Secularism: Lockean and Republican


In this blog I explain briefly two major, competing approaches to secularism: the Lockean which is merely a dilute form of religious neutrality and closely resembles “open” secularism and multiculturalism; and the republican, which is far superior because it involves true separation between religions and state.

Sommaire en français Dans ce blogue je présente deux principales variantes concurrentes de la laïcité : celle de Locke qui n’est qu’une forme diluée de la neutralité religieuse et ressemble bien à la laïcité dite « ouverte » et au multiculturalisme ; et la républicaine, grandement supérieure, car elle implique une totale séparation entre religions et État.

Different cultures have varying strengths and weaknesses. The tradition of secularism is the English-speaking world is notoriously weak. This may be partly a consequence of the great success which the British monarchy—that ridiculous anachronism ultimately based on “divine right”—has had in surviving by evolving towards constitutional monarchy while maintaining the royal family’s star status. But more important, although less fashionable, is the heritage of the philosophy of John Locke.

In his famous A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Locke proposed a society and a government which tolerated all religions, including “Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers” and indeed “neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.” Nevertheless, he excluded those religions which failed to tolerate others, which effectively excluded Catholics as they could be expected to hold allegiance to a foreign prince. Locke was also resolutely atheophobic:

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.

A Letter Concerning Toleration, full text.

Locke is probably the reference for secularism in the English speaking world, but I would call his vision pseudo-secularism because of its assumption that everyone with any concept of ethics, any right to live in society with others, has a religion, and indeed a theistic religion. Indeed, Locke’s approach is no more than limited religious neutrality, including neither neutrality between belief and non-belief nor separation between religion and state. His atheophobia is a deal-breaker. His vision sounds a lot like the USA—indeed, the first amendment of the US constitution, beginning with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” is Lockean in its inspiration—but with greater persecution of atheists.

Lockean pseudo-secularism also bears a strong resemblance to both “open secularism” (the adjective “open” effectively negating the word it modifies) and multiculturalism, both of which attach greater importance to religious affiliation than to citizenship. As a result, religious privilege is implicit and inevitable in all three, because they all give priority to religious belief over non-belief.

The Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) programme in the public schools of Quebec is another example of Lockean pseudo-secularism, because it teaches that everyone has a religion, or at least should have one, and largely ignores non-believers. Worse, ERC tends to describe religious communities as monolithic and static and identifies them more with fundamentalist tendencies—rather than modernist tendencies—within each religion.

However, in other cultures, other variants of secularism are proposed. In particular, the French tradition of “laïcité” is probably the most advanced and enlightened form of secularism so far developed. One of the most important contemporary proponents of this form, which I will call republican secularism, is the philosopher Henri Peña-Ruiz. He advocates a total separation between religion on one hand, and the state and schools on the other. He classifies religions as “spiritual options” and gives the same status to agnosticism and atheism.

Although I do not agree 100% with the approach to secularism put forward by Peña-Ruiz, because I do not see atheism as on a par with religious belief, nevertheless I recognize that his laïcité is far superior to the dilute religious neutrality of Locke which does not even allow for atheism. My own approach to secularism is described in the talk The Relationship Between Atheism and Secularism which I gave at a colloquium in Beirut in April of 2012. See also Does Secularism Imply Religious Neutrality?

If the term multiculturalism had any positive, constructive meaning in Canada, then English-Canadians who consider themselves to be secularists would be motivated to study secular traditions in other countries—France, Turkey (where Erdogan is currently undermining the secular heritage of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk), Mexico and others—and consider the possibility that perhaps the English tradition is not quite as wonderful and superior as they initially assumed. Unfortunately, most have not done this and thus remain mired in that initial false assumption.

Of course this does not mean that one must follow slavishly what has been implemented in France or any other country whose version of secularism provides examples to guide us. Every country is unique and differences are inevitable. In France for example, face-coverings are forbidden everywhere in public. Such a measure may not be necessary in Canada, at least not yet, although it remains an option to be considered. Certainly it is insane to allow face-coverings in official functions such a citizenship ceremonies.

The Charter of Secularism proposed by the Quebec government in 2013-2014 was inspired by the republican tradition. Some adversaries of that Charter were apparently advocating a model of secularism in the Lockean tradition, although many did not present it as such. Rather, often in a de facto alliance with fundamentalist Muslims and Islamofascists, many indulged in specious and dishonest accusations of “intolerance”, “Islamophobia” or “racism” against the Charter and its supporters rather than engage in an honest debate about different types of secularism.

Next blog: “Hate Quebec, Hate Secularism

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