Saturday, 28 July 2007


This is a review of some of the points made by Anthony J. Carroll in his paper:
Carroll says, "Is it reasonable [of secular liberals?] to presume that religions cannot judge between unfair proselytism and the reasonable acknowledgement of one's faith in the public domain? I think not." - On the contrary I think it is. The reason being that most faiths, and certainly the big three, are absolutist in their views about the truth of their religions.

The very fact that this discussion is taking place so openly in secular democratic states is indicative of the fact that there is not (or should not be) any absolutist view from liberal-democratic (or philosophically-atheistic) world views - they should always be open to debate and persuasion.

Carroll says, "The alternative to the liberal position is the so-called 'Anglo-Saxon' model. This model acknowledges the positive insights of communitarianism about how learning and socialisation are accomplished within particular communities with distinctive commitments. Communitarianism privileges the good of a particular tradition over the claims to universal rightness of a neutral reason supposedly independent of tradition and cultural context. It readily accepts a pluralism of cultures within the one society. Continental European societies, however, are concerned that such a model will lead to ever greater fragmentation, a fear that is not, in present late-modern or postmodern societies, without foundation. When, therefore, the French state sees headscarves in the classroom, it fears societal atomization and the weakening of the social bond-le lien social. If you let one group do their own thing, the danger is that everyone will simply go their own way. Society will disintegrate, and the result will be nothing other than anarchic tribalism."

This seems a reasonable view. The liberal approach appears to offer the opportunity for more cohesion. Granted, there may be a problem where religious communities object to this approach, and so potentially detract from that possibility of cohesion. But that is generally the nature of such groups, a nature that the secularist liberal objecting to.

In liberal secularism there is also the objection to the promotion to children of singular absolutist views within religious (or political or any other) communities, since with closed communities this amounts to indoctrination. Note that this is not an objection to the promotion of religious beliefs. Following liberal democratic principles it should be open for any religious, political or other group to express their views to adults, and to attempt to persuade adults within the bounds of law*. Further more, there is no objection to the teaching about religions, atheism and other world views within a well controlled non-indoctrinating classroom.

The problems only arise because some religions, or at least some sub-groups, not only believe that the truth of their religious world view is absolute, but, because they believe so, they assume they have the right to impose that view on everyone else, at the expense of democratic principles. I think Carroll's solutions require that these groups relinquish such aims.

Imagine, if you will, if you can, an absolutist dogmatic religious world view that includes in it the view that democracy is invalid, evil and must be replaced by the one true theocracy. Further, that world view sees nothing wrong in using all the tools, all the 'weaknesses', of that evil democracy to democratically win control of the state, with the intention of making it a theocracy. What road back remains for those of other faiths, or atheists, for democracy. This is the terrible fear that drives the liberal democratic secular movement. And it isn't based solely on distant historical experiences of religious wars, as Carroll suggests.

"However, as I have argued, its [secular liberalism's] seemingly neutral, rational principles are in reality neither neutral nor independent of material claims. Liberalism is itself an ideology; it is grounded in a particular vision of the world, one that is all the more powerful because it is not explicitly acknowledged." - I think it is explicitly acknowledged, by secular liberals, and I understand that it might not be by those that don't share the view. It is the more powerful because it is the most cohesive and is not exclusive. It is also the most beneficial to the most people - both as a society and as individuals. It is not perfect, but then perfection is a flawed notion when applied to human social organisation (see my blog on perfection:

"For its part, communitarianism respects the particularities and the substantive claims of distinct groups. It supports the freedom to live according to one's own moral, religious and cultural convictions." - Only coincidentally. This "freedom to live..." is not a requirement in any group, except within liberal democracy where it exists as part of the definition of that world view and is not superseded by any 'higher power'.

"Liberalism stresses freedom at the cost of ideological blindness and naïveté; communitarianism fosters cohesionat the risk of societal atomization. How can one draw on the strengths of these conflicting positions and avoid the limitations of each of them?" I don't see ideological blindness as a fault - your ideology shouldn't prevent your access to, for example education. In suggesting that "communitarianism fosters cohesion" surely there is no suggestion that liberalism does not? Liberalism fosters super-cohesion beyond any particular group, while at the same time imposing no restriction on cohesion within groups, given safeguards.

As for Carrol's proposals: "Acknowledging Commitments", "Citizenship", "Appropriate Assertiveness" - I agree with all his sentiments here.

The examples of the headscarf or the crucifix should pose no problem for state schools, if Carroll's guidelines are followed. There remains the problem of other forms of dress, such as the complete covering of the face except for the eyes. It has been argued that this form of dress is inappropriate since it prevents full communication between teacher and pupil. So where does this lie in Carroll's mind?

*If it is felt that a law does restrict religious expression among adults the liberal democratic system allows for that law to be challenged.

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