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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Is secularism unprincipled?

by Ian Pollock

The secular movement is a cause that, by and large, I support. I think a more secular society would be a better one. But I think some of the purported arguments for secularism are in one way or another bad arguments. Here, I attempt to prod secularists into some critical reflection on their ideas.

As secularists would be wise to point out more often, secularism does not mean the promotion of atheism in anywise. In fact, the historical roots of secularism lie in the desire of non-dominant faiths to enjoy legal protection against the persecutions of majority religions. This is a very good reason to enforce a firewall between the promotion of atheism and the promotion of secularism — both may or may not be worthy goals, but they are not the same goal.

The modern secular ideal goes roughly as follows: “government institutions and individuals charged with them should be separated from religious institutions and the people charged with them.” This idea has a long pedigree that includes ancient and mediaeval thinkers such as Epicurus and Ibn Rushd, as well as moderns such as Locke, Jefferson and Rawls.

The modern secular movement is committed to two main principles: (1) religions are welcome to participate in moral and political debate in the public sphere, so long as they use language and arguments that are at least in principle accessible to all participants in the public sphere; (2) the state may not endorse any one religious perspective over any other.

As an example of principle (1), if a Muslim wishes to ban artistic portrayals of Mohammad because such betrayals are considered morally wrong by their faith, they can’t simply argue that “This contravenes my faith.” Rather, they must come up with a secular argument that does not directly use a faith perspective (though it may still mention it). For example, they could opt for a quasi-utilitarian argument along the lines of “Depictions of Mohammad are deeply offensive to most Muslims; ceteris paribus, it is bad to egregiously offend people; therefore, depictions of Mohammad should be banned.” This may or may not be a good argument, but it is at least valid, and in principle a Christian, Hindu or atheist could go along with its logic.

As an example of principle (2), if a Christian wishes to promote the Ten Commandments, they must do so using private resources and on private property; they may not, for example, put up a statue of Moses with the TC on a public space such as a courthouse lawn, with public money.

(One important note regarding principle (2): state promotion of atheism counts as promoting a religious perspective, so regimes such as the former Soviet Union are in violation of the principles of secularism.)

As Julian Baggini points out in the Guardian, this vision of secularism is probably the best way to move societies with a plurality of religions forward while preventing sectarian gridlock and possible violence. It is imperative that religious people, moderates in particular, be convinced of such a view, which is why it may be a good idea to pick one’s fights by steering away from battling the more trivial violations of these principles in order to focus on the really serious violations.

The pragmatic adequacy of this ideal is, I think, very easy to argue for and very robust. With much relaxation of the above two principles, one ends up at best with sectarian conflict, and at worst with some shade of theocracy.

There is just one problem with it, which is that whatever its pragmatic worth, both of its principles are ultimately founded on special pleading — i.e., both of its principles are unprincipled. Certain groups of religious people notice this lack of principle. Because of this, the above understanding of secularism leads to inevitable pathologies in political debate.

Let’s start with principle (1), that religions and worldviews may participate in the public sphere so long as they “translate” their views into secular language accessible to all participants.

Our first and most important objection is that there is no principled difference between religious beliefs and secular beliefs. Religious beliefs can (according to their proponents) be backed up by some sort of line of reasoning, even if it’s a bad one, just like secular beliefs.

Suppose I wish to defend my view that non-marital sex is a moral evil. All I have to do is explain that my holy book says that, and then give evidence for the miraculous predictions my holy book has made which verify its general trustworthiness, and I have (contrary to appearances) completed a fully secular argument. (Not a good one — but that is no criterion for automatic exclusion!)

How is that any different from a pundit weighing in on economic policy, then explaining why his Keynesian approach has always been successful in predicting the effects of economic policy? Why is one of these people required to “translate” or shut up, and the other not?

Second, the demand to “translate,” even if accepted, leads to pathologies in public debate. Specifically, it forces religious believers into a position of insincerity. Given that I believe non-marital sex is morally bad and should be prevented, how am I to make my case without referencing my faith? By sheer sophistry, of course. Perhaps I opt for a utilitarian sophistry: sex outside of marriage leads to depression and suicide. Now the public sphere is polluted not merely with mistakes but with lies.

What about principle (2), that the state should take no position on religious questions?

This principle fails due to the same lack of a principled distinction between secular versus religious questions. Suppose I believe that 2015 will be the beginning of the End Times, when the world will be consumed in a great war involving all countries. Is this a religious question? Not for me. It’s a practical question: I already started buying the cans of lentils for my bomb shelter.

Suppose further that enough of the population agrees with me that they elect me Prime Minister. On what earthly basis can I “take no position” on the question of the End Times because it’s a “religious question”? Am I to abandon my country to the massacre and famine I know is coming?

This example is extreme, but the same applies to more mundane concerns. When it comes to policy, every question is potentially a religious question.

How could we ever think otherwise? I think the mistake arises from the differing epistemic status of “belief” among two groups of people, whom I will call True Believers and Professors (borrowing the terminology from Daniel Dennett).

True Believers are people who are convinced of religious propositions in the same way that they are convinced of any other proposition, such as that Mexico is to the south of the USA. They have seen some evidence which convinces them, and they are now willing to act as if the religious propositions are straightforwardly true. You know those people, so beloved of the atheist blogosphere, who pray for their kids instead of taking them to the hospital? Those are classic True Believers.

Professors are people who nominally adhere to some system of religious doctrine as part of their identity, but whose epistemology does not, when push comes to shove, actually contain all of those doctrines — particularly as concerns worldly affairs. For example, Professors believe in the power of prayer, but as a way of dealing with loss, not as a means for deciding whether to bomb Damascus. Somewhere in their heart of hearts is a bit of common sense, and it holds an override switch.

We can see that the distinction between “religious questions” and “secular questions” makes a great deal of sense for Professors. Religious questions are basically de facto questions of identity, however much they are dressed up as propositional belief. John F. Kennedy is loyal to the Catholic identity, which theoretically includes papal infallibility, but don’t worry! He isn’t literally going to do whatever the Pope tells him to.

To True Believers, such a distinction is sheer gobbledigook. I’m forced to admit they have a point, at least on this question.

The ultimate unprincipledness of the two tenets of secularism is beginning to be noticed. For example, Michael Sandel has recently begun to argue that irreducibly religious (as well as, presumably, antireligious) arguments should be acceptable in political debate. It is hard to argue with his logic: policy proposals depend on moral claims, and moral claims depend on some substantive vision of the good life. Philosophically, it all rings true; pragmatically, it sounds like a potential recipe for sectarian civil war.

How did we get into this bizarre situation in which the only way to have a workable, non-sectarian political process is to exclude, via outright special pleading, explicitly religious viewpoints from the public sphere and from the law?

I believe that secularism, as imagined above, arises more or less as follows:
  • Participation of citizens with differing views in political debate is supposed to be part of the democratic process.
  • However, a large fraction of citizens hold some views that are (in the judgment of more sober minds) straightforwardly insane, and would not hesitate to impose the policy implications of those views upon the rest of society if given the ability to do so.
  • Religious moderates, religious minorities and non-believers, tacitly recognizing these two facts, promote secularism as a compromise, despite its philosophical bankruptcy and practical pathologies.
Seen in this light, it is obvious why secularism cannot really be principled. It is an attempt to consign certain groups of sincere but deluded religious believers to a rhetorical sandbox.

