Saturday, January 06, 2007

Secularism and state neutrality

Christianity and the ‘non-confessional state’. (This was published by CFNews: see here.)

Philip Trower, in his 2004 article for Catholic World Report included in the 4th Jan CFNews bulletin, argues that the rise of militant secularism – evidenced by the rigorous exclusion of religious language and symbolism from public life, for example – derives from the collapse of the ‘non-confessional state’, a state which does not prefer one religion to another, into a ‘secularist state’, a state in which a set of avowedly non-religious values, centering around humanism and hedonism, are given official status. This is a kind of confessional state, in which what the state confesses is a secularism which has become a substitute religion.

Trower’s diagnosis is certainly correct. What I cannot, however, agree with is the prognosis: the implication of his article that what is needed is a return to a non-confessional state, and that the process by which non-confessional states have become secularist states is based on a ‘misunderstanding’. If only, he implies, politicians and others understood the distinction properly, then we would not have the problem of militant secularism being imposed on us by the state. State schools could go on having nativity plays, etc. etc..

The problem is that there is a deep confusion in the very notion of a non-confessional state. Such a state is supposed to be neutral on controversial, value-laden issues, notably about which religion is correct. So how, in such a state, should human biology, or the history of the Reformation, be taught? What textbooks should be used? The problem is not that these are difficult questions, but that if the state has no controversial or religious values of its own, it will have no basis upon which to make the decisions.

Again: which religions and churches should be accorded charitable status, and for what faith groups should military chaplains be provided? The Taliban? Scientologists? Satanists? How is the state to determine that question, if it has no theological values?

The answer given by political theorists friendly to the idea of a ‘neutral state’, is that without reference to controversial, value-laden religious claims, the state can conduct its affairs by reference to what all reasonable people agree about: basic rationality. Everyone wants food on the table and a roof over their heads, and so on. This quickly reveals itself to be a form of reasoning that does not simply leave to one side the question of which religion is true, but assumes that they are all false. For if the only thing the state takes into account is our material needs, then it is acting as if we had no other needs at all: it has de facto adopted materialism as a substitute religion. The form of ‘rationality’ here, of course, is far from uncontroversial, and carries with it the potential to turn a non-confessional state into a secularist one. This problem has been explored at length by Alastair MacIntyre’s appropriately named book: ‘Whose Justice? Which Rationality?’

The same thing has been forseen in a different way by Edward Norman, in his book ‘Secularization’, where he points out that the non-confessional state is not the stable end-point of a political development, but is simply a transitional phase, when the dominant religion has lost the power or the will to impose itself on the state, but is still too strong to be ignored completely. The rising set of values which will soon be, and in many ways already is, the official creed of the state, is secularism.

The fact is that the state cannot do without values. Political judgments, judgments about the relative merits of educational philosophies or medical treatments, can only be made with the help of values. A non-confessional state inevitably gravitates towards a set of humanistic, hedonistic and secular values, because any move in any other direction will be attacked as giving one religion priority over another.

Catholics and members of other religions have to be clear about this. The goal of their political engagement is not to push the state back into the untenable position of making decisions neither on the basis of Anglicanism nor on the basis of any other coherent set of values or world view. That would be an absurd and Quixotic project. No: our aim is to get the state to make decisions on the basis of what we believe to be the correct values and world view. Sterlising the disabled makes sense if traditional, religiously inspired moral values are set aside in favour of hedonism and materialism. In opposing something like this, we are trying to get politicians and the general public to see that hedonism and materialism are inadequate, and that our own values are superior. We are pushing them, however feebly, towards a confession of the Truth, the only basis upon which correct judgments about how to promote the Common Good will be made.

Joseph Shaw

10 comments:

djhill said...

Thanks for this, Joseph, a fascinating post.

'No: our aim is to get the state to make decisions on the basis of what we believe to be the correct values and world view.'

How much of your world view to you expect the state to take on: theism, Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Thomism? My own struggles with this question have led me (to my own surprise) to embrace secular libertarianism as, theocracy apart, the only coherent political system. But there must be loads on this in Thomas and the tradition . . . .

Joseph Shaw said...

Secular libertarianism??!!

I'd start from the principle: the state should seek the Common Good. Then: the Common Good cannot exclude the emotional, moral and spiritual good of citizens.

How specifically the Common Good can be defined, and the means thereto, will depend on how much agreement is politically possible. But it would be natural for a state dominated very much by one denomination to adopt that denomination's view of things. As a Catholic I would argue in favour of a Catholic interpretation; as a Thomist (insofar as I am one!) for a Thomist understanding - why not?

The way this kind of thing was implemented was - for example, in Catholic countries - for schools and hospitals funded by the state to be handed over to religious orders to run.

Another point, which I didn't make in my article, is what a lot of late 19th and early 20th C. papal teaching emphasised, which is that we have an obligation to worship God as a society, and so it is right to have public religious ceremonies (prayers in Parliament etc.), recognition of God in the Constitution etc.. This is what 'the social reign of Christ the King' means. See the Encyclical which announced the Feast of Christ the King in 1925, Quas Primas (Pius XI).

djhill said...

Thanks for this, Joseph.

