Akeel Bilgrami has provided a rich discussion of the form and content of the notion of secularism.1 Further, Bilgrami has argued that we should resist Charles Taylor's call to radically redefine secularism in the narrow terms of its relation to a set of liberal goals and values. Rather, Bilgrami characterizes secularism as a scheme that affords lexical priority to certain political values and ideals over religious values and ideals. I contend that Bilgrami's invocation of lexical priority as a characterization of the proper form of neutrality, rather than secularism itself, is an improvement that Taylor should adopt. However, I also argue that Bilgrami's continued identification of secularism as a stance solely against religion is inconsistent with the case Taylor is most concerned with, where secular institutions are adopted on a basis of the liberal values of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

To that end, I begin with a brief discussion of Taylor's argument for a redefinition of secularism. Next, I offer a brief review of the main points of Bilgrami's analysis of secularism. In the third section, I examine the role of the term “religion” in Bilgrami's account and show why a public justification account avoids certain difficulties with invoking that concept.

Secularism as a Response to Pluralism

  1. Top of page
  2. Secularism as a Response to Pluralism
  3. Neutrality as Lexical Priority
  4. The Value of Secularism
  5. Conclusion

In a recent article, Taylor argues for a radical redefinition of secularism.2 On Taylor's view, secularism is valuable insofar as it promotes greater liberty, equality, and fraternity. The liberty at issue is liberty of conscience. Secular institutions and rights—such as the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or the French instantiation of laïcité—are meant to protect the liberty of citizens to think and believe in what they wish. By contrast, the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is meant to protect the relative equality of religious groups by denying the advantages of state sponsorship to any particular group. Finally, Taylor argues that secularism is meant to ensure the value of fraternity insofar as a secular state ensures that all groups are able to enter the public forum and participate in the process of determining the public political identity of the society and the institutional structure meant to realize and articulate that identity.

So, for Taylor, the value of secular institutions is contingent upon their protection of the liberty, equality, and fraternity of the citizens of a society. Taylor argues that contemporary views that identify secularism as a stance against religion are a consequence of the particular historical circumstances in which secular institutions were first erected—that is, especially the context of founding in the United States and France. The founders of the United States were concerned with organizing a union in the face of a plurality of Protestant Christian views, and the U.S. institutionalization of secularism primarily through First Amendment jurisprudence was designed to ensure liberty, equality, and fraternity in light of this basically one-dimensional pluralism of different Protestant Christian groups by ensuring that no particular sect was favored by the state. In contrast, the historical circumstances of the French Revolution pitted the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity “against a powerful church.”3 As such, secularism in France tended to focus on protecting individuals from undue or unwanted influence and pressure from religious organizations. The French headscarf debate is one example where, despite the protest of many of these women at being characterized as powerless victims of an authoritarian religious regime, the notion of women subjected to the oppressive authority of religious figures and forced to dress in an unwanted manner was compelling enough to mobilize the power of the state. However, Taylor argues that just because early secular institutions were distinctively organized in relation to religious pluralism does not mean that the motivation for endorsing secularism is itself distinctively or essentially a response to religion per se. The focus on religion is simply an artifact of the importance of religious pluralism in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century contexts of founding of Western liberal democracies. In a different context, the institutions that the values underlying secularism would justify might take a different stance toward religion or toward other types of beliefs and values entirely.4

Indeed, Taylor argues that the multifaceted pluralism of modern democratic states calls in turn for a new understanding of the value of secularism. Taylor resists identifying the concept of secularism too rigidly with the institutions meant to embody it within particular Western historical circumstances—for example, the separation of church and state from the context of the U.S. founding and the rigid relegation of religion to the private sphere as articulated in the French laïcité. Instead, he argues for a radical redefinition of secularism that sees it as the proper stance of the state toward pluralism along any dimension. As Taylor puts it, “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 (correct) response of the democratic state to diversity.”5

As a result, Taylor argues that we should not blindly hold to the institutions appropriate to the context of the founding and ignore the need for institutional innovation in response to the greater recognition of pluralism in contemporary Western democracies. Changing circumstances can alter what institutions properly instantiate as the value of secularism in at least two obvious ways. First, demographic changes might either increase or decrease pluralism. Second, social and cultural change can generate new views and eliminate old ones, thereby also increasing or decreasing pluralism in relevant domains. Immigration to Western democratic states, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century, has been an obvious source of increasing pluralism, just as emigration of minority groups away from states can serve to decrease pluralism within that society. By divorcing the definition of secularism from the particular historical institutions that have embodied it, we gain the flexibility to recognize that the institutions that properly instantiate the values underlying secularism might need to change as social circumstances change. Take the shift in school prayer debates within the United States from reliance on the establishment clause and toward the free speech and free exercise clauses in the late twentieth century.6 This could be interpreted as an attempt to repurpose the First Amendment in response to a new social context where the concern was a perception of increasing hostility toward religion, rather than religious encroachment on public life.7

Taylor wants to elide the difference between religious and nonreligious reasons and argue that the state has to be neutral between all groups of deliberators. As Taylor puts it, “The state can be neither Christian nor Muslim nor Jewish, but, by the same token, it should also be neither Marxist, nor Kantian, nor utilitarian.”8 According to Taylor, this limit on the legitimacy of the state was originally motivated by the need in a democracy to constitute a polity. State neutrality is an engine of social solidarity and trust. We promise not to impose our wills on one another for reasons that some of us would find it impossible to recognize as valid, because to impose coercive political arrangements on fellow citizens for reasons they cannot accept as reasons is to treat them as less than equal citizens deserving of justification. So, while the dictates of sacred texts revealing the divine plan are unable to serve as the official justification of state policy, so too are the metaphysically foundational Kantian awe of the moral law within, or the obviousness of the ultimate value of utility or happiness.