Sometimes a matter of great practical import must override a matter of principle, however. The philosophically correct picture, as far as I can see, is a public policy debate in which any argument (religious or not) is permitted, and there is no false distinction between religious and secular questions. The sanity of the majority prevails, epistemically bad views lose to epistemically good ones in the marketplace of public opinion, and we all ride our unicorns into the sunset.

We should probably just stick with the old, unprincipled hack. But let us at least be honest with ourselves about what it is.

77 comments:

  1. Great article. I had a similar strand of thought (but not as complete and well expressed as this) when I read that passage in Justice.

    Hope it doesn't provoke too much angst from others in the community.

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  2. I like the word and idea of 'cosmopolitanism' as being what 'secularism' should be about. Wouldn't a 'cosmopolitan society' be what we want, anyway?

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmopolitanism/

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  3. I appreciate this perspective, but a component that seems crucial to me was lacking throughout: the sociological import of religious belief. (Bear in mind that i'm no sociologist, historian, or philosopher.)

    First, if it is true that religiosity (religious belief, identity, community, etc.) has a qualitatively unique detrimental impact on people's attitudes toward each other and toward policy, and that overt religiosity is a reasonable criterion by which to identify the kind of expression, including argumentation, that bring about this impact, then how is it "special pleading" (in the sense of being fallacious) to invoke this criterion in the public sphere?

    Second, if secularism arises not through the collective recognition by many citizens that certain religious views are insane and dangerous, but through the recognition that religiosity generally, even our own, causes severe problems for freedom or pluralism when integrated into government and policy (which is more in keeping with my understanding of the saga that underscored American secularism early on), then might it still be principled, or does it affect your argument at all? That is, is it only the fallacious "special pleading" that renders the principles you enumerated unprincipled?

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  4. A very interesting post. Whilst I agree that we shouldn't consider "hard-line" secularism as obviously justified as we used to, I'm not sure the situation is as dire as Ian suggests.

    Whilst this kind of secularism could very well be "unprincipled" on the basis of some kind of small-n natural law view[1] like a Dworkinian liberalism or a moderate communitarianism (like that of Sandel himself), I'm not sure it's as big an issue for as Rawlsian or some other kind of contractualist.

    First, I think it at least prima facie plausible that, provided they knew what religion WAS (such as how important to people it could potentially be, etc.), agents in a Rawlsian original position might very well come up with some kind of secularism as one of the basic principle of a just, liberal society.

    Second, even if we accept that a very strong form of secularism (no religious reasoning in democratic deliberation) is "not quite cricket," I think a more moderate form of secularism would remedy the issues with the strong form. So, for example, we might consider it justifiable for a political agent to make some move or another in democratic governance because THEY take their comprehensive doctrine as requiring THEY make that move while of course denying that they should be allowed to try to elevate their comprehensive doctrine qua that doctrine to the status of rules for the whole society.

    To disallow the latter we don't actually need to invoke some special censor on distinctly religious reasoning, as it would fundamentally conflict with liberal principles of justice to take any comprehensive doctrine as providing imperatives to bring the whole of society into accordance with it to the point of overriding those liberal principles of justice. To put it less obliquely, the problem with such attempts to enshrine religious doctrine in the law is not that they're religious as such, but that they're flat-out authoritarian, illiberal, and anti-democratic.

    Basically, I think that even if we can't draw a principled distinction between distinctly religious beliefs and other sorts of freedom of conscience, this cuts both ways. If religious freedom is just another kind of freedom of conscience, we are no less justified in opposing (even with the power of the state in extreme cases) religious challenges to democratic and liberal principles as we are non-religious challenges to those same principles.

    (To make it more concrete, imagine a Maoist attempt to overthrow liberal democracy and a Christian theocratic or Islamist one. In my view it would simply make no difference that the latter are "religious" while the former is not, as they are equally challenges to certain liberal principles of justice, and we are therefore equally justified in fighting against all three inasmuch as we consider those liberal principles legitimate and/or good things).

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  6. Excellent article! Mr. Pollock has hit the underlying paradox of secularism on the head: It tries to claim neutrality, while not really being neutral at all. A secular way of looking at political philosophy, like all ways of doing so, rests on certain beliefs and values not shared by everyone in the society, and thus is not neutral.

    Most secularists seem to have been blissfully and naively asleep with regard to this (rather obvious once one is thinking clearly and precisely) point. Perhaps we are on the verge of a waking up of the philosophical and political community so that we can truly face and deal with it.

    Another great article articulating the impossibility of religious neutrality by Steven D. Smith, law professor at the U of San Diego: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1911399

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    1. "It tries to claim neutrality, while not really being neutral at all. A secular way of looking at political philosophy, like all ways of doing so, rests on certain beliefs and values not shared by everyone in the society, and thus is not neutral."

      Well, that seems to rely on a loaded definition of "neutral". To be fair, I think we should be considering whether the secular position is the null hypothesis, which seems to be a different matter.

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    2. Richard, could you elaborate on what you mean?

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    3. I think equality is neutrality, and underling the inequitable controls of governments, the uncertain theories of science and religious dogmas of faith, and even the grey area of justice we have today is the foundation of truth, the absolute unity or Oneness of All.

      Rather than defining the divisiveness of secularism, it would be far better to unite around this self-evident truth, and finally just be, free at last.

      Equal is free,

      =

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    4. Actually, MJA, you've just articulated another competing ideology and advocated that politics be based on it, which is no more neutral than a Christian or a naturalist doing the same thing.

      "Equality" is an empty term until more content is put into it. The very idea of politics and law is that not everything is equal (hence some things are against the law and some things aren't). Worldviews will differ on what should be tolerated in law and what should not based on differing beliefs and values.

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    5. Truly Mark, equal is everything. It is not an ideology, it simply is what remains after any uncertainty or doubt has been removed. The flaw of measure on the other hand, is the uncertainty that divides us. Heisenberg cracked open the can of worms. Try removing any uncertainty or doubt from your thoughts and perhaps you'll see everything truly too.
      Oh and, had Einstein understood nature's immeasurability, he would have removed the speed of light standing in his way and found not secularism and division, but the unity he died searching for just beyond e=mc2.

      Thanks,

      =

      PS: Beyond differing views is One.

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    6. Of course, Mark. To start with, I was struck by something in Ian's article. At the outset, he states:

      "The modern secular movement is committed to two main principles: (1) religions are welcome to participate in moral and political debate in the public sphere, so long as they use language and arguments that are at least in principle accessible to all participants in the public sphere;..."

      He then gives a very reasonable example: "if a Muslim wishes to ban artistic portrayals of Mohammad because such betrayals are considered morally wrong by their faith, they can’t simply argue that 'This contravenes my faith.' Rather, they must come up with a secular argument that does not directly use a faith perspective (though it may still mention it). For example, they could opt for a quasi-utilitarian argument along the lines of 'Depictions of Mohammad are deeply offensive to most Muslims; ceteris paribus, it is bad to egregiously offend people; therefore, depictions of Mohammad should be banned.' This may or may not be a good argument, but it is at least valid, and in principle a Christian, Hindu or atheist could go along with its logic."

      So we have: In order to have a fair (that is, reasonable) public discourse on such topics, participants should not base their arguments on axioms that are "inaccessible" to others. The first argument above is an attempt to shut down discourse by those who don't adopt the Muslim perspective; therefore it is inherently unfair. The second appeals to a human perspective and is more likely to garner sympathy for the Muslim point of view, and whether it succeeds or not, it is still within an accessible domain for all who wish to rebut it.

