Secularism Needs Pluralism

Michael Brendan Dougherty, in response to my cheers for a pluralist, secular state, presses me via Twitter on what happens if secularism isn’t pluralistic.  When that happens, society risks suffering from a problem similar to what secularism is supposed to address: state enforcement of comprehensive moral and behavioral norms by those who have the power to enforce them.  The coercion to follow norms of secular ideologies can be just as detrimental to human freedom and social justice as the pressure to behave in accordance with religious tenets.

As I said previously, secularism by itself does not prevent the imposition of norms upon the whole of society that some group or other or even the majority finds objectionable.  Nor will it ensure that the people of the nation debate from the same accepted premises, as if the exercise of reason detached from claims of revelation means that everyone begins from the same place.  We don’t all reason the same way.

Pluralism, which entails both a plurality of worldviews and a widespread respect for that plurality, helps keep secular society from becoming an authoritarian instrument of a particular secular worldview.  It shies away from forcing people to think and act in a certain moral way.  It prefers dialogue and persuasion to command and enforcement.  It values hospitality and dissent and disagreement and criticism.  It looks suspiciously at all grand narratives and comprehensive doctrines, especially those espoused by people with guns.

Secularism needs pluralism; otherwise, its leaves the door wide open for the abuse of power and the stripping of freedom.  Pluralism is no guarantee of freedom and justice, but it helps, and it’s necessary.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

You may also like...

9 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    It seems to me that it’s “Pluralism within acceptable boundaries”.

    So long as we’re talking about food, clothing, holidays that involve eating/drinking a lot, music, theater/movies/oral tradition, and/or a god or gods that easily fit into a “you say ‘YHWH’, they say ‘Buddha’, we say ‘Allah’… they’re all facets of the same celestial diamond, man!”, pluralism kicks ass.

    If it falls significantly outside of that? (Let’s say that the religion says that men have different roles than women have, say.)

    We tend to be less pluralistic.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      We’re insufficiently pluralistic, in my opinion, and much too tribal and sure of ourselves and our religions/ideologies. Even if we were more pluralistic, though, we’d still draw acceptable boundaries. Pluralism isn’t anything goes relativism: it’s a respect for the multiple, incommensurable ways of approaching truth, the good life, justice, etc.

      • Jaybird says:

        What is out of bounds? Where do we have an obligation to be monistic?

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          These are the questions! Hospitality involves risk: the stranger at my door may be friendly or hostile. Absolute, unconditional hospitality towards others seems…imprudent. For my part, I tend to be welcoming of those people and their ideas that I sense are attempting to pave the way to a better society. If someone is seeking justice, to make justice happen, then I want to hear what they have to say. I want such people to have a voice. If all they want is power or to watch the world burn, then to hell with their ideas.

          • Jaybird says:

            Would it be accurate to say that an attitude that espouses Negative Rights but eschews, for the most part, Positive Rights would meet the overwhelming majority of pluralistic standards?

            Or is a “Negative Rights attitude” another way to say “Militant Islam” with different bombing triggers?

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            You could make that argument, as the enforcement of negative rights involves less imposition of norms and beliefs than the enforcement of positive rights. I probably wouldn’t, though, but that’s just me.

          • Jaybird says:

            Why wouldn’t you?

            I ask because I agree with the idea of pluralism-within-acceptable-boundaries (as mentioned above). I’d wonder how else one would get to pluralism (assuming some vague moral realism on the part of the person getting there).

          • Kyle Cupp says:

            Mainly because I think the language of positive rights points to something real.

        • Kimmi says:

          When your religious acts harm the entire community.
          Vodun uses mercury in rituals. This is toxic, not just to the religious person, but also to his neighbor…