The category “secular” developed largely within Latin Christendom, initially as one term of a dyad contrasting profane time with the eternal, or sacred time. Certain places, persons, institutions, and actions were seen as closely related to sacred or higher time, and others as pertaining to profane time alone—thus the similar distinction made in the dichotomy of “spiritual/temporal” (for example, the state as the “temporal arm” of the church).

So one obvious meaning of “secularization” dates from the aftermath of the Reformation and refers specifically, in this sense, to the moment when certain functions, properties, and institutions were transferred from church to lay control.From the seventeenth century on, however, a new possibility arose—a conception of social life in which the secular was all that existed. Where “secular” had originally referred to profane or ordinary time, now profane time came to be understood on its own, with no reference to “higher” time. The meaning of “secular” was thus profoundly changed, because its counterpoint had been fundamentally altered. Gone was the contrast with another temporal dimension in which “spiritual” institutions had their niche; rather, the secular, in its new sense, opposed any claim made in the name of the transcendent. Needless to say, those who imagined a “secular” world in this sense saw claims regarding the transcendent as unfounded, and tolerable only to the extent that they did not challenge the interests of worldly powers and human well-being.

This shift brought a new conception of good social and political order, one unconnected to either the traditional ethics of the good life or the specifically Christian notion of perfection (sainthood). This new idea envisioned a society formed of and by individuals to meet their needs for security and the means to life. The criterion of a good society in this outlook—mutual benefit—was not only emphatically “this-worldly” but also unconcerned with “virtue” in the traditional sense.

The breaking away of a specifically “earthly” criterion was part of a broader distinction, one that divided “this world,” or the immanent, from the transcendent. This clear-cut distinction has become part of our way of seeing things, our Weltanschauung, in the West. We tend to apply it universally, even though no such hard-and-fast distinction has existed in any other human culture. What does seem to exist universally is some distinction between higher beings (spirits) and realms, and the everyday world we see immediately around us. But these are not usually sorted out into two distinct domains, with the lower one seen as a system understandable purely in its own terms. Rather, the levels usually interpenetrate, and the lower cannot be understood without reference to the higher. Yet the new understanding of the secular that I have been describing builds on precisely such a separation. It affirms, in effect, that the “lower” order—the immanent or secular—is all there is, and that the higher, or transcendent, is merely a human invention.

At first, the independence ascribed to the immanent was limited and partial. In the Deist version of this claim, widespread in the eighteenth century, God was seen as the artificer of the immanent order. Since He is creator, the natural order stands as a proof of His existence; and since the proper human order of mutual benefit is one that He designs and recommends, we follow His will in building it. The Deist conception, furthermore, affirmed that He backs up His law with the rewards and punishments of the next life. Thus, some religion, or at least a certain piety, is a necessary condition of good order. Religious authority can enter into competition with secular rulers; it can demand things of the faithful that go beyond, or even against, the demands of good order; it can make irrational claims. So it remains important to purge society of “superstition,” “fanaticism,” and “enthusiasm.” Consequently John Locke, the seventeenth-century English philosopher, will exclude from toleration not only Catholics, but also atheists.

The attempts of eighteenth-century “enlightened” rulers, such as Frederick the Great and Joseph II, to “rationalize” religious institutions—in effect, treating the church as a department of the state—belong to this earlier phase of secularization in the West. So too, in a quite different fashion, does the founding of the American republic, with its separation of church and state. But the first unambiguous assertion of the self-sufficiency of the secular came with the radical phases of the French Revolution. The polemical assertion of secularity returned in France’s Third Republic (1870–1940), whose laïcité was founded on the idea of the self-sufficiency of the secular and the exclusion of religion. (This spirit goes marching on in contemporary France, where the debate over banning the Muslim headscarf reveals an underlying insistence on eliminating any religious reference from the public spaces in which citizens meet.)

In some ways, the modern modes of secularism transpose features of the Deist template described above. In the Jacobin outlook, any form of “public” religion is unacceptable, and faith must be relegated to the private sphere. Following this view, there must be a coherent morale indépendante, a self-sufficient social morality without transcendent reference. This demand, in turn, encourages the idea that there is such a thing as Immanuel Kant’s “reason alone” (die blosse Vernunft)—that is, reason unaided by any “extra” premises derived from revelation or any other allegedly transcendent source. Variants of these claims resurface often in contemporary discussions of secularism in the West.

The Deist template has helped to define “good,” or “acceptable,” religion for much of the Western discussion of the last few centuries. A good, or proper, religion is a set of beliefs in God or some other transcendent power that entails an acceptable (or, in some versions, a “rational”) morality. It is devoid of any elements that do not contribute to this morality, and thus of “superstition.” It is also necessarily opposed to “fanaticism” and “enthusiasm,” since these involve a challenge by religious authority to what “reason alone” shows to be the proper order of society. Religion can be an aid to social order by inculcating the right principles, but it must not threaten this order by launching a challenge against it.

This constellation of terms, with all its baggage of ambiguity and its deep assumptions concerning the clear division between immanent and transcendent on one hand, and public and private on the other, has caused immense confusion. American secularists, for instance, often totally confuse the separation of church and state with the separation of religion and state. (In his early work the influential liberal American political philosopher John Rawls wanted to ban all reference to the grounds of people’s “comprehensive views”—these included religious views—from public discourse.) Moreover, the whole constellation generates disastrously ethnocentric judgments. If the canonical background for a satisfactory secularist regime is the three-stage history described above—distinction of church and state, separation of church and state, and, finally, the exclusion of religion from the state and from public life—then obviously Islamic societies can never make it.

It remains generally agreed that modern democracies have to be “secular.” Yet as we have just seen, a certain ethnocentricity attaches to this term. So what in fact does it mean?

I believe there exist today at least two models of what constitutes a secular regime. Both involve some kind of separation of church and state, meaning that the state can’t be officially linked to a religious confession except in a vestigial and largely symbolic sense, as in England or Scandinavia. But secularism requires more than this. If we examine it further, we see that secularism involves a complex requirement. (1) No one must be forced in the domain of religion, or basic belief. This is what is often defined as religious liberty—including the freedom not to believe—or the “free exercise” of religion, in the terms of the U.S. First Amendment. (2) There must be equality between people of different faiths or basic belief; no religious (or areligious) Weltanschauung can enjoy a privileged status, let alone be adopted as the official state view. Finally, (3) all spiritual families must be heard and included in the ongoing process of determining what the society is about (its political identity) and how to realize these goals (the exact regime of rights and privileges). And I believe that we might add a fourth requirement: that of maintaining harmony and comity among the supporters of different religions and views.

Sometimes the claim seems to be made, on behalf of one or another definition of secularism, that it can resolve the question of how to realize these goals in the domain of timeless principle, and that no further input or negotiation is required to define them for our society now. The basis for these principles can be found in reason alone, or in some outlook that is itself free from religion, purely laïque. The problem with such claims is that (a) there exists no such set of timeless principles which can be determined, at least not in detail sufficient for a given political system, by pure reason alone; and (b) situations differ very much, and require different kinds of concrete realization of agreed general principles, so that some degree of working out is necessary in each situation. It follows that dictating the principles from some supposedly higher authority above the fray violates (3) above. It deprives certain spiritual families of a voice in this working out. And this leaves us very often with difficult conflicts and dilemmas.