      Halfway through the argument, Ian makes a curious shift in the framing of the principle:

      "Let’s start with principle (1), that religions and worldviews may participate in the public sphere so long as they 'translate' their views into secular language accessible to all participants."

      For me, that shift set off an alarm bell. Ian's own example undermines this shift, for the second argument of the example clearly is *not* a translation of the first argument. Principle (1) doesn't say that the first argument needs to be rephrased. It says that the first argument shouldn't be made at all, at least not to non-Muslims. Any attempt to rebut it is met with hostility, as the respondent is immediately seen as an outsider because he doesn't accept the faith. In terms of fairness, it is a non-starter. The second argument does not have that property at all.

      I felt a similar shift when you wrote: "Mr. Pollock has hit the underlying paradox of secularism on the head: It tries to claim neutrality, while not really being neutral at all. A secular way of looking at political philosophy, like all ways of doing so, rests on certain beliefs and values not shared by everyone in the society, and thus is not neutral." The "neutrality" claimed by secularists (if they even use the word at all) is in the sense that no unwarranted assumptions (such as the infallibility of scripture) should be brought in, and ideas are required to live or die on their merits alone. That is what I meant by "null hypothesis" -- if we assume as little as possible, can the proposition still stand? But you imply that the secularist position is that propositions are only to be judged according to the beliefs and values of the secularists. It may be that there are secularists who think this way, just as there are Muslims who can only think in terms of the first argument of Ian's example, and Christians who are certain that evolution is false because it contradicts the Word of God. But it doesn't follow that all secularists think that way, or that principle (1) as first stated by Ian requires it (only the restatement of the principle requires it, in my opinion).

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    7. "So we have: In order to have a fair (that is, reasonable) public discourse on such topics, participants should not base their arguments on axioms that are "inaccessible" to others."

      The problem with this (or at least one problem with this) is that religious arguments are not in principle any more publicly inaccessible than non-religious, secular reasons. If a Muslim argues for something on the basis of the Qur'an saying so and that the Qur'an is the Word of God, he should be requested to back this up. He may then provide arguments as to why he believes the Qur'an is the Word of God. Not everyone will agree that they are good arguments (as with pretty much all arguments that can be made for just about anything), but they will be able to be evaluated by all and thus will be public.

      If, on the other hand, someone argues for something on secular grounds, this will be no more nor less public than the Islamic argument. For example, imagine an entirely secular argument for legally recognizing same-sex marriages--such as there is no good non-religious reason not to recognize them, they make people happy, children turn out OK in ss families, etc. A Muslim might respond to it by saying that it may very well make people happy, etc., but God is against it, and God is the ultimate moral authority of the universe. The person making the secular argument has assumed that no relevant information is available coming from any revelation from God, but that assumption is not neutral; it is opposed to a contrary Islamic assumption. So the secular arguer, to prove his case, will have to argue that, in fact, we have no relevant revelation from God on the subject, which will involve disproving Islam, etc.

      So both kinds of arguments are going to be equally worldview-based and neither will be more public in principle than the other.

      "The "neutrality" claimed by secularists (if they even use the word at all) is in the sense that no unwarranted assumptions (such as the infallibility of scripture) should be brought in, and ideas are required to live or die on their merits alone."

      But is the infallibility of Scripture an unwarranted assumption? Not to one who holds that there is good reason to believe that some book is an infallible Scripture! Sure, he will have to provide evidence that such is the case in order to be justified in using Scripture as such, but so will the secularist have to refute arguments attempting to show that the book is Scripture before being able to be justified in assuming there is no relevant information coming from that source. The Scripture-believer will declare that his assumption is warranted and the non-Scripture arguments are unwarranted because they ignore something we have good reason to believe to be Scripture.

      In short, I don't think the idea that secular reasons are more inherently or in principle "public" than religious reasons holds up to close examination, and I think that is one of Mr. Polluck's main points in this article.

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  7. Ian,



    I tend to agree with your statement except for me "among two groups of people" seems an arbitrary distinction, though I realize it is needed here to frame your discussion. I tend to agree with the last two paragraphs of Christian Giliberto's comment.

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  8. Ian, for some reason my quote ("I think the mistake arises from the differing epistemic status of “belief” among two groups of people . . . .") from your blog disappeared from my above comment.

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  9. Secularism was not originally a philosophical position. It was a political solution to a century of religious wars in Europe in which enough people decided, on both sides, that since no one could actually win but that they would eventually destroy what the did have, they would be best to agree not to bring overtly religious sectarian arguments to political questions.

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  10. "they would be best to agree not to bring overtly religious sectarian arguments to political questions."

    There are at least two problems with this idea:

    1. Whether or not this argument actually makes practical sense depends on certain worldview assumptions to the exclusion of others. For example, if a Muslim believes that God in the Qur'an has commanded his followers to try to establish Islamic governments, then clearly, from that point of view, that is what he should do. It is never safe nor practical to disobey God! We can respond by saying that we don't think that God really said that, but now we have abandoned neutrality and are fighting over whose beliefs about God should determine our political structure. It is impossible to establish secularism on a neutral foundation.

    2. If we create a system where we avoid bringing overtly religious arguments into politics, in effect what this does is enforce a practical agnosticism on the society, which privileges an agnostic point of view over a non-agnostic point of view. If we are allowed to bring into politics arguments relating to facts about the natural world but not supernatural or religious ideas, then in effect our politics is officially naturalistic rather than, say, Christian or Muslim. This is not neutral, because a naturalistic way of looking at things differs in important ways from various non-naturalistic points of view. For example, take same-sex marriage. From some Christian points of view, God has commanded the state to discourage immoral actions such as homosexuality, which violates God's ideal for sexuality, marriage, etc. In this context, it makes sense to avoid legally recognizing same-sex marriages. However, if we were to approach ssm from a perspective that excludes all non-naturalistic ideas, we might come rather to the conclusion that it makes sense to permit legal recognition of ssm. Since our conclusions differ based on what ideas we allow into politics, our conclusion based on secular considerations is no more religiously neutral than a conclusion based on Christian principles.

    The bottom line is that neutrality is impossible, and secularism is unprincipled because it hypocritically claims to be neutral while really not being neutral.

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  11. In addition to Philip's link to the SEP's Cosmopolitanism article, this is also relevant and helpful:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/religion-politics/

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  12. I would rather see the discussion framed in terms of private and public spaces, of how they sometimes infringe on and become entangled in each other. Of course, none of this is "neutral." The perceived boundaries between the spaces change and shift in reaction to all sorts of influences and pressures. Groups and the individuals within those groups capitalize on descriptions of both private and public spaces to justify their viewpoints and beliefs on a regular basis. My own feeling is that life in a pluralistic society almost ensures this dynamic, but the acknowledgement and acceptance of pluralism inherently entails self-correcting features. constraints.

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  13. Ian, a very interesting analysis. Your basically philosophical approach seems to lead you to a similar position to the one I hold, though by a different route. A few inchoate thoughts prompted by your piece...

    I have some reservations about your singling out 'insane' beliefs: I think it's enough that there be profound differences between views. I think the crucial thing is that we recognize that – whether we like it or not – we have to live together with people who see the world very differently.

    You say that "the historical roots of secularism lie in the desire of non-dominant faiths to enjoy legal protection against the persecutions of majority religions." Maybe. Or perhaps this attitude or set of arrangements we call secularism is just a pragmatic response to a general problem, a kind of bracketing which allows the building of some sort of political consensus. But I don't really think it arose from a 'desire' on the part of one category of player...

