Freedom of Religion and the Secular State: Intro

So, this weekend, I’m finally going to try and write out my thoughts on this book. I think this will be in three parts. This one will be the introduction and a discussion of the work as a whole. The second one will talk about Blackford’s claim that his form of a secular state doesn’t get into morality, and I’ll be arguing that in the end he ends up arguing this on moral grounds and using moral presumptions. The last part will focus directly on the interactions between the secular states and religion, and will talk about Blackford’s view of religious accommodation. As you might be able to guess, this is going to be more of a commentary and less of a review, and thus I’ll be focusing on the points that I, at least, find more problematic in the book.

As an overall statement of the book, the philosophical discussion is detailed and interesting. It’s unfortunate that, in my opinion, the actual discussion of separation of Church and State is relatively weak. Blackford starts out with an interesting premise, but it seems to me that the premise itself simply cannot bear the weight of his later arguments. Thus, the later arguments seem unconvincing and, as stated, a bit weak; there seems little big reason to accept the strong claims he makes later. Note that this isn’t a criticism of the claims — although I do disagree with many of them — but more the support for those claims; from his starting point, Blackford simply can’t support his claims of how these things should interact, but it is the justifications of these claims that we really wanted. To his credit, he’s generally pretty clear about his claims and is also generally modest about his claims when necessary.

His basic premise, then, starts from Hobbes and Locke, both of which essentially argued that the role of the State was to provide peace and the good life to the citizens. As religion is potentially divisive and thus is likely to cause unrest, the State needs to decide how to react to this thing that’s crucially important in the life of its citizens. It can take sides in otherworldly matters and try to impose a religion on the citizenry, but it is supremely unqualified to do so. Alternatively, it can focus on providing worldly goods and leave the determination of otherworldly goods to religions themselves. The latter seems to provide the most peace and the best worldly ends, and so this is the one that Blackford accepts. But we can see that this is all underpinned by the idea that the State is supposed to provide peace and stability for its citizens, which is does by focusing on worldly or what we can now call “secular” matters.

This is a very interesting argument, and it seems broadly right. If the State was going to get involved in determining what was the right otherworldly belief system, it would simultaneously alienate a large number of its citizens while at the same time find itself unable to actually determine with any reasonable degree of certainty what the correct system was. While worldly matters — let’s exempt morality from this for now — are generally fairly easy to figure out, explain, and argue for, religions traditionally have never been that simple. Thus, by allowing each citizen to choose their own way of pursuing the otherworldly, and in fact insisting on it, the State thus manages to reduce potential conflicts and eliminate a potential source of resentment and unrest towards it.

This may sound like this is simply either a consequence of or a justification for a liberal, individualistic mindset, and it is clear that Blackford favours societies that are individualistic and liberal. This, however, is one of the bigger problems with the entire work, because it isn’t at all clear that the starting point of the State — preserve the peace and provide the worldly goods — justifies liberalism and individualism. It seems fairly easy to argue that in some cases conservative or communitarian principles might well produce the best and most harmonious societies. Even trying to appeal to history doesn’t really settle the matter, as societies where the individual is subordinated to the society or where change only occurs slowly and with great care seem to have had some success. Many Eastern cultures, for example, are far more communitarian than Western ones, and did seem to have significant success in creating peaceful and stable societies. And liberal and individualistic societies have their own issues and potential for clash. So, then, it isn’t clear that we can get from Blackford’s starting point to liberalism and individualism.

This wouldn’t be a problem, as Blackford is usually pretty modest about his claims and accepts that one might not be convinced to make the leap from his starting principle to liberalism and individualism. It becomes a problem, however, later when his arguments depend on accepting a liberal or individualistic mindset in order for them to be credible. At that point, we become pointedly reminded that it isn’t any sort of liberal or individualistic principle that justifies his ideas of what a State should do, or what a secular state should be, or for how the divisions break down, but his initial starting principle. And since his initial starting principle doesn’t necessarily support liberalism and individualism, it becomes abundantly clear that it doesn’t necessarily support those arguments either. Which, as stated earlier, makes his arguments weaker than they should be. After all, if his starting principle doesn’t support it, then all he has to appeal to is individualism or liberalism … but then conservatives or communitarians will simply reject that appeal. And since a great deal of religions are both conservative and communitarian, the arguments for a secular state as Blackford conceives it will be utterly unconvincing to them.

Which means that a great deal of the people he would want to reach will not be reached by his arguments.

In the next part, I will look at one of the aspects that is likely to be controversial to religious people and, additionally, many people in general: can a valid secular state impose a morality, or should it stay out of the morality business entirely?

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One Response to “Freedom of Religion and the Secular State: Intro”

  1. massiveaudience Says:

    Nice start on the review! Looking forward to your next post.

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