Religion, Neutrality, and Secularism

There is a difference between secularism and the ideal neutral state.

The Neutral State

The neutral state protects members of one group from the members of another group.  This is a view based on a state legal philosophy of individual rights.  In a state based on the legal notion of group rights, the neutral state protects one group from the predations of another group–a much harder mission.  For now we defer discussion of the important differences between individual and group rights.  The state is not promoting or enforcing the views of any group except for the fundamental of common sense mutual respect and allowing freedom that does not impinge on the freedom of other individuals or groups.  As such, the neutral state is more concerned with behavior than belief:  non-harmful behavior is allowed regardless of belief; beliefs are allowed–even harmful ones–if no actual harmful behavior ensues.  The state is mute with respect to belief.

Such a neutral state protects the right to practice one’s choice of religion or to practice the choice of no religion.  This is quite different than promoting secularism–indeed, the state does not promote the view that non-religion is preferable to religion overall or to any specific religion.  So, such a neutral state does not promote secularism, which remains to be defined.  But, this neutral state is still abhorrent to religions and groups that are numerically dominant or have pretenses to be universalistic or culturally dominant, or to groups whose grievances they associate with the state itself or the state’s protection of preferential treatment of other groups.

Religious Objection to Neutrality and Confusion with Secularism

Chiefly, some intolerant Christian, Muslim, and Hindu groups (not all groups within these faiths) believe they bring a universal truth that must be adopted by all within their respective societies and, at times, even beyond the boundaries of a particular society.  Thus, they find it abhorrent that a “secular” state–the notion of neutral cannot apply when there is a choice between a universal religious truth and any other alternative,inevitably false doctrine–stands in the way of asserting and extending this truth to subordinate groups (or to members of such groups or members of no group) espousing questionable beliefs.  Such groups claim that the neutral state is, in their view, positively asserting or requiring adoption of religiously antagonistic beliefs such as secularism, rather than merely protecting beliefs of other groups or individuals.  A definition of secularism is now in order before returning to why a truly neutral state might oppose some practices of religious groups even in the face of objections by those religious groups.

Secularism in Contrast to Neutrality

Secularism is a belief that religion, in general or in select cases or possibly in most cases, is wrong.  It comes in various strengths regarding which religions are most objectionable or which specific beliefs or practices within religions are most objectionable and how vigorously such objections should be pursued.  What makes secularism an “ism” is the goal of promoting its beliefs for adoption by more people, regardless of whether its beliefs are based on reason, factual observation, or simple conviction.  “Belief” in this sense does not mean thoughts and feelings based on faith alone, as is often meant by “religious belief.” “Belief” here refers to views, opinions, or a body of thought, concepts, and principles to be promoted to others to adopt.  “Ism” is all about persuading others via some pro-active program, whether sublte or overt.   Before returning to religious objections to the neutral state, a neutral state can protect each individual’s and each group’s right to practice its religion without positively promoting secularism, though actual states have failed in varying degrees to act in a truly neutral way.

A religious group’s objection to the protections provided by the neutral state to all religious groups and individuals takes one or both of two forms.  The first form is a factual objection in that it can be tested and when valid, the state’s action can be corrected in specific ways that can be described (it is yet another thing to get the state to actually change its practices). The second form is a deeper objection that is often inherent in the nature of religion and in the specific beliefs of some religions.  The greater concern lies here.  Addressing each in order follows.

Factual Objection to Neutrality

The factual objection is that a state may limit a religion under claims of neutrality while, in fact, the state is asserting specific beliefs or practices of another religion or belief, including the belief in secularism.  The first test is to determine if the fact is true or not–often no easy matter.  If it is true that the state is operating under guidance of and to promote an “ism” then the state’s behavior must be corrected–also no easy matter.  In both cases, most would say the religious group is right and something must be done about it, however difficult that may be.  But, the factual objection is not clear cut.  Just as the state may be falsely using the guise of neutrality to attack a religion, religious belief, or religious practice, a religious group may be using the factual objection as a false accusation:  the religious group objects to the state effort to curtail some religious activity and falsely accuses the state of promoting another religion, or more likely, of promoting secularism.  The first test arises again: Is the state’s objection neutral or is it promoting an “ism?”  Is the religious group’s objection  a valid or a false accusation?  The test is not easy, but when the factual objection is valid, the state’s actions should be challenged and corrected.

Religious Objection to Neutrality: False Accusation

False accusation by the religious group actually lies close to the second and deeper objection, which is rooted in the nature of religion and in the specific beliefs of some religions.  This objection leads to the false accusation religions may make.  More emphatically, this objection may lead to a religious group challenging the actions of a neutral state even when that state is, in truth, acting neutrally to protect other groups’ (or individuals’) rights to religious practices and not to promote an alternative religion or to promote secularism.  This can occur in two cases: when the religious group acknowledges that the state is acting neutrally but objects to such neutrality; or when the religious group does not recognize the state’s act as neutral (the false accusation).  Looking at the root of the problem, this distinction doesn’t matter much.   The root of the problem is that to this religious group, neutrality does not apply: neutrality cannot be valid when a universal religious truth challenges any or all alternative beliefs  as false doctrines.

