Secularism: Its Content and Context:

The context of religious pluralism

posted by Nadia Urbinati

Akeel Bilgrami’s article, “Secularism: Its Content and Context,” is an important and welcome contribution on a topic that has acquired momentum with the renaissance of the public role of religions, in democratic and non-democratic societies alike. Bilgrami clarifies in a penetrating and lucid way, three fundamental ideas on secularism: first, that it is “a stance to be taken about religion”; second, that it is not an indication of the form of government or the liberal nature of a regime; and third, that the context is a crucial factor in issues concerning the relationship between politics and religion. The first two arguments are intertwined and pertain to the identity and function of secularism, while the latter brings us directly to the role of religion in the public sphere, a theme that has become pivotal in contemporary democratic theory. Since I have no strong disagreement with Bilgrami’s arguments, what I would like to do in what follows is propose some specifications and exemplifications that may enrich or complete them.

Let us begin with secularism, which rather than “a stance,” I would suggest we call an ideology or, to paraphrase Michael Freeden’s definition of ideology, a way of simplifying a complex social reality whose kernel would otherwise escape the understanding of the many. In simplifying complexity, ideology is a practical guide for “converting the inevitable variety of options into a monolithic certainty which is the unavoidable feature of a political decision, and which is the basis of the forging of a political identity.” In simplifying complexity, secularism worked and still works as a practical guide for making decisions at the state level. This helps us to see why secularism cannot be identified with the liberal nature of politics or a form of government. Indeed, it pertains to the affirmation of the authority of the state, prior to and autonomously from any form of government. It is crucial to keep sovereignty separate from government to better grasp the difference among secular projects. Countries in which the state has never won the competition with the church over the regulation and control of individual behavior are forced into a stronger politics of secularism. This fact is primed to condition the tenor of politics, even in those countries that have embraced constitutional democracy.

Bilgrami rightly argues, for instance, that the ideals that motivated the political regime that Atatürk imposed on Turkey defined an authoritarian regime, although secularist in character. Secularism can, of course, open the state to a liberal transformation of the nature of its political regime, but to make this possible other kinds of vindication are needed that endow individual actors with prerogatives that limit the power of the state—beginning in the eighteenth century, this is what the bills of rights and constitutional revolutions have done.

What does a secular state need in order to be more liberal or for its politics to acquire a liberal nature—namely, respect for individual freedom against political and religious authority? This question brings me to the last issue in relation to which I would like to propose some additional comments on Bilgrami’s article that pertain to religious pluralism as an unavoidable condition for making secularism of a liberal nature, even when the government is formally democratic. The argument I would like to propose is the following: a mono-religious society, which has the chance to produce a secularist project has less or weaker chances to produce a liberal society, even when and if it embraces a democratic form of government. In mono-religious societies, secularism is destined to be more radical than in pluralist societies even when the state is democratic, because in these societies the risk of theocratic temptation is stronger. The issue of pluralism is sensitive above all in a constitutional democracy, whose public sphere and civil society is naturally open to host ideas and opinions of any kind.

I would like to strengthen my comment with reference to an empirical case that I have discussed in greater detail elsewhere. It pertains to a constitutional democracy in a society that is mono-religious, and in which Bilgrami’s two features of secularism—the ideas of the separation of church and state and that the state maintains a neutral equidistance from different religions within a plural society—are difficult to attain.

During the Parliamentary debates on issues of artificial insemination in Italy two years ago, the Speaker of the Italian Low Chamber, Mr. Gianfranco Fini felt the need to specify something that might seem redundant in a constitutional liberal democracy. He declared that “the Parliament should not pass laws that are inspired by religious precepts.” Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, a prominent Catholic theologian very active in Italian public debate, replied immediately:

The issues on which Catholics intend to be active in politics are not definable as ‘religious precepts’ because they pertain to fundamental rights that are written in human nature, demonstrable by reason, and endorsed by the Italian constitution. Catholics are in the right position for actively participating in the public and parliamentary debate against abortion and euthanasia and to protect family.

As this brief exchange shows, the Italian Parliament and the Roman Catholic Church are presently engaged in a political confrontation that is radical because it involves sovereignty—of civil and of canonical law. The confrontation involves more or less an explicit ideological battle between secularism and theocracy. Yet contrary to older confrontations between the state and the church for the acquisition of supreme authority over human actions (the external domain of behavior), in contemporary constitutional democracies the conflict over the control of civil authority is performed in deliberative style, through the posture of reasoning and the language of rights. This dialogic transformation of politics has opened the public sphere to religious citizens in a new way. At the same time, it also poses a new set of potentially serious problems for constitutional democracy, particularly in societies that have a predominant religion.

