IEET > Rights > Fellows > Russell Blackford > FreeThought
Do Secularists Contribute to Social Divisiveness?

My colleague Taner Edis, who contributed a fine essay to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Atheists , has, alas, written a new essay over on the Secular Outpost blog, in which he takes me to task for my recent criticism of Gary Bouma.

The main point made by Edis is this:

Secularism, particularly when it extends to public criticism of religion and policies that inconvenience religious communities, is a source of social division. Secularists keeping quiet is, in fact, in the interest of peace and public order in many present circumstances.

So, he argues, if secularists want social peace we will actually abandon secularism and shut up. Or, at any rate, we will cease to advocate the key idea of secularism in the sense under discussion: the separation of church and state.

Needless to say, I disagree.

Democracy and disagreement

Let me make one concession at the outset. If I express any controversial idea, there is a trivial sense in which it causes social division. I.e., there will be people who’ll oppose me, and we’ll be divided by our disagreement. I will fall into one camp, they into another.

Some others may side with me, and still others with my opponents, so there will be, in a trivial sense, division over the issue under discussion. My original controversial idea might have been about the superiority of the Collingwood football team to its rivals (or the superiority of Arsenal, or New Orleans, or whatever choices might be suggested to you by your preferred football code). Or it might be about the rights and wrongs of criminalising homosexual conduct, or about the morality and prudence of embarking on a foreign war (against Iran, let’s say, but there always seem to be proposals for foreign wars). So I concede that social division in this trivial sense is caused by any opinion, publicly expressed, on any controversial topic. In this trivial sense, social division is caused by a proposal that the government of my local jurisdiction ignore traditional Christian morality and apply the harm principle when considering such topics as the legality of homosexual conduct.

If this is what Gary Bouma meant when he accused secularists of creating social division, he is correct. We can’t express any opinion on anything at all controversial without encountering disagreement, and, so, in a trivial sense, causing division.

Democracies, however, thrive on disagreement. The usual assumption is that disagreements about government policies can ultimately, if not entirely satisfactorily, be resolved at the ballot box. I say “not entirely satisfactorily” because the various political platforms on offer are package deals, and no one may be entirely pleased by the platform of whatever party or coalition obtains power. Democracy is an imperfect system, but it’s often been observed that the alternatives are even worse. Thus, we persevere with it, and it does at least have the advantage of tending to weed out the most tyrannical, corrupt, idiosyncratic, or just plain incompetent governments. Parties that are serious contenders for political office will be pushed towards the centre, to fielding candidates with at least some claim to competence, and to acceptance of a certain degree of individual liberty.

Even this can have its downside: while individual liberty is a good thing, centrism sometimes stifles creativity. Still, democratic processes eliminate many opportunities for tyranny, while creating pressures for honesty and competence. Many politicians in democratic states may be corrupt, but corruption is at least frowned upon, and the level of corruption is insignificant by historical standards or those of more authoritarian systems. The point is that democracy is imperfect, yet supportable - and, most importantly for my purpose, that it assumes a measure of robust disagreement within society, at least about political issues.

When secularists argue for freedom of speech, the harm principle, separation of church and state, and so on, we merely do what democracy requires. Our opponents can reply with arguments that the state should be more theocratic, more responsive to distinctively religious morals, and so on. They can, for example, argue that homosexual conduct should be banned on the ground that it is condemned in the Bible. If they say such things, they will meet with disagreement, perhaps even with disagreement expressed as satire or mockery, but that is part of what democracy is all about.

So yes, when secularists argue that the state should not impose religion or religious morality we do, in a trivial sense, create division. That is, we provoke disagreement and argument. Does that mean we should shut up, or at least adopt a unilateral code of niceness that excludes mockery and satire? Of course not. The alternative is that we acquiesce in the contrary view, that religion or religious morality should be imposed by state power - either we don’t oppose that view at all or we do so with one hand tied behind our backs. But once that view is accepted and acted upon by the state, social division will be taken to a new level.

Instead of the state permitting a vast range of religious (and moral) positions to exist side by side without their adherents suffering persecution, the state becomes a site for realistic contests to determine just which controversial religio-moral views will be imposed by force, even on those who disagree. Once the state brings force against those who disagree, the stakes are upped enormously. Those who lose out in the political struggle no longer have the choice of living side by side, and openly, with those who disagree with them. Instead, they must either go underground or stand up and resist.

