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Religion in a Secular Society
Religious people should be free to propose public policy alternatives based on the ethics of their faith, provided that their position is rationally defensible, writes Michael Smith.


What is a secular society and what is the place of religion in it? In Canada, now among the most multicultural and diverse nations on earth, that question is becoming more and more relevant each day.

… there is a movement in some countries, including Canada, for state-secularity to become more aggressive.

The expression "secular society" has more than one meaning. But, also, our society is one in which more than one meaning is being put forward as a paradigm of what constitutes a life well lived.

One way to clarify what constitutes a secular society is to compare it to its opposites.

A secular society is not a theocracy, which is the enshrining in constitutions and laws of teachings based on revelation alone, or held to be based on revelation alone. The insistence on revelation in this definition is important because, as we shall see, there are truths knowable to reason that are also truth-claims shared by various revealed religions.

It is not theocratic, for example, to declare Easter a holiday because a large sector of the population wants it as a holiday. It would be theocratic for a government to recognize officially the resurrection of Jesus.

It is not theocratic for Canada's Constitution to recognize the Judaeo-Christian heritage of the majority of Canadian people. It would be theocratic for our public institutions to profess adherence to the revealed teachings of either Judaism or Christianity.

There are theocracies in the world today. One of the harmful traits of theocracies is that their governments and other public institutions tend to set themselves up as arbiters of religious truth. They usually do a poor job of it, even in those cases where religious freedom has been respected.

This is because the proper realm of governmental competence is the common good, and thus matters pertaining to religious teachings are, or ought to be, of interest to governments only insofar as these teachings touch upon the common good.

A secular society is not an officially atheistic state. In the latter, public institutions set themselves up as arbiters of truth-claims that purportedly transcend the temporal order.

An official avowal of atheism has political consequences, to be sure, but claims about the non-existence of God pertain to a realm beyond the political.

One form of secularity is the aggressively secular state.

This approach to secularity is predicated on the view that the religions of the world are, or ought to be, neither public nor social. In such a state, manifestations of religious belief are kept away from civic functions and places which are under the aegis of the state (e.g., schools).

People are expected to comport themselves as pro forma agnostics in public even when they are religious in private. There are few countries in the world today that are secular in this aggressive sense, although there is a movement in some countries, including Canada, for state-secularity to become more aggressive.

One problem with this approach is that by detracting from the public and social nature of every major world religion, it effectively becomes a form of reductionism.

In trying to enforce its program, an aggressively secular state would attempt to marginalize religious communities into a private realm where it is difficult for them to live.

Paradoxically, when a rationale is given for this aggressiveness, there is usually an appeal for tolerance. It is claimed that society can be deemed tolerant only if religions are kept in the private realm and only if they do not intervene in the public square.

Some distinctions need to be made here. The understandings of "religion in the public square" vary considerably from one group to the next, and I shall argue for one version of it.

A second difficulty with aggressive secularity in general is the false premise that secularity is neutral.

An alternative approach to aggressive secularity is secularity as pluralism.

On the contrary, the laws and customs of any society presuppose some account of what constitutes truth and goodness.

The question is not: Can we be neutral with regard to truth and goodness? Rather, the question is: How can we arrive at an account of truth and goodness, given that we come from a multiplicity of traditions?

An alternative approach to aggressive secularity is secularity as pluralism. The idea here is that the state does not pronounce itself on religious matters; not because it is officially atheistic or hostile to religion, but because it recognizes the presence of a multiplicity of views, religious and non-religious, in its midst.

It seeks to provide what could be called "space in the public square" to a wide range of views.

This was the original intent of the separation of Church and state in the United States: to ensure the freedom of many religious groups and not just one, or even none.

In this more benign version, here designated pluralistic secularity, religious persons and groups, as well as those opposed to religion, are understood as having a public and social identity. They are thus free to show their colours in public, to make policy proposals, and to seek to have their ethical values influence public policy.

Such a pluralistic approach is something like the form of secularity that has traditionally characterized Canada, although there have been exceptions. One exception was the theocratizing tendencies throughout Quebec that came to a head in the mid-20th century.

Another exception, in the opposite direction, is the movement to consign all religious expression to the private realm.

How are groups to influence public policy in a pluralistic society?

There must be some kind of common ground, and that common ground is reason. Thus, as a religious person, I am free, and should remain free, to propose public policy alternatives based on the ethics of my religion, provided that my position is also rationally defensible.

For example, the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," is revealed teaching, but it is absurd to suggest that, for this very reason, prohibitions of the killing of the innocent have no place in the laws of a secular society. Instead, good and just laws will recognize, on the basis of reason alone, that it is evil and morally wrong to kill an innocent human being.

Teachings that appeal only to revelation are beyond the pale of political debate (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus). This fact is a protection for the political realm, and it is also a protection for the transcendence of religious truth.

It protects public institutions from the pitfalls of trying to be arbiters of religious truth, and it prevents religious groups from being subject to excessive governmental and juridical control.

Now, even this more benign form of secularity is not without its detractors.

It could be argued, for example, that religious pluralism is inherently tied to relativism—the view that truth and goodness are not absolute but relative to a culture or subculture.

Although relativism abounds in present-day culture, it would be a mistake to identify the secularity of the state as its cause. It is certainly possible to advocate pluralism while personally remaining a moral absolutist.

It is understood that we seek the truth in common and that truth will reveal itself in rational debate, albeit slowly and sometimes painfully, and with many setbacks.

One need fear the absence of truth only with the exclusion of debate. This does not mean that truth will issue from every debate; rather, it conforms with the fact that no one debate ends all debates on an issue, and that truth is more likely to come out in public debate than in a political climate where debate is discouraged.

The trend in our country and elsewhere to consign religious communities to the private realm is, in fact, a drift toward intolerance, despite claims to the contrary.

Religious communities must continue to speak and act in the public realm and to propose policies for the common good.

Non-religious persons and groups have that same freedom. The outcomes of public debate ought to depend on the rationality with which the various sides argue their case.

Rev. Michael Smith is associate professor of philosophy at St. Peter's Seminary, London, Ontario.

Originally published in the Toronto Star, April 6, 2007.

 

 
 
 
 

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