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Do Secularists Contribute to Social Divisiveness?

Russell Blackford

Metamagician and the Hellfire Club

March 10, 2010

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 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.


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