Does Religious Pluralism Require Secularism?   /   Fall 2010   /    Does Religious Pluralism Require Secularism?

The Meaning of Secularism

Balancing freedom of conscience and equality of respect.

Charles Taylor

Muslim women demonstrate in the streets of Marseille, 2004; © Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters/Corbis.

It is generally agreed that modern democracies have to be “secular.”xThis essay is adapted from Charles Taylor, “The Polysemy of the Secular,” Social Research 76.4 (Winter 2009): 1,143–1,166; and Charles Taylor, “Foreword. What is Secularism?,” Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship, ed. Geoffrey Brahm Levey and Tariq Modood (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2009) xi–xxii. There is perhaps a problem, a certain ethnocentricity, involved in this term. But even in the Western context the term is not limpid and may in fact be misleading. What in fact does it mean? There are at least two models of what constitutes a secular regime. Both involve some kind of separation of church and state. The state can’t be officially linked to some religious confession, except in a vestigial and largely symbolic sense, as in England or Scandinavia. But secularism requires more than this. The pluralism of society requires that there be some kind of neutrality, or “principled distance,” to use Rajeev Bhargava’s term.22xRajeev Bhargava, “What is Secularism for?,” Secularism and its Critics, ed. Rajeev Bhargava (Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1998) 486–520 (see especially 493–4 and 520 for “principled distance”); and Rajeev Bhargava, “The Distinctiveness of Indian Secularism,” The Future of Secularism, ed, T. N. Srinavasan (Delhi, India: Oxford University Press 2007) 20–58, especially 39–41.

If we examine it further, secularism involves in fact a complex requirement. There is more than one good sought here. We can single out three, which we can classify in the categories of the French Revolution trinity: liberty, equality, fraternity. First, no one must be forced in the domain of religion, or basic belief. This is what is often defined as religious liberty, including of course, the freedom not to believe. This is what is also described as the “free exercise” of religion, in the terms of the U.S. First Amendment. Second, there must be equality between people of different faiths or basic beliefs; no religious outlook or (religious or areligious) Weltanschauung can enjoy a privileged status, let alone be adopted as the official view of the state. Third, all spiritual families must be heard, included in the ongoing process of determining what the society is about (its political identity) and how it is going to realize these goals (the exact regime of rights and privileges). This (stretching the point a little) is what corresponds to “fraternity.”

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