    And, regarding the 'translation' question, I would have thought that it is not primarily a principle put forward by secularists, but rather that it developed as a practical strategy on the part of religious believers seeking to defend certain ideas in the public sphere (whether or not they constituted a minority). This often involved a certain amount of deception. (You speak of sophistry.) Pierre Duhem took this kind of approach in late 19th-century France, but he was by no means unusual.* It was (and remains) standard practice.

    Your focus is on the contemporary secular movement and its ideas, and that's fine, and you are certainly more intimately acquainted with it than I am. But it always needs to be borne in mind that there are a lot of non-religious people who are not a part of movements like the one you discuss, and who, even without analyzing and critiquing their arguments as you have, are instinctively wary and skeptical of approaches involving one group of people laying down principles (secular or religious) which other groups of people are required to adhere to. You could say their wariness exemplifies or implies certain principles if you like, but such extrapolation is liable to lead to misleading and possibly limiting abstractions.

    * You could argue, I suppose, that French secularism created the problem for Duhem, but I think that the problem inevitably arises whenever you have people with profoundly different beliefs living together.

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  14. I think there's a way of establishing a principled basis for secularism.

    First, you need to ask yourself what makes a view religious? What distinguishes religion from other bodies of thought?

    I'd say the key component is faith. Religious propositions, when you get right down to it, are believed for no good reason. Religious views are therefore fundamentally irrational, because ultimately they have no argument to back them up.

    So principle (1) seems ok to me. You only get to argue your religious view if you can find a rational argument and evidence to back it up, and the religious motivations for the view do not constitute such an argument, much less evidence.

    Principle (2) is good too - it's just saying that the state should not endorse any view that is not backed up by evidence. State-sponsored atheism is perhaps best avoided because there's no proof that God does not exist (but there's certainly no reason to think that he does).

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    1. As Peter DO Smith's comments below bring out, your comments here illustrate precisely the concern Mr. Polluck and others have expressed regarding the idea that secularism is "neutral."

      Everyone who actually takes his own views seriously believes and claims that they are rational. What you are suggesting, then, is like a person who tries to end an argument in this way: "Look, guys, I'm tired of all this disagreement! Let's just come to a conclusion that is fair to everyone. So here's what we should do: Since I'm obviously right and the rest of you are obviously wrong, we'll just go with my view! That's fair to everyone, because it's the rational choice!"

      Perhaps it might make sense to go with your view and reject the views of others as the basis of public law-making, but such a position can hardly be called "neutral." If you want to abandon the whole attempt towards neutrality and just skip straight to "I'm right and you're wrong, so we should do things my way," then you escape the "unprincipled" problem Mr. Polluck was pointing out. But don't expect to be able to get away with doing that without other people asking you to back up your position with evidence just like everyone else rather than simply taking your word for it!

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    2. People of faith don't usually back up their claims with evidence, empiricists do. Not all secularists are empirical, nor vice versa, but the overlap is much larger. Why do you think that "backing up your position with evidence" is a challenge beyond what should be expected of anyone pushing a proposition?

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    3. "Why do you think that "backing up your position with evidence" is a challenge beyond what should be expected of anyone pushing a proposition?"

      I don't think that. What I've said, and what Mr. Polluck has said, is that there is no principled distinction between a "secular" argument and a "religious" argument. There are simply better or worse arguments, whether they be religious or secular. Therefore, in excluding religious arguments and clams a priori while claiming to avoid endorsing or rejecting particular worldviews, secularism is hypocritical and unprincipled.

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    4. Then explain why we can't demand that people of faith back up their claims with evidence. They seem to think they don't need to, that faith is sufficient. I think a willingness to put things on an empirical basis is a fair price of admission.

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    5. Sorry, I didn't see this earlier.

      "I think a willingness to put things on an empirical basis is a fair price of admission."

      If you mean a willingness to put things on the basis of good evidence, I agree with you. Everyone who takes his beliefs seriously will agree with that, although not necessarily when put that way. Religious people claim to have reasons for their beliefs just as non-religious people do.

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  15. I think those commenters hammering on the "neutrality" question are attacking a conception of "neutrality" that is so general as to be 1) plainly impossible, as the critics rightly allege and 2) that not even strong secularists actually hold. In short, it's a straw-man version of "neutrality."

    Nobody is claiming that neutrality means something like "the principles of the society do not remotely impinge on any conceivable beliefs a person might have." Trivially, insofar as any beliefs are held, some are excluded. For example, if "freedom of speech" is a principle of the society, that's going to be "non-neutral" with regard to someone who thinks freedom of speech is pernicious. "True neutrality" in this sense would only be possible by having no beliefs or principles at all.

    But that's not the sort of neutrality those in liberal democracies aspire to. All secularism asks is that the state not choose between different conceptions of the good life and different "comprehensive doctrines" PROVIDED those comprehensive doctrines are themselves compatible with liberal, pluralist conceptions of justice[1] in the first place, and that it not be an instantiation of any particular comprehensive doctrine (which is different from saying it doesn't even touch questions surrounding comprehensive doctrines).

    Basically, secular "neutrality" asks what in Kantian vocabulary I'd call the conditions of possibility for a society where people with sometimes radically different conceptions of the good life can peacefully coexist to the greatest degree possible (obviously, there are going to be some such conceptions that are themselves incompatible with the very conditions of possibility of such a society, these are authoritarian ideologies). Now if one insists that this isn't Real Neutrality (tm) in some thin but trivial sense then fine, but it isn't what most denizens of modern Western societies, religious or not, mean by neutrality in public deliberation.

    [1]As Rawlsian critics of Sandel have rightly pointed out, the accusation that this just smuggles in a comprehensive moral doctrine of liberalism commit a category mistake. The principles of liberal justice are not a first-order substantive account of the good life, but a second-order set of principles governing a society where as many as possible such first-order conceptions can flourish as peacefully as possible. Again, there will be first-order accounts that directly conflict with and undermine these second-order rules, so inasmuch as we value the possibility of peaceful pluralism we are totally principled in opposing such doctrines inasmuch as they undermine the conditions of possibility for a liberal society.

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    1. In other words, secularism is not literally "neutral," because it is based on certain beliefs and values, including beliefs and values about what kind of society we ought to be seeking, which disagree with other beliefs and values some people hold. We can call secularism "neutral" only if we mean something like "not taking sides on issues that don't affect core beliefs and values that are the basis of the the secular project itself," such as differing conceptions of justice that share the essential features that ground the secular project.

      That sounds fine with me, except that I think the terminology of "neutral" is misleading here. We might just as well call a Shiite Islamic theocracy "neutral," meaning that "it doesn't take sides on issues that do not affect the core principles that are the ground of a Shiite Islamic theocracy," such as, perhaps, certain abstract Islamic theological questions far removed from politics. I think, however, that when secularists usually use the word "neutral," they mean something more substantial than this, something more along the lines of what Mr. Polluck is attacking.

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    2. I don't think the analogy is apt, as Islam is a comprehensive doctrine and is more of a "first-order" (in my language) conception of the good than a "second order" set of conditions of possibility for pluralism. In short, I think you're making the exact category mistake I alluded to.

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    3. Mark, you introduced the term "neutral" to this thread. It doesn't even appear in Ian's original article. I couldn't find any other use of the term on this page except in response to your statements. Christian was responding (rightly, I think) to the loaded use of the word, which he points out is a straw man. Now you want to claim that its use is misleading. I find that ironic.