Social division with a vengeance

We don’t need to go back to the wars of religion in Europe to see how this happens, though the bloody wars and persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries should not be dismissed as irrelevant. If Western countries have had few religious wars, persecutions, insurrections, and so on, for some hundreds of years, that has been because the state has exercised restraint. In a small number of cases, religious sects have, indeed, been overpowered by the state, as when mainstream Mormons in the US were forced, in the nineteenth century to abandon the doctrine of plural marriage. Generally speaking, however, the state apparatus in Western nations has not aimed at imposing a religious orthodoxy, and any persecutions have been directed at easy and unpopular targets such as the Mormons. A revived policy of demanding orthodoxy would lead to evasion of the law, police corruption, estrangement of huge numbers of people, and (very likely) large-scale violence.

Although the state has been reluctant to impose strict religious orthodoxy, it has often adopted large-scale experiments with moralistic laws backed by the prevalence of traditional religious attitudes to bodily pleasure. One relatively recent example was Prohibition in the US, which led to corruption, gangsterism, and other harms on a scale far greater than anything that might have been caused by the legal consumption of alcohol. A current example is the disastrous “war on drugs”, which has led to huge numbers of people being locked up in cells and/or having their property confiscated. The number of Americans currently in prison, mainly because of crimes connected in some ways to drugs, is shameful - it looks like a war by the government on its own citizenry.

As long as the war on drugs continues, peaceful drug users must live their lifestyles covertly, rather than openly, and are to that extent excluded from society. Meanwhile, we have seen massive adverse effects in the form of police corruption, organised crime, and acts of violence. All of this is social division with a vengeance!

Consider a paradigm case where religious morality is imposed by force - criminalisation of homosexual conduct. The effect of this is that homosexuals must appear to conform or else face punishment (executions, canings, being locked up, or whatever the local barbaric treatment may be). This compels people to live false lives, drives homosexuality underground, and estranges homosexuals from the mainstream society. This is not merely division in the trivial sense of open disagreement, which is healthy, but in the far more profound sense that we have one group of people, the majority, who are included in society, while another group is excluded and has every reason to feel alienated. If homosexuals are unable to reverse such a situation through democratic processes (and they will be enormously disadvantaged if they try to speak up), then their most obvious option is to live one of the most important parts of their lives covertly.

Of course, they have other options. Some may respond with sufficient violence to make the oppressive laws that they face largely unenforceable in certain districts. Before getting to that point, they may try campaigns of peaceful civil disobedience, and such campaigns are sometimes effective. If, however, the state insists on enforcing laws against essentially harmless conduct that is very important to the people concerned, one outcome will eventually be violent riots. Meanwhile, morally good, otherwise law-abiding people will find themselves not only being disagreed with, or even satirised (something that gays have to put up with in our society), but actually executed, or locked up, or subjected to other outrages. Once again, social division with a vengeance!

Surely it would be better if the state reasoned that its essential goals are worldly, e.g. keeping of the peace, protecting citizens from violence, providing a system of property and a social safety net. Surely it would be better if the state did not operate with any concept of sin. In that case, it would know better than to ban essentially harmless conduct - or even conduct with more-or-less manageable and largely self-inflicted harms, such as drinking alcohol. It would, surely, be smarter if the state followed the harm principle, rather than a principle of enforcing religion or a religion-endorsed morality.

That outcome is more likely to be obtained if it becomes a widely expressed and accepted sentiment that the state ought not to enforce religious and “traditional” views of morality, but ought merely to protect worldly things such as life, liberty, health, and property. This can become part of a political culture, as has happened to some considerable extent in the West. Where attempts are made to undermine that sort of secular liberal political culture, we ought to oppose them unambiguously, rather than risk losing what has been won over hundreds of years.

There may still be debate about how best and how far to protect those worldly things that I mentioned, and there will still be strong disagreements and political rivalries, but at least no one will be harmed and stigmatised for essentially harmless (or mainly self-regarding) conduct. Moreover, if the government’s policies are set on the basis of how best to protect worldly things, then the different sides of politics will all have some chance of obtaining real influence (and of gaining power). These are areas where changes can be made and compromise is possible, indeed frequently obtained. On this approach, no one is persecuted or driven underground, except for truly anti-social behaviour (violence, property crimes, and so on). The worst you can suffer from the state, if you are generally honest and non-violent, is taxation to provide funds for the social safety net ... and even the level of taxation will be limited by what the voting public as a whole will accept.

