Secularism and Freedom of Conscience by Charles Taylor and Jocelyn Maclure, trans. by Jane Marie Todd. Harvard, 2011, 160pp.

I can remember a time when “secular” was a dirty word. Growing up in an evangelical home secular meant, primarily, secular music: the kind of music which was forbidden because it was by, of, and for “the world”. To my well-meaning parents, the secularism of secular music was a slippery slope which might cause me, like Christian of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to get caught up at Vanity Fair instead of proceeding onward in my heaven-bound journey. It took me quite a while before I realized that the word secular had far more than a negative meaning. To judge by the fears expressed on certain North American news outlets, though, there are still many today who see secularism primarily in terms of a subtraction – a perceived hidden agenda which intends to strip Christian believers of their capacity to express their beliefs publicly.

What my parents unwittingly acknowledged in their standard evangelical concern with the secular is the reality of secularism as a mode in which many of us in Europe and North America live our lives – a temporal orientation which recognizes the earthly horizon of our present lives, perhaps to the exclusion of other such orientations. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has persuasively suggested, we live in “A Secular Age”. Taylor has narrated a series of overlapping stories in both Sources of the Self and A Secular Age in order to establish what that means, what the conditions of the different modes of secularity are. More recently, in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, Taylor and Jocelyn Maclure have explored whether or not secularism has the political capacity to enable individuals and communities with different conceptions of the good to produce a Rawlsian “overlapping consensus”. In other words, can secularism provide the means by which different kinds of believers, unbelievers, non-believers, and atheists can live together in ways which will allow them and the communities to which they belong to freely flourish?

The starting point of much of Taylor’s political reflection has been the recognition that political societies the world over can be characterized by the social reality of “deep diversity”. The main challenge for politics today thus very often revolves around how to manage such diversity justly and without coercion, physical or otherwise. Should a democratic government require the removal of a religious head covering such as a hijab for the purposes of state photograph identification? Should a teacher at a public school wear a crucifix in their role as a public educator? These and other questions are part of highly visible dilemmas which occupy a very important place in contemporary politics, and not just in countries like France and Canada, but in Turkey and India as well.

Taylor and Maclure insist that “contemporary societies must develop the ethical and political knowledge that will allow them to fairly and consistently manage the moral, spiritual, and cultural diversity at their heart.” The central question, it would seem, is how the goods of secularism might be framed such that a Christian, a Kantian atheist, a Buddhist, and an environmentalist, might “opt in” to the overlapping consensus, but each for their own reasons? For Taylor and Maclure the answer lies in a secularism at the state level which should be operational rather than social, and where the state flexibly defends the equality and autonomy of individuals and their freedom to pursue their own aims within their own understanding of the good. This means, basically, that the procedural secularism of the state requires the equal treatment of all individuals as morally autonomous agents and a neutral stance with respect to their convictions of conscience. The stability and cohesion of societies characterized by “deep diversity”, then, depends “on the will of citizens with differing conceptions of the good to accept the authority of the common principles on which their political institutions are based.”

Is such a procedural theory of secularism possible? Can a procedure claim to be neutral with respect to the good in the hopes of thereby achieving the just? Not incidentally, these were some of Paul Ricoeur’s question for John Rawls’ theory. In The Just Ricoeur repeatedly attempts to hold a procedural and a teleological vision of justice together so that, as he insists, even Rawls’ theory of deliberative justice demands of its members a basic subscription to an ethical orientation in the order of something like the Golden Rule. A procedural theory of justice which is neutral with respect to questions of ultimate good cannot proceed without a presupposed ethical dimension, a dimension which is typically informed in various ways by history.

In a way, then, Taylor and Maclure put forward a quite similar theory as Ricoeur’s reply to Rawls. There’s is not so much a Rawlsian “overlapping consensus” lacking content about the good, but one which is secular in the sense that the state remains neutral on questions of ultimate good and has put forward a series of basic structural goods such as freedom of conscience. This may not meet the challenge that John Milbank has issued, contending as he does that secularism is merely another myth masking itself as a neutral arbiter. Yet there does not seem to be any contradiction between admitting the mythical nature of secularism, with Milbank, and seeking, with Taylor and Ricoeur, a hierarchical, scaled view the good which maintains that an operational secular neutrality on the state level provides the best means for a pluralist vision of the politics of human flourishing. At the very least, Taylor and Maclure have convincingly raised this as a political possibility in an incredibly clear and concise fashion.

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Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard recently discovered cherry gin. He occasionally blogs at In media res. You can follow him on Twitter.

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