May 31, 2020
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To Put Faith In Secularism

‘Secularism’ inhabits twin strands—one simply strives to control religion; another, more composite view, allows plural views on faith to coexist. Charting secularism’s progress in France and the US, Charles Taylor alights on the passionate debate it is generating in modern Europe and India.

To Put Faith In Secularism
The Charlie Hebdo killings marked an inflection point in France’s conflicted views on Islam and the fear of the outsider
Photograph by Reuters
To Put Faith In Secularism

Everyone in the West agrees today that modern, div­erse democracies have to be ‘secular’, in some sense of this term. But what sense? The term (along with the corresponding French term ‘laicite’, and its derivatives) has more than one sense. There are in fact many different meanings, but I believe that we can get to a crucial issue if we single out two key conceptions.

On one view (A), secularism is mainly concerned with controlling religion. Its task is to define the place of religion in public life, and to keep it firmly in this location. This doesn’t need to involve strife or repression, provided various religious actors understand and respect these limits. But the various rules and measures which make up the secularist (or laique) regime all have this basic purpose.

On the other view (B), the main point of a secularist regime is to manage the religious and metaphysical-philosophical diversity of views (including non- and anti-religious views) [i]  fairly and democratically. Of course, this task will include setting certain limits to religiously motivated action in the public sphere, but it will also involve similar limits on those espousing non- or anti-religious philosophies. (For instance, the degree to which either can discriminate in certain relations, like hiring). For B, religion is not the prime focus of secularism.


I will argue later that B is clearly superior to A as a model for secularism in our time, but first, let’s look at what B inv­olves a little more closely. In fact, managing diversity inv­olves a complex requirement. There is more than one good sought here. We can single out three, which we can class in the three categories of the French Revolutionary trinity: liberty, equality, fraternity. 1) No one must be forced in the domain of religion, or basic belief. This is what is often defined as religious liberty, including, of course, the freedom not to believe. This is what is also described as the ‘free exercise’ of religion, in the terms of the US First Amendment. 2) There must be equality between people of different faiths or basic belief; no religious outlook or (religious or areligious) Weltanschauung can enjoy a privileged status, let alone be adopted as the official view of the state. And, (3) all spiritual families must be heard, included in the ongoing process of determining what the society is about (its political identity), and how it is going to realise these goals (the exact regime of rights and privileges). This (stretching the point a little) is what corresponds to ‘fraternity’.

These goals can, of course, come into conflict; sometimes we have to balance the goods involved here. Moreover, I believe that we might add a fourth goal: that we try as much as possible to maintain relations of harmony and comity between the supporters of different religions and Weltanschauungen (maybe this is what really deserves to be called ‘fraternity’, but I am still attached to the neatness of the above schema, with only the three traditional goods.).

Why might we think that this diversity model (B) is superior to the religion-focused model (A)? One reason is that is it more even-handed. If we look at the three goals above, they are concerned respectively, with (1) protecting people in their belonging and/or practice of whatever outlook they choose or find themselves in; with (2) treating people equally whatever their option; and (3) giving them all a hearing. There is no reason to single out religion, as against non-religious, ‘secular’ (in another widely used sense), or atheist viewpoints.

Indeed, the point of state neutrality is precisely to avoid favouring or disfavouring not just religious positions, but any basic position, religious or non-religious. We cannot favour Christianity over Islam, but also religion over or against non-belief in religion—or vice versa.

One of the ways of demonstrating the superiority of the three-principle model of secularism, over that which is fixated on religion, is that it would never allow one to misrecognise the regime fou­nded by Kemal Ataturk as genuinely secular, making light as it does of the fundamental pri­nciples, and even of the separation of state and religious institutions.

This also shows the value of the late-Rawlsian formulation for a secular state. This cleaves very strongly to certain political principles: human rights, equality, the rule of law and democracy. These are the very basis of the state, which must support them. But this political ethic can be and is shared by people of very different basic outlooks (what Rawls calls “comprehensive views of the good”). A Kantian will justify the rights to life and freedom by pointing to the dignity of rat­ional agency; a Utilitarian will speak of the necessity to treat beings who can experience joy and suffering in such a way as to maximise the first and minimise the second. A Christian will speak of humans as made in the image of God. They concur on the principles, but differ on the deeper reasons for holding to this ethic. The state must uphold the ethic, but must refrain from favouring any of the deeper reasons.


The idea that secularism makes a special case of religion arises from the history of its coming to be in the West (as does, indeed, the name). To put it briefly, there are two important founding contexts for this kind of regime, the US and France. In the US case, the whole range of comprehensive views, or deeper reasons, were in the original case variants of (Protestant) Christianity, stretching to a smattering of Deists. Subsequent history has widened the palette of views beyond Christianity, and then beyond religion. But in the original case, the positions between which the state must be neutral were all religious. Hence the First Amendment: Congress shall pass no law establishing religion or impeding the free exercise thereof (or something like this).

