Secularism: Contemporary Pleas for Complexity

by Chris Lynch

Over the last few months, several thoughtful and conceptually rigorous books have been released exploring the topic of secularism. Two that stand out for their critical acclaim but also for their scholarly style are: Andrew Copson’s Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom; and Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination (a point-counterpoint text written by philosophers John Corvino, Ryan T. Anderson, and Sherif Girgis). Both books are concerned with a cluster of related questions: how far should anti-discrimination and equality obligations extend when objections flow (supposedly) from someone’s religious commitments? Should the ‘public sphere’ demand that all appeals and justifications be couched in non-religious terms? How should we make sense of the adjective ‘secular’ in real-world political contexts?

Outlining the Texts

Although they deal largely with similar themes, the two books adopt different approaches and address distinct aspects of what it means for both individuals and the state to adopt a ‘secular’ outlook or ‘secular’ politics. Copson’s book offers a taxonomy of multiple models for conceptualising ‘secularism’, before tracking the use of the word ‘secular’ (both as a self-description and a description by others) to describe governments and nation-states both historically and today. After this survey, Copson offers a principled defence of ‘secularism’ as the conjunction of three commitments: (1) freedom of belief and conscience; (2) non-discrimination; and (3) state neutrality. Copson offers, in my view, an intuitively plausible and extensionally adequate conception of a ‘secularist’ outlook and politics that is worth wanting in a diverse modern state.

To the extent that the book addresses an overarching central question, the authors of Debating Religious Liberty seem primarily to debate how to balance ‘religious liberty’ and ‘discrimination’ in a way that roughly matches what people mean by these terms without thereby sacrificing one or the other. Premises are endorsed or rejected based on criteria such as philosophical rigour, practical applicability, and (less tangibly) appeals to more abstract desiderata like ‘justice’ and ‘human flourishing’. The authors seek to intervene in an ongoing ‘culture war’, especially in an American context, and the book takes in a variety of ‘hot topics’. The topic given greatest prominence, however, is the extent to which religious believers have legitimate rights to object to or not participate in same-sex marriage. What emerges is a sophisticated, largely US-centric socio-legal discussion about whether conscience-based objections to ‘anti-discrimination’ legislation should be accommodated within the law.

Characterising ‘Secularism’

I’m not aware of any previous attempts to place these two books in dialogue with one another. Given their overlapping thematic concerns and their shared appeals to philosophical rigour and socio-historical sensitivity, it makes sense to put them together. In what follows, I attempt to offer some thoughts on the characterisation of ‘secularism’ that emerges from each book. I identify two common objections to accounts of secularism:

(a) that such accounts are too heavy on compromise or ‘non-ideal’ conditions; and

(b) that such accounts are only plausible given certain (problematic) assumptions that may not be universally shared.

In both texts, but especially Secularism, a picture emerges that suggests that politics only proceeds if we can appeal to an ‘overlapping consensus’, and that secularism is the best – arguably the only – political settlement that can take place within this overlapping consensus. One worry that people may have at this point is that it suggests secularism is ‘the best of a bad situation’, something we can only accept if we adapt our preferences in light of certain conditions and give up pursuing an ideal political state that might inspire and energise our political imagination.

Perhaps this worry misses the point. After all, what is clear from Copson’s book is that secularism is a strong contender for being the most acceptable compromise as a broad institutional set-up that guarantees (at least in principle) certain rights without the state communicating or promoting a conception of the good to which some, if not most, people might object. He is not claiming to offer an ideal solution in an ideal world; he is proposing a pragmatic settlement given actual real-world conditions.

Copson’s book also offers something of a gloomy description of the contemporary international political climate: from resurgent Hindu nationalism in India to appropriation of sharia in so-called ‘secular’ Arab states, the current shift seems to be away from secularism, rather than towards it. This is a problem, in Copson’s view, because secularism represents a core component of liberal progressiveness. Indebted in part to liberal humanism’s occasional tendency towards over-optimistic rights-talk, Copson laments the apparent turn away from secularism as a backward step, a retreat from a humanist brave new world. I share this view, but the philosophical machinery he deploys to justify his argument is objectionable.

