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In defence of what? Michele Monni's secularism

Adam Smith examines the unanswered questions in Michele Monni's defence of secularism in the wake of the Pope's visit to the UK.
Adam Smith
6 October 2010

I found much to agree with in Michele Monni’s “In defence of secularism”. The Pope’s interlocution with contemporary atheism and secularism has been consistently unhelpful. Not that his attitude is unique. Western Christianity naturally approaches its growing absence with a sense of threatened entitlement. After all, the Pope’s view that Christian religion is a “principle root of Western civilization” is on a historical level obviously true. The withering of this root may be good or bad, but that it is a root (and that it is withering) is not much of a question. But rarely does a declining power reverse its descent by protesting its importance. And we all know Godwin’s law: whoever is the first to mention Nazis has automatically lost the argument.

Benedict’s distasteful comparison of secularists to Nazis (not to mention the hypocrisy of making that comparison as a Pope, which Monni is right to point out) falls apart in any serious discussion of what “secularism” actually means. Yet it strikes me that Monni’s own discussion is equally unserious. For at no point does he precisely explain how secularism works.

The explanation he does offer involves at least three connected assumptions. First, that government can be neutral with regard to religion. Second, that secular ethics are universal. And third, that religion can be kept strictly private (and that private can be kept strictly separate from public). None of these assumptions is unproblematic.

Two problems persist for anyone insisting that the state be impartial toward faith. The first is that straightforward “impartiality” would require the state to permit a lot of bad things justified on religious grounds. The question is where to draw the line, an answering that question is complicated in a way that Monni does not take time to acknowledge. The second is that “the state” is comprised of persons who are free to be religious. Unless a secular state must also be an undemocratic one, this means that religious ideas will inflect the law. Even if voters and lawmakers could follow perfectly the Rawlsian principle of “public reason,” religion would inform legislation to an extent not permitted by Monni’s description of secularism.

The idea that secular ethics are neutral - and that religious ethics by contrast are parochial - faces two equally pressing questions. The first is whether even the most cursory genealogy of morals can support such a breezy contrast between “secular” and “religious” moral codes. It is fairly easy, and not at all controversial, for scholars to see secularism more as a development of Christianity than as an alternative to it. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is a recent example.

The second question is whether it is at all meaningful, in the face of sheer fact, to say that “[s]ecular ethics can be understood by any human being because they are focused on human beings and can be freely embraced by anyone, believer or not.” There are obviously billions of “human beings” who would beg to differ. Perhaps if Monni described “secular ethics” a little more extensively this question would lose some of its force.

Monni’s final assumption, that religion can remain “at a personal level,” is especially problematic. There are plenty of religions, or plenty of aspects of religion, that by definition cannot be kept to one’s self. For many Christians, the Great Commission is constitutive of their faith. That is, they are literally not Christians if they keep their faith private. Muslims, members of the ummah, are even less equipped by their religion to imagine an exclusively personal faith.

My point here is not to attack secularism. I only want to say that Monni’s defense leaves it deeply exposed. I understand that not everything can be addressed in a brief article, and the definition of as complex a notion as “secular” will in this setting suffer from some imprecision. No doubt my own arguments here suffer the same limitation. But when unavoidable imprecision leaves our arguments incomplete, we should at least point our readers toward the questions we have left unanswered. Otherwise they may be justified in assuming that we’ve not thought very hard about the matter.

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