Secularism: Its Content and Context:

Secularism: Its content and context

posted by Akeel Bilgrami

The following is excerpted from a longer SSRC Working Paper by Akeel Bilgrami, available for download here (PDF).—ed.


I begin with three fundamental features of the idea of ‘secularism.’ I will want to make something of them at different stages of the passage of my argument in this paper for the conclusion—among others—that the relevance of secularism is contextual in very specific ways.

If secularism has its relevance only in context, then it is natural and right to think that it will appear in different forms and guises in different contexts. But I write down these opening features of secularism at the outset because they seem to me to be invariant among the different forms that secularism may take in different contexts. It is hard to imagine that one hasn’t changed the subject from secularism to something else, something that deserves another name, if one finds oneself denying any of the features that I initially list below. Though I say this is ‘hard to imagine,’ I don’t mean to deny that there is a strong element of stipulation in these initial assertions to come. I can’t pretend that these are claims or theses about some independently identified subject matter—as if we all know perfectly well what we are talking about when we speak of secularism—and the question is only about what is true of that agreed upon concept or topic. The point is rather to fix the concept or topic. But, on the other hand, such talk of ‘fixing’ should not give the impression that it is a matter of free choice, either. Once the initial terminological points about ‘secularism’ are made, the goal of the rest of the paper will be to show why they are not arbitrary stipulations. So the reader is urged to be unreactive about these initial topic-setting assertions until the dialectic of the paper is played out.

First, secularism is a stance to be taken about religion. At the level of generality with which I have just described this, it does not say anything very specific or precise. The imprecision and generality have two sources. One obvious source is that religion, regarding which it is supposed to take a stance, is itself, notoriously, not a very precise or specifically understood phenomenon. But to the extent that we have a notion of religion in currency—however imprecisely elaborated—‘secularism’ will have a parasitic meaning partially elaborated as a stance regarding whatever that notion stands for. Should we decide that there is no viability in any notion of religion, and should the notion pass out of conceptual currency, secularism too would lapse as a notion with a point and rationale. The other source of imprecision is that I have said nothing specific or precise about what sort of stance secularism takes towards religion. One may think that it has to be in some sense an adversarial stance since surely secularism, in some sense, defines itself against religion. This is true enough, but still the very fact that I find the need to keep using the qualifier ‘in some sense’ makes clear that nothing much has been said about the kind of opposing stance this amounts to. Part of the point of this essay is to add a little precision to just this question.

Second, for all this generality just noted, ‘secularism’—unlike ‘secular’ and ‘secularization’—is quite specific in another regard. It is the name of a political doctrine. As a name, it may not always have had this restriction, but that seems to be its predominant current usage. So, to the extent that it takes a stance vis-à-vis religion, it does so only in the realm of the polity. It is not meant—as the terms ‘secular’ and ‘secularization’ are—to mark highly general and dispersed social and intellectual and cultural phenomena and processes. Unlike the term ‘secularization,’ it is not so capacious as to include a stance against religion that requires redirection of either personal belief or, for that matter, any of a range of personal and cultural habits of dress or diet or… Thus it is not a stance against religion of the sort that atheists and agnostics might wish to take or a stance that strikes attitudes (to say nothing of policies) about the hijab. The increase in a society of loss of personal belief in God or the decrease in church- or synagogue- or mosque-going or the surrender of traditional religious habits of dress or prohibitions against pork, may all be signs of increasing ‘secularization’ but they are irrelevant to the idea of secularism. The reason for this is rather straightforward and obvious. It should be possible to think that a devout Muslim or Christian or Hindu can be committed to keeping some aspects of the reach of his religion out of the polity, without altogether giving up on being a Muslim, Christian, or Hindu. And it seems natural today to express that thought by saying that such a person, for all his devoutness, is committed to secularism. And one can say this while noticing and saying something that it is also natural to think and say: such a devout person, in being devout, is holding out against the tendencies unleashed by the long social and ideational processes of secularization. And we can appreciate the naturalness of this restriction of the term ‘secularism’ to the polity when we observe that the slogan ‘separation of church and state’ (which, whatever we think of it, is part of what is conveyed to many by the ordinary usage of the term ‘secularism’) allows one the church, even as it separates it from the state, or, more generally, from the polity. If we did not believe that the term was to be restricted in this way, we would either have to collapse secularism with secularization or—if we insisted on some more subtle difference between those two terms—we would have to invent another term altogether (a term that has no cognate relation to this family of terms—secular, secularization, secularism) to capture the aspiration of a polity to seek relative independence from a society’s religiosity. I believe that any such neologizing would be a stipulative act of far greater strain and artificiality than reserving one of these terms (‘secularism’) for this aspiration since, as I said, it is anyway implied by the slogans that accompany the term. What then of the contrast of ‘secularism’ with ‘secular’? Unlike the latter term which is often said to refer innocuously and indiscriminately to all things that are ‘worldly’ in the sense of being outside the reach of religious institutions and concerns (outside the cloister, in the mundiality of the world at large, as it were), ‘secularism’ aspires to be more concentrated in its concern—to not merely refer to anything that is outside of that reach, but to focus on something specific (the polity) and attempt to keep it or steer it outside of some specified aspects of that reach.

