Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Is the privacy model of secularism wong-headed?

Dr. Austin Dacey writes that liberals and secularists need to ditch the privacy model of religionin an essay "How Secularism Lost Its Soul" which can be found on the website of Mukta Mona, freethinkers, secularsts, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian origin scattered across the globe.

Here are a few highlights.

confusion stems from a particular interpretation of secularism, now the dominant view, which equates it with the idea that conscience is a “private matter.”

Schools and utilities markets may be another matter, but when it comes to religion, liberal-minded folks have embraced privatization with fervor. Their mantra: beliefs are fine in private, so long as you don’t “impose” them on others.

the privacy model is almost entirely misleading. What’s more, staunch secularists should be the first to give it up. The last three years have witnessed an eruption of issues that intersect with religion, ranging from sodomy laws, gay marriage, HIV-AIDS and stem cell research, global family planning, and abortion to relations between the U.S. and Islamic societies and the future of Iraqi democracy. In almost every case, the privacy model confounds liberals’ own best efforts to critique the cultural influence of theological conservatism. “Privacy” gets conflated with subjectivity, and subjectivity implies immunity to criticism. If, as the old joke goes, a liberal is one who won’t take his or her own side in an argument, today’s secularists are those who can’t.

More fundamentally, the privacy model severs secularism from theology. This is a recipe for incoherence, for the question of the proper relation between religion and politics is as much religious as it is politico-philosophical. That is nowhere clearer than in the democratic stirrings in Iraq, which offer an illuminating mirror on our own secular founding. The call for separation of mosque and state is dead unless it can be made at Friday prayers. Even America, it turns out, could never have escaped theocracy if our church-state fathers had believed that religious claims are “private reasons.” John Locke, Roger Williams, and James Madison were not just the public philosophers of secularism; they were also its theologians, who believed in the accountability of conscience. Their successors would do well to do likewise. This is not only a matter of simple intellectual clarity and honesty. It is also the only way to do justice to the significance of conscience and its proper place in the public discourse of a pluralistic society.

Madison’s case depends on a religious premise: the value of a particular kind of spiritual flourishing. Far from insisting on the separation of politics and theology, Madison and the other architects of American secularism articulated a political theology of separation.

American secularism has reached an impasse. In a post-theocratic but religious society, the project of “privatizing” conscience can lead nowhere but into strategic blunders and intellectual incoherence. With its ambiguity between the personal, the sectarian, the subjective, and the non-governmental, the concept of privacy is too crude a tool to properly frame secularist arguments. Yet by relegating conscience to the world of subjectivity, the philosophy of privacy insulates it from due public scrutiny. If they want to resist the social agenda of theological conservatism, liberals will have to do better than asking the devout to please refrain from speaking their minds. Better to look to the philosophy of our church-state fathers, and the democratic hopefuls of Islam. They remind us that for secularism to hold sway in a religious society, it has no choice but to engage with the substance of conscience.

Dacey is editor of Philo, a magazine in Applied Philosophy. He is a published author and currently the Chair of the Center for Inquiry (, Metro New York Branch.

Post a Comment