Terry Eagleton, in a recent essay for the New Statesman, suggests a sure-fire method for determining just how secular your society truly is. It has to do with the degree to which universal compulsion on matters religious has been abandoned (both in law and cultural convention):
Like art and sexuality, religion is taken out of public ownership and gradually privatised. It dwindles to a kind of personal pastime, like breeding gerbils or collecting porcelain. As the cynic remarked, it is when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it is time to give it up. In this respect, it has a curious affinity with alcohol: it, too, can drive you mad.
This is quite the libertarian definition of secularism for someone like Eagleton (who professes to be a Marxist). My only quarrel with him comes in this sentence:
[I]t is when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it is time to give it up.
I would change this sentence as follows:
[I]t is when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it is time to give it up if you choose.
In other words, even in a thoroughly secular society the ardently religious—like alcoholics—will always be with us. A secular society is a society, not of people who are mostly irreligious, indifferent to religion, or even hostile to it, but of people—religious or otherwise—uninterested in forcing their personal or group religious preferences onto society-at-large by force of law or broad cultural taboo.
And there’s the rub, because Eagleton also notes that religion takes on many guises:
The history of modernity is, among other things, the history of substitutes for God. Art, culture, nation, Geist, humanity, society: all these, along with a clutch of other hopeful aspirants, have been tried from time to time. The most successful candidate currently on offer is sport, which, short of providing funeral rites for its spectators, fulfils almost every religious function in the book.
If Friedrich Nietzsche was the first sincere atheist, it is because he saw that the Almighty is exceedingly good at disguising Himself as something else, and that much so-called secularisation is accordingly bogus.
Eagleton might have added to his list of God-substitutions—but, tellingly, did not do so—his own favored trope: Marxist utopianism.
Nevertheless, his point is well taken. Gay marriage in New York is an example of a state getting secularism right: civil marriage, not religious marriage, is recognized by the state, but there are very specific provisions in the new law that protect religious objectors and institutions from any recognition of gay marriage.
An example of where a state might get secularism wrong is in the realm of providing abortion services. If, for example, a pharmacist who is anti-abortion cannot opt out of being the person who fills a morning-after pills prescription—and not lose her job because of it—then she is not really living in a secular society. Rather, she is living in one dominated by an ideology that functions as a substitute for God and means to advance itself among people, not just by persuasion, but by compulsions against the exercise of individual conscience.
But this too is problematic, for secular institutions—governments, universities, and private corporations—narrow the realm of freedom for citizens, students, and workers all the time, and frequently set agendas that attempt to compel broad cultural conformity.
Are environmentally motivated laws that, for example, ban the use of incandescent lightbulbs in favor of compact fluorescents, actually a chipping away at a truly secular society?
Maybe liberals (like myself) are insufficiently honest about such matters, and should ask ourselves which of these three secular models we really support:
- the libertarian secular
- the nanny-state secular
- the authoritarian or totalitarian secular
Most of us (I presume) are quite happy, whether humanist or religious, to live in the libertarian secular; few of us are thrilled to live in either the nanny-state secular or authoritarian/totalitarian secular. And this, perhaps, is where atheist and theist can make alliance (in defending the libertarian secular realm against its enemies: religious theocrats, nanny-state do-gooders, and all other assorted authoritarians and totalitarians).
This, at bottom, is the real division among individuals that matters. And isn’t it interesting (and a source for optimism) that most humanists, evangelicals, and moderate Muslims are actually, where it counts, likely to be on the same side?
Here I am, for example, interviewing a Muslim imam—at a mosque in northern Los Angeles County last year—and getting a surprisingly libertarian secular response (at least in broad terms). Maybe Muslim secularist need not be an oxymoron: