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.