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    4. Christian, I don't think you'll be able to maintain any principled distinction between "first-order" conceptions and "second-order" conceptions. If your second-order conceptions oppose my first-order conceptions, then your conceptions are really based on some alternate set of first-order conceptions. To use my same-sex marriage example again, if I say that we shouldn't have legal recognition of ssm because God says not to, and you respond by saying that we should have it because it makes sense from some set of "second-order" principles (say, a desire not to restrict diversity unnecessarily), then your second-order principle contradicts my principle. Clearly, if I am right that God doesn't want us to legalize ssm, it would be foolish to do it, so your belief that it makes more practical sense to legalize it must be based on some kind of belief-foundation that contradicts mine (which might involve, for example, the claim that God isn't really opposed to ssm or that we can't know what God wants, etc.).

      Richard, the term "neutral" is an apt description of both of Mr. Polluck's two principles involved in secularism, especially the second. Secularism is unprincipled precisely because it claims to avoid taking sides when it really takes sides. In other words, it claims to be neutral when it is not.

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    5. You are missing the point. The issue I have with what you are saying isn't about neutrality per se, it's with the loaded definition of neutrality that you are applying. To imply that secularism claims to be neutral as you define it is a straw man.

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    6. What you call my loaded definition of neutrality is simply the two principles of modern secularism that Ian is attacking in the article:

      "The modern secular movement is committed to two main principles: (1) religions are welcome to participate in moral and political debate in the public sphere, so long as they use language and arguments that are at least in principle accessible to all participants in the public sphere; (2) the state may not endorse any one religious perspective over any other."

      #1 implies that there are ideas and arguments that are publicly accessible to all and others that are not. That is to say, there are ideas and arguments that are neutral between the worldviews of all and others that are sectarian and non-neutral. Ian rightly points out that this is fallacious, as all arguments and ideas are potentially accessible to all, in that all of them can be backed up by an attempt to present evidence--religious no less than secular. And, in another sense, no arguments, religious or secular, are accessible to all in that they all at some point posit ideas not shared by all people of all worldviews. In other words, secularism claims a neutrality it does not really have, and so is unprincipled.

      #2 is an obvious, straightforward claim to neutrality--the very "loaded' definition of neutrality that I am using. But it is fallacious because any set of laws, secular no less than religious, will end up endorsing and rejecting various people's worldview beliefs.

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  16. Really, can secularism be principled? Secularism is one of those slippery words that is used to front many viewpoints, from atheist fundamentalism to liberal humanism. It is the ultimate politically correct word that is brandished with dull insensitivity to meaning. To ask whether it is principled is like asking whether the moon is principled. It has no innate source of principles. Whatever principles some proponents of secularism may espouse, they are borrowed from other sources. This ethical void at the heart of secularism explains how they can proclaim tolerance while at the same time practising hostile intolerance of other people's religious beliefs.

    As a devout, practising Catholic, I embrace and welcome the legal aspects of a secular state. They give me the protections necessary to continue practising my faith in a hostile, intolerant world that would delight in destroying my faith.

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    1. "This ethical void at the heart of secularism explains how they can proclaim tolerance while at the same time practising hostile intolerance of other people's religious beliefs.

      As a devout, practising Catholic, I embrace and welcome the legal aspects of a secular state. They give me the protections necessary to continue practising my faith in a hostile, intolerant world that would delight in destroying my faith."

      I'm confused. Are you attacking secularism for hypocritically practicing intolerance, or thanking it for protecting you from intolerance?

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    2. Richard, In the second paragraph above, I was careful to use the term 'legal aspects of a secular state'. It is this that gives religionists, like myself, protection from intolerance. Increasingly we need that protection.

      On the other hand, 'secularism', properly understood, only makes sense, if, at its heart, it is based on tolerance. In practice though, the people who proclaim secularism are often militant atheists intent on destroying religion. This is the contradiction which makes them hypocrites.

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    3. "Richard, In the second paragraph above, I was careful to use the term 'legal aspects of a secular state'."

      So you welcome the benefits of a way of thinking that you think is ill-founded. That's ironic, since the subject of the article is whether *secularism* is unprincipled.

      "On the other hand, 'secularism', properly understood, only makes sense, if, at its heart, it is based on tolerance. In practice though, the people who proclaim secularism are often militant atheists intent on destroying religion. This is the contradiction which makes them hypocrites."

      I think you are committing a genetic fallacy. Why tar all secularists with the same brush? I'm as secular as they come, but I'm not intent on destroying religion.

      Furthermore, why is it hypocritical for the small group of people you are referring to, if they do not accept your requirement that secularism be based on tolerance? To some, secularism really means "religion must go". It's a different ideology than the one Ian was trying to deconstruct, but hey, it's there. Feel free to attack it, but at least attack it on its own terms. Their error isn't one of hypocrisy.

      The "legal aspects" you embrace aren't the product of that school of thought anyway.

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    4. Richard, in reply to my statement about 'legal aspects of a secular state' you said:
      >So you welcome the benefits of a way of thinking that you think is ill-foundedlegal aspects of a secular state' are ill-founded. That is wholly the product of your imagination. You seem intent on forcing a strawman argument on me.

      Yes, as a Catholic, I do indeed welcome the legal protections of a secular state. I too am secular and that is not a contradiction. As Ian very clearly stated at the beginning of the post, secular does not mean atheist. It simply means believing that the state should be run on non-religious principles, giving opportunity and protection to all belief systems.

      It is called tolerance. You can practice your belief system and I will practise my belief system.

      The relevant Wikipedia article says this:

      The aspirations of a secular society could characterize a secular society as one which:
      (1) Refuses to commit itself as a whole to any one view of the nature of the universe and the role of man in it.
      (2) Is not homogeneous, but is pluralistic.
      (3) Is tolerant. It widens the sphere of private decision-making.


      What's not to like?
      Do you notice the word 'tolerant' coming up again? More people should take note.

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    5. I'm trying to wrap my head around which half of my statement you think is a straw man or product of my imagination.

      Peter: "I embrace and welcome the legal aspects of a secular state."

      "This ethical void at the heart of secularism explains how they can proclaim tolerance while at the same time practising hostile intolerance of other people's religious beliefs."

      "In practice though, the people who proclaim secularism are often militant atheists intent on destroying religion. This is the contradiction which makes them hypocrites."

      Richard: "So you welcome the benefits of a way of thinking that you think is ill-founded."

      Peter: "That is wholly the product of your imagination. You seem intent on forcing a strawman argument on me."

      Um, wait, what?

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  17. Disagreeable, you say Religious propositions, when you get right down to it, are believed for no good reason. Religious views are therefore fundamentally irrational, because ultimately they have no argument to back them up.

    I can only call that wishful projection. As a lifelong atheist I one day took the trouble to carefully examine the arguments for theism. The exercise convinced me that theism was a rational choice. You may disagree with this but you have no grounds for claiming I have no good reason, was fundamentally irrational or had no argument to back them up

    Your failure to understand the arguments for theism does not make them irrational. Philosophy is populated by people who honestly hold deep seated differences, each founded on rational argument. The simple fact of the matter is that careful thought can lead to many different conclusions. You should learn to respect that fact even when you disagree with the outcomes.

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    1. There's a world of difference between theism and adhering to the precepts of a particular religion.

      You say you are a Catholic: do you oppose contraception? Do you think homosexuality is a sin?

      I assume you believe Christ rose from the dead. I'm pretty sure there's no good reason to believe that.

