Secularism and Human Dignity

Ronald A. Lindsay

Secularism is a scary word for some, especially those on the religious Right. Moreover, as we are now officially into the 2012 presidential election campaign, you can expect to hear a lot more about the alleged evils of secularism. Before his recent political implosion, self-appointed intellectual Newt Gingrich was busy inveighing against secularism in articles, speeches, and books. (His most recent book was titled To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine.) Gingrich’s rants may now receive less attention, but his views on secularism are echoed by many others, including Republican presidential hopefuls Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney.

This dread of secularism among some of the religious is misplaced. Properly understood, secularism is not a threat to religious beliefs. Granted, secularism is a threat to the privileged position that religion still maintains in certain areas, and that may explain some of the adverse reaction to secularism. But religion’s privileged position is neither justified nor consistent with freedom of conscience or the respect we owe to others. To the contrary, adherence to secular principles is required if we are to respect the dignity of others, including the dignity of religious believers—or so I will argue here.

Two Senses of Secularism

Secularism can be understood in both a narrow sense and a broad sense. In a narrow sense, secularism reflects the familiar concept of the separation of church and state. Government should stay out of the religion business. It should do nothing to promote or advance religious beliefs (or antireligious beliefs). Individuals should be free to come to their own conclusions about the existence of the supernatural or transcendent without compulsion, prodding, or oversight by the state.

In a broad sense, secularism not only prohibits government interference with religious beliefs but also prohibits religious influence on public policy. Further, it insists that discourse about public policy should be framed entirely in secular terms and that decisions about public policy should be based entirely on secular considerations. One implication of this broad understanding of secularism is that religious leaders qua religious leaders have no special role in formulating public policy. The common practice of inviting representatives of various “faith” traditions to testify on some proposed regulation or statute does not exhibit a praiseworthy tolerance for different beliefs; instead, this practice elevates religious dogma over empirical evidence and secular considerations. There is no more justification for having a priest, minister, rabbi, and imam offer their views on stem cell research, for example, than there is for listening to the opinions of four individuals selected at random.

Secularism and Human Dignity

Above, I made the claim that secularism is related to human dignity. It’s time I made good on that claim.

First, a couple of words about human dignity. Nowadays, everyone considers human dignity important, but the concept of human dignity is rarely explained or defined. (This may be one reason “human dignity” is universally approved; just like “justice,” it’s a concept with malleable content.) I along with others would maintain that human dignity is predicated on our capacities, in particular, our capacities to reason, to think for ourselves, to express ourselves, and to make decisions for ourselves. In short, human dignity is predicated on our ability to be autonomous beings.

Unwarranted interference with our autonomy represents an affront to our dignity. Such affronts to our dignity are most obvious and most serious when they prevent us from exercising the freedoms that are fundamental to giving shape, direction, and meaning to our lives. Such fundamental freedoms include the freedom to express ourselves, to marry or not, to bear children or not, and to accept or reject religious doctrines. If we prevent a person from exercising autonomy in these matters, we are effectively appropriating that person’s life—we are directing and dictating how that life is to be lived. We are stripping that person of dignity.

The connection between the narrow sense of secularism and human dignity should now be clear. Human dignity requires the freedom to decide for oneself what to believe and profess about religious matters. Human dignity requires the state to refrain from pressuring a person, directly or indirectly, to adopt a religious belief.

This connection between freedom of conscience and human dignity is one reason Enlightenment thinkers insisted on the separation of church and state. Happily, that perspective was shared by the founders, who provided us with a Constitution that is wholly secular and a Bill of Rights that expressly prohibits government intrusion into religious matters. The fact that almost all of the Founders were religious did not prevent them from grasping the importance of secularism. For better or worse, the separation of church and state actually provides favorable conditions for religious beliefs, especially minority religious beliefs. The only persons and institutions adversely affected by the narrow sense of secularism are those who want to impose their religious views on others.

Human Dignity and the Broad Sense of Secularism

But is secularism in the broad sense also connected to human dignity? Yes, if we accept that human dignity is more likely to be protected and promoted in a democracy. (Proving that would require a longer argument than I can provide here, but the history of the last two centuries surely provides prima facie evidence for this assertion.)

In a democracy, citizens are encouraged to discuss and debate public policy, and the government is expected to justify its public policy to its citizens. There is one clear prerequisite for this democratic discourse to be successful: the participants in that discussion must be able to understand, evaluate, and debate reasons that others offer for their views. That is not possible if religious doctrine is offered as a justification for public policy positions.

