Why you must be secular

Mitchell Cohen in Dissent.

The left everywhere ought to be identified with both tolerance (this has not always been so) and with critical intelligence – the latter often means challenging religious precepts, ambitions and institutionalized power. The hard thing is to balance the tolerance and the criticism, to insist on pluralism but not to allow religion to privilege itself in the public realm. The left should always want people to think for themselves, but this cannot mean “you must be secular like me” since it also should not mean “you must be religious like me.”

That last sentence isn’t right. ‘Secular’ doesn’t mean not religious, it means not theocratic. Wanting people to think for themselves pretty much does mean ‘you must be not theocratic’ because theocracy is the end of thinking for oneself. Theocracy is about obedience and submission, and that’s not compatible with valuing thinking for oneself. You could change ‘secular’ to ‘atheist’ in that sentence, but then you would want to wonder why it’s a matter of ‘must’ rather than ‘should.’ Cohen is presumably talking about political persuasion and discourse, in which case, it seems unreasonable to say ‘this cannot mean “you should be atheist”‘ because political persuasion and discourse is all about shoulds; but it seems downright absurd to say ‘this cannot mean “you must be atheist”‘ because who would say that anyway and what would be the point?

This is an interview, so perhaps he just chose his words hastily – but all the same, we have to be careful not to concede too much. We do get to say ‘you must be secular’ and we do get to say ‘you should be atheist’; neither is illegitimate or comparable to saying ‘you must be religious.’

we cannot say often enough today that the modern liberal state was an act against civil wars created by societies dominated by religion; it is only as the domination of the public realm by religion ends that open, liberal, and social democratic (or socialist, if you prefer) societies become possible. When religious movements are triumphalist, when they believe that they can assert themselves inexorably in the public realm, liberal and social democratic values are jeopardized.

Exactly; that’s why we do get to say ‘you must be secular.’ It’s a precondition, like the First Amendment.

If I express my secular humanist ideas publicly, if I try to persuade fellow citizens of them, I must be open to criticism…But what happens when religious-political claims are open to the same challenge? If a Muslim friend, on the basis of his profound religious convictions, makes an argument for a law that is to govern me, shall I challenge his belief in Muhammad’s prophetic role? Anyone who knows some history knows it is likely to lead to religious wars. The alternative is to ask him (or her) to secularize the principles of argument.

As above. Expecting people to be secular does not entail expecting them not to be religious.

I am struck at how parts of the extreme left apologize for Islamic extremism in ways reminiscent of how an earlier generation found ways to apologize for Stalinism. The objects excused are different but the patterns of apologetics are sadly similar. It shows that there really is something I once called ‘the left that doesn’t learn.’ But there are others – liberals and conservatives – who haven’t learned either, or who suffer memory lapse when it comes to all the persecutions and religious wars in the fabric of Western history and seem to forget the historical importance of the domestication of religion within a liberal democratic framework. There has been excessive indulgence of aggressive political religiosity, whether it is the self-righteous Christian right in the U.S., belligerent political Islamism in the Mideast and beyond, or the fanatical religious nationalism of the Israeli settler movements.

So he’s pretty much saying ‘you must be secular’ (and not at all saying ‘you should be atheist’). That one sentence must have been an aberration.

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