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.

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