ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Reimagining Secularism

Respect, Domination and Principled Distance

It is widely recognised that political secularism, virtually everywhere in the world, is in crisis. It is also acknowledged that to overcome this crisis, secularism needs to be reimagined and reconceptualised. This article takes the first few steps towards doing so. It argues, first, that we need to move away from the standard church-state models of secularism and begin to focus instead on secularism as a response to deep religious diversity. Second, it claims that diversity must be understood as enmeshed in power relations, and therefore the hidden potential of religion-related domination must be explicitly acknowledged. Third, these two moves enable us to view secularism as a response to two forms of institutionalised religious domination, inter- and intra-religious. This way of conceiving secularism rebukes the charge that secularism is intrinsically anti-religious. Secularism is not against religion; it opposes institutionalised religious domination. Finally, the article argues that this conception entails that a secular state shows critical respect to all religious and philosophical world views, possible only when it adopts a policy of principled distance towards all of them.

The comments of an anonymous reviewer are gratefully acknowledged.

In “Giving Secularism Its Due”, written in 1991, which eventually appeared in a special edition of EPW (Bhargava 1994), I introduced a distinction between ethical and political secularism. Ethical secularism refers to a comprehensive normative perspective by which to lead an individual or collective life, or both. It is a well-reasoned but partly speculative perspective on how best to lead one’s life, here and now, in this-world, on the assumption that all ends pursued by humans pertain only to this-world and this time. Politico-moral secularism or political secularism is a perspective on earthly restraints, coercive or non-coercive, that can be placed in the pursuit of the good life, regardless of whether or not one is an ethical secularist something on which both the secularist and the religious might agree. Indeed, it might be an object of consensus among different kinds of secular and religious believers. One objective of the 1991 paper was to show that political secularism neither entails nor presupposes ethical secularism. It is simply false to believe that in order to be a political secularist, one had to be an ethical secularist.

The paper also clarified the distinction between the process of secularisation and political secularism, so far largely neglected by political theorists. I argued that political secularism is frequently needed precisely in those societies where people belonging to multiple religions or religious believers and philosophical secularists all coexist, or are in prolonged conflict. A fully secularised society would not need a secular state because, in some form, it already has it. Political secularism, I argued, is needed precisely in conditions where complete secularisation is impossible, unavailable as an option, or undesirable. My focus, then, was not on secularisation. Therefore, I did not specify its meaning. But I implied that it refers to a social process that gets underway and remains in motion largely, but not wholly, independent of intentional human action. Secularisation was not launched as a programme of collective action. It has occurred – if, where and when it has – because of the unintended consequences of human action. Indeed, in Europe, it appears to have happened as a result of changes within religion, induced by religious people out of very religious motives. Secularism, on the other hand, is a collective normative project. It sets out a plan of desirable collective action. It is probable that the more successful its realisation, the more secularisation there is. However, to some extent secularisation may occur even without secularism, perhaps despite its failure. I also implied that secularisation had a certain negative relation with religions – the more one is present, the less available the other will be, and vice versa.

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