Free speech even for theocrats

I’m not suggesting that those who want the state to be more moralistic or theocratic should themselves be silenced by force (by fines, confiscations, imprisonment, and so on). They have freedom of speech, and attempts to suppress their speech would be just as divisive as attempts to criminalise homosexual conduct. If their speech were censored they would be driven underground and estranged from the larger society. They might ultimately riot if they found they had no other choice to regain their freedom of speech. The speech of moralists and theocrats is not directly harmful, and it is important to them. Even if their policies have no foreseeable prospect of being implemented within a healthy political culture, self-expression is too precious to people for the state to attempt suppress it. Indeed, we all have an interest in the continued expression of ideas that dissent from our own - otherwise, how can be sure that we are right?

Let the theocrats have their say, but let us continue to criticise their views and try to convince the state not to act on them.

In short, theocratic or moralistic speech should be permitted. But it does not follow that the policy prescriptions of theocrats and moralists should be implemented. Quite the contrary, they should not be. Nor should those of us who wish to criticise such policy prescriptions be silenced. If we are criticised, we should not call for the silencing of our opponents (notice that I have not suggested anywhere that Gary Bouma’s speech should be banned), but we certainly have every right to defend our position, to criticise the criticisms, and to respond sharply to people who accuse us of being “divisive”. Such accusations cheapen the concept of divisiveness, and we ought to say so.

Old-fashioned secularism?

Edis thinks that my views are old-fashioned. Well, it’s true that views much like this were expressed as far back as the seventeenth century, notably in the writings of John Locke. Full-blooded versions of them needed John Stuart Mill’s writings in the mid-nineteenth century, and they first became commonplace as recently as the 1960s, when governments became serious - at least some of the time - about the harm principle. Issues relating to separation of church and state, and to the harm principle, are still being worked through in Western parliaments and courts.

However, even if I am old-fashioned in my secularism, that does not make me wrong. Plenty of ideas that date back three or four hundred years, or more, have considerable truth attached to them, and we should not adopt some different view just because time has passed. Galileo staunchly defended the Copernican view of the solar system four hundred years ago; that does not mean that it is time for us to return, in a post-modernist spirit, to a geocentric theory. Of course, the views of Copernicus and Galileo needed much refinement, but they were on the right track. So was Locke, even though he knew nothing of the complications that would be caused by mass public education, the welfare state, technological change, and the sexual revolution.

For example, Locke thought that it was okay, or even necessary, to persecute atheists. He was wrong about that, although he provided a secular argument for his opinion, and his ideas need to be updated accordingly. (Briefly, the secular argument was that atheists cannot be trusted to honour their oaths. As it turns out, atheists are as likely to tell the truth in court or elsewhere as anyone else). Locke probably would have approved of laws against homosexual conduct, as he appears to have thought that heterosexual monogamy was crucial to the functioning of society. He was wrong about that, too - it turns out that modern societies can function just fine with a great diversity of sexual choices, especially in an era with highly effective methods of contraception.

By all means, let’s update Locke’s thinking, but none of that requires us to throw out his key insight, that the state exists to protect the things of this world, not to make us morally good by some religious standard or to promote our spiritual salvation. If anything, Locke did not go far enough. In any event, in a democracy people can disagree robustly about all sorts of things, including about whether Locke was right. But if we go down the path of theocratic or moralistic social policy we will have more than robust disagreements. Apart from all the other reasons for not persecuting people who’ve done nothing terribly wrong, we’ll get social division with a vengeance.

Ironically enough, Edis turns to a much more old-fashioned model for the operation of society than anything imagined by John Locke or John Stuart Mill. That doesn’t, in itself, prove that he’s wrong, but perhaps we really have learned a thing or two since medieval times. Perhaps the struggle for liberal freedoms has not been in vain. More about that tomorrow, when I examine the proposal from Edis for what strikes me as a multi-cultural dystopia.


Part Two

In the first part of my response I developed the theme that any criticism of religion creates division only in the trivial sense that it creates (often healthy) disagreement. By contrast, real social division - social division with a vengeance - is caused when the theocratically inclined offer their controversial theological claims (or moral claims that are grounded in theological thinking) as a basis for coercive measures by the state.

For many reasons, it is better to avoid the concept of a Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish, or whatever it may be) state, in which political power is to be used to further God’s eschatological plan and lead citizens to spiritual salvation. Rather, the state is best regarded as an institution, or set of institutions, that protects purely worldly things. Thus, the state provides a framework for public order, economic welfare, and the like. It establishes a scheme of property and commerce (which must be reasonably fair by ordinary secular standards, such as rewarding efforts and contributions), protects us from external violence, restrains us from using violence in social competition, and (increasingly) provides a social and economic safety net.