Similarly, in Debating Religious Liberty, there are unexamined assumptions fuelling both sides of the argument. Girgis and Anderson deploy natural law theory and attempt to derive from it certain legal and political implications for today’s political landscape – most notably, that religious freedom is fundamental to integrity, that it facilitates relationship with the transcendent, and that it includes the right to conscientiously object when one feels one’s conscience is violated unacceptably. Much of their argumentation borrows heavily from Christianised readings of ‘human flourishing’ and ‘what is good for society’; worse still, some of their empirical claims are misleading or false. The state that they envision is not identifiably secular in most paradigmatic uses of the word ‘secular’.

Secularism as a Negotiated Settlement

Corvino argues for extending anti-discrimination law even to religious organisations, and argues that there should be no legally-encoded exemptions or accommodation clauses in place to protect conscience-claims from having to conform to equality legislation. That sounds attractive to many people who want to support gay people’s rights to access the same goods and services as other people. So far, so good. What’s more, Corvino affirms his belief that state neutrality on matters of religion and conscience is desirable and, indeed, the best possible political settlement. So, he’s a secularist in one natural reading of the term ‘secularist’.

Jurgen Habermas suggested that we understand ‘secular’ arguments not as opposite to religious ones, but as including both religious and non-religious arguments. He argued that to make religious believers always couch their arguments in publicly accessible, secular terms is (in some cases at least) unacceptably demanding as it might burden religious believers to reduce or impoverish or otherwise translate their deep commitments and beliefs if they want to be listened to and taken seriously. Corvino considers briefly, then rejects, Habermas’ thought that explicitly and irreducibly religious appeals should be allowed to ‘count’ in secular arguments. For Corvino, a secular ‘overlapping consensus’ that is in theory communicable for all is the only workable way for us to negotiate differences in belief and outlook that are often deep and central to people’s sense of identity.

Much like with Copson, one gets the sense that secularism is at best a workable compromise. That said, perhaps this is not much of an issue. After all, at a contemporary moment when terms such as ‘moral crusade’ and ‘moral panic’ are weaponised on both sides of debates that affect people’s lives and prospects of happiness, compromise and practical applicability matter. Demands for purism and unabashed, unqualified endorsement might arguably be fetishized in certain academic quarters, but in the messy world of concrete real-world politics things are complicated. To my mind, Copson does an impressive, elegant job of making relevant qualifications and reservations whilst still defending a principled stance; the fact that he starts from certain assumptions we might not all share may be neither problematic nor avoidable. What Corvino offers, and where his counterpoint authors sometimes fall short, is an account of ‘religious liberty’ and ‘discrimination’ which gets a grip on practical applicability and extensional adequacy. It is to these referee notions – ‘practical applicability’, ‘extensional adequacy’, ‘elegance’ – that we must appeal in debates otherwise political disagreements may not be resolvable.


Pessimistically, what emerges from these reflections is the well-worn insight that you check out of certain political debates with whatever baggage you had on going in. That’s not an insight without value, of course – after all, it is better to be aware of (and, in some cases, where appropriate, correct for) these assumptions and biases than to be ignorant. However, I think something more optimistic can be said. Whilst these disagreements often emerge from profound differences of starting-point, there nonetheless exists an identifiable political settlement in which theses disagreements can be facilitated in a way that makes both sides intelligible and even allows both sides to talk to one another. Call it ‘civil society’ if you like, or ‘the public sphere’ or ‘the secular state’. Some kind of secular settlement seems unavoidable – and maybe we shouldn’t worry that this is a compromise, a negotiation, a ‘best we’ve got’ kind of conclusion. Any other kind of conclusion would fall short, as it would be detached from real-world concerns and devoid of practical value.

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