Consider, for instance, the way the issues concerning secularism have evolved in different Western societies in recent decades, as the faiths represented in those societies have changed. We need to alter the way in which we proceed when the range of religions or basic philosophies expands—as it has, for example, in contemporary Europe or America, with the arrival of substantial communities of Muslims. As one illustration we have the recent legislation in France against wearing the hijab in schools. Normally, this kind of thing needs to be negotiated. The host country is often forced to send a double message: first, you can’t do that here (for example, kill blaspheming authors, practice female genital mutilation); and second, we invite you to be part of our consensus-building process. These principles tend to run against each other, since the former both hinders the latter and renders it less plausible as well. And that is all the more reason to avoid unilateral restrictions on religious practices. Of course, sometimes this is not possible. Certain basic laws have to be observed. But the general principle is that religious groups must be seen, whenever possible, as interlocutors, not menacing opponents.

These groups also often evolve over time as they redefine themselves in a democratic, liberal context. The sociologist José Casanova has pointed out that American Catholicism in the nineteenth century was considered inassimilable to democratic mores, in ways analogous to the suspicions directed at Islam today. Subsequent history has shown how American Catholicism evolved—in the process changing world Catholicism in significant ways. There is no reason why a similar evolution cannot take place in Muslim communities. If this doesn’t happen, it will in all likelihood be because of prejudice and bad management.

In my view, one of our basic difficulties in dealing with these problems is that we have the wrong model. We think that secularism (or laïcité) has to do with the relation of the state and religion, whereas in fact it has to do with the response of the democratic state to diversity. The three goals I listed above possess in common a concern with (1) protecting people in their practice of whatever outlook they adhere to; (2) treating people equally whatever their option; and (3) giving them all a hearing. There is no reason in this regard to single out religion, as against nonreligious or atheist viewpoints. Indeed, the point of state neutrality is precisely to avoid favoring or disfavoring not just religious positions, but any basic position, religious or nonreligious. We can’t favor Christianity over Islam, nor can we favor religion over nonbelief, or vice versa.

This approach shows the value of the late-Rawlsian formulation for a secular state. Rawls cleaves very strongly to certain secular political principles: human rights, equality, the rule of law, democracy. These form the very basis of the state, which must support them. But this political ethic can be and is shared by people of very different basic outlooks. A Kantian will justify the rights to life and freedom by pointing to the dignity of rational agency; a utilitarian will speak of the necessity to treat beings who can experience joy and suffering in such a way as to maximize the first and minimize the second. A Christian will speak of humans as made in the image of God. They concur on the principles, but differ on the deeper reasons for holding them. The state must uphold the ethic, but must refrain from favoring any of the deeper reasons.

If we move, however, beyond such originating contexts, and look at the kinds of societies in which we are now living in the West, the first feature that strikes us is the wide diversity not only of religious views, but also of those which involve no religion (not to speak of those that aren’t even classifiable in this dichotomy). The goals I have been discussing require that we treat all of these views evenhandedly. If we do, we will recognize that a variety of secular political arrangements are acceptable. One should start from the goals and derive the concrete arrangements from them. In any secularist regime that results from such an arrangement, some separation of church and state, some mutual autonomy of governing and religious institutions, will be an inescapable feature. And the same goes for the neutrality of public institutions. Both are indispensable. But what these requirements mean in practice ought to be determined by how we can maximize our three (or four) basic goals.

Take for example the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women in public schools, a hot issue in a number of Western democracies. In France, pupils in public schools were famously forbidden the headscarf, seen as a signe religieux ostantatoire (ostentatious religious sign). In certain German Länder, pupils may wear it, but not teachers. In the United Kingdom and other countries, there is no general interdiction, and individual schools are left to decide.

What are the reasons for this variation? Plainly in all these cases, legislators and administrators were trying to balance two goals. One was the maintenance of neutrality in public institutions, seen (rightly) as an essential entailment of goal (2), equality among all basic beliefs. The other was goal (1), ensuring the maximum possible religious liberty, or, in its most general form, liberty of conscience. Meeting this goal seems to push us toward permitting the hijab anywhere. But various arguments overrode this in the French and German cases. The Germans were disturbed that someone in authority in a public institution should be religiously marked, as it were. In the French case, doubt was cast on the notion that wearing the hijab was a free act. There were dark suggestions—unsupported by sociological research carried out among the pupils themselves—that the girls were being forced by their families or by their male peers to adopt this dress code.