Once the state is regarded as a “secular”, in the sense of “worldly”, institution, the main source of conflict between rival theocrats is defused. Secular states will not have religious reasons to go to war against each other or to persecute their citizens, and they can concentrate on worldly issues where there is at least some prospect of success (including by way of political compromises). The various sects need not fear persecution with fire and sword (or with pistols and prison bars), and are likely to soften their attitudes in response.

If we argue that the state should be secular in this sense, we thereby argue that would-be theocrats are wrong - but not that their speech should be suppressed. We also attempt to create a norm of the political culture that the functions of the state (the worldly ones mentioned above) and those of the various churches and sects (spiritual salvation, rightness with God, etc.) will be kept separate. This functional separation of church and state also enhances the liberty of individual citizens: while we will be required by the secular law to act within certain constraints (not resorting to violence, honouring our formal contracts, paying taxes, taking care in situations where the welfare of others requires it and they are reasonable to rely on us), we are left with a potentially infinite range of choices and plans of life.

As Locke envisaged this regime, nothing would be illegal inside of a church unless it were also illegal outside. Thus, a church could not be singled out by hostile state officials by being forbidden to do something allowed to others. However, by itself, this might still allow some things to be made illegal (both in church and out) to the great inconvenience of a particular sect. Locke overcame this problem by emphasising a version of the harm principle, later developed in more detail (and more restrictively) by John Stuart Mill: the state should not ban anything except for a good secular reason relating to the protection of worldly things. That, of course, follows from his conception of the state’s fundamental role.

Locke gave a good example: the state cannot forbid the religious sacrifice of cattle unless it also forbids killing cattle outside of church. And it cannot do that unless it has a good secular reason. However, a dramatic plague of some cattle disease may provide the state with a good secular reason to ban all killing of cattle for a time, while stocks replenish. In the latter case, the state is acting within its proper role and cannot be criticised.

Taner Edis observes, “Old-fashioned secular liberals such as Blackford have, perhaps, not adequately adjusted to new political and social realities. There are good reasons that secular liberalism is out of fashion these days.”

Well, perhaps. But as I said yesterday, “Ironically enough, Edis turns to a much more old-fashioned model for the operation of society than anything imagined by John Locke or John Stuart Mill.”

I see that Lisa Bauer has now made this point for me in a thread over at RichardDawkins.net. Her views, which I generally endorse, are worth quoting at some length. Here is her impression of what Edis proposes (responding to discussion on the thread, to a contribution by Ophelia Benson that forms the thread’s subject, and, if I’m following the twists and turns, to the further post by Edis that will force me to write Part III of all this):

That quote pretty much sums up the old Ottoman millet system, in which each religious community (Jews, Armenians, Orthodox Greeks, Syriac Orthodox, and so on) was allowed to govern their affairs according to their own religious law…under the umbrella of Muslim supremacy, admittedly, and non-Muslim communities suffered under a lot of legal disadvantages at least until the Tanzimat reforms in the 19th century when the empire was trying to modernize and more fully integrate all its citizens into the state (allowing non-Muslims to become soldiers, for instance, and granting them legal equality with Muslims).

[...]

This system was swept away with the Ottoman Empire back in the 1920s, so why somebody would think this is somehow less “outdated” than liberal democracy is beyond me. Traces of it still exist in places like Lebanon, where religious communities (Shi’ite, Sunni, Maronite, etc.) are still clearly marked and marriage is completely under the control of the religious authorities, and you know how well that has worked out! Israel and many other ex-Ottoman countries like Egypt and Jordan also divide up their religious communities along these lines, where each one has their own family law courts based on religious law and so on, and we might note how friendly most of them are to atheists and the nonreligious (not very!). And this autonomy certainly doesn’t prevent the majority from treating minorities poorly, as Copts in Egypt or even Palestinian Muslims under Israeli rule might tell you.

In fact, it’s quite medieval—European Jews had a not dissimilar relation with medieval European governments, in which the Jewish community had the same kind of quasi-autonomous status within itself, and the elders and rabbis controlled the affairs of the community. If you fell foul of the authorities, like Baruch/Benedict Spinoza did, you fell under the cherem ban, which meant you were totally excommunicated from the Jewish community, and during the period being cut off from a community meant you were basically defenseless and at the mercy of the cruel world. This is another matter that comes up in all such communitarian schemes—what of the individual who does NOT fit into one or another group?