State neutrality in the form of secularism is embodied by a set of institutions meant to ensure that the social solidarity necessary to constitute a democratic polity is not eroded—that is, to foster the value of fraternity in addition to liberty of conscience and equal exercise. As Jocelyn Maclure and Taylor put it:

The principle of equal respect requires that the state be “neutral” with respect to religions and other deep convictions; it must not be biased for or against any of them. To grant equal respect to all citizens, the state must be able to justify to everyone the decisions it makes, which it will be unable to do if it favors one particular conception of the world and of the good. The reasons justifying its actions must be “secular” or “public,” that is, they must be derived from what could be called a “minimal political morality” potentially acceptable to all citizens.9

So, the neutrality required of secular institutions is the neutrality of public justification.10 Thus, it is the partiality and particularity of religious reasons in religiously plural contexts rather than their religious nature that justifies the state's obligation to be neutral between them. Certain nonreligious reasons may involve deep metaphysical commitments that make them equally partial, particular, and especially inaccessible to fellow citizens who do not share these controversial metaphysical views.11 Where this is the case, the needs of the modern democratic state to maintain a polity indicates that the state has good reason not to favor these nonreligious positions any more than it favors religious ones—that is, that it remain neutral between both religious and nonreligious reasons, beliefs, and groups as a means of fostering solidarity and social trust. However, there remains an ambiguity here with respect to specific policy recommendation in some circumstances.

Thus, as Bilgrami points out, there may be cases of policies where the interests of certain religious groups are disadvantaged while others are not. Bilgrami's example is a case where a religion with a strong view about the prohibition of blasphemy (e.g., Christianity or Islam) loses out in a battle to ban a book on grounds of freedom of expression. By contrast, a religion without such commitments to censorship of blasphemous materials (e.g., Buddhism) is not disadvantaged by the secular institutional arrangement favoring freedom of expression over commitment to censorship of blasphemy. If we think about neutrality in narrow terms of avoiding advantaging certain groups over others, then neutrality might be upheld by the policy requiring that all blasphemous materials are banned, regardless of which religious group they offend.12 So, Buddhists (who are, arguendo, indifferent qua Buddhists to censorship of blasphemous materials) seem to be in the same position in a society where all blasphemous materials are banned as they are in a society where none are banned.

A requirement of public justification alone does not obviously resolve the issue in favor of either banning all blasphemous materials or banning none of them.13 Certainly, public reasons can be marshaled on both sides of such a debate. Maclure and Taylor respond to similar concerns that once the demands of neutrality are situated alongside the demands of liberty, equality, and fraternity, secularism will constrain possible policy choices much more closely.14 Perhaps this is generally true, but it is not entirely clear that the case Bilgrami suggests is resolved by appeal to these values along with an injunction that one not be biased toward any particular group. This issue may be further complicated by the inclusion of more values insofar as appeals to liberty of conscience and expression tend to favor allowing the publishing of blasphemous materials and the value of fraternity seems to favor banning such publications. Taylor accepts that once we divorce the concept of secularism from the particular historical institutions that have embodied it, there is possibility of conflict between those values. Respecting the importance and value of secularism requires only that one attempt to devise an institutional structure that maximizes these sometimes conflicting goals, not that one identify the uniquely right answer to some question of policy.15

The concept of neutrality Taylor specifies seems to offer us no choice between the situation where no blasphemous materials are banned and one in which all blasphemous materials are banned; at best, it only indicates that we must ban all or none. Further, as Bilgrami argues, the option of forcing a choice between all or none by finer distinctions of groups (for instance by introducing the interests of a group captured by the term “blasphemers”) is risky because distinguishing by groups too finely will render Taylor's neutralist conception of secularism impotent.16 That is, if groups are distinguished too finely, then it will become impossible for the state to act in any way that fails to offer advantages to some group relative to some other group and so the neutralist conception will fail to yield any practical guidance about which policies the state should adopt.