The word ‘secularism’ didn’t appear in the early decades of American public life. But this was the sign that a basic problem had not yet been faced. Because the First Amendment concerned the separation of church and state, it opened the possibility of giving a place to religion which no one would accept today. Thus in the 1830s, a judge of the Supreme Court could argue that while the First Amendment forbade the identification of the federal government with any church, nevertheless, since all the churches were Christian (and in effect Protestant), one could invoke the principles of Christianity in interpreting the law.

After 1870, the battle was joined between the supporters of this narrow view, on one hand, and those who wanted a real opening to all other religions and also to non-religion. The opponents included not only Jews, but also Catholics who (rightly) saw the ‘Christianity’ of the Protestant mainstream as excluding them. It was in this battle that the word ‘secular’ first appears on the American scene as a key term, and very often in its polemical sense of non- or anti-religious. [ii]

In the French case, laicite came about in a struggle against a powerful church, and so A was the obvious model. But France went through an evolution in the opposite direction from the American one. The wisdom of Jules Ferry, and later of Aristide Briand and Jean Jaures, saved France at the time of the great battles of the Third Republic—culminating in the law of the separation of church and state (1905) from such a lopsided regime. These more moderate figures insisted on the importance of freedom of conscience. Nevertheless, the not­ion stuck that laicite was all about controlling and managing religion remains powerful till this day.

If we move, however, beyond such originating contexts, and look at our situation today—at the kinds of societies we are now living in the West—the first feature that strikes us is the wide and growing diversity, not only of religious views, but also of those which involve no religion, not to speak of those which are unclassifiable in this dichotomy. Reasons (1), (2) and (3) above require that we treat even-handedly all of these.

And the second feature is the absence of any powerful, would-be hegemonic Church. In these circumstances, we might think that the choice between A and B would be a ‘no-brainer’. But this is not what is happening. In society after society in the West, we find a vigorous debate about the demands of secularism, where the fundamental issue at stake is the choice between A and B: is our fundamental problem the encroachment of religion in the public sphere? Or are the so-called encroachments, on the contrary, legitimate exercises of freedom of conscience? Through which of these lenses should we view, for example, the wearing of the hijab by girls in public schools? Or the wearing of the burqa by (some of) their mothers in the streets? France not­oriously has opted for lens A, with generally negative consequences for the integration of its North African minorities.

Dec 6, 1992 Babri, a disruptive signpost in secular India

Photograph by D. Ravinder Reddy

How has this come about? In the case of Western Europe, it is often a kind of cultural fear in the face of new immigrants: Will they change us? Will we lose our identity? These fears on the face of it are not rational, because in each case the minority of newcomers is so small, and relatively powerless, that they are not in a position to dictate the direction the society will take. But the fears are there nevertheless, as we can see from the success of a recent French novel, La Soumission, which portrays the election of the first Muslim president of France in the near future.

This fear around newcomers is greater in Europe than it is in the societies of the western hemisphere, like the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina etc, which have been receiving immigrants for more than a century. But these countries are not exempt. And Muslims arouse a special degree of suspicion and hostility in the present geopolitical context. We have only to look at the present American election.


All this offers a rather sombre picture. But there is one positive development. The debate between the two models is no longer going on within the narrow confines of each society, but has become international. French and Quebecois intellectuals are arguing tog­ether about the nature of laicite; European policymakers are taking a stand on Canadian multiculturalism (often a negative stand, alas).

In the West, there’s a debate about demands of secularism: is religion encroaching, or is it an exercise of freedom of conscience?

And what is more, the international debate and exchange now extends bey­ond the West. The Indian experience is now making an impact. In India, too, there has been a vigorous debate about the meaning of secularism, and there are some analogies with the issues in the West. Clearly, there is an analogue to B in the Gandhi-Nehru model, which wanted to defend the full range of religious diversity in the country. And the (partial) analogue to A is the narrow vis­ion of ‘Hindutva’, which threatens to turn many of India’s minorities into second-class citizens.

The Indian analogue of B, or diversity model, draws on a tradition of thought and sensibility which goes far back in history, to Akbar and Ashoka. This has had an impact on our attempt to define our diversity model. For example, in the report prepared for the Quebec government by myself and my colleague Gerard Bouchard, we made use of the work of Indian intellectuals, notably Rajeev Bhargava. The flow, which in one direction carried the word ‘secularism’ to India, is now also flowing the other way.

My hope is that mutual exchange may turn more and more into mutual support, as each of us fights our battles against the demons of xenophobia, which still haunt us.

(Charles Taylor, a political philosopher, is professor emeritus at McGill University, Montreal.)

[i] Rawls would talk here of “comprehensive conceptions of the good”. See his Political Liberalism

[ii] Christian Smith, The Secular Revolution, UCalPr, 2003. See also Tisa Wenger, Rewriting the First Amendment: Competing American Secularisms, 1850-1900

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