This setup was stifling to many Jews, who broke free from the ghetto and shtetl with their stultifying Jewish religious law codes (halakha) during the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, in the 19th century, and it’s no coincidence that Jews were often at the forefront of efforts to convince governments to adopt liberal human rights. (This is where studying the history of Judaism can be helpful, I must say!) Jewish liberation in the late 18th and 19th centuries in Western European nations like France was predicated on granting rights to Jews as individuals, the same as everybody else, but not to the Jewish community as an autonomous entity, and I doubt that Jews in Western nations outside of Orthodox or Haredi enclaves would be pleased at the prospect of returning to live under rabbinical authority.

The biggest problem with all of this should be pretty obvious—why should all members of a religion be bound by their religious law, usually as conceived by the most traditionalist, conservative clerics? Keep in mind who fought the hardest AGAINST shari’ah courts for family law in Canada—liberal Muslim women who knew just what kind of injustices that would lead to! Many misguided whites were under the illusion that Muslims as a group “wanted” shari’ah law, since this is what the male “community leaders” might have led them to believe, but this turned out to be far from the truth. WHO would be the leaders of these religious communities, and how would this NOT ride roughshod over the rights of minorities within the group, such as women, gays, liberals, apostates, etc.?

So…why is it that so many notions of multiculturalism turn out to look an awful lot like medieval ways of organizing societies? Give me individualism any day!


Just so. I may be an “old-fashioned secular liberal”, but that is not a reason for me to transform into an even more old-fashioned supporter of the Ottoman millet system or some post-modernist variant. Someone who adopts the picture of the universe developed by Copernicus and Galileo might also be old-fahioned, but Copernicus and Galileo were on the right track. Better to update their thinking than to adopt a super-sophisticated version of the Ptolemaic system, even if it has all sorts of lovely computer-generated epicycles to pretty it up.

Since the 1680s, many things have happened to put the classical liberal model of secularism under pressure, but that does not mean it was on the wrong track. Most notably, modern governments have developed functions going far beyond those imagined by Locke or even by the US founding fathers a century later.

Since about the 1870s, Western governments have been extremely active in carving out new functions in response to the success of industrial capitalism ... and its harshness if it is not regulated. Thus, we see the state doing many things that still bear close relationships to this-worldly goods, but also have scope to cut across the spiritual aims of the churches. This is seen no more strongly than in the area of public education, which was not merely a response to the worldly need for knowledge and the ability of the state to provide a safety net for the poor. It was also intended to provide a common moral grounding for growing citizens, who would be expected to play an active political role in democratic societies on reaching adulthood. That concept, of course, has the potential to cut across religious notions of morality, and even across theological doctrine.

A case in point was the introduction of moral education, based on supposedly non-sectarian Bible reading, in the first wave of public schools in the US. This was unacceptable to Catholics, who saw it (with much justification) as an imposition of the Protestant practice of individual reading and interpretation of the holy book. Catholic theology insisted that the priesthood must mediate between the Bible, as God’s word, and individual religious adherents. In effect, the state was imposing Protestantism, admittedly of a generic kind, on its Catholic citizens.

I am not so naive as to be unaware that many complex problems of this kind have developed as the state - often with the best of secular intentions, but also with its share of biases - has turned into an octopus with tentacles in many areas of everyday life. For that reason, I have never claimed that there is no room at all for religious voices in politics. I have, however, insisted that those voices should become marginalised to the extent that they are theocratic. I make no apology for that. Sure, our political philosophy needs to be updated to reflect modern developments, such as the changing role of the state in response to the harshness of nineteenth-century laissez faire. Nonetheless, I see nothing divisive, except in a trivial sense, in defending the functional separation of church and state, while of course acknowledging the grey areas and practical difficulties.

My original post, which Edis objected to, criticised Gary Bouma for his attack on secularists who, supposedly, “want to drive religious voices out of the public policy area”. But most of us do not seek to do anything that can be described so simplistically as that, and what we actually do is completely defensible. We seek to reinforce a political norm against state power being used to impose theologically-based requirements on those who do not believe. I am not repentant about defending that political norm, or about criticising Bouma’s misplaced objection to it. Whatever the complexities - and I’m sure some more of them will emerge in the comments and in my next post - we have every reason to struggle against the contrary model of a Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish, or Hindu, etc.) state.

And amidst the undoubted complexities, we have no reason to aspire to a stifling multi-cultural dystopia where freedom of speech is suppressed and people are trapped in authoritarian communities. Better an updated liberal secularism than what Taner Edis seems to recommend.

 

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.