Neutrality as Lexical Priority

  1. Top of page
  2. Secularism as a Response to Pluralism
  3. Neutrality as Lexical Priority
  4. The Value of Secularism
  5. Conclusion

Bilgrami begins by arguing that an adequate characterization of secularism should adhere to the following three features: (1) it is a stance regarding religion; (2) it is a political (as opposed to social or personal) movement; and (3) it is of derivative, rather than ultimate, value—that is, it is what Rainer Forst has termed a “normatively dependent concept.”17 Bilgrami offers the following characterization of secularism, in part to remedy the lack of practical guidance threatened by the adoption of Taylor's neutralist conception of secularism:

(S): Should we be living in a religiously plural society, secularism requires that all religions should have the privilege of free exercise and be evenhandedly treated except when a religion's practices are inconsistent with the ideals that a polity seeks to achieve (ideals, often, though not always, enshrined in stated fundamental rights and other constitutional commitments) in which case there is a lexical ordering in which the political ideals are placed first.18

(S) is meant to capture all three features of secularism as Bilgrami initially characterizes it. The explicit mention of religious pluralism as the item of interest to secularism is in accord with the first feature—that is, that secularism is a stance toward religion. Further, by casting (S) in the conditional, Bilgrami explicitly leaves room for the idea that secularism does not lose all force in religiously homogenous societies.19 It could, for instance, still be the case that the political ideals would take priority over religious ideals even in a religiously homogeneous society. It should be noted that, though not explicitly included in the language of (S), Bilgrami states shortly after that the ideals that a polity seeks to achieve be “formulated without reference to religious or anti-religious elements.”20 Further, it is critical that we make this stipulation since, otherwise, one might maintain (S) by affording certain religious ideals lexical priority. However, while such an arrangement would have roughly the form of (S), it would amount, quite obviously, to religious tyranny rather than secularism.

The lexical prioritization mentioned in (S) elucidates the second and third features—that is, secularism's status as a political doctrine and as a derivative value, respectively. According to Bilgrami, the second feature of secularism is that it is a political, rather than personal or social, doctrine. Thus, if religious commitments and beliefs conflict with the values and ideals that a polity wishes to achieve—that is, its political values—then the religious beliefs must bow before the priority of the political values and ideals. Finally, (S) accords with the third feature, that secularism is of derivative, rather than ultimate, value—that is, that secularism is valued only insofar as it protects and promotes the values given lexical priority in some specification of (S).

(S) captures quite neatly the idea of neutrality as being “unbiased” between religions. This type of neutrality is not that all religions be equally disadvantaged or advantaged by each policy. The notion of neutrality captured by somehow ensuring equal advantages in outcomes is obviously implausible. However, (S) embodies a notion of equal treatment insofar as it holds all religious beliefs to the same standard, a standard here represented by the lexical ordering of certain values as prioritized over religious commitments with which they conflict. Further, it accords with Taylor's insistence that one begin with the values that underlie secularism and determine what institutions will support those values only after assessing the context of application.

In the case of (S), the question of institutional arrangement becomes the question of how to ensure respect for the lexical priority of the values secularism is meant to promote. Of course, there is a gamut of familiar political arrangements—for example, constitutionalism, entrenchment of key rights, hierarchical legal structures, and so on—that are meant to preserve and embody the priority of certain values, principles, or ideals over others. Thus, under (S), a commitment to freedom of expression as one of the values given lexical priority yields a clear policy by the state to reject calls by religious groups to ban blasphemous materials, since freedom of expression is given priority over religious reasons for banning blasphemous materials. Of course, it is possible that Taylor can accept enacting an institutional scheme to uphold the lexical priority of the political values of the culture as a way of elucidating the notion of neutrality he is endorsing. After all, neutrality must be specified somehow and the notion of a lexical ordering of values applied uniformly to all groups is one familiar way of being unbiased. This point leads into the conclusion of Bilgrami's discussion and is, I suspect, the true heart of his disagreement with Taylor.

The Value of Secularism

  1. Top of page
  2. Secularism as a Response to Pluralism
  3. Neutrality as Lexical Priority
  4. The Value of Secularism
  5. Conclusion

Bilgrami wants to avoid the close identification of secularism and liberalism that follows from Taylor's attempt to ground the value of secularism in liberty, equality, and fraternity. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Bilgrami sees it as an advantage of (S) that Atatürk's regime can be squarely labeled as secular, whereas Taylor sees it as an advantage of his neutralist conception that the same regime fails to qualify as secular.21 Bilgrami diagnoses this difference by noting that liberalism and secularism are different values. One can, as Taylor urges, specify a secular regime by affording the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity lexical priority over religious values. According to Bilgrami, what makes such a regime secular is the lexical priority of a set of values (specified in nonreligious terms) over the values and claims of religion. Such a regime is liberal because the values given priority are the classic liberal values—that is, liberty, equality, and fraternity. However, Bilgrami notes that an authoritarian regime might still be a secular regime, provided that it gives priority to some values (specified independently of religion). Atatürk's Turkey, Mao's China, and Stalin's Soviet Union were all secular, at least as specified by (S), despite being illiberal. (S) maintains a distinction between liberalism and secularism because it allows the values that are prioritized to be specified in liberal or nonliberal terms.