Third, secularism, as a stance regarding religion that is restricted to the polity, is not a good in itself. It seeks what is conceived, by those who favour it, to promote certain other moral and political goods, and these are goods that are intended to counter what are conceived as harms, actual or potential. This third feature may be considered too controversial to be regarded as a defining feature, but its point becomes more plausible when we contrast secularism with a more cognitive (rather than political) stance regarding religion, such as atheism. For atheists, the truth of atheism is sufficient to motivate one to adhere to it and the truth of atheism is not grounded in the claim that it promotes a moral or political good or the claim that it is supported by other moral or political values we have. By contrast, secularists, to the extent that they claim ‘truth’ for secularism, claim it on grounds that appeal to other values that support the ideal of secularism or other goods that are promoted by it. Secularism as a political doctrine arose to repair what were perceived as damages that flowed from historical harms that were, in turn, perceived as owing, in some broad sense, to religion. Thus, for instance, when it is said that secularism had as its vast cradle the prolonged and internecine religious conflicts in Europe of some centuries ago, something like this normative force of serving goods and correcting harms is detectably implied. But if all this is right, then it follows that one would have to equally grant that, should there be contexts in which those goods were not seen necessarily to be goods, or to the extent that those goods were being well served by political arrangements that were not secularist, or to the extent that there were no existing harms, actual or potential, that secularism would be correcting, then one could take the opposing normative stance and fail to see the point and rationale for secularism.


I want to now turn from features that define or characterize secularism to features of its justification and basis of adoption.

In a paper written in the days immediately following the fatwa pronounced against Salman Rushdie, called “What is a Muslim?,” I had argued that secularism had no justification that did not appeal to substantive values, that is to say, values that some may hold and others may not. It was not justifiable on purely rational grounds that anyone (capable of rationality) would find convincing, no matter what substantive values they held. I had invoked the notion, coined by Bernard Williams as ‘internal reasons,’ to describe these kinds of grounds on which its justification is given. Internal reasons are reasons that rely on specific motives and values and commitments in the moral psychologies of individuals (or groups, if one takes the view that groups have moral-psychological economies). Internal reasons are contrasted with ‘external reasons,’ which are reasons that someone is supposed to have quite independent of his or her substantive values and commitments, that is, independent of elements in the psychologies that motivate people. Bernard Williams, recapitulating Humean arguments against Kantian forms of externalist rationality and the universalism that might be expected to emerge from it, had claimed that there are no such things as ‘external reasons.’ Whether that general claim is true or not, my more specific claim had been that there are no external reasons that would establish the truth of secularism. If secularism were to carry conviction, it would have to be on grounds that persuaded people by appealing to the specific and substantive values that figured in their specific moral psychological economies. Such a view might cause alarm in those who would wish for secularism a more universal basis. Internal reasons, by their nature, do not provide such a basis. As, I said, internal reasons for some conclusion that will persuade some people, may not persuade others of that conclusion, since those others may not hold the particular substantive values to which those reasons appeal and on which those reasons depend. Only external reasons could persuade everyone since all they require is a minimal rationality possessed by all (undamaged, adult) human minds and make no appeal to substantive values that may be variably held by human minds and psychologies. Alarming thought it might seem to some, there is no help for this. There are no more secure universal grounds on which one can base one’s argument for secularism.