COMMENTS

I think Lisa Bauer makes a conflating error in this paragraph:

“Israel and many other ex-Ottoman countries like Egypt and Jordan also divide up their religious communities along these lines, where each one has their own family law courts based on religious law and so on, and we might note how friendly most of them are to atheists and the nonreligious (not very!). And this autonomy certainly doesn’t prevent the majority from treating minorities poorly, as Copts in Egypt or even Palestinian Muslims under Israeli rule might tell you.”

The first half of the paragraph refers to Israel’s religious communities, but winds up talking about Palestinians being treated poorly under Israeli rule ... but the rulers there are for the most part secular.

Wow, this is strong and convincing stuff. And I ask myself why this more robust kind of secularism is not already a realisation throughout our western cultures. And in fact to an extent it actually is, only maybe pushed to the sidelines somewhat for the purposes of political laziness and in the guise of protecting the status quo?

Yet we do appear to be facing a delicate trade off between the rights of individuals, and the rights of minority groups and religions that are protected under freedom laws and also their declarations for fairness and recognition and equitable community funding?  : Is this where the divisive problem lies?

It may not be fair to provide funding to religious groups per se, yet ethnic groups of cultural religions and more established religious groups are still receiving governmental funds under rules of equity via their communities. I have a growing concern that the uprising and promotion of faith schools will have a divisive effect upon communities and education, and serve to promote a form or liberal dystopia and fear of the freedom to express any form of speech regarding religions. A world where cartoonists come under increasing prejudices and pressures?

All this encourages a society concerned with political correctness where individuals are protected from harm, yet are open to all forms of litigation concerning slander and libellous speech and free thinking. This is already a reality where I live and where I work, it is a reality now. OK, I may have it all wrong, since the ideal is for diverse communities to live happily together through mutual “respect” and “tolerance”. Yet acceptance and understanding should be the goal, and I cannot see faith schools delivering the goods?

I would most certainly vote for any advancement of secularism of state and church, and the points that you propose are well grounded. What you have here should form the basis for any democratic manifesto. I look forward to part three.


Faith schools

Wiki quote : “A faith school is a school that has a particular religious character or has formal links with a religious organisation. The term was introduced in Britain in 1990 following demands by Muslims for institutions comparable to the existing church schools. In the United States such schools are often called parochial schools.”
>> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faith_school


Quote : “The English education system developed in partnership with the mainstream Christian churches, whose involvement in education pre-dates that of the state and which focused on providing education for the poor. Since 1944 faith communities have been able to apply to set up schools in the state sector in response to demand from parents. Today around a third of maintained schools have a religious character and are popularly known as faith schools.
>> http://www.teachernet.gov.uk/wholeschool/faithschools/


Laicism

Wiki quote : “The principle of laïcité in France is implemented through a number of policies. The French government is legally prohibited from recognizing any religion.

Laïcité is currently accepted by all of France’s mainstream religions. Exceptions include the monarchists, who wish to reinstate Catholicism as a state religion with a stronger political role, as well as with some Islamist leaders who believe their religious law to be superior to civil law.
French political leaders, though not prohibited from making religious remarks, generally refrain from demonstrating openly that their policies are directly inspired by religious considerations.

Although the term was current throughout the nineteenth century, France did not fully separate church and state until the passage of its 1905 law on the separation of the Churches and the State, prohibiting the state from recognizing or funding any religion. All religious buildings in France (mostly Catholic churches, Protestant temples and Jewish synagogues) became the property of the City councils, who now have the duty to maintain the buildings but can’t subsidize the religious organizations using them. “
>> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laicism


Wiki quote : “George Jacob Holyoake’s 1896 publication English Secularism defines secularism thus: “Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three:
(1) The improvement of this life by material means.
(2) That science is the available Providence of man.
(3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good.”

“There are those who state that religion is not necessary for moral behavior at all. The Dalai Lama has said that compassion and affection are human values independent of religion: “We need these human values. I call these secular ethics, secular beliefs. There’s no relationship with any particular religion. Even without religion, even as nonbelievers, we have the capacity to promote these things.”
>> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_ethics

Religion is the social default mode.
Since humans are incompatible beings, religion (or at least spirituality) is necessary to tame the male animal to the extent he does not need to be caged. And that is just for starters.

I have read through the Taner Edis blogs and despite his declarations that he views himself as fundamentally secularist yet supports multiculturalism, he is not at all clear as to what he actually does believe or support? I can understand his points regarding the values of multicultural communities which can be self governing to a high degree, and of the positives from these, yet multicultural communities left to govern and instil their own sense of moralities, ethics and even local laws can only lead to the division of society as a whole. This should not be permitted to happen in a secular society.