So, in your view, how much should the law reflect morality in the ideal state? Should, for example, adultery be forbidden and attendance at church be compulsory, as was once the case in England? Should the law legislate for mental crimes too?

In the US there is this movement called 'theonomy' or 'reconstructionism', which wishes to see nations governed by OT moral law (sometimes with OT punishments). Would you go along with that vision of an ideal society?

I was led, reluctantly, to libertarianism from the view that it'd be impossible to have a Christian state since there is hardly any agreement among Protestants about the details of how it would work, e.g. just what kind of church service should be mandatory, what kind of work would be permitted on the Sabbath, etc. It seemed to me that the only alternative was to let each man do what seemed right in his own eyes as long as it didn't directly harm anybody unwilling.

Joseph Shaw said...

There are a few sensible principles which are always conceded in Catholic discussions:
1. You cannot force people to beleive.
2. The state must permit evil where the attempt to suppress would be counter-productive.
3. From 1 & 2: You must allow the private practice of false religions.

Thus, for example Aquinas argues that the Jews should be left alone and sins of the mind not punished.

Puritans in the 16th and 17th C. don't seem to have accepted these principles, which seems odd. Unfortunately their experiments with compulsory church-going and making fornication illegal have given a bad name to the 'imposition of morality in legislation'.

djhill said...

Thanks for this, Joseph.

In defence of the Puritans, (3) doesn't follow from (1) and (2) in your syllogism. The Puritans of course accepted (1), since they insisted that people are saved by faith, a purely mental thing that cannot be coerced by humans. I dare say that they accepted (2) as well, though I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'counter-productive' -- just that it would produce more evil by suppressing it than permitting it? But there is, first, a difference between not allowing the private practice of false religions on the one hand, and trying to make people go to church on the other, and, secondly, a difference between trying to make people go to church and trying to make people believe.

I suspect that the Puritans reasoned that since idolatry was the worst of all sins, even worse than murder and adultery, they should try to prevent it wherever they could, however they could.

Why do you object that criminalization of fornication and imposition of church-going are wrong? Just because they are counter-productive? I.e. you would support them in a society (the Vatican? Malta? Poland?) in which they would not be counter-productive? In what way do you think that they are actually counter-productive different from how any other imposition of morality over and above the harm principle could be argued to be counter-productive? How would their criminalization produce more evil than their permission?

Finally, wasn't Mass-going compulsory and fornication forbidden in Roman-Catholic England, e.g. under Mary Tudor?

Thanks for a stimulating discussion, Joseph, and could I have the Aquinas reference here too, please?

Joseph Shaw said...

I'll try to find the Aquinas reference. I don't think church-going was compulsory under Mary Tudor, but I'm not sure. What is certainly true is that people would not suffer penalties for failing to receive communion. In some ways this is the most barbaric of the Elizabethan laws, since it seeks to enforce - so far at it can be - an inward act of religion.

More to follow on the other points.

Joseph Shaw said...

Aquinas reference: indeed, the quotation: ST I IIae Q.96 a.2 c.

"Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like."

Interesting, isn't it? The main difference between this and Mill's doctrine is that there is no arbritrary restriction on what constitutes harm to others. So heresy, and living a scandalous life, would (in many circumstances) be covered.

Robin Leslie said...

The current crisis of the Western
State and Civilisation has emerged
from an unceasing displacement by the State of religious values and their somewhat Machievellian misuse
in political ideologies. Unless Christian Churches firm up their boundaries and confront secular materialism they will find themselves evacuated of any remnants of tradition they have left. Militant secularism or 'exclusive humanism' as Charles
Taylor calls it is rooted in the aggressive globalizing of liberal democracy (Fukuyama)the neo-colonialism that followed the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
The young people of Greece and elsewhere in Europe have begun to
sus the Lie as Vaclav Havel called
the post-Communist era (Living in the Lie)and their struggle to abandon market capitalism and its secular expansion should be joined by the Christian Churches.

Robin Leslie said...

The current crisis of the Western
State and Civilisation has emerged
from an unceasing displacement by the State of religious values and their somewhat Machievellian misuse
in political ideologies. Unless Christian Churches firm up their boundaries and confront secular materialism they will find themselves evacuated of any remnants of tradition they have left. Militant secularism or 'exclusive humanism' as Charles
Taylor calls it is rooted in the aggressive globalizing of liberal democracy (Fukuyama)the neo-colonialism that followed the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
The young people of Greece and elsewhere in Europe have begun to
sus the Lie as Vaclav Havel called
the post-Communist era (Living in the Lie)and their struggle to abandon market capitalism and its secular expansion should be joined by the Christian Churches.

Robin Leslie said...

The current crisis of the Western
State and Civilisation has emerged
from an unceasing displacement by the State of religious values and their somewhat Machievellian misuse
in political ideologies. Unless Christian Churches firm up their boundaries and confront secular materialism they will find themselves evacuated of any remnants of tradition they have left. Militant secularism or 'exclusive humanism' as Charles
Taylor calls it is rooted in the aggressive globalizing of liberal democracy (Fukuyama)the neo-colonialism that followed the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
The young people of Greece and elsewhere in Europe have begun to
sus the Lie as Vaclav Havel called
the post-Communist era (Living in the Lie)and their struggle to abandon market capitalism and its secular expansion should be joined by the Christian Churches.