As the late Richard Rorty observed, religion is a conversation stopper. Once religious doctrine is invoked as a justification for a particular viewpoint, it is futile to carry the discussion further. “Faith” means not having to supply reasons. You cannot argue with someone’s faith. As an example, let’s consider someone who opposes same-sex marriage because of a faith-based belief that God considers homosexuality immoral. Once that explanation is given, that’s the end of the discussion, isn’t it? There’s no point in discussing empirical evidence about the stability of same-sex relationships, the important legal benefits that are attached to marriage, and so forth because there’s no effective way to persuade someone who is relying on religious doctrine.

Oh, sure, one could immerse oneself in a theological discussion involving biblical exegesis, but that discussion would be as pointless as it would be endless. There are no intersubjectively valid criteria for determining the “correct” interpretation of scripture. And, of course, such an excursion into theology begs the question of why we should make use of some allegedly sacred writing from millennia ago that provides us with the “wisdom” of a nomadic and barbaric tribe as both the starting and ending points of any public policy debate.

Public policy discussion must rely on evidence that, at least in principle, is accessible to everyone. This requirement is not only based on practical considerations but is implied by our obligation to respect the dignity of others. Formulating one’s argument in secular terms is necessary to show respect for one’s fellow citizens who may not share one’s religious beliefs. If all you’re doing in debating public policy alternatives is preaching your own religious doctrines, you’re not truly engaging others in a discussion. You’re simply trying to impose your beliefs on them. You might as well shut up and use your Bible or Qur’an as a weapon to beat people over the head with. Your message can be distilled to this: accept my religious doctrines; accept my religious doctrines; accept my religious doctrines.

But is adhering to this broad sense of secularism really feasible, even if it seems like a worthy goal? And is it actually a worthy goal? Are we not denying those who accept religion as a guide to moral values a right to participate in public policy debates? Or, at the very least, are we not requiring them to restructure and rephrase their views in nonreligious terms before they participate in such debates? This was the complaint made by Stephen Carter in his 1994 book The Culture of Disbelief. He argued that those who want to keep religious values out of public policy discussions force religious citizens to restructure their arguments in purely secular terms before they can be presented.

My response to Carter and to others who present similar arguments: And? So what?

If a person wants to engage fellow citizens in a discussion about the correct course of action to take on a particular issue, those arguments should be structured in secular terms. There is nothing onerous about that requirement. In fact, it operates as a much-needed check on the soundness of one’s reasoning. If one cannot reformulate a religiously based moral belief in terms that a nonbeliever might find persuasive, one should pause to consider whether those views are correct. Perhaps you have misinterpreted God’s commandments. After all, why would God ask you to follow a rule that does not make any sense when you try to explain it to someone else?

It only remains to note that this broad sense of secularism is not in any way antireligious. It does not restrict private religious beliefs or practices. Moreover, this broad sense of secularism protects religion as much as it protects democratic discourse. If religion is allowed to influence our discussions about public policy, then the religion with the overwhelming number of committed adherents will prevail, whether it’s Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism. Alternatively, where minority religions gain enough political influence, there will be a demand for special laws and regulations to accommodate them. Some Western nations have recently witnessed this in the demand for Sharia to be applicable to the Muslim communities in their countries. The only way to preserve a unified state that puts all citizens on an equal footing—that respects the dignity of all citizens—is to have a broadly secular society.

Widespread acceptance of the importance of individual autonomy and human dignity is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. It has its roots in the Enlightenment, and the first, critical step in creating a sphere of personal autonomy was in recognizing the right to freedom of conscience. During the last two centuries, we have seen that sphere of personal autonomy gradually grow larger, to encompass such matters as political rights and the right to pursue a career of one’s choosing, until now it is (finally!) recognized by many as including the right to live freely and openly in accordance with one’s sexual orientation. Throughout this process, it is no accident that the influence of religious doctrine has waned while secularism has gained more acceptance. Secularism does not guarantee respect for human dignity, but it is difficult to envision a society that truly respects human dignity that is not predominantly secular.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.


Secularism is a scary word for some, especially those on the religious Right. Moreover, as we are now officially into the 2012 presidential election campaign, you can expect to hear a lot more about the alleged evils of secularism. Before his recent political implosion, self-appointed intellectual Newt Gingrich was busy inveighing against secularism in articles, …

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