How secular should the state be?

Unthinkable: Ireland needs to design its own model of separating religions from state

Muslim women in Paris hold a banner which says ‘a choice’ as they demonstrate against a headscarves ban in state schools in France. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Muslim women in Paris hold a banner which says ‘a choice’ as they demonstrate against a headscarves ban in state schools in France. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images


Some people hurl the term “liberal” around like it’s an insult. To be called a liberal, in certain quarters, is to be portrayed as a weak-kneed, politically-correct hypocrite.

But liberalism – in the sense of upholding individual freedom, human rights and democratic accountability – is surely something no reasonable person should oppose. Putting shape on that philosophy, however, is always going to be controversial, and in Ireland one of the main flashpoints is the role of religion in schools.

A glance across the water shows we are not alone in struggling with this issue. Last month, Amanda Spielman, the head of the UK school inspectors’ agency Ofsted, expressed concern about increased segregation and religious extremism in the classroom – and urged teachers and parents to tackle “those who want to actively pervert the purpose of education”. She said: “Rather than adopting a passive liberalism, that says ‘anything goes’ for fear of causing offence, schools leaders should be promoting a muscular liberalism.”

So what type of liberalism should we be pursuing here? The French laïcité system – where religion is actively repelled from the state sector – or perhaps the more complex US approach to separating church and state?

The short answer, says Oxford-based political philosopher Cécile Laborde, is there’s no one-size-fits-all model. “The general point is that minimal secularism does not generate – or validate – just one model of secular state. Instead, it provides us with philosophical desiderata and political ideals that can inform healthy democratic disagreement about the role of religion and the state in liberal societies.”

Laborde, whose latest book Liberalism’s Religion, explores the appropriate status of religion in a liberal state, is visiting Dublin next week to deliver a public lecture on the topic. In advance, she spoke to “Unthinkable”.

If you compare countries like France and the United States there seems to be a spectrum of liberalisms. Is one form of liberalism better – or more justifiable – than the rest?

Cécile Laborde: “In my view, liberalism is compatible with a diversity of institutional arrangements concerning state and religion. As long as a state displays what I call ‘minimal secularism’, it is compatible with liberalism.

“Minimal secularism explains why the state – but not necessarily society – must be secular. In brief, it contains three distinct yet complementary ideas.

“The first is that state institutions and their representatives must appeal to public, accessible reasons – not, say, to the authority of the Bible or the Koran – to justify imposing laws on all. The second is that state institutions should be inclusive, such that all citizens – believers and non-believers – are treated as equal members. The third is that the state should be limited, in the sense that it should not impose on its citizens a comprehensive ethics of life.

“So we have three general principles - drawing on ideals of public reason, equality and freedom - which explain which state-religion connections are incompatible with liberalism, and why.

“Broadly speaking, the particular institutional arrangements that we can observe in diverse countries such as the USA, France, Ireland, the UK, India, Senegal, Brazil, etc are compatible with minimal secularism. Of course, the devil is in the details.

Liberalism aspires to be compatible with religious faith

“France’s laïcité is broadly liberal - but in recent years, it has imposed unjustifiable restraints on the expression of Muslim faith in the public sphere. US separationism is broadly liberal, but the delegation of crucial welfare functions to privately-funded faith groups raises deep issues of equality and non-discrimination.

“Closer to home, there are question marks over whether the continued grip of the Catholic Church in Irish public life – notably through educational monopoly and control of reproductive rights – is compatible with minimal secularism.”

Where liberalism becomes more than mere neutrality it stands open to the charge that it is smuggling in its own ideology. Is liberalism, then, a kind of religion?

“I do not think that liberalism is neutral, ethically speaking, but this does not mean that it is a religion.

“Liberalism, most obviously, is not neutral about its own values: it is committed to substantive values of freedom and equality and to ideals of social co-operation. So it is not neutral towards straightforwardly illiberal conceptions – some of them religious – that deny basic equality and freedom and that assert that the pursuit of truth and salvation should take precedence over political justice and social co-operation.