On one level, we can see that these different national answers to the same question reflect different takes on how to balance the two main goals of a secular regime. But on another level, the dilemma and its resolution remain hidden under the illusion that there is only one principle here: laïcité and its corollary of the neutrality of public institutions or spaces (les espaces de la République). Perhaps the most pernicious feature of this fetishization of traditional secular political arrangements is that it tends to hide from view the real dilemmas we encounter in this realm, which leap into view once we recognize the plurality of principles at stake. One reason for this is that political identity is extremely important in modern democratic states. And this identity is usually defined partly in terms of certain basic principles (democracy, human rights, equality), and partly in terms of their historical, linguistic, or religious traditions. It is understandable that features of this identity can take on a quasi-sacred status, for to alter or undermine them can seem to threaten the very basis of unity without which a democratic state cannot function.

It is in this context that certain historical institutional arrangements can appear untouchable. They may appear as an essential part of the basic principles of the regime, but they will also come to be seen as a key component of its historic identity. This is what one sees with laïcité as invoked by many French républicains. The irony is that in the face of a modern politics of (multicultural) identity, they invoke this principle as a crucial feature of (French) identity. This is unfortunate but understandable. And it illustrates the general truth that contemporary democracies, as they progressively diversify, will have to undergo redefinitions of their historical identities—and that these redefinitions may be far-reaching and painful.

We have seen how the move to fetishize our historical arrangements can prevent us from seeing our secular regime in a more fruitful light. This connects to the other main cause of confusion I cited above: our fixation on religion as the problem. In fact, we have moved in many Western countries from a phase in which secularism was a hard-won achievement, one which warded off some form of religious domination, to a phase of such widespread diversity of basic beliefs that only a clear focus on the need to balance freedom of conscience and equality of respect can allow us to comprehend and address the situation. Failure to do so risks needlessly limiting the religious freedom of immigrant minorities, and sends a message to these same minorities that they by no means enjoy equal status with the long-established mainstream.

But this fixation on religion as the problem is not just a historical relic. Much of our thought and some of our major thinkers remain stuck in the old rut. They want to make a special thing of religion, but not always for very flattering reasons. For instance, what are we to think of the idea, proposed most influentially by John Rawls in his early work, that one can legitimately ask all members of a religiously and philosophically diverse democracy to deliberate in a language of reason alone, leaving their religious views in the vestibule before entering the public sphere? The tyrannical nature of this demand was eventually appreciated by Rawls, to his credit. But we ought to ask why the proposition arose in the first place. Rawls’s point in suggesting this restriction was that everyone should use a language with which they could reasonably expect their fellow citizens to agree. The idea seems to be something like this: Secular reason is a language that everyone speaks and can argue and be convinced in. Religious languages operate outside of this discourse, by introducing extraneous premises that only believers can accept. So let’s all talk the common language.

What underpins this notion is something like an epistemic distinction. There is secular reason that everyone can use and reach conclusions by—conclusions, that is, with which everyone can agree. Then there are special languages, which introduce extra assumptions, some of which might even contradict those of ordinary secular reason. These languages are much more epistemically fragile; in fact, you won’t be convinced by them unless you already hold them. So religious reason either comes to the same conclusions as secular reason, in which case it is superfluous; or it comes to contrary conclusions, in which case it is dangerous and disruptive. Thus it must be excluded, left on the sidelines of the public conversation.

We can see these two motifs in a popular contemporary book, Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God. On one hand, Lilla wants to discern a great gulf between thinking informed by political theology and “thinking and talking about politics exclusively in human terms.” Moderns, he writes, have effected

the liberation, isolation, and clarification of distinctively political questions, apart from speculations about the divine nexus. Politics became, intellectually speaking, its own realm, one deserving independent investigation and serving the limited aim of providing the peace and plenty necessary for human dignity. That was the Great Separation.

