to Taylor. It seems to me that though interpretations of the first two goals may differ, all of us in the modern west feel their pull. But notice that none of the goals are principally concerned with just religion. Yes, religious outlooks are under the purview of these goals, but so are non-religious or anti-religious views. The real issue that healthy secularism is concerned with is how to handle the diversity of views amongst the population, not how to handle religion as such. 

We'll get to see what (3) entails as we go on, but what's important to notice about it first is that it comes as an acknowledgement that (1) and (2), when they co-exist, can rub against against each other, and sometimes it isn't clear how to remain faithful to both of them in a particular dilemma. Taylor uses the example of the debate about whether Muslim school-girls should be allowed to wear the hijab or "head-scarf" in public schools. In France it was eventually forbidden, within Germany school-girls were allowed to wear it but not teachers, and here in Britain nothing of the sort is under restriction (officially).

What this shows, Taylor argues, is that we are sensitive to both (1) and (2), and holding to both of them causes dilemma. We are sensitive to the freedom of children and teachers to express their religious convictions (value 1). But we are also sensitive to the fact that schools are extensions of the state, and we wonder whether it is appropriate for these extensions to bear the markings of any particular religion, which might seem to priviledge it (value 2). The differing decisions of the governing bodies reflect the fact that this dilemma does not have an obvious, simple solution, ready-made for it. The challenge here, indeed the great political challenge of healthy secularism, is that there are two cherished values existing in tension with each other; over-emphasing impartiality might stamp on freedom of expression, but over-emphasing freedom of expression might hinder impartiality. In some circumstances, freedom of expression will have enjoyed too much power, and will need reigning in. In other circumtances, impartiality will have been over-reached, and will need to be loosed. In other circumtances, the two values might not have any obvious imbalance, but will still be running at each other, seeking a compromise.

What this means is that, if there's a case in which freedom of expression has been given dominance, and its religious beliefs concerned, then yes, in this circumstance it will be appropriate to curb religious expression back a notch. Perhaps, say, we should have churchmen less heavily represented in the House of Lords. But we might find in another case that commitment to impartiality has slipped into the illegitimate restriction of religious freedom. In this case it will be appropriate to encourage religious expression where it previously hasn't been encouraged. So perhaps, say, we should encourage greater freedom to wear religious symbols in the workplace. In other cases it just won't be clear that there's any inbalance at all, and they'll have to be serious debate and discussion between different parties to reach a compromise. The point is, there isn't just one solution, restraining religion, which we can just steamroll ahead with and apply across the board.

The problem is that the more we think that secularism is just a single across-the-board principle, the more the real issues are hidden from us. This way of thinking obscures and hides the fact that what we're really committed to is the two goals of freedom and impartiality, and we need to work out ways to remain faithful to both, handling real dilemmas which, prior to negotiation, can't be settled by a appeal to some simple principle. If you hold to the contaminated view of secularism, then you'll inevitably do violence to both freedom and impartiality.

A contaminated view of secularism, which sees restraining religion as its goal and leaves the real commitments of (1) and (2) out of direct sight or distorts them, will restrict religious freedom even when freedom isn't overbalancing impartiality, and downplay impartiality even when religious freedom isn't being over-reached. From this post it might be easier to see how religious freedom would be the thing jeopardised since to restrain something just is to restrict its freedom in some way. But in the next post we'll see how a contaminated secularism also jettisons impartiality, leaving it an oppressive and unjust bully.


Garren said...

I think the impartiality goal does the work I really want secularism to do as far as keeping government neutral towards religion. One area where you see the divide illustrated between "neutrality" and "no religion" is in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia:

Here, a student group was denied normal benefits of publication printing because their newspaper advocated Christianity. The Court was not too kindly split over whether neutrality or not-helping-religious-groups-ever was the point of the Establishment Clause in the US Constitution.

I'm with Justice Thomas' concurrence. Not only do I side with neutrality over religious exclusion, but I believe direct monetary benefits can be just as acceptable as payments to non-religious third parties.

P.S. — Please disregard that email, Martin. :P

Martin said...

Haha I guess the email box can be quite easily mistaken for the comment form.

Yeah I think the real fight is over what "impartiality" means. I find it to be continually misread, which I'll argue about in the next entry.