Charles Taylor has convincingly argued that in a religiously plural society, secularism should be adopted on the basis of what Rawls called an ‘overlapping consensus.’ An overlapping consensus, in Rawls’s understanding of that term, is a consensus on some policy that is arrived at by people with very different moral and religious and political commitments, who sign on to the policy from within their differing points of view, and therefore on possibly very different grounds from each other. It contrasts with the idea that when one converges on a policy one must all do so for the same reason.

What is the relation between the idea that secularism should be adopted on the basis of an overlapping consensus and the idea presented in the earlier paragraph about internal reasons being the only reasons available in justifying secularism? A very close one. The latter idea yields (it lies behind) the former. The relation is this. Internal reasons, unlike external reasons, may vary from person to person, group to group. This may give the impression that there simply cannot be a consensus if we were restricted to the resources of internal reasons. But that does not follow. Or at any rate, it only follows if we assume that a consensus requires that all sign onto something (some policy or political position, such as secularism) on the same grounds or for the same reason. In other words, on the basis of an external reason or reasons. But such an assumption is a theoretical tyranny. Without that assumption, one could say this. If there is to be a consensus on some political outcome on the basis, not of external but of internal reasons, it will presumably only be because different persons or groups subscribe to the policy on their own, different, grounds. This just is the idea of an overlapping consensus. If there were external reasons for a policy, one could get a consensus on it of a stronger kind and would not need to hold out hope for a merely ‘overlapping’ consensus.

Perhaps all this is obvious. However, for reasons having to do with Rawls scholarship, I have been a little wary of this use of the notion of overlapping consensus since in Rawls it has always been a notion embedded in the framework of his celebrated idea of the ‘original position,’ i.e., the idea that one contract into policies to live by without knowledge of one’s substantive position in society. I find myself completely baffled by why the idea of the original position is not made entirely redundant by the notion of an overlapping consensus. If one did not know what one’s substantive position in society is, one presumably does not know what one’s substantive values are. If so, the very idea of internal reasons can have no play in the original position. It follows that if one were to adopt an overlapping consensus on the basis of divergent internal reasons that contractors may have for signing onto a policy, then the original position becomes altogether irrelevant to the contractual scenario. Of course, if one were to completely divorce the idea of an overlapping consensus from Rawls’s conceptual apparatus within which it has always been formulated (even in his last published work, The Law of Peoples), then it would be exactly right to say, as Taylor does, that secularism should be adopted in pluralistic society on the basis of an overlapping consensus. But now, the only apparatus one has to burden the contractors with is the capacity for internal reasoning, that is, with psychological economies with substantive values that yield internal reasons. Rawls would not be recognizable in this form of contractualist doctrine. Indeed one would be hard pressed to say that one was any longer theorizing within the contractualist tradition at all, which is a tradition in which serious constraints of an ‘original position’ or a ‘state of nature’… were always placed as methodological starting points in the making of a compact. Shorn of all this, one is left with something that is the merest common sense, which it would be bombastic to call ‘a social contract.’ We now need only say this: assuming no more than our capacity for internal reasoning, i.e., our capacity to invoke some substantive values we hold (whatever they may differentially be in all the different individuals or groups in society), we can proceed to justify on its basis another substantive value or policy—for example, secularism—and so proceed to adopt it for the polity. If this path of adoption by consensus, invoking this internalist notion of justification, works in a religiously pluralist society, it will be just as Taylor presents it, an overlapping consensus, with none of Rawls’s theoretical framework.


The last two sections have respectively presented points of definition of secularism and points of its justification and basis of adoption. I think it is important to keep these two things separate on the general ground that one needs to have a more or less clear idea of what we are justifying and adopting before we justify and adopt it.

In a very interesting recent paper, Charles Taylor, has argued that we need to redefine ‘secularism.’ It is a complex paper with highly honourable political and moral motivations that underlie it. But, speaking more theoretically, I don’t think it is quite as well motivated.

The paper begins by saying that there have been two aspects to secularism—one, the idea of the separation of church and state, and the other that the state maintain a neutral equidistance from different religions within a plural society. The paper wishes to correct an overemphasis on the first by stressing the importance of the second aspect and wishes to modify the second too along the following lines.