Such metaphors of radical separation imply that human-centered political thought is a more reliable guide to answering the questions in its domain than theories informed by political theology.

Lilla’s faith in secular reason has its source in what one might call a myth of the Enlightenment. The myth reflects a common view of the Enlightenment as a passage from darkness to light—an absolute, unmitigated move from a realm full of error and illusion to one where the truth is at last available. Even sophisticated thinkers, who might repudiate this myth as a general proposition, seem to be leaning on it in other contexts. To this one must immediately add that a counterview defines “reactionary” thought: the Enlightenment as an unqualified move into error, a massive forgetting of salutary and necessary truths about the human condition. In the polemics around modernity, more nuanced understandings tend to get driven from the ring, leaving these two to slug it out. Matthew Arnold’s phrase about “ignorant armies clash[ing] by night” comes irresistibly to mind.

Thus there is a version of what the Enlightenment represents that sees it as our stepping out of a realm in which revelation, or religion in general, counted as a source of insight about human affairs, into a realm in which human affairs are understood in purely this-worldly or human terms. Of course, that some people have made this passage is not in dispute. But does this move involve the self-evident epistemic gain of our setting aside considerations of dubious truth and relevance and concentrating on matters we can settle and which are obviously relevant? This is often represented as a move from revelation to reason alone (Kant’s blosse Vernunft). Those thinkers who embrace this understanding of the Enlightenment imagine that “reason alone” can resolve certain moral-political issues in a way that (a) can legitimately satisfy any honest, unconfused thinker, and (b) is superior to religiously based conclusions, which will always be dubious and in the end only convincing to people who have already accepted the dogmas in question.

Such thinking surely is what lies behind the idea that one can restrict the use of religious language in the sphere of public reason. Yet this distinction in rational credibility between religious and nonreligious discourse seems to me utterly without foundation. It may turn out at the end of the day that religion is founded on an illusion. But until we actually reach that place, there is no a priori reason for directing greater suspicion at religious discourse. The credibility of this distinction depends on the view that some quite “this-worldly” argument suffices to establish certain moral-political conclusions. I mean “satisfy” in the sense of (a) above: that it should legitimately be convincing to any honest, unconfused thinker. There are propositions of this kind, ranging from “2 + 2 = 4” all the way to some of the better-founded deliverances of modern natural science. But the key beliefs we need, for instance, to establish our basic political morality are not among them. The two most widespread this-worldly philosophies in our contemporary world, utilitarianism and Kantianism, in their different versions, both fail at certain points to convince honest and unconfused people. If we take key statements of our contemporary political morality, such as those attributing such rights to human beings as, say, the right to life, I cannot see how the fact that we are desiring/enjoying/suffering beings, or the perception that we are rational agents, should provide any surer basis for this right than the fact that we are made in the image of God.

This whole matter deserves much further consideration. But I am convinced that such consideration would lend still more credibility to the revisionary understanding of secularism that I have proposed. And that understanding amounts to this: In order to merit the name “secularist,” regimes in contemporary democracies must be conceived not primarily as bulwarks against religion, but as good-faith attempts to secure a few basic goals. They must protect people in their practice of whatever religion or outlook they choose. They must treat people equally. And they must give all people a hearing. As our modern democracies attempt to shape their institutional arrangements to a remarkable diversity of beliefs, we must not be afraid to adjust our hallowed democratic traditions in pursuit of liberty and equality for all.


This essay has been adapted from Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays, by Charles Taylor, published in February 2011 by Harvard University Press. © 2011 Charles Taylor. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Related: Peter Steinfels reviews Charles Taylor's A Secular Age
John T. McGreevy reviews Mark Lilla's The Stillborn God

Charles Taylor is professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University. His books include Sources of the Self, A Secular Age, and The Language Animal.

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Published in the 2011-02-25 issue: View Contents
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