The distinction between secularism and liberalism opens the conceptual space that Bilgrami thinks is vital for a proper appreciation of secularism as captured in his third defining feature—that is, that secularism is of derivative, rather than ultimate value. Secularism, for Bilgrami, derives whatever value it has from the value of the political ideals it protects and promotes through its prioritizing those values in the lexical ordering that comprises some specification of (S). Thus, there is room on Bilgrami's account for societies where the religious culture is manifested in such a way that there is no work for secularism to do, either because the religious culture does not conflict with the prioritized values in a given society's specification of (S) or in the limit case because the religious culture actively promotes them. Bilgrami suggests that India's syncretic religious tradition may be just such a case, and points to Gandhi's resistance to secularist rhetoric and institutions as evidence of this.22 Secular institutions, Bilgrami argues, were instituted in Western states to repair the damage done by the scapegoating, often along religious lines, that comprised a core strategy for the formation of a national identity over and against some internal “other.” Where there are no such wounds in need of repair, there is similarly no need for the reparative work of secular institutions. As Bilgrami puts it, cleaving to the necessity of secular institutions, despite the fact that there is no work for them to do, would be a “fetish of modernity.”23

Bilgrami discusses Taylor's motivations for this reformulation of secularism, noting that Taylor is especially concerned by polemical invocations of “secularism” as a value. Especially troublesome to Taylor is the wholesale identification of large religious groups with aberrant and marginal minority practices, which Taylor thinks is exacerbated by the singling out of religion as a problem to which secularism is the solution. For example, Taylor worries that secularism, polemically and narrowly conceived as a stance solely against religion, supports the identification of all of Islam with practices of female genital mutilation and honor killings rather than the subset of Muslims who endorse these practices. Taylor worries that a secularism narrowly focused on religion can lead to attacks on Islam as a whole in response to these particular practices—which are, it is important to note, only sometimes justified as faith-based by some Muslims. This, in turn, might cause moderate voices within the community to react defensively, perhaps by retreating from their moderate positions into more conservative ones.

Bilgrami applauds Taylor's motives, but denies that conceiving of secularism as essentially a stance toward religion causes this problem.24 First, Bilgrami cites reckless media attention that fails to fully inform the public about the complex demographic features of intragroup belief and practices. Second, Bilgrami assigns some responsibility for the problem to a lack of democratization within religious groups that allows minorities within the group that advocate particular (and perhaps aberrant) interpretations or practices to come to seem representative of the entire group. Both of these features lead to the identification of the entire group with the aberrant practices of small minorities within the group. Bilgrami insists that, rather than motivating a redefinition of secularism, these features should motivate the secular state to provide reasons from within a community's own traditions for compliance with the political values and ideals prioritized under a specification of (S).25

Bilgrami utilizes the technical notion of an internal reason as derived from the work of Bernard Williams to articulate his claim that the state should provide internal reasons to religious groups to adhere to and promote the values prioritized in some specification of (S).26 Internal reasons are reasons that arise out of the internal psychological economy of an actor—that is, we say someone has an internal reason for doing something when we think that doing that thing would further some goal or commitment that they already hold. They are generally contrasted with “external reasons,” which are said to hold regardless of a person's commitments or motivations. The paradigmatic case of an external reason is generally thought to be the categorical imperative, which Kant argues holds regardless of what aims, goals, or commitments motivate one to act.27

For example, according to Azizah al-Hibri in this issue, there are in fact significant resources for such translation and interpretation in connecting the Islamic tradition to the core values of contemporary democratic societies—that is, human rights, liberty, equality, and so on.28 However, al-Hibri stresses the importance of the authenticity of the interpretive and translational work that needs to be done to connect Islamic traditions and values with these political values.29 The way Bilgrami frames the issue as one of the state providing internal reasons to the group is potentially hazardous and misleading since it could be taken to imply something disingenuous and manipulative about the state's pursuing its obvious interest in the discovery of such reasons. Of course, I believe it would be a mistake to understand Bilgrami this way. Instead, and in line with al-Hibri's argument, it is likely that the state has good reasons to support efforts to develop such reasons, but only, or at least mainly, from within religious communities. As al-Hibri points out, the recovery and translation of values from one tradition to another requires careful work, and errors and missteps that lack justification from within the sacred materials of the religion itself are likely to do more harm than good.30

This seems to be the location of the starkest contrast between Bilgrami and Taylor. Taylor is arguing that the liberal state has nonstrategic reasons to adopt secular institutions—that is, there is something nonderivatively valuable about secularism understood as a response to pluralism that is morally required by the adoption of the liberal values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Perhaps in the case of authoritarian regimes we can accept, following Bilgrami, that affording certain values lexical priority over others is, in itself, value-neutral—that is, it will depend on the values and the specific institutions meant to support them whether or not that state's lexical prioritization of some values over another is a good or a bad thing. However, in the case of a liberal state, there is not only a requirement of secularism in response to religious pluralism, but in response to other forms of pluralism as well. This is because to hold up liberty, equality and fraternity as one's political ideals is to take one's fellow citizens as free and equal—and part of what it is to take one's fellow citizens as free and equal is to see them as standing in a particular relation with oneself. If we accept that others are free and equal citizens, then we seem committed—that is, we seem to have internal reasons—to the idea that our joint participation in political life requires justification in terms of reasons that we can all, at least potentially, recognize as reasons, and it is this that justifies the adoption of secular institutions on moral grounds.

At the risk of inviting some difficulties of Rawlsian exegesis, there seems to be a significant difference between Rawls's early thought on the idea of public justification and his later thought that could be helpful here. Lawerence Solum has helpfully framed two different principles of public reason that could be adopted—inclusive and exclusive.31 An inclusive principle of public reason requires that if we are under an obligation to provide public reasons, then whatever other reasons we have we must also include public reasons sufficient to justify the policy. Such reasons are public in the sense of being accessible to all our fellow citizens who will be subject to the principle or policy. So, on this account, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s frequent allusions to Christian morality were acceptable because he also justified the social and political changes he was calling for in terms of fundamental rights and principles that had wide currency in the public political culture of his time—for example, deference to the values in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Fourteenth Amendment, the authority of the Supreme Court, and so on. An exclusive principle, by contrast, calls for the exclusion of all nonpublic reasons—that is, all reasons that are not accessible to all citizens—from contexts of justification where the principle is active. However, in many contexts, such a principle would be too restrictive. For instance, it would exclude much of the abolition movement in the antebellum United States and activism in the civil rights movements of the 1960s. There is still a case for the applicability of such a principle to adopted statutory language and judicial decisions.32 Indeed, Taylor wants to specify neutrality at least partly by calling for exclusive use of public reasons in “the official language of the state: the language in which legislation, administrative decrees, and court judgments must be couched.”33

In his early work, Rawls seemed to call or an exclusive principle of public reason for public deliberation by political officials and debates in the legislature, and so on, not just official acts of the state. Later, Rawls seems to have adopted an inclusive principle of public reason for most deliberations. His express motivation for doing this is that the articulation of nonpublic reasons can be useful in showing how the substantive ethical and moral views from which those nonpublic reasons are drawn are supportive of the overlapping consensus of justice and the values it endorses.34 To translate into Bilgrami's preferred terms, Rawls endorses an inclusive principle because it can be used to display the commitment on behalf of certain groups to the public conception of justice by showing how those groups have internal reasons that commit them to endorsing the political values and ideals that form the public political identity. Rawls's analysis seems quite amenable to al-Hibri's well-taken caution that the source of this reason-giving needs to be authentic. Rawls uses the term “declaration” in connection with the activity of proclaiming one's comprehensive views in order to demonstrate how one's own comprehensive view endorses the same values as (S) would prioritize.35 Provided that Bilgrami means that the state has good reason to recognize and encourage such activity on the part of group members whose views can be taken to endorse the values prioritized by (S), and not that the state should “declare” on their behalf, there seems to be nothing objectionable about Bilgrami's point, but also nothing contrary of Taylor's call for a redefinition of secularism.36

Taylor can, and I think perhaps should, adopt the lexical priority model that Bilgrami offers as a way of (at least partially) specifying the state neutrality that he endorses.37 Taylor can also accept that states have good reasons to recognize and encourage the identification and articulation of the internal reasons groups have for endorsing the political values and ideals that lie at the heart of the public political culture. On the public reason account I favor, this would mean that democratic citizens should encourage adherence to an inclusive principle of public reason in public political deliberations and officers of the state should adopt a strict exclusive principle of public reason with respect to official acts.38 However, Taylor's primary point remains intact and none of the arguments above suggest a resolution of his main concern—that is, the damage that can be done be singling out religious beliefs as uniquely disqualified from public life.

Taylor's call for a redefinition of secularism is not an attempt to hold up secularism as the ultimate political value. To the contrary, Taylor's endorsement of the Rawlsian overlapping consensus model indicates that he is quite willing to admit of substantial variation in the values that might underlie the secular state. If the historical conditions of the U.S. founding actually included the fact that the only religious pluralism was between different Protestant Christian sects, then nothing in Taylor's account prevents him from accepting that such conditions authorized the adoption of secular institutions and the use of religious reasons held in common by all the Protestant groups in the official actions of the state. Taylor's important insight is that as societies change then so too might the content of the overlapping consensus and public reason, which may require changes to the institutions that maintain the secular state.

Taylor is arguing that the values that justified the institutions adopted in the founding contexts of Western liberal democracies potentially underwrite different institutional arrangements in the face of contemporary pluralism, which operates on many more levels.39 Taylor's call for a redefinition of secularism can be put in terms of a challenge: anyone who wants to maintain the identification of secularism as a stance against religion alone needs to give a substantive account of why religious beliefs and convictions are to be singled out in this way. Put in this light, restricting the priority of the values specified in (S) as trumping only religious beliefs seems quite arbitrary. Taylor worries that if secularism is narrowly conceived as a stance toward specifically religious beliefs, then invocations of secularism as a value are potentially harmful and divisive to relations between groups—specifically between believers and nonbelievers. Further, such a conception of secularism is morally arbitrary insofar as it is merely an artifact of the historical conditions under which secular institutions were first adopted. If these claims are borne out, then Taylor's call for redefinition of the secular is justified.

Jürgen Habermas, for instance, offers the idea that religious beliefs and values are rooted in “cultic practices and rituals” that distinguish them from nonreligious beliefs and values. The inaccessibility of the practices to nonbelievers is what disqualifies these beliefs and values from serving as public justifications.40 Without endorsing the account, I would like to note that this qualifies as the type of substantive account that is needed to answer Taylor's challenge, because it offers a principled reason for the disqualification of reasons connected to such practices. Of course, putting it in terms of “cultic practices and rituals,” instead of using the term “religion” raises a host of difficult questions about the relation between such practices and the concept of religion. Is engagement in cultic practices and rituals constitutive of religious practice? Is such engagement necessary, sufficient, both, or neither? If such engagement is neither necessary nor sufficient, then what features or combination of features are necessary and sufficient—or is religion a family resemblance concept? Answering such questions would take us far beyond the bounds of this article, but asking them highlights a key difference between Bilgrami and Taylor on this issue.