“But liberalism aspires to be compatible with religious faith: it does not privilege unbelief over belief, nor does it favour one religious conception over another. This is the limited neutrality to which it aspires.

“This is different from more militant forms of liberalism and secularism, which postulate that religious belief is intrinsically incompatible with liberalism - and which therefore substitute their own atheistic, humanistic worldview for that of religions. The purely political liberalism I favour is not a religion in this sense, and one of the reasons I find it attractive is that it can form the basis for a kind of overlapping consensus around political values between citizens of faith and citizens of no faith.

Only the liberal state has the legitimacy to decide where the boundaries of religion are

“That said, we should not underestimate the points of tension between this modest political liberalism and traditional religious faith. In the areas of education, reproductive rights, sexuality, and the scope of anti-discrimination legislation, political liberalism is associated with distinctively progressive, individualistic, and egalitarian positions that directly run counter to the claims of faith groups to run their own (religious) affairs.

“In my book, I show that what is deeply disturbing about liberalism for many people of faith, is the way in which it grants the state the authority to rule over what they see as core theological questions (eg What is marriage? When does human life begin?).

“So we could say that the radicalism of the liberal state lies in the fact that, while it is committed to respect for the principle of separation of state and religion, only it has the legitimacy to decide where the boundaries of religion are.”

A criticism of liberals is that they take a “Protestant view” of faith in that they assume religion is a belief-based, voluntary chosen enterprise - and then seek only to accommodate this type of religion. How do you respond to this charge?

“A ‘Protestant’ view of what true religion is has come through in recent public debates - for example around the regulation of Islamic veiling in Europe. Some popular commentators doubt whether the practice of veiling is properly ‘religious’. They say, for example, that it is only an ‘external’ practice and not an ‘internal’ belief; or they say that it is not really obligatory, as it is not one of the five pillars of Islam; or they say that it is not freely endorsed by women - and that because women are coerced into veiling, it is not an expression of freedom of religion.

“But while these misconceptions are common in public debate, liberal political theorists are not generally guilty of them. Philosophical and legal debates about religious exemptions and accommodations have concerned religious practices - religious dress and symbols, Shabbat and Friday prayers; the ingestion of peyote; ritual animal slaughter, and so forth - with little concern for the question of whether these practices are freely endorsed, formally obligatory, and so on.

“It is true, however, that liberals generally value the individualistic dimension of freedom of religion over its collective dimension; and so they would emphasise the crucial importance of freedom from religion - the freedom the individual has to dissociate and repudiate one’s religious faith. Liberalism is undeniably individualistic in this sense - and bears an historically complex relationship with both the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment.”

One of the big battlegrounds for liberalism today is education. Should all state-funded schools be secular?

“It depends on what is meant by secular. I think an ideal liberal school should be secular in the following sense: it should be open to the whole community with no restriction of belief or origin; it should not teach that any particular religion is true; it should teach scientific truths as well as basic political truths (about gender and sexuality equality, etc); it should be tolerant of all religions; it should expose all children to religious diversity.

Secular reform can take different forms in different societies

“Of course, in practice, things are messier. For example, some ‘religious’ schools might actually be more effective at inculcating ideals of tolerance and equality than ‘secular’ schools. Or there might be an extensive sector of private religious schools – and the question arises as to whether it is best to fund them publicly, so as to be able to control them publicly too.

“Faith schools in receipt of public funds can more easily be enticed to meet basic liberal standards of non-discrimination, gender equality, and toleration than wholly private faith schools. We have to start from where we are – and secular reform can take different forms in different societies.”

The Royal Irish Academy, on Dawson Street, Dublin 2, will host a public talk by Cécile Laborde about how secular the state should be, on March 21st at 6pm. The event is free, but registration is required here

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