      If you do, I would stand by my statement that you have irrational beliefs.

      If instead you have some more non-specific belief in a deity of some kind, I would withhold my accusations of irrationality until you told me which arguments had convinced you God existed. Personally, I don't think any of them are much good.

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    2. I'd like to further clarify that if you came to Catholicism from rational consideration of argument, then to me your views are philosophical rather than religious.

      As I should have made clearer in my comment, I see *religious* views as those based on faith, based on "revelation", what is written in holy books and proclaimed by religious authorities.

      I don't know what precisely you believe and what you don't, but I think it's highly unlikely that reason alone has led you to embrace one specific religion out of all those on offer.

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    3. Disagreeable, you say 'but I think it's highly unlikely that reason alone has led you...'

      Except of course I have been led by reason.

      What has happened is that you have set yourself up as the arbiter of truth and will recognise no truth other than your own dogma.

      You are entitled to your dogma but I am entitled to protection from your dogma. That is what secularism is all about. Secularism is not concerned with the truth claims of the different ethical frameworks. In this sense it is unprincipled. Secularism is concerned with the ideas of fairness and tolerance that respect the different ethical frameworks, allowing their coexistence and subjecting no one to the dictates of a particular ethical framework, all of this against the background of the rule of law.

      When you aggressively assert that I am unreasonable and irrational, for no other reason than wearing a different label, you are betraying the foundation tenets of secularism, i.e. tolerance and fairness.

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    4. >Except of course I have been led by reason.<

      [facetious]That's exactly what an irrational person *would* say.[/facetious]

      In other words, how am I meant to take that claim seriously when you haven't explained how reason has led you to this specific religion?

      >What has happened is that you have set yourself up as the arbiter of truth and will recognise no truth other than your own dogma.<

      We're all arbiters of truth -- we all make judgements about what's likely to be true and false. The point of secularism is that only well-established and verifiable truth should be considered when making policy. This is what rules out religious arguments.

      >You are entitled to your dogma but I am entitled to protection from your dogma<

      I'm anti-dogma -- I require evidence or argument to support beliefs rather than accepting the authority of religious figures. I don't see how this is dogma.

      And you certainly don't need "protection" from me: I'm not proposing to ban religion or even to have the government enshrine atheism as true.

      >When you aggressively assert that I am unreasonable and irrational, for no other reason than wearing a different label,<

      I'm not being aggressive, I'm just being honest. I cannot conceive of any way to rationally justify the strange and unsupported claims promoted by religions. 99% of atheists are the same, I imagine, they're just too polite to put it in those terms. Even you yourself presumably believe that Hindus are wildly incorrect about the nature of reality, you just don't go saying that to their faces.

      So it's not aggression. You can believe what you like. I'm certainly not going to (for example) threaten you with eternal suffering in hell if you don't change your opinion.

      And it's not "for no other reason than wearing a different label". There is a specific reason I think religions are uniquely irrational. Let me spell it out and you can identify where I've gone wrong.

      1) Faith is a large component of religion
      2) Faith is essentially belief unwarranted by the supporting evidence
      3) Religions promote and praise this unwarranted belief
      4) It is irrational to believe something that is unwarranted by evidence
      5) Therefore religions promote irrationality.

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    5. Peter, I think appealing to principles of tolerance here is a bit disingenuous. Disagreeable is simply expressing that he/she thinks your position to be unreasonable/insufficiently justified. Of course, you have the freedom to claim and argue for the opposite. That part, and not Disagreeable granting your claim more epistemic warrant than he/she thinks it deserves, is what tolerance means.

      "Secularism" is not "quietism," and thank goodness for it!

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  18. Interesting post and a good point. I'm not sure, but I think there is a way to dissolve the problem. Massimo has been proposing a moral dichotomy between the ethics of the state and the ethics of its citizens. Namely, the state should be consequentialist and the citizens virtue ethicist (to over simplify). I think this is a very powerful idea. I think, if you do the math, you could argue that while I might think True Believers are insane, the State should have no opinion on that matter and, instead, in the service of pluralism, tolerance and charity... oh let's add prudent rational caution ala Mill-- pursue secularism. You aren't having a legitimate town hall meeting unless a quack or two gets her time at the mic.

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    1. When you say 'Namely, the state should be consequentialist and the citizens virtue ethicist (to over simplify)' I think you sum it up nicely. Except of course that society contains many schools of ethical thought. The state does not endorse any one school of thought other than judging a matter by its consequences and the rule of law. The constituents of society all bring their own particular ethical framework to the debate(inevitably) to joust in the marketplace of ideas. A secular state is an impartial mechanism that adjudicates the outcome independent of the ethical framework of the participants, recognising their plurality.

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  19. Re:

    "I believe that secularism, as imagined above, arises more or less as follows:

    - Participation of citizens with differing views in political debate is supposed to be part of the democratic process.

    - However, a large fraction of citizens hold some views that are (in the judgment of more sober minds) straightforwardly insane, and would not hesitate to impose the policy implications of those views upon the rest of society if given the ability to do so.

    - Religious moderates, religious minorities and non-believers, tacitly recognizing these two facts, promote secularism as a compromise, despite its philosophical bankruptcy and practical pathologies."

    According to Stephen Prothero in "Religious Literacy," this is exactly how the schools became secularized, largely on the part of Protestants and Catholics who didn't want their children getting indoctrinated with the wrong religion. Secularization was their DMZ. The way Prothero frames it (and I haven't read much more on the subject so he could very well be biased) actual nonbelievers had very little impact.

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  20. The Gnu Atheist portion of skepticism is becoming more unprincipled, as its Block Bot for Twitter shows. As someone on the block list, I'm appalled. http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/08/gnuatheism-blockbot-gnu-levels-of.html

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    1. Gadfly, like you I am appalled even though we come to the problem from different ends of the spectrum. We can agree on this matter because there is a middle point where we can share common ground. It is called tolerance. Tolerance is the magic virtue that unites all positions and makes a rational compromise possible.

      We also share another position, our opposition to the vicious practice of silencing. In a plural society every possible opinion will be expressed and we won't like some of them. The irrational and dangerous reaction is to silence the unwanted opinions, as the BlockBot attempts to do. Alternatively we can ignore the unwanted opinion or we can answer it thoughtfully and rationally. This is always the best option.

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    2. Peter, agreed. And, on different ends of the spectrum, re politics, I've pointed out that not all atheists are liberals. For example, the great mythicist Robert Price is a paleoconservative who has, on his Facebook page, called for Obama to be impeached. That's another reason this "silencing" is pernicious. Who's setting the terms?

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  21. "The secular movement is a cause that, by and large, I support."

    I support unity! =

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    1. If by that you mean Ubuntu Unity you have my wholehearted agreement.
      I also support ubuntu, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu_(philosophy)

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  22. I mean = is truth.
    When All is equal All is truly One.
    UFT., TOE.,

    =

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  23. Atheism is not a religion, just as not collecting stamps is not a hobby.

    Secularism is also not a religion. It's non-religion. That's all. No special beliefs. No special birth or death or marriage ceremonies or vows.

    It's nothing more or less than "leave me alone with your religious practices!"

    The primary argument against religious practice in public places rests on the Establishment Clause, the government shouldn't impose one set of religious practices upon others. That's practices, not ideas. That's religious practices on others what-ever their religion, or lack thereof.

    Finding secular reasons for religious ideas is specious. Look at the mockery Fundamentalists make with pseudo scientific arguments for Creationism, or Republicans for Global Warming. The secular response is to show, usually in court, that the pseudo-scientific explanations are pseudo-scientific.

