Secularism and democracy

A Twitter debate between myself and Jacques Berlinerblau, author of How to be Secular.

167 total views
As seen on
  1. Last week, on my blog Pandaemonium, I reviewed sociologist Jacques Berlinerblau's book How to be Secular. I was critical of the book, suggesting that Berlinerblau'sargument 'is deeply flawed and many of its political consequences troubling'. In particular, he had, I wrote, 'a deeply undemocratic vision of secularism'. Berlinerblau took umbrage on Twitter at my characterisation of his arguments. Twitter is not the best medium to have nuanced debate on these kinds of issues, but it was an interesting discussion (the heart of which was a debate not so much about secularism as about democracy) so I have curated the tweets (slightly reordered to make better sense of the discussion), with some comments thrown in. I hope, however that Jacques Berlinerblau takes up my offer to publish on Pandaemonium any lengthy response he wishes to write.
  2. I had misspelt Berlinerblau's name in one paragraph in my original review. As I said, I need a proofer for Pandaemonium - and not just on this occasion.
  3. In the section of the Berlinerblau's book we are discussing, he lays out John Locke's argument that secularism cannot 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 undergrids, 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 demonstrate, 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, p15]. 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, p15]. It seems clear (to me at least) that Berlinerblau is not simply making a descriptive point here, but a prescriptive one too. Indeed, he makes that same prescriptive point in the Twitter debate: