In “Secularism: Its Content and Context,” an SSRC Working Paper, Akeel Bilgrami addresses two questions: first, the meaning of secularism and second, its justification and implementation. Engaging Charles Taylor’s recent calls for a “radical” redefinition of secularism, he offers an alternative conceptualization of the category, while also addressing Taylor’s deep concerns about the politics of secularism for our time. According to Bilgrami, secularism has its point and meaning not in a decontextualized philosophical argument but in the historical and contextual specificities in which it is applied. In the end, secularism “needs, not replacement, but merely proper implementation, in order to get us ‘beyond toleration.’”
Secularism: Its Content and Context
In expounding his misgiving about the humanism I proposed, Uday Mehta seeks—I think with some strain—to find an incompatibility between my ideal of fraternity and what I say in another essay of mine on Mahatma Gandhi in which I point out that, for Gandhi, one overcame relativism by presenting the moral truth (as one sees it, though, to repeat, that goes without saying) to others through exemplary living up to it in one’s actions and not by subsuming it under a universalized principle and generating an imperative. I don’t see any such incompatibility and I think that he only finds it because of the misreading of what I mean by fraternity that I have been trying to expose in this reply.Read Gandhian fraternity.
In his interesting and engaging essay, Uday Mehta addresses, with some genuine feeling of qualm, a large, concluding theme in my paper: the specific and non-standard form of humanism that I had proposed and the notion of fraternity on which it is based. But he gets wrong what I mean by both terms, “humanism” and “fraternity,” so I am glad to have this chance to repeat and amplify some points that I feel are important to make clear.Read A different notion of fraternity.
Simon During’s essay begins with a taxonomy that is harmlessly at odds with my own classification. He uses the term “secularization” as overarching and he calls what I describe as secularism or (S), “state secularization.” He also describes (S) as a “negative” (as contrasted with Charles Taylor’s “positive”) form of “neutralism” regarding the state’s relation to religions. I am less happy with having (S) described as any form of neutrality. But since his intentions here are no more than verbal, it would be fussy to say why, so I will simply ignore my differences on the matter as mere amicable disputation in the word.
On more substantial issues, his instinct is exactly right (and mine) when he says that Taylor wants a neutralism that is not necessarily secular. I wrote a fair number of words in my essay to try and make that instinct into a sound bit of criticism in political theory. I am sure that I have not persuaded Taylor, but it is gratifying to see that During and I share an understanding of Taylor. If he and I are right, Taylor’s honorable and interesting effort to redefine secularism as his form of “neutralism” fails. Or at any rate—if one takes the view that definitions, being stipulative and conventional, cannot exactly fail—it is not theoretically well motivated. During doesn’t mention his grounds for thinking Taylor to be wrong, but does gesture at broad agreement with the grounds I had presented.Read Genealogy and plurality.
Colin Jager projects the virtues of his own reading of me onto my essay when he describes it as possessed of “care, patience, and generosity.” I feel distinctly ungenerous, therefore, in focusing (as, alas, I must in replying to a relatively large number of commentators) on the very few points where I think he gets me wrong.
If and when there are contexts in which one judges secularism—as understood by my characterization of it in (S)—to be a normative necessity, questions arise, as I have said above, of how best to justify (and implement) it to those who are recalcitrant. I had argued that, if in these contexts, there was real resistance to (S) among sections of a society, the ideal in justification and implementation must be a) to seek internal reasons, reasons that appeal to some of the moral and political commitments of the very people who are resisting (S), in order to persuade them of (S) and bring them around to accepting its implementation; and b) if such reasons could not at a particular point in time be found among their moral and political commitments, then one should take the position that history might inject internal conflict into their thinking and this may, in turn, help to provide the necessary internal reasons to persuade them.Read The possibilities of history.
I am very grateful to the many commentators on my essay “Secularism: It’s Content and Context” for their instructive and challenging responses and I am glad of this chance, in what follows, to try and make my essay clearer and better. It is a measure of the vibrancy of The Immanent Frame that it fetches such a high quality (not to mention, quantity) of commentary, and I hope I will be able to at least approximate some of this quality in my responses.
I’ll begin with some preliminary points which I will exploit in my responses, and then speak to each comment in turn, posting the responses one at a time over the next many days.Read Secularism: Some concepts and distinctions.
Akeel Bilgrami’s essay is important and ambitious. Its importance lies in part in making clear what secularism is and should be—its philosophical foundation one might say; its ambition, in its ability to link these foundations with a wide range of issues that include the implications of giving priority to political ideals; a subtle understanding of the grounds of Islamic fundamentalism; the way in which context might deflate the all too often overextended reach and significance of secularism; the role of reason in history and its link with the moral and epistemological psychology by which even deep convictions are subject to change; the challenge of a relativistic conception of truth; and an understanding of humanism that permits a firm commitment to one’s own view of the truth, while nevertheless embracing a fraternal attitude towards those who deeply disagree with it.Read Truth and fraternity?.
It is hard not to be convinced by Akeel Bilgrami’s careful, patient, and generous exposition in “Secularism: Its Content and Context.” And indeed there is much with which I agree, especially the balance that Bilgrami strikes between a care for truth, on the one hand, and the idea of internal reasons, on the other. My remarks below are offered by way of exposition and clarification, but they are motivated by a spirit of interpretation: it seems to me that the paper operates in distinct tonal registers: a primary register of hope, a secondary register of tragedy, and an unacknowledged third register, which I will call prophetic.Read Hope, tragedy, and prophecy.
“We develop in multi-cultural and multi-religious societies. To say this is to state the obvious. There is no religiously homogeneous society.” Akeel Bilgrami has invited commentary on his recent working paper about the nature and relevance of secularism in which he advances a central thesis that begins with the conditional phrase, “Should we be living in a religiously plural society.” In this post, I offer a response to his thesis convinced, like Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, author of the quotation with which I began, that there is no such thing as a modern religious monoculture.Read There is no such thing as a monoculture.
Akeel Bilgrami’s paper is very rich; I cannot speak to all its arguments. I focus on his principal concern: his desire to amend Charles Taylor’s definition of secularism so that the rights to free exercise of religion and evenhanded treatment are qualified by “the ideals that a polity seeks to achieve (ideals, often, though not always, enshrined in stated fundamental rights and other constitutional commitments).” When religions are inconsistent with these ideals, “there is a lexical ordering in which the political ideals are placed first.” These ideals can, apparently, be anything, as long as they “do not get articulated in terms that mention religion or the opposition to religion.” What is important is that they exist and that they come first.Read Secularism, lexical ordering, and resistance to dialogue.
In discussing secularization, it has become conventional to note that the concept refers to various processes, of which three are particularly prominent. First, the gradual delegitimation of natural and revealed religion’s truth-claims in the face of rational critique. We can call this intellectual secularization. Second, the process by which some states have constitutionally disengaged from their citizens’ religious beliefs and institutions. We can call this state secularization. Third, the increase across society of knowledge, activities, values, tastes, and activities which lack religious content, as well as the extent to which, increasingly, people involve themselves with these non-religious forms. We can call this social secularization.Read Religion and state secularization.
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.Read The context of religious pluralism.
Akeel Bilgrami’s “Secularism: It’s Content and Context” is both fascinating and wide-ranging… Whether or not one agrees with the notion of an internally cohesive concept of secularism—and whether or not one agrees that this concept is more limited than we have come to think it is—one might still ask if secularism should assert itself through a lexical ordering like the one envisioned by Bilgrami. Will a prioritization of political ideals seem fair to members of a secular society, and, perhaps more importantly, does it capture the challenges that face the kind of democracies we currently characterize as governed by secularism?Read Taking a stance.
I want to argue that one of the deep reasons for the commonality between religion and the secular is not only historical—that the values that prevailed in a dominantly religious world were not lost during the secularization processes—but philosophical: whether the beliefs that people hold are religious or secular, they are beliefs. As Steve Bruce wrote, “Although it is possible to conceptualize it in other ways, secularization primarily refers to the beliefs of people.” At the extreme edges of secular and religious thought, people deny that they hold beliefs—propositions that they embrace about what is true—and say instead that they have truth.Read Secularism, belief, and truth.
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.Read Secularism: Its content and context.