Up With Secularism!

Russell Blackford

As I write, the latest issue of New Humanist (July/August 2012), the magazine of the United Kingdom’s Rationalist Association, has come out with an article by Richard Smyth titled “Down With Secularism.” Smyth thoroughly rejects ideas of a separation of church and state, or as we might rephrase it, of keeping religion out of government and politics. He could not be much more forthright about this than in his opening paragraph: “It compromises democracy, it promotes and rewards hypocrisy and doublethink, it reflects a crippling failure of imagination on the part of its proponents, and it’s founded on principles that are cynical, unempathetic and deeply un-humanist. It’s called secularism, and I think it stinks.”

As Smyth develops the argument, it seems that he is unwilling to vote for someone whose religious views he disagrees with because he worries about them “getting things wrong.” Well, yes, but consider the following scenario, one that could actually arise. Say that I favor a package of policies that includes tighter gun control, a more generous social safety net, reduced military expenditure, and a sub-package of social policies that are broadly liberal, feminist, and pro-sex (such as policies that relax current restrictions on abortion rights). I am confronted with two political platforms, one that is in line with the policies I favor while the other takes a diametrically opposite position on each issue.

Imagine that Candidate A, who supports the package that I favor, has reached these positions from some sort of Christian worldview (presumably a rather liberal one). Imagine that Candidate B, who supports the opposite policies, is an atheist but nonetheless subscribes to some sort of political ideology that I regard as reactionary and callous. Who gets my vote?

I’ll have no hesitation in voting for Candidate A. What matters to me when I decide the merits of a political leader is, above all, the actual policy platform that the politician advocates during the electoral process. Second, I might be interested in the candidate’s propensity to generate policies that I favor if new issues arise. From what I know, Candidate A is likely to keep coming up with policies that I favor, whereas Candidate B is likely to continue to do the opposite. What I have in common with Candidate B is merely an opinion on a metaphysical issue—we don’t seem to have much in common on issues to do with the best use of political power. I don’t agree with the overall worldview of either candidate, but Candidate A is the one who is likely to be (by my lights at least) a good leader.

In short, I don’t particularly want to vote for candidates on the basis of their religious views except insofar as these might be one factor in determining how they are inclined to use political power. I am interested in good government, not in rewarding people who agree with me—or punishing people who disagree with me—on metaphysical issues. I will most likely look at such mundane things as past policies and voting records for evidence of who will get things wrong.

But there’s a more important point to be made. Like many other people who oppose limited government, Smyth bangs on about how it is antidemocratic or compromises democracy. But that does not follow at all—not unless you adopt a crude view of democracy as, in effect, the tyranny of the majority. We are not compelled by reason to take any such view.

There are two conceptually separate, though partly linked, sets of issues here. One relates to such questions as what powers the state should be exercising and for what purposes. The other relates to the methods by which the officials exercising these powers should be chosen and perhaps the actual processes that they must work through in the exercise of power.

As to the first issue, it is not at all obvious that the state is a competent or trustworthy body to be making decisions about which religion is true, if any, what otherworldly entities, powers, and principles do or do not exist, what sort of conduct conduces to spiritual salvation or rightness with God, and so on. Why would anyone who is not utterly confident that the state will share his or her judgment on these matters believe that it is at all competent on them or that it is likely to do anything other than make a mess if it gets into this territory? The historical record does not suggest that political leaders and government agencies can do this sort of stuff, and we have good reason not to entrust it to them.

On the other hand, we might well not be anarchists—we might think that the state is capable of doing some things well. Those things might be more than minimal: they need not be restricted to keeping the peace, enforcing schemes of property, and the like but might extend to economic redistributions, a social/economic safety net, and much else that falls within the this-worldly activities of the modern welfare-state apparatus in, say, a typical Western European country.

This debate has been going on since at least the seventeenth century, and by and large it has been settled on the basis that the powers and purposes of the state will be restricted, to at least some extent, partly by constitutional provisions but also by various widely accepted political principles. It is possible to create institutions within the structure of the state to maintain this overall settlement (I am thinking, for example, of constitutional courts), and these can be successful as long as they broadly sustain the confidence of the public—which needs to accept relevant political ideas, perhaps including limited government itself, the rule of law, and maybe substantive political principles such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

However, even if the state is limited in this way, through constitutional provisions and/or widely accepted political ideas and principles, it still exercises vast powers. We have good reason to want these to be exercised well, and that may incline us to favor democratic elections: these provide a peaceful means to remove tyrannical, incompetent, or corrupt governments or simply to replace one government with an alternative that appears better. For similar reasons, we might favor laws that require a degree of openness in government (e.g., statutory consultation processes and freedom of information laws).

It follows that we can support political principles and constitutional provisions that rein in the powers and legitimate purposes of the state, while also, and for similar reasons, supporting various democratic arrangements. There is no contradiction here.

Smyth takes a jaded view of Christians in the United Kingdom who approved, in a recent opinion poll, of a separation of religion from government power: “Hard as it is to imagine, it seems that the Christians surveyed by [the U.K. market research firm] IPSOS MORI may not have thought this all the way through.” I suggest, however, that it is actually Smyth who has not thought matters through. Those Christians may well have had good, even if not fully articulated, reasons to think that the state is not well equipped to decide what is or is not “sin,” conducive to rightness with God, or appropriate for spiritual salvation. If you think it all the way through, you might well want to limit the role of the state in acting on these motives (even if the limit is only via popular sentiment), while also wanting the government of the day to be accountable to the people through an electoral process.

In the end, Smyth thinks democratic argument can save the day: “If I were to be the only atheist in a country otherwise full of Christians, I would want and expect the government to be run on Christian principles. I wouldn’t like it, of course—but that’s democracy.
I would also want to start an argument. I’d want to start lots of arguments.”

Seriously, would he really want the country to be run on Christian principles? If so, what would he want to argue about? More worrying, why would a populace that thinks its government should be deciding such things as the correct religion and religious canons of conduct also think it should allow freedom of speech for the government’s decisions on these all-important things to be criticized? If Smyth ever finds himself in a country like this—one seriously run on Christian principles—he’d better not expect to start many arguments at all.

A government that thinks it’s the arbiter of controversies over otherworldly matters isn’t going to find many reasons to favor freedom of speech. If you think that theocracy—even an elected theocracy—and free speech make a likely combination, well good luck with that one. Meanwhile, I have a bridge to sell you.

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.


As I write, the latest issue of New Humanist (July/August 2012), the magazine of the United Kingdom’s Rationalist Association, has come out with an article by Richard Smyth titled “Down With Secularism.” Smyth thoroughly rejects ideas of a separation of church and state, or as we might rephrase it, of keeping religion out of government …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.