What should happen is the complete opposite, as indicated above, that strong and robust secular ethics and philosophy should be the foundations which enforces stringent philosophy regarding the protections of life, liberty and property and freedom of speech. Which again, is what we have in place already. What it appears we do need is to ensure these secular ethics do in fact protect the rights and liberty of the individual regardless of which multicultural, ethnic or religious community they belong to.

In this way individuals are protected under the laws of state which takes precedence over any local rules of multicultural communities. It thus protects the rights of freedom of individuals to escape persecution for free thought and speech within their own communities, and moreover permits individuals the rights to escape the bonds of their communities and religions if they so wish. Is this all obviously simple, or am I missing the point here?

With the world a much smaller place to live and diverse multicultural communities taking root in all western nations and declaring strongly their rights for recognition and fairness, I see the solution to any problems as merely the application of strong secular philosophy and the state laws to uphold these ethics. This sends a clear message to any community, theistic or other, that individual rights of freedom take precedence. Once all parties understand this is a mandatory social contract within a state, then all parties should be clear as to their rights and wrongs? Any further squabbles of details and confusions can then be argued out in courts of law.

Also his comments regarding slavery as being scare mongering and non-existent are rather naive, as his contemplation’s do not include “sexual slavery” which is very much a reality and does exist, and is also a growing problem especially for western societies and law courts. Children are being abducted and bred into sexual slavery through organised crime syndicates today, this is not fiction it is fact.

I think we too easily take for granted our existing freedoms and secular ethics in the west, and that these philosophies of ethics can be quite transparent and it is easy to overlook their fundamental importance. What would happen if you woke up tomorrow without them? You would certainly notice them then! This is the price of liberalism, (as I see it), that freedoms can be woven against each other in the guise of selfish pursuits. And multicultural communities will be the first with their hands up shouting and ranting about their equity and freedoms whilst at the same time limiting these very freedoms of individuals within their own communities?

Spock : “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one”
Kirk : “The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many”

“that strong and robust secular ethics and philosophy should be the foundations which enforces stringent philosophy regarding the protections of life, liberty and property and freedom of speech. Which again, is what we have in place already.” No, there is too much corruption; there are more Blagojevich’s than you want to know. We are not aware of the extent of the corruption because intellectuals—academics esp.—tend to be out of touch with what is going on underground. What statistics are available on govt. corruption?

@ postfuturist

Quote : “Religion is the social default mode.
Since humans are incompatible beings, religion (or at least spirituality) is necessary to tame the male animal to the extent he does not need to be caged. And that is just for starters.”

I don’t believe Religion is necessarily the default mode, yet spirituality is important, and at the heart of these wants and needs that we have, is to “belong” and associate with groups and communities of all kinds. This inherent need to connect and communicate with each other, if you examine closely, this human condition, is associated with identity crises, and the inability for us to reconcile our own intellect and intelligence and our separation and seclusion from each other. Thus the question arises “who am I?”

This is why we look outwards and upwards to others, to groups, to religions, to God, to understand and define ourselves. We even look to the passing stranger on the street, the shopkeeper, the barman, and use that momentary eye contact as a mirror to continually attempt to enquire and define who we are?

It’s a shame you see humans as incompatible beings, since we are all really connected on a biological, genetic and intellectual level. We all have the same wants and needs expressed in a diversity of ways including sex and drugs and entertainment and thirst for knowledge and wisdom. “Self enquiry” is at the heart of understanding the human condition, and the Buddha, (and others), explain this clearly.

Quote : “No, there is too much corruption; there are more Blagojevich’s than you want to know. We are not aware of the extent of the corruption because intellectuals—academics esp.—tend to be out of touch with what is going on underground. What statistics are available on govt. corruption?”

This is just a generalisation. Sure corruption does exist, there are “freeloaders” everywhere in societies and communities. The reason why there are no statistics on govt. corruption is because if there were, it would be an acceptance that corruption is the norm, and it is not. It is up to politicians to weed out the corruption among their colleagues and associates, and when they fail to uncover or deny this, then we have the media to investigate and uncover these failings. A healthy dose of cynicism is a good thing, and I am most certainly cynical, yet we must not let it increase our sufferings and affect our well being. The application of methodlogical scepticism is a better tool to advance with and progress.

On the whole I do not see our politicians as corrupt, merely incompetent and lazy. And lazy is the agent, (one of many vices), of selfishness. Selfishness is always apparent whilst this notion of “Self” is deemed as separate and in separation. Once again, progress towards connectedness leads us to understanding, empathy and naturally to compassion and even altruism. A future vision where there is in fact only one community, one communion, one God (or not), and one selfless ideal.

