Jacques Berlinerblau has responded to my review of his book How to Be Secular. He thinks that, unlike his conservative Christian critics, I have not ‘take[n] the time to understand what [his] arguments actually are’ and have made instead a series of ‘misleading claims’ about them.  I disagree with most of Berlinerblau’s list of what he regards as my misleading claims. I don’t want to go line by line through that list refuting each and every claim. I do, however, want to take up two issues, which I regard as the most important in the debate that we are having: the question of democracy and that of how to build a constituency for secularism.

There are, in How to be Secular, two parts to Berlinerblau’s argument about democracy. The first is a political claim about how to build a coalition to promote secularism. The second is a more fundamental claim about the relationship between secularism and the democratic will.

Berlinerblau certainly accepts that ‘secularism needs people’ and that without popular support secularism will wither. As I acknowledged in my review ‘His observation that secularism in America has developed through judicial activism rather than the creation of a popular movement is a valuable insight that tells us much about the problems facing secularists today.’ My criticism of this part of Berlinerblau’s argument is not that he is being anti-democratic but that he wants to water down the meaning of secularism to build that constituency, a point to which I will return later.

The second part of Berlinerblau’s argument rests on his understanding of the relationship between secularism and the democratic will. Berlinerblau, I suggested in my review,

adopts John Locke’s argument that secularism cannot be a matter for democratic will. There can be, Berlinerblau insists, ‘no establishment of religion even if the majority wants one’

In his response, Berlinerblau insists that he is here talking descriptively, not prescriptively, only explaining Locke’s views, not defining his own. Certainly, the passage I quote comes from a section in the book in which Berlinerblau lays out Locke’s argument that secularism must not be undermined by democratic will. ‘On certain issues’, as Berlinerblau observes about Locke’s argument, ‘the will of the people is to be ignored’.

There are, Berlinerblau argues, ‘two ways to look at this Lockean escape clause’. One ‘is to concede that antidemocratic urges abound in secularism’. A second ‘more charitable assessment sees secularism as something prior to, or something that undergirds, democracy… There is no democratic “override” of certain secular precepts because that override would signal the end of democracy’.

Berlinerblau accepts this second interpretation, and not just as a means of understanding Locke’s argument, but as the reality of the relationship between secularism and democracy, a point he makes by drawing the parallel with taxation:

There must be taxes if a state is to function properly. Yet only remarkably civic-minded individuals feel cheerful when April 15 rolls around. As the activism of the Tea Party demonstrates, a large body of citizens may oppose laws that are necessary for the preservation of the democratic benefits they enjoy. Secularism too performs a vital, albeit highly unpopular, civic function.’ [How to be Secular, p16].

Berlinerblau adds that, ‘The job of secularism is to maintain order. For the citizen to reap the religious benefits of that order, she must make certain concessions. Call it, if you will, the Secular Compact’ [How to be Secular, p16]. It seems clear (to me at least) that Berlinerblau is not simply making a descriptive point here, but a prescriptive one too. Indeed when I raised these points in a Twitter exchange, Berlinerblau seemed to accept that secularism must indeed lie beyond the democratic will. ‘Democracy’, he tweeted, ‘is often undergirded by un-Democratic assumptions, especially regarding majorities’.  That is exactly the position that I attributed to Berlinerblau in my review.  He wants to build a popular movement to promote secularism. But he also wants to protect secularism (and other mechanisms he sees as essential to democracy) by ‘undergirding’ democracy with ‘undemocratic assumptions’.

One can, perhaps, argue about my characterization of this view as ‘antidemocratic’. What one cannot plausibly do is suggest is that I have misread Berlinerblau’s claims or misled readers about his argument.

Why do I characterize Berlinerblau’s argument as ‘undemocratic’? I accept that there are certain social mechanisms without which democracy could not properly function – the rule of law, for instance, or free speech.  And I accept that there can be democratic means of protecting such social mechanisms. Many nations have, for instance, constitutions that establish basic principles to which all legislation must accord. But constitutions themselves can be changed, amended, torn up, rewritten. The US First Amendment institutionalizes protection of free speech. But it was, as the name suggests, an amendment to the US Constitution. There are moves now to amend the First Amendment, to remove some of its protections. I support the First Amendment, I oppose moves to change it. But I wouldn’t for a moment want to deny the people of America the right to change their constitution if they so wish. Otherwise it would be to treat the Constitution as a holy tablet of stone.

The problem with the claim that certain social mechanisms are so essential to the democratic process that they must be placed beyond the democratic will is the question of who decides what is and is not essential to the democratic process; in other words the question of what should or should not be placed beyond the democratic will.  Berlinerblau thinks that secularism is essential to democracy. Others disagree. If the majority of people disagree that secularism is necessary to democracy, on what basis should we accept Berlinerblau’s view over that of the majority? And how could it be enforced apart from through undemocratic means?

The claim that because X is essential for democracy, so X must be safeguarded from the democratic process is both contradictory and dangerous. Far from helping protect essential freedoms, the argument is all too often used to restrict them. From John Locke denying rights to Catholics and atheists (because they undermined social order) to contemporary moves to ban certain kinds of speech (hate speech, Holocaust denial, political and religious ‘extremism’, etc), the claim that something is not conducive to democracy has long been used to restrict freedom and to undermine democracy.

In the end the only mechanism that can truly undergird democracy is the will of the people to be democratic. Once we give up on that idea, then we give up on democracy itself.

The second issue I want to explore is Berlinerblau’s argument about how to create a constituency for secularism.  He argues that to build the widest possible coalition we must ‘stop fetishizing separation of church and state’ and accept instead disestablishment as the minimum necessary for a secular society.

I disagree with this approach. I see the separation of church and state not as a luxury to be added on when politically convenient at some future date, but as the very core of secularism. And I believe that it is not just necessary but also possible to win people, including believers, to the idea of the separation of church and state. After all, secularism was an idea first proposed and enforced by believers. And, as I put it in my review, ‘Most real social change, from abortion rights to racial equality, has come about by winning people over to a view to which they were initially hostile, not by accommodating to existing prejudices.’ Reducing secularism simply to disestablishment in order to win a larger constituency is, in my mind, to eviscerate secularism, to undermine real social change.

Note that the argument I am making here (and that I was making in the review) is not about atheism but about secularism. I am talking here not about religious beliefs but of believers’ attitudes to the separation of church and state. I am suggesting that we should not lower the bar to make secularism more attractive to believers but rather win them over by overcoming their ‘existing prejudices’ about the separation of church and state. Berlinerblau, however, takes my argument to mean that for me ‘a major part of the secular agenda [is] convincing people to abandon religion’. He then goes on to mock the idea that ‘PowerPoint presentations’ or ‘Public readings of Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian” on the BBC’ could ‘disabuse the faithful of their beliefs’. All very droll. The trouble is, there is not a single sentence in my review in which I suggest that secularism is in any sense about ‘convincing people to abandon religion’ rather than about convincing people to accept the separation of church and state. If anyone is misreading or misleading, it is, I fear, Professor Berlinerblau.

I have a robust enough view of the democratic process both to reject the idea that democracy should be defended by placing certain social mechanisms beyond the democratic will, and to believe that it is possible to effect social change by changing people’s minds without having to eviscerate basic principles. Berlinerblau seems unconvinced on either point because he seems to have a far more pessimistic view of the democratic process. That, it seems to me, is the real difference between us.


  1. Sen

    “[Berlinerbrau] argues that to build the widest possible coalition we must ‘stop fetishizing separation of church and state’ and accept instead disestablishment as the minimum necessary for a secular society.”

    The good professor should travel the planet a little: England has an established religion, but it is a democracy and a secular society. The Nordic countries including Denmark and Iceland have state religions, but they are democracies.and secular societies.

    The professor has it precisely wrong: the separation of church and state is essential, disestablishment is a tactic that worked in the US at a certain time, it is not an eternal truth, not essential to democracy or to secularism.

    But is true is that if you do NOT have the separation of church and state, the basic essential, and DO have an established church, you’re in big trouble.

  2. Kallan Greybe

    Kenan: surely your argument that Belinerbauer is anti-democratic rests on the assumption that democracy is synonymous with political liberalism. We’ve got more than a few reasons to think that it’s not.

    [A quick caveat: I am politically firmly on the left and would be happy to be called a liberal in most contexts. Liberalism here is just the view that freedom is the defining political principle.]

    First, there’s the various problems about state coercion which you hint at. In principle liberalism tries to deal with that by some notion of consent, one of the obvious links with democracy. The problem with this argument almost as old as the argument itself, which is the problem that you never seem to have the ability to actually withdraw consent. There are arguments both ways here, but my point is that liberalism is in principle a very unstable base for politics, arguably too unstable to explain how stable liberal democracies actually are.

    The next problem is that the majority of functioning democracies are representative democracies. The only common appeals to something like the traditional liberal conception of democracy are nakedly opportunistic referenda such as the UK eurosceptics constant appeals for a one on EU membership or Boris Johnson’s nakedly opportunistic referendum on the Congestion Charge extension in London. It’s only the most craven political movements that currently appeal to direct democracy. in very blatant attempts to appeal to either ignorance or self-interest. This suggests that when democracies do work, they work because they’re appealing to some principle other than liberalism.

    So I’ve set a brief gesture at some of the negative arguments against a liberal conception of democracy. There are positive arguments for a different view of democracy as well. Secularism actually is a nice way to make this clear. Let’s assume that I’m designing my political system from scratch and I’ve got to set up a design brief of what I need it to do. Now I know that I want it to pick the right choice, but I don’t know which one is right before hand, that’s why it’s a deliberative system. The very first thing I need to do to ensure that I can find the right solution then is to make sure that I don’t exclude any possible solutions out of hand. Secularism fits the bill nicely. What’s interesting though is that the justification isn’t actually liberal, but instead based on what makes the best kind of decision making system. What’s also key here is that this doesn’t preclude us actually coming to a conclusion one way or the other about any particular set of initial conditions. I’m a convinced atheist, but I can’t see any reason why it couldn’t have been the case that Christianity was in fact true and then well it would be pretty important that our political system represented that. Liberalism cannot account for that necessity if it’s foundational. Secularism as a deliberative principle however can account for why it might be necessary to adopt Christianity in a Christian universe.

    Now the obvious argument is the one you’ve raised, that historically political power has only ever been used to persecute people and we should be careful not to give the kind of power we give the state in the Christian universe to the state we have now and I agree completely. But that’s only because we have strong evidence that we don’t live in that kind of a universe and so liberalism remains the best state system, but only for the universe we live in.

    This all means that of the two kinds of foundational principles we have been examining, only the idea of the state as a deliberative body is conceptually rich enough to encompass all of the relevant possibile ways the world could be. This in turn explains the evidence political strength of the modern liberal democratic state, they are actually very good deliberative systems for the world we have, and the fact that they are representative rather than direct, because representative systems are actually better systems for making decisions.

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