In modern societies, we seek various goods and the three in particular (echoing the trio of goods expressed in a familiar slogan) that remain relevant to secular aspirations are, the liberty of worship, the equality of different faiths, and finally, more than just equality, we need to give each faith a voice in determining the shape of the society, so there must be fraternal relations within which negotiations, with each voice being equally heard, is crucial. What is more, because the first aspect’s stress on separation of church and state was too focused on religion, the second aspect’s stress on religious diversity should be modified and expanded to include the fact that in late modernity, the diversity of pluralist societies contains not just a variety of religious people, but non-religious people as well. Their point of view must also be included in the mix. All this is now included in the idea and ideal of a redefined secularism.

So, to sum up his explicit motivations for seeking this more capacious definition of secularism: There is the importance of the state maintaining a neutrality and equal distance from each religion. There is the importance of a society allowing the democratic participation of all religious voices in shaping its polity’s commitments. And there is the need to turn one’s focus away from just religion to acknowledging and respecting wider forms of cultural diversity and a variety of intellectual positions, including non-religious ones. These are all worthy motivations and a society that pursues them would be measurably better than one that doesn’t. The question is how does thinking so make a difference to how we theorize about the meaning or definition of secularism? There is no denying that it makes a difference to secularism, but it is not obvious to me that it is just as he presents it.

One of the things that he finds distorted about secularism while defined along the unrevised lines that he is inveighing against is that, so defined, it has been too focused on ‘institutional arrangements.’ Slogans such as ‘separation of church and state’ become mantras and as they do, they suggest institutional arrangements that are fixed. Once done, it is hard not only to change the institutions, but also to reconceptualize secularism. What is better in order to maintain both theoretical and institutional flexibility is to allow the ideals in questions (the echoes of liberty, equality and fraternity mentioned above) to determine what is needed rather than these slogans, which point to institutional arrangements and stop or preempt conversations about how to theorize secularism. In keeping with this point, he applauds Rawls for starting with certain ideals such as “human rights, equality, the rule of law, democracy” rather than anti-religious (or for that matter, religious principles), and then proceeding to consider the question of secularism to be in line with them.

This is just right, I believe, as are the general moral and political instincts that prompt Taylor’s appeal for a redefinition of ‘secularism’: the desire for greater flexibility, the desire not to tie ‘secularism’ to the polemical sense of non- or anti-religious,’ the desire to establish secularism on the basis of an overlapping consensus of internal reasons. The question is, is it wise or necessary to redefine secularism to pursue these instincts and motivations?


Let me, then, turn to a way of characterizing (I say characterizing because perhaps ‘defining’ is too constricting a term for what both Taylor and I are interested in, but I will not always avoid talk of ‘definition’ since it is the word Taylor himself uses) secularism that is, or to put it more cautiously, that may be, at odds with Taylor’s. (I add this caution because, despite what it seems to me at present, it may turn out that we are not much at odds and it is really a matter of emphasizing different things.)

I have said that it is a good idea, as Taylor suggests, to start with certain ideals that do not mention religion or opposition to religion, and then move on to talk of political and institutional arrangements involving the role of the state and its stances towards religion. So, just because it is what is most familiar to us in our tradition of political theory and philosophy, let us start within a liberal framework, let us start with some basic ideals and the fundamental rights and constitutional commitments that enshrine them, just as Rawls and Taylor propose. Starting with them as the basic, though tentative, givens, I suggest we embrace Taylor’s account only up to a point and then add something that does not seem to be emphasized by him, indeed something that he may even wish to be de-emphasizing in his redefinition.

I propose, then, something like the following non-arbitrary stipulation as a characterization of secularism that contains all of the three features I had mentioned at the outset.

(S): Should we be living in a religiously plural society, secularism requires that all religions should have the privilege of free exercise and be evenhandedly treated except when a religion’s practices are inconsistent with the ideals that a polity seeks to achieve (ideals, often, though not always, enshrined in stated fundamental rights and other constitutional commitments) in which case there is a lexical ordering in which the political ideals are placed first.

Much commentary is needed on this minimal and basic characterization.

Continue reading here (PDF).

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