Thus, the very objective of neutrality is inherently invalid to some religious groups.  They believe such neutrality must stand in the way of advancing the truth as asserted by that religious group along with various accompanying beliefs and practices.  By defending the rights of other religious groups and their individual members or the rights of individuals who choose no religion, the state must necessarily be challenging the asserted religious truth.  Since–in the views of such a religious group–the beliefs and practices of some other religious group should not be recognized or allowed, any defense of the right to practice and believe amounts to defending what is “wrong.  ” Therefore, the state is wrong to defend such beliefs and practices.  Such a religious group believes that the state may not act against it, its members, its beliefs, and its practices because to do so is to protect “wrong” beliefs under a neutral program of protecting the rights of other groups and individuals.  The state may be labeled as protecting “secularism” even if it does not promote secularism because neutrality is not valid to such religious groups.

Defending Neutrality against Religious Objections

What should a neutral state’s reactions be to the objections of such a religious group?  If the neutral state protects the rights of other groups and individuals without impinging on the former group–except by ignoring that group’s insistence that (some or all) other religious groups deserve no protection (or very limited protection)–then the state should act neutrally to protect all groups’ and individuals’ rights.  The former religious group’s objection based on its self-declared universal truth should not sway the state1.  When the state, then, offers neutral protection to all religious groups and individuals, the religious group in question self-declares that its beliefs–and therefore its protected rights–are being violated by the state.  In this case, what principles govern the state’s actions and which state actions are valid?

One religious group does not have the right to repress other religious groups even if it self-declares it has such right by virtue of numerical dominance, cultural dominance, cultural grievance (particularly in the case of a minority group), or claims of greater truth.  The state has no obligation to respect such a right because the right does not exist.  The religion, by incorporating this requirement as one of its beliefs, does not create a right to protect such belief.  It is a belief in self-justification of intolerance.  While being accused of imposing secularism or a rival set of religious beliefs, the state is legitimately protecting the neutral right to other religious beliefs and practices.

Limitations on the State

The state has limitations on its actions to protect these rights.  The state may not constrain beliefs and practices of a religion because they are in disagreement with another religion or “ism” or are disliked by another group of people (however large or dominant, whether for religious or non-religious reasons).  The state may not use religious restrictions as a tool to advance the interests of a numerically-dominant political majority or a politically dominant minority group.  The state may not restrict the religious beliefs and practices of groups or individuals where those beliefs and practices do not impinge on any other groups or individuals.  Thus, constraints on religious practice by the state can only legitimately be enacted to prevent practices by one group or by individuals that impinge on other groups or individuals.  This is indeed what is meant by the neutral state (and by Berlin’s concept of “negative liberty”).

Why does this job fall to the state?  Does it make the state the superior actor in almost all of human activity, at least where humans deal with others outside the family?  Does this make the state an “actor” pursuing its own set of interests among the many contending sets of actors within a society?  It may seem so, especially to religious groups that have the second form of objection described above.  All this depends on how the state is constituted, which is too broad to discuss here.  But, the principle that governs such state action can be stated.

The state should not seek to be an actor on its own behalf.  The state is no more than the legal framework and institutions that a society– comprised of individuals and groups representing different religions, languages, and cultural histories–use to enable peaceful and productive lives for all.  The state is not a representative of or an extension of any one (or more) religious groups.  The state operates neutrally with respect to all of the groups and–despite the state’s size and economic resources (true in all modern societies, regardless of ideology)–the state’s purpose and scope are subordinate to the people. The state’s purpose is only to enable all of the people to pursue their own purposes in life.  The state’s independence from the various groups formed by people enables the state to be neutral in providing the framework that enables people to live and pursue their different purposes with the minimum of external mediation and interference possible.


[Most of this role-of-the-state stuff needs to be in a separate essay.  The principles are one thing and more important.  The way a state fulfills the principles is another thing; talking about it dilutes the focus on understanding and refining the principles.]

More branches to deal with:

  1. What specific beliefs and practices does that “intolerant” religion object to?  Perhaps these are beliefs and practices that the state should ban…   …on what basis would the state then ban such specific practices (and perhaps denigrate the accompanying beliefs, recognizing that believing cannot be outright banned because thoughts remain in people’s heads even if they change their practices).  Is a religious basis valid?  Or is the basis of neutrality the only valid basis?  The clear example here is abolition and the strong religious movement against slavery, which had far more impact than the objection on rational principles.  From abolition, we get to abortion…

A state, being run by people, can also fail in various ways to offer this protection.

Such a religious group may align with allies and abhor some, but not all, other religious groups.  Does this validate the religious group’s views (all the “good” religions are OK and with us–we need to abhor the whackos…)

2. What if the state is promoting secularism?  How could we tell?  Is it valid?  Is it OK as a state “belief” as long as other beliefs are unmolested?

3. In a society of groups, is membership in a group required?  Which group?  Is choice possible or are the groups imposed?

4. Should the primary protection provided by the state focus on individuals or groups?  This is a deep topic in its own right.  Groups with moral purposes often object to protection of individuals and further allege that this amounts to individualism, which comes with inevitably–in their view–undesirable traits of greed.  Once again, this sort of objection confuses a specific definition of individual rights with individualism.  The key question is whether society provides fundamental, ultimate rights to individuals or to groups.  We want to compare a society constituted on individual rights to a society constituted on group rights with a view to which society is likely to be more just and which is more likely to minimize conflicts within the society.

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