Bilgrami's use of the term “religion” in (S) papers over these deeper questions. Certainly “religion” usefully denotes some class of social practices that can then be differentiated in various ways from other social practices, but the important question in defining “secularism” as a political project is why the practices that fall under the extension of “religion” are to be singled out for special treatment. One way of answering this question is by appealing to something about religious practice that makes reasons based on religious practice distinctively unsuitable for justifying the use of political power. However, this strategy comes at a price, since one must not only defend why that particular feature (or combination of features) makes religion a uniquely unsuitable justificatory base, but one must also defend the identification of all religions with those features.41

A public justification account of secularism, by contrast, avoids these thorny issues by characterizing the features necessary for a reason to qualify as a potential justification of the use of coercive political power. Taylor, as I noted earlier, endorses Rawls's notion of an overlapping consensus as a model of a political conception of justice. On a public justification account, the reasons that justify the use of political power are those that can be reached from within the perspective of all the groups that are party to the consensus. Again, translated into Bilgrami's favored terminology of internal and external reasons, the overlapping consensus model requires that the use of political power can only be justified on a basis that all parties to the consensus have internal reasons to endorse.42 Hence, religious justifications that appeal to the revealed truths of a divine being fail to qualify if not all parties accept the authority of the divine being or the authenticity of the truths. They fail to qualify not because of something about their own status, form, or content, but because of facts about the parties to the consensus—that is, facts about their internal, moral, psychological economies. What makes a reason public, or nonpublic, is a set of facts about the context in which it is a potential justification of the use of political power. These social facts about what reasons people are able to endorse from within their own substantive commitments are what qualify or disqualify a reason as a potential justification of the use of political power, not some feature of the reasons themselves.43

Of course, there are significant challenges for a public justification account to overcome. Most importantly for our purposes, there is the problem of determining the scope of public justification. That is, if public justification can only proceed on the basis of values that all have internal reasons for endorsing, what are the prospects for the overlapping consensus constraining, much less determining, policy decisions? This is, in a sense a re-raising of Bilgrami's initial worry with Taylor's account of neutrality—that is, does it offer sufficient practical guidance? However, difficult as this problem is, Bilgrami's lexical priority model gives some hope for a resolution by specifying to some degree what a public justification model would look like and what kind of guidance it could offer. It would offer the guidance of ordering certain values and ideals ahead of others. How constraining would these ideals and values be? Obviously, it is impossible to predict prior to having done the work to determine precisely what they are, but I believe we have reason to be optimistic. It is easy, when discussing pluralism, to lose sight of common ground because we are so focused on difference. However, we all share a great deal—for example, biology, material conditions, history, culture, and so on—and it seems strangely pessimistic to imagine that what divides us is so radical that we have no hope for bridging those gaps. Further, prospects should look better when we recall that we are looking for agreement at the intermediate level suitable to political justification, not agreement all the way down to first principles.

This drives home the point that a lexical priority model is better described as a specification of what it could mean for the state to be neutral than for what it would mean for the state to be secular. However, to reiterate, there is something nonarbitrary about the identification of liberalism and secularism. Where the values that underwrite secular institutions are liberal values—for example, liberty, equality, and fraternity—then these values actually underwrite a thoroughgoing regime of public justification that sees religious pluralism as just one axis along which state institutions must maintain neutrality. That is, the liberal values push us to endorse a regime of public justification where the reasons we have for being secular and remaining neutral between religious groups apply equally well to Kantians, utilitarians, and Marxists. This parity between philosophical and religious views is not a matter of the content or form of the beliefs or the methodologies by which they are arrived at. Rather, it is that each involves commitment at the level of first principles that is, at least in contemporary contexts of liberal Western Democracies, neither universally shared nor rationally required.

Taylor's focus is perhaps understandable since his discussion is focused on the value of secularism in Western, liberal, democratic states. Taylor is committed to the value and wide applicability of the ideal itself, but worries along with Bilgrami about the applicability of the institutional arrangements outside the contexts for which they were designed. Further, Taylor's worry extends both temporally and culturally. It extends temporally because as historical circumstances change, then so too might the institutional arrangements which the ideals support. It extends culturally because as social contexts shift, then societies may face different challenges that require different institutional solutions. Bilgrami, however, is focused on the parochial and limited applicability of Western secular institutions. However, provided one takes seriously Taylor's distinction between the value of secularism as a political ideal and the institutions that have traditionally been erected in its defense, then the danger Bilgrami foresees is mitigated. If we take Taylor at his word and note both the special application of the word “secular” to liberal contexts and also the distinction between the value of secularism and the institutions meant to promote that value, then there is little danger that we will be pushed by his redefinition of the concept to embrace it in contexts where which Bilgrami thinks it lacks a clear purpose.