Ah yes at the heart of every cynic is an idealist. Let’s throw off these chains of negativity and look inside to find the optimist we once were, and always have been. (do you know Nietzsche died at the age of 56 after a decade in a mental asylum, and what finally put him there was an act of desperation that would startle most people, yet he was a true idealist).

Quote unquote: “including sex and drugs and entertainment and thirst for knowledge…” Knowledge, yes. But sex and drugs are overrated, Cygnus. If sex promoted happiness rather than just cheap pleasure (sex is, when you strip away the over-romanticization, merely animalistic) then prostitutes would be the most fulfilled of persons; pimping would be the most respected profession. And I’m not going to say or do anything to promote drug usage. Period. Connecting with others is fine; yet there is something to be said for privacy, for not meddling too much in others’ lives, and, as so often is the case, being smarmy about it. Funny, when a religious person is condescending, he is smarmy; but when someone in the govt, say, acts that way, he is only “human”. I AM optimistic about the future materially, but using the year 2040 as a parameter (30 years being a “generation”), in 2040 we will still have to deal with people we don’t want to. We will still have to have our doors locked when we are not at home; crime will still be common. In 2040 we will still have to deal with the IRS, the govt will still be predatory. Not to pick on the govt, we will still have to deal with firms trying to sell us overpriced stuff we don’t want. After midcentury, I do not know. How can anyone have any detailed image today of what sort of lives people will be living in the second half of the century? Not even the most informed scientist could give us anything more than the foggiest generalization of 50-100 years—and beyond—from now.

@ postfuturist

Quote : “Knowledge, yes. But sex and drugs are overrated, Cygnus. If sex promoted happiness rather than just cheap pleasure (sex is, when you strip away the over-romanticization, merely animalistic) then prostitutes would be the most fulfilled of persons..”

I have not stated that any of these things brings happiness, only that we all have the same wants and needs. Whether one finds happiness with continual sex or a thirst for knowledge is purely subjective, and people should have the freedoms to pursue these if they so desire.

As for meddling who wants that? Or a totalitarian, or Orwellian State, or a “Blade Runner” styled dystopia. And you are correct about consumerism, until folks choose the path away from selfishness and desires you will not be leaving your doors unlocked anytime soon. Whilst folks are A-mused and concerned with self-interest, minds are distracted and ignorance is promoted, especially by capitalist governments, (just the way they like it).

As I have indicated “Self enquiry” and self-understanding is a personal journey, some seek it now, some seek it later, and some never seek it at all. It is no good trying to predict the future as none of us can foresee this, we can only work with what we have now and attempt to guide things in a positive way and not let what we have already plummet into chaos from apathy and neglect.

We have to protect ourselves, a man cannot be an ingenue such as Pee Wee Herman or a Michael Jackson; a man has to not only be strong enough, but also competitively strong. Now, a man can survive without being a ‘real man’ (in conventional terms) yet that’s exactly it—merely survival. 
Above I mentioned corporations attempting to stick it to us; it’s not the selling so much, it is the hard-sell, and entering our subconscious’ with subliminal advertising. You can’t let your guard down too much. When nanomanufacturing ends greed & selfishness (and we’d better hope so) then life will be different—but what our lives will be like no one can say. You can’t change lives too fast, thereby you run the risk of perceiving the world as a laboratory, and people as lab animals whose lives are sped up and maneuvered for to satisfy the outcomes of the experimenters.
Frankly, I would rather err on the side of being a tad cynical, than be pollyannish. My parents were v. pollyannish liberals and I was friends for years with v. pollyannish people. Being so is damaging when young, potentially fatal when elderly—the way one thinks it goes without saying influences one’s actions, and pollyannish thinking can lead one to overestimate not only external possibilities but also one’s own capabilities. Jack Kerouac wrote, “one false move and I’m gone”; you can infer from the quote not only fatal or near fatal risks from accidents, but also fatal risks from making big mistakes due to misapprehensions.
The (fictional) Godfather might have been correct: “let your friends underestimate your virtues, and your enemies overestimate your vices.”  You might not agree with him, however I think there is some validity in the advice—one has to cover his posterior. You want to bend over backwards for strangers, but you don’t want to bend over forwards, do you? You do not go by what people SAY, you go by their behavior, their body language.
“Women and children can [be fools], but men can’t”, said the Godfather. Fools Die.
YOU might not see it MY way, Cygnus, though as you did say above, it is subjective.
And if fools don’t always die, then they surely suffer for their foolishness, sometimes very badly.

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