    Why? because we don't want religious ideas and practices imposed upon us of other religions or non-religions. It's an Establishment argument, not a secular language issue.

    It's the intrusive Fundamentalists who come up with secular explanations for their religious ideas and practices, not secularists. Scientific issues need to be solved with scientific discussions, not religious ones.

    You, Mr. Pollock, have it backwards.

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    1. Michael, you are too touchy by far. This is what Ian Pollock said 'state promotion of atheism counts as promoting a religious perspective, so regimes such as the former Soviet Union are in violation of the principles of secularism.'.

      He is not describing atheism as a religion. When you claim God does not exist you are expressing a perspective on religion, or, in other words, a religious perspective.

      Of course you are welcome to your perspective that God does not exist but that is not secularism. Secularism is inherently neutral to the truth claims of the different ethical frameworks. It is concerned with establishing an environment where different belief systems can equitably coexist and individuals(and state) can be free from the dictates of any one belief system. It is not concerned with adjudicating the truth claims of belief systems. Atheism is a belief system and I have as much right to be free from the dictates of atheism as you have the right to be free from the dictates of religion.

      You seem to have completely missed the important points that Ian Pollock makes:
      '...secularism does not mean the promotion of atheism in anywise.'
      '...enforce a firewall between the promotion of atheism and the promotion of secularism'
      Amen.

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    2. Michael,
      >just as not collecting stamps is not a hobby.<
      Oh no, not this tiresome argument again!

      If all your Not-Stamp-Collectors did was Not-Collect-Stamps then your analogy would hold up but is that the case? Imagine if you will, this scenario. Our Not-Stamp-Collectors band together with religious fervour to promote Not-Stamp-Collecting. They form Not-Stamp-Collecting bodies and they hold many Not-Stamp-Collecting meetings. They publish a great number of articles about Not-Stamp-Collecting and they attack with great eagerness those misguided fools who collect stamps. In fact they seem determined to stamp out Stamp-Collectors.

      Despite their evident organisation, activity and fervour you insist this is not a hobby. You are absolutely right, this is Not-Stamp-Collecting fundamentalism.

      Now substitute atheism for Not-Stamp-Collecting and we have a religion devoted to stamping out religion. (sorry, couldn't resist that pun).

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  24. @Michael,

    >Atheism is not a religion, just as not collecting stamps is not a hobby.<

    This is true, but irrelevant. From a legal point of view, "The Supreme Court has recognized atheism as equivalent to a 'religion' for purposes of the First Amendment on numerous occasions".

    This is from a decision of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. It also includes the following:

    “We have already indicated that atheism may be considered, in this specialized sense, a religion. See Reed v. Great Lakes Cos., 330 F.3d 931, 934 (7th Cir. 2003) ('If we think of religion as taking a position on divinity, then atheism is indeed a form of religion.')"
    Because the American legal system is based on precedent, for the foreseeable future, atheism is a religion for purposes of the first Amendment. This means that, legally, “religion” in the Establishment Clause includes atheism. (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . .)
    So Ian is right and you are wrong.

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    1. Ah, so the only true non-religion is agnosticism. Penn Jillette will not be pleased.

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    2. SCOTUS has never made a ruling. The (in)famous statement about the Humanist Manifesto was in a footnote by an individual Justice.

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    3. It is true that the Supremes did not make a ruling. However, they let stand the ruling of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. This is what I quote.

      Given the way the American system of justice works, atheism has been ruled to be, in a specialized sense, a 'religion' for 'purposes of the First Amendment.'

      State-supported atheism is, consequently, ruled out by the Establishment Clause for the foreseeable future, as Ian correctly claims.

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    4. The interesting thing is that for secularism to truly non-hypocritically avoid taking sides in worldview disputes, which is one of its central principle, it not only has to avoid taking sides with or against the various religions and atheism, but it also has to avoid siding with agnosticism--and yet secularism is, practically speaking, founded on agnosticism, for the whole idea of it is to take a "know-nothing" attitude towards religious claims. Thus, secularism violates secularism. This is just another way of making Ian's point about its unprincipled nature.

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    5. Well, the Supremes themselves DID call secular humanism a religion in Torcaso.

      But Torcaso ruled on secular humanism for different grounds than the circuit court did for atheism on Reed.

      That said, given that the justices, or the circuit court in Reed, weren't being asked to split religious hairs, not just legal ones, and also given that by the time of Reed, we have one Justice who's as nutty on civic religion as anything else (hint: he's one of the Catholics!), I wouldn't read much religion or philosophy, and not a hell of a lot of law, into Reed, other than to translate it into common English, in light of Torcaso, and say, the circuit court was finding atheism had protection as "freedom from religion."

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    6. Mark
      >and yet secularism is, practically speaking, founded on agnosticism<

      I am always impressed by your comments but on this occasion I will differ. Belief systems don't motivate secularism in general. What motivates it rather is the desire to find a practical accommodation for contending belief systems that does not limit democratic freedoms. In this sense it is unprincipled.

      However it is principled in another sense because the virtues of tolerance and fairness also motivate secularism. Some people seem to lose sight of this.

      Secularism is also motivated by a practical consideration. Assume for a moment there is no God(as most of you do) then where does that leave religion? Obviously then it is an extremely deep seated and persistent sociological phenomenon that is going to be around for the foreseeable future(it is not going away). In which case a democratic society must make practical adjustments that recognise this phenomena and accommodate it. Violating such a deep seated and persistent phenomenon does not make for a harmonious society.

      All of this is complicated by the fact that militant atheists have appropriated the word 'secularism' as a weasel word that acts as a front for their activities, creating the semantic confusion evident in some of the comments.

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    7. "Belief systems don't motivate secularism in general. What motivates it rather is the desire to find a practical accommodation for contending belief systems that does not limit democratic freedoms."

      But secularism is indeed always motivated by beliefs and values that agree with some worldviews and disagree with others. That is precisely one of Ian's main points. For example, certain forms of Islam are opposed to secularism because they believe that God is opposed to it. Secularism is based at least partly on the belief that this is not true, and that itself a substantive belief just as much as saying it IS true.

      Secularism is always motivated by certain ideas about what is true and good. Secularism in the strongest sense, while claiming to be neutral, is really agnostic in practice, because it takes a "know-nothing" attitude towards non-naturalistic claims. Therefore, the only people who can truly and really embrace secularism to this extent are naturalists--atheists and agnostics. When religious people (and I mean here "True Believers" as Ian calls them) embrace secularism, it is actually something fundamentally different. For instance, Peter, you, as a Catholic, embrace toleration and religious freedom not for agnostic reasons but for practical reasons that make sense from your Catholic point of view. Your Catholic worldview provides you with certain beliefs about truth, goodness, and justice, and your secular ideals are an attempt to apply these Catholic beliefs and values to the civil sphere. A more robust secularism, of the kind that Ian lays out, would have to reject your motives as invalid because they are based on Catholicism and endorse these Catholic ideals over, say, Islamic ones.

      Of course, a more robust secularism is actually hypocritical and self-contradictory, for agnosticism itself is not neutral any more than Catholicism or Islam.

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    8. "However it is principled in another sense because the virtues of tolerance and fairness also motivate secularism."

      Virtues which you yourself advocate based on your Catholic worldview. So you are really trying to base law on Catholic beliefs and values. Your goals may coincide in practice (to some extent) with many of those agnostics who are also advocating secularism, but you are actually seeking a different foundation for law.