  1. Top of page
  2. Secularism as a Response to Pluralism
  3. Neutrality as Lexical Priority
  4. The Value of Secularism
  5. Conclusion

So, where does this leave us? I believe that Bilgrami is right to press Taylor on the notion of neutrality that he is endorsing and I believe that a notion of lexically prioritizing certain values over others is at least part of the right story. Further, I think that Bilgrami's motivation to resist secularism as a sort of fetishism of the Western liberal tradition is correct so long as it is applied to the right target—that is, to political institutions designed to uphold certain values in a particular context. However, this turns out to be just what Taylor is arguing against as well, the fetishization of secularism as a set of institutions rather than a value that underlies a certain stance of the state toward the justification of its actions. It remains, of course, to be spelled out exactly how and when the principles of inclusive and exclusive public reason are to be defined and what scope they will have within a given political community—though likely the exact shape of such institutional commitments will vary widely by social context and there may be some play within any given context. However, recognizing the value of secular institutions and the applicability of that value beyond constraining religious justifications for public policies is a step in the right direction.

The research for this essay was conducted under the auspices of the Mellon-Sawyer seminar series, Graduate Center, CUNY, in the 2012–2013 academic year. Many thanks to Kenneth Courtney, Adam Etinson, Carol Gould, Laura Kane, Jamie Lindsay, and Katherine Tullman for their helpful comments.

  1. 1

    Akeel Bilgrami, “Secularism: Its Content and Context,” this issue.

  2. 2

    Charles Taylor, “Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism,” in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

  3. 3

    Ibid., 39.

  4. 4

    As Taylor notes, the invocation of secularism in public debates to preclude religious justification in the political context does not appear until the latter half of the nineteenth century in the United States. The establishment clause of the First Amendment was originally understood to preclude favoritism of one Christian sect over another by the state, but not the preclusion of all religious justification from public life. This latter understanding of secularism as requiring the exclusion of religious views from public justification generally only arises in the United States as religious pluralism expands to include the growing number of non-Protestant Christians (especially Catholics) and non-Christians in the United States. Ibid., 3839.

  5. 5

    Ibid., 36 (italics in original).

  6. 6

     See, for example, Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens By and Through Mergens 496 U.S. 226 (1990) and Board of Airport Commissioners of the City of Los Angeles v. Jews for Jesus, Inc. 482 U.S. 569 (1987).

  7. 7

    I do not mean to endorse these positions, but merely to note the way that the perceptions of some groups have undergone changes that seem like good evidence for shifts in the public political culture.

  8. 8

    Taylor, “Radical Redefinition,” 50.

  9. 9

    Ibid., 21.

  10. 10

    Ibid., 46–48; Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 17. It is in this sense that Taylor endorses the overlapping consensus model of political liberalism articulated in the later works of John Rawls. See, for example, John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), esp. lec. IV.

  11. 11

    See, for example, Rawls's discussion of the “burdens of judgment” and “fact of reasonable pluralism” in Rawls, Political Liberalism, esp. 4858. For a different, though consonant, position that leads to the same ultimate result, see Willard Van Orman Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” in From a Logical Point of View: 9 Logico-Philosophical Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980). Like Bilgrami, I am wary of getting bogged down in Rawlsian exegesis. I take it that most of us believe that pluralism is a reasonably stable feature of modern democratic states, even if the find the idea that it is an inevitable feature is more controversial. Presumably, even if a society ended up with a homogenous set of beliefs all the way down to the metaphysical justification of those beliefs, this would seem to be a remarkable state of affairs more likely to make us suspicious of oppression and manipulation from the educational and informational institutions of the society than hopeful that they had all freely and independently reached exactly the same answers to the deepest questions of value. If I am right about this, then that feeling is some small evidence that we share an intuition in the relative stability of religious, cultural, and ethical pluralism in present circumstances, suitably defined.

  12. 12

    Useful discussion can be found in Maclure and Taylor, Secularism, 21–24, 70–80.

  13. 13

    The completeness of a public justification account is a difficult question. See, e.g., Rawls, Political Liberalism, 240247; Jonathan Quong, Liberalism without Perfection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), at esp. 281289.

  14. 14

    Maclure and Taylor, Secularism, 7375.

  15. 15

    Taylor, “Radical Redefinition,” 4042.

  16. 16

    Bilgrami, this issue, 3536.

  17. 17

    Rainer Forst, The Right to Justification: Elements of a Constructivist Theory of Justice, trans. Jeffrey Flynn (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 139140.

  18. 18

    Bilgrami, this issue, 31 (italics in original).

  19. 19

    Ibid., 32.

  20. 20

    Ibid., 33.

  21. 21

    Ibid., 40; Taylor, “Radical Redefinition,” 37.

  22. 22

    Bilgrami, this issue, 42–43.

  23. 23

    Ibid., 42.

  24. 24

    Ibid., 38–39.

  25. 25

    Ibid. Nothing in what Bilgrami says prevents him from taking seriously the points covered below. In fact, he explicitly indicates that he will further articulate this idea in future work.

