April 4, 2012

The Assault on Secularism Poses a Real Threat to Religious Freedom

SecularismTaner Edis over at the Secular Outpost wrote a thought-provoking post in which he argues rather convincingly that secularism is under assault and perhaps weaker today than at many times in the past. I think this is an important read, especially in the context of recent celebrations of atheism like the Reason Rally and Rock Beyond Belief. It isn't that Taner is trying to rain on anyone's parade; he's simply reminding us that secularism (which is not synonymous with atheism) is fairly weak today. Unfortunately, I have to agree.

Taner focuses on two broad examples to support his argument: the success of religious conservatives in the United States in redefining "religious freedom" to mean something the founders would hardly recognize and the tenuous position of secular minorities in Muslim nations.

In the U.S. context, Taner notes that religious conservatives mean something very different from what the rest of us mean by "religious freedom" and that they still do not support what most of us mean by the phrase.
…"religious freedom" as understood by conservative Christians should be interpreted as protecting their ability to impose their views about morality on a large scale, including where many people who do not belong to their religious tradition are involved. Public policy, in other words, should be solicitous of conservative Christian notions of moral purity, otherwise the freedom of Christian communities to live fully according to their religious conscience will be violated.
This is certainly quite different from what those of us in the reality-based community mean by "religious freedom" or the free expression of one's religion.

For examples from predominately Muslim countries, Taner mentions Egypt and Turkey. Egypt appears to be moving toward a constitution that embraces an even stricter application of Islamic law than the current version. And Turkish officials are promoting Islamic education in public schools.

Taner's key point across these examples is that the version of "religious freedom" pushed by the religiously conservative focuses not on the individual freedom to believe what one wants but on the freedom of the religious community to be unconstrained in any way by the state. That is, what they want is the freedom to impose their beliefs on others without any interference from a secular state (or a secular minority within the state).
Religious conservatives have developed, under the influence of liberal political language, partly overlapping but also partly rival and incompatible notions of freedom. Those of us who prefer secular, liberal, and individual conceptions of rights and needs have a significantly different view about religious freedom.
Taner suggests that we need to understand this as a genuine political rivalry in the sense that what most of us recognize as religious liberty (i.e., the individual freedom to believe or not believe as we see fit) stands in direct conflict to what is being pushed by religious conservatives and will necessarily conflict with what they seek. He's right.

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