      "Assume for a moment there is no God(as most of you do) then where does that leave religion? Obviously then it is an extremely deep seated and persistent sociological phenomenon that is going to be around for the foreseeable future(it is not going away). In which case a democratic society must make practical adjustments that recognise this phenomena and accommodate it. Violating such a deep seated and persistent phenomenon does not make for a harmonious society."

      Good articulation of an atheistic case for toleration and religious freedom. It seems very reasonable, assuming that atheism is true. (And you may agree with many of its practical conclusions from your Catholic point of view as well, but for different reasons to some extent.)

      "All of this is complicated by the fact that militant atheists have appropriated the word 'secularism' as a weasel word that acts as a front for their activities, creating the semantic confusion evident in some of the comments."

      Actually, I think that the atheists and agnostics who are trying to use secularism to remove religion from the public sphere are acting consistently with the mainstream idea of what secularism is, as Ian has spelled it out in his two principles (laying aside for the moment its internal inconsistency and taking "agnostic" for the real meaning of "neutral). If civil society is truly to take a "know-nothing" attitude towards religious claims, not endorsing any over any other, then laws and policies cannot be based on religious (that is, non-naturalistic) beliefs and values. Here, I suspect, is where your Catholicism is going to come into conflict with the agnostic idea of secularism.

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    9. I don't think atheists have "appropriated" the term, though some may apply it to themselves. Perhaps some may apply it to themselves exclusively, which would be incorrect, but such usage would need to be widespread to call it "appropriation". Let's not forget, evangelicals have been using the term "secularism" as a pejorative for a long time now. And evangelicals want to tie the two (atheism and secularism) together, whether atheists want that association or not. I don't know of any polling data indicating whether they want it.

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  25. "Sometimes a matter of great practical import must override a matter of principle, however."

    In other words, one principle can trump another.

    Or one's principles aren't always well-thought-out.

    I have no problem with secularism, if it keeps the insane people complacent enough. The leading alternative in the last century was the USSR, and that didn't really turn out so well for the people who had to live there.

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    1. "In other words, one principle can trump another."

      Sort of. But I think Ian's deeper point is that there is something hypocritical about secularism, is that it tries to exclude certain views for no real stated reason in the name of a false non-endorsement or neutrality.

      "Or one's principles aren't always well-thought-out."

      That's more the issue, I think.

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    2. "it tries to exclude certain views for no real stated reason in the name of a false non-endorsement or neutrality."

      Then, is it okay if it excludes those views in the name of rationality, or in the name of empiricism?

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    3. Yes, that would be a principled way of excluding them. If the state were to say, "OK, we've decided that atheism is true (or agnosticism, or Catholicism, or whatever) based on an evaluation of the available evidence, and so we will base laws on that assumption and not on any contrary assumption, such as that some alternate worldview is true.", then this would be to abandon the neutrality-claim of secularism in favor of a straightforward affirmation of the beliefs and values on which laws will be based.

      All societies in reality do base their laws on some specific and non-neutral beliefs and values. The only question is whether or not this will be acknowledged or hidden. The un-principled-ness of secularism comes from its choosing to try to keep its specific foundations obscure and hidden (under the guise of non-endorsement, fairness, neutrality, etc.) rather than straightforwardly acknowledged.

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    4. Actually I spoke of excluding views in the name of rationality, not of accepting only certain views in the name of rationality. In other words, the principle would be "View X has no rational or empirical basis. Therefore, although we certainly don't prohibit people from taking View X based on faith, there is no mutually shared basis for that faith and therefore we cannot base policy on it." Not "We've decided View Y is true and so we will base policy strictly on View Y". I think it is irrational to assert "atheism is true" or "Catholicism is true". There can be no meaningful debate on such terms, as the assertion elevates the belief to an axiom rather than something to be demonstrated -- ultimately, it's just an exercise in question-begging. But people can debate, quite meaningfully, whether or not atheism is rational, or whether or not Catholicism is rational. "Rational" and "true" are not synonymous.

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    5. Laws and policies are going to be based on certain ideas of what is true and rational. To say that a certain view is not based in any evidence is to say that it is not rational to positively assert it to be true. We shouldn't simply make things up with no evidence and assert them to be true, especially basing public laws and policies on them!

      So if you say that certain views are based in no evidence, you are limiting the options as to what views it would be rational to accept and base policy on. If you think that religious/supernatural views in general are based in no evidence, then you have in effect declared that we should be at least agnostics if we want to be rational, and we should base laws only on naturalistic considerations. And this amounts to what I've been saying.

      In short, what I hear you saying is this: "The society should be secular--that is, it should base its policies not on religious but only on naturalistic considerations--because supernatural beliefs are not grounded in sufficient evidence." You can assert this proposition, but you can't claim that the proposition is neutral or free from worldview-endorsement/rejection, because not everyone agrees with this proposition. This is a proposition held by agnostics and atheists, but not by traditional Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc. "True believers" in these religions believe that their religions have a basis in the evidence and that therefore it is rational to believe and to assert them to be true and to take them into consideration in public lawmaking.

      So, again, secularism is unprincipled because it wants to assert a controversial way of thinking as the basis of law while at the same time asserting that it is not endorsing or rejecting anyone's worldview beliefs. But secularism's foundational ideas are no more neutral than if we were to base laws on Christian or Muslim beliefs, as in both cases the foundational ideas are disputed between worldviews.

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    6. "Laws and policies are going to be based on certain ideas of what is true and rational." Maybe. But quite often, they are based on the lawmakers' emotional views of what is moral, without regard to either truth or rationality. And some laws are based on truth but aren't necessarily rational responses to that truth. Some are based on outright fiction (here's an example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorization_for_Use_of_Military_Force_Against_Iraq_Resolution_of_2002).

      "We shouldn't simply make things up with no evidence and assert them to be true, especially basing public laws and policies on them!" No argument from me, but I'm not sure how that relates to my point, which is that secularism can be based on excluding views that are irrational, which is very different than asserting the truth of views one wishes to promote.

      "'True believers' in these religions believe that their religions have a basis in the evidence and that therefore it is rational to believe and to assert them to be true and to take them into consideration in public lawmaking." I think this misses a key point, which is that asserting such deeply subjective views as "true" violates what Ian was referring to as "accessibility" (though he then rejects this perfectly good requirement on specious grounds when he reframes it as a "translation" problem -- an inconsistency that I've commented on elsewhere on this page). True believers are welcome to claim rationality, but that is a claim that is subject to analytical review (in other words, "accessible").

      On objective matters (where evidence is relevant), focus on what is true. On subjective matters, focus on what is rational. As far as I can tell, that's the best we humans can do.

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  26. The article's argument is incorrect.

    "Suppose I believe that 2015 will be the beginning of the End Times, when the world will be consumed in a great war involving all countries."

    Provide secular evidence on why this is the case.

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    1. I don't actually believe this. See the word "suppose".

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    2. The issue isn't the word "suppose", the issue is whether there is any secular evidence for the beginning of End Times.

      This article started well and then took a wrong turn when it claimed that "When it comes to policy, every question is
      potentially a religious question."

      Frankly, that's just not true. Let's follow on:

      "On what earthly basis can I 'take no position' on the question of the End Times because it’s a 'religious question'? Am I to abandon my country to the massacre and famine I know is coming?"

      Provide secular evidence. Otherwise it is a religious question, a matter of unverifiable belief, which shouldn't be applied to those who don't share that belief.

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