23 December 2016
The unicorn of political philosophy
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a system for organising society that provided space for many different systems of belief. Each was free to practise their beliefs without hindrance or interference from the state, but the state took no position on matters of belief and didn’t favour any particular view. The state was intentionally neutral and secular in order to allow religious beliefs to flourish without the burden of state patronage or prescription.
Secular neutrality is an attractive proposition, but it’s a myth. It’s especially attractive when considering the history of how religious beliefs have been used to enforce conformity among non-believing, or different-believing, populations at certain times. The idea of structuring society so the state stays away from the affairs of religious beliefs has appeal for the believing and non-believing alike.
But it’s also a myth because it’s impossible, it doesn’t exist and it can’t exist. It’s the political philosophy equivalent of a unicorn. The idea of secular neutrality requires religious beliefs to be treated without fear or favour, but the only way to do this is to limit the role of religious belief. Neutrality suggests that it’s possible to step away from the different systems of belief and make decisions aside from their influence. But everyone has beliefs. Some of these may be based in religious identity and attachment, others based on what we consider ‘the good life’ to look like. A neutral state has to use something to decide what is permitted and outlawed. Removing religion from this process automatically privileges non-religious belief. It’s like strapping an ice-cream cone to the head of a pony and calling it a unicorn. As illustrated.
When secular neutrality has been tried it has been anything but neutral. France is perhaps the best example of a state that has tried to be neutral. All it has done is remove religious belief from public life. In the United States a different form of secularism developed, one where the state was formally neutral, but the religious beliefs of voters and candidates still have a significant effect on the political process.
Secular neutrality is worse than just a myth, it’s highly problematic. It suggests that religious beliefs shouldn’t have influence on how the state operates. Christians believe that truth is not just good for them. but for society, and there is therefore an imperative towards telling other people about it. This means we share the good news of Jesus with people, and it means we seek to influence society in ways that reflect God’s character and righteousness.
Trying to be secular requires quietening religious belief. Under the guise of attacking religious privilege it ends up privatising religious belief. That does deep discredit to the beliefs people live their lives by. As Tom Wright says: “The whole point of Christianity is that it offers a story which is the story of the whole world. It is public truth.”
The other problematic aspect of secular neutrality is that it denies the evident reality that religious beliefs conflict. Different religious beliefs have different ideas of what makes the good life, and trying to make the state secular requires shutting down this disagreement and shutting out religious voices from public debate. Secular neutrality can only succeed by being anything but neutral. It has to privilege some form of reason to determine what can and cannot be said in public, and it chooses to privilege non-religious reasoning. Those without religious beliefs are free to say what they like in public life, but those with a faith have to accommodate themselves to the terms set by others. This is secular privilege.
There is a better way. We should acknowledge the reality of religious disagreement, but not try and shut it out. People of different beliefs should be free to live out and articulate what they believe in public life, they should not be afraid to voice an opinion that is deeply rooted in their beliefs. In fact, surely to do otherwise is religious discrimination? This is what Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi calls the dignity of difference.
We need a confident pluralism, not the theological sort that suggests that all religious beliefs are different angles on the same ultimate truth, but the sort that is mature enough to cope with different beliefs in a shared public space. As Christians, this means we will not always get our way, and we shouldn’t in a society with many different and competing ideas of the good life. We should try where possible to make our case in ways that people who don’t share our belief will understand and accept, but we should not be tied to terms of debate set by people seeking to remove religion from public life.