In his answer to the Speaker of the House, Monsignor Sgreccia adopted a style of reasoning that John Rawls’ revisited public reason and Jürgen Habermas’ post-secular democracy would consider legitimate. Indeed, while publicly proclaiming principles that he derived from his comprehensive doctrine, Monsignor Sgreccia made an effort to reach out to non-religious citizens by arguing that those principles can also be accepted by them because they are in agreement with the principles of public reason contained in the Italian constitution although expressed not in the form of public reason (like constitutional rights) but in the philosophical language of natural rights, according to the Thomistic tradition. Endorsing this discursive style would seem to be a secure passport for citizens with comprehensive doctrines to actively participate in the public sphere of deliberation.

Hence, Habermas has argued that in post-secular democratic society religious citizens have the right to participate in public discourse with their own principles and convictions. In fact, Habermas is even more generous than Rawls and thinks that the limits on individual liberty that Rawls’ injunction of translation of “private” reasons into “public” reasons contemplates is still too demanding and, moreover, unequal, since it demands more of religious citizens than non-religious ones. In Habermas’ view, thus, Monsignor Sgreccia should be allowed even to claim publicly that the law of the Italian state should be consistent with his “religious precepts” without bothering to engage in any sort of stylistic translation. Indeed, as an ordinary citizen who participates in public opinion formation but not lawmaking, Monsignor Sgreccia should not be asked, not even in the name of what Rawls would call an informal or moral “duty of civility,” to rephrase his religious arguments so as to make them in agreement with the language of civil rights. The question is that Sgreccia’s argument was direct and strong enough to reach the parliament and the Catholic representatives whom all political parties include. In any event, the Italian Parliament produced a very restrictive legislation on the individual choice to procreate through artificial insemination. “Deliberation” in the public sphere was easily translated into the law; the vision of the Catholic majority was able to impose itself over all the citizens, thus violating both the principle of equal rights and secularism. A mono-religious democratic society can easily be subjected to what liberal theorists called the “tyranny of the majority.”

This example shows that liberal democratic theories of public reason, although in different ways, are tailored to and on a philosophical reflection of the liberal societies that are the home of practiced religious pluralism. However, they are—Habermas’ more so than Rawls’—hardly suitable and safe if extended or applied to liberal societies in which one religion enjoys a strong majority and pluralism is only predicated in the constitution but is not a lived experience in society. In relation to the place of religion in the public sphere, I would suggest that along with Rawls’ distinction between liberal societies and despotic societies (whether decent or not) we make also a distinction within liberal societies, among those in which religious pluralism is both a juridical and a social reality, and those in which religious pluralism is protected by the law but is not a social reality or an ethical culture that inspires the public reasoning of ordinary citizens.

This Hegelian distinction/relation between the juridical and the ethical level is important and meant to suggest two ideas: first that we must regard the norm (of constitutional democracy) always in its porous relationship to the actual cultural life of the society, and democracy always as both a set of principles and procedures and an actualization that is contextually specific; and second, that in mono-religious societies—and democratic societies in particular, in which the state’s equidistance is a precept that does not receive the support coming from the practice of religious pluralism—the state cannot avoid adopting a more secularist politics.

In conclusion, I would like to strengthen Bilgrami’s appeal to the relevance of the context when issues of state/religion relationship are at stake. In matters that have a direct impact on the individual freedom of religion and social peace such as the presence of religion in the public sphere, political theorists should pay close attention to the ethical context and the historical tradition of a given society without deducing practical conclusions from an ideal conception of democracy and liberalism. This pragmatic suggestion of going back and forth from the ideal norm to the context is an admission of the fact that a political practice that is liberal in a pluralistic religious environment may turn to be anti-liberal in a mono-religious society. Pluralism is the essential condition within which we should situate the discourse of the role of religions in the public sphere and the issue of secularism. Without pluralism (as a social fact or as an actual plurality of religions, not only a formal declaration of rights) a constitutional democracy has a weaker liberal nature and may generate decisions that are not more liberal or tolerant than those made in a non-constitutional democracy (or in a decent illiberal society, to paraphrase Rawls).

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