  26. 26

    Bilgrami, this issue, 28. On internal and external reasons, see Bernard Williams, “Internal and External Reasons,” in Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  27. 27

    Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Allen W. Wood (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 33 (AK 4:416). Williams commits himself eventually to the idea that external reasons are impossible. However, invoking the distinction does not necessitate rejecting external reasons. See, for example, Christine M. Korsgaard, “Skepticism About Practical Reason,” in Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), esp., 325329.

  28. 28

    Azizah al-Hibri, “Developing Islamic Jurisprudence in the Diaspora: Balancing Authenticity, Diversity and Modernity,” this issue.

  29. 29

    Ibid., esp. 18–19.

  30. 30

    Ibid., 19–20.

  31. 31

    Lawrence B. Solum, “Constructing an Ideal of Public Reason,” San Diego Law Review 30, no. 4 (1993): 729762.

  32. 32

    Lawrence B. Solum, “Pluralism and Public Legal Reason,” William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 15 (2006): 723.

  33. 33

    Taylor, “Radical Redefinition,” 50.

  34. 34

    John Rawls, The Law of Peoples: With “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 152156.

  35. 35

    Ibid., 155–56.

  36. 36

    Rawls argues that there is a method of reasoning from the basic commitments of a group to whom one does not belong in order to demonstrate how members of that group can endorse the public political conception of justice, which he calls “conjecture,” but emphasizes that such reasoning must be “sincere and not manipulative.” See ibid., 156. While this seems to be parallel to what Bilgrami recommends, I think al-Hibri's caution about the room for error, inauthenticity, and misunderstanding in such cases should make us quite cautious about engaging in conjecture in real-world conditions.

  37. 37

    It is worth noting that even the lexical prioritizing that Bilgrami calls for doesn't guarantee a decision between the policy of banning all blasphemous materials or banning none. It only does so in cases where the values and principles that are prioritized favor one policy or the other, as in Bilgrami's example where freedom of expression is given priority over religious convictions and so the policy of banning none wins out. If the values that can underlie (S) are as variable as Bilgrami stresses, then one could imagine cases where norms of politeness or respect for tradition might favor the policy banning all blasphemies. Presumably, there may also be cases where the values prioritized by (S) are silent on the issue, or conflict in such a way that they are unable to obviously justify one policy or the other. Further, lexical prioritizing is only a partial specification because Taylor also introduces the requirement on public justification for official state acts—something consonant with much of what Bilgrami says, but not necessarily well captured by (S). Bilgrami himself notes that secularism might still serve a purpose in religiously homogenous societies, though his discussion suggests that he would continue to adopt the lexical priority model in such cases. So, (S) must be only a partial specification, at most. Bilgrami, this issue, 32.

  38. 38

    Where “official acts” denotes, at least, the adoption, enactment, interpretation, and adjudication of legal language, but also the pronouncements of state officers and officials in their official capacities, even where these pronouncements lack legal effect.

  39. 39

    To be clear, neither Taylor nor I are committed to arguing that there was actually less diversity in the founding contexts, or that contemporary pluralism is somehow more radical than the historical conditions of the founding. All that is needed here is the acceptance of the claim that whether or not pluralism is in fact greater now, there is greater recognition of pluralism in contemporary life than there was in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century contexts of the founding of modern Western liberal democracies.

  40. 40

    See, e.g., Jürgen Habermas, “ ‘The Political’: The Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology,” in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

  41. 41

    Note that if some religions lack the features, then it is the basis of the reasons in the features themselves that are problematic, rather than the specifically religious nature of the reasons that justifies their special treatment by special institutions. For example, let us assume that Habermas is right that a basis in cultic practices and ritual disqualifies a reason from serving as a political justification. Now let us imagine, for the purposes of argument, that there is some social practice that meaningfully falls under the extension of the term “religion” that eschews cultic practices and rituals. It seems that reasons based on the noncultic, nonritualistic religion would be disqualified unfairly by (S). The noncultic, nonritualistic religion is disqualified as a religion despite the fact that, arguendo, it lacks the features that disqualify some other religions from serving as a basis for political justification. Of course, the case could be impossible because religious practices necessarily include cultic practices and rituals, but this is not obvious. We should not accept it without argument, and if it is true then it is something we should be explicit about. Further, it raises the question of why we should use the term “religion” in (S) rather than being more precise and naming the necessary features of religion that serve to disqualify it as a basis for political justification.

  42. 42

    However, it is not necessary that people actually endorse the policy. The idea is simply that one must offer reasons that others can recognize as reasons without having to alter or reject any of their reasonable, substantive commitments. Much more needs to be said about how one goes about characterizing views as reasonable or unreasonable, and hence included or excluded from the set of groups or individuals that form the overlapping consensus, but such matters lie beyond the bounds of this article. For helpful discussions see, e.g., Forst, Right to Justification; Gerald F. Gaus, “Reasonable Pluralism and the Domain of the Political: How the Weaknesses of John Rawls's Political Liberalism Can Be Overcome by a Justificatory Liberalism,” Inquiry 42, no. 2 (1999); John Rawls, “Justice As Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical,” in Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

  43. 43

    I want to thank Carol Gould for comments pushing me to more fully explore this point about why both religious and nonreligious views are disqualified in a public justification account. Alas, much more still needs to be said to fully make out the case, which is beyond the bounds of this essay.