February 13th, 2016
THERE used to be a time when secularism was a brilliant idea. Back then, the prospect that a single dogmatic vision could gather enough political strength to crush individual autonomy was a real possibility. Christians were afraid that their freedom to believe would be crushed if Protestants surged to power and vice versa. The privatization of religion, the insistence on State neutrality in matters of belief and the rise of toleration were certainly laudable ideas that moved us forward. Secularism shone in times when our capacity to self determine our own beliefs, desires and values was at real risk; in times when autonomy was under the siege of political forces threatening to impose alien outcomes upon us. To secure our positive freedom—our capacity to self-determine our own beliefs—we needed to focus on securing our negative freedom first: we needed to be protected from external coercion and we needed to secure the widest possible sphere of action within which we could call ourselves sovereign and within which we could pursue our own projects—provided that we did not interfere with the spheres of others. In plain English, we needed to take the State and other oppressive antagonists off our backs before we could consider ourselves autonomous. In this endeavor, secularism was and still is our most powerful ally.
By this measure, one can say that secularism has been a spectacular success. In modern western societies—where the secular project was advanced—it is safe to say that, today, individuals enjoy enough latitude to autonomously decide their own worldviews. Before engaging in any critique of secularism one must be thankful for what secularism has accomplished. We successfully took the State off our moral backs and secured the type of negative freedom that is pre-requisite for autonomy—positive freedom—to flourish. But as I am about to argue, we want more, and more we will not get if we do not venture beyond secularism. But let me be clear from the get go: this is a post on why we need to move beyond secularism, not a post against secularism; hopefully this distinction will become apparent in the next few paragraphs.
There are several reasons why the secular project is no longer the way forward. The first and most pressing one in my opinion is that secularism is no longer practicable even if we wanted to. As I have insisted in previous occasions, the strict separation between a private and a public realm that is paramount to the secular enterprise is simply impracticable in the era of social networks, the blogosphere and the twitterverse. The emergence of the hyper-public “Netizen” is rendering secularism obsolete. In an interwoven society there is no realistic sphere for the private to remain truly secluded; everything (including our religious beliefs) can cross seamlessly into the public realm and everything is up for social discussion. Insisting on a private/public separation between morality and politics in our interconnected reality is, to put it simply, technologically naive.
Besides secularism’s growing impracticability, there are also several philosophical reasons why one can argue that secularism has run its course. The strongest philosophical objections tend to center around the negative consequences that a stiff separation between morality and politics has had on our deliberative culture. Put simply, the privatization of morality has hampered our capacity to dialogue with those outside our own worldview. Our morals ran wild in the unaccountable world of the private and our politics languished in the sterilized world of bureaucracy. My own critique along these lines has focused on the rise of fundamentalism as a byproduct of mixing secularism with interconnectivity. As I concluded in the previous post, centuries of concealing our beliefs behind the walls of the private have left us pathetically unprepared for the rise of global interconnection. Our inability to engage in levelheaded reason exchanges involving our most priced moral and religious beliefs speaks volumes of the taxing side-effects of secularism. As the private is irreversibly dragged out into the global spotlight in the age of the internet, the rise of fundamentalism is a sad reminder that concealment is no longer a tenable strategy. In the powerful words of Michael J. Sandel “fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread”.
But there is yet another philosophical reason why I believe we need to go beyond secularism. As I argued in the beginning of this post, secularism was extremely successful at providing us a sphere of action where we could exercise our autonomy, i.e., it was very successful at taking the State and other antagonists off our backs allowing us to freely choose our own worldview. But the fact that we are actually free from external coercion does not automatically imply that we are autonomous. Secularism bought our negative freedom at the high price of our positive freedom. The freedom we won under secularism was the freedom to enslave ourselves with our private, unaccountable and uncontested beliefs—which is of course orders of magnitude better than being enslaved by someone else’s beliefs, but still short of real autonomy. You can rejoice in your freedom to privately pick and choose your beliefs but you are fooling yourself if you think you are fully free: if you have not exposed your beliefs to ongoing critical consideration you are nothing but a slave of your private whims.
A freedom that deserves the name requires a healthy process of critically vetted and socially constituted autonomy. A revitalized process of open and ongoing public deliberation around the “big questions” of morality, religion and philosophy is required if we are to call ourselves free. As Robert Talisse has recently highlighted, this was the great insight of Charles Sanders Peirce: only open beliefs are proper beliefs in accordance to the exigencies of epistemic agency. What all this means is that in order to move forward we need to tear down the secular wall between the private and the public and reinsert our private worldviews in the sphere of public deliberation and critical reason-exchange. This, of course, requires that the proper epistemic conditions are in place and requires above all that the conversation remains open and our beliefs remain fallible, forever, with no exceptions.
Michael Sandel, Public Philosophy, 2005, Harvard University Press
Robert Talisse, A Pragmatist Philosophy of Democracy, 2007, Routledge