Commentary: The neutrality of public space

“There is now a lot of talk of the ‘politicization of religion’.
Much too little attention is paid, however, to the parallel tendency
of the ‘religionization of politics,’ arguably still more dangerous
and often much gory in its consequences.”
– Zygmunt Bauman


WHAT MAKES A PUBLIC SPACE NEUTRAL? Is a secular space a neutral space? What
does neutral means? Can religion have a role in public space? These questions will guide this essay in reflecting on the neutrality of the public space in terms of religion. In this reflection I will unpack the concept of secularism by distinguishing it from atheism, theism, and agnosticism. I will argue that secularism is not about extinguishing religion from public life but about reclaiming the political aspect of public life. This entails adopting a critical distance from our initial position, whether secular or religious, and combating the tendency of the religionization of politics.

SECULARISM, Paul Cliteur writes in The Secular Outlook, is “about the role of religion in public life and about the way we should legitimize our moral commitment.” This definition needs further unpacking; and unpacking entails distinguishing it from the concepts that are related to it. These concepts are stances towards one of the sufficient but not necessary principles of religion: belief in god. The stances examined here are theism, atheism, and agnosticism.

Theism means a belief in one god. “God” here does not just mean any conceptualisation of god. It is a specific conceptualisation of god forwarded by the three great theistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. This God is the creator of the universe, who turns the wheels of history, writes the destiny of mankind, and mandates the moral law we mortals should follow to a tee. This God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. He is immortal – he has no beginning and no end. It is the Father in heaven, whose glory we should exalt. He appears through the Holy Books whose writing He inspired – Torah, Bible, Koran – and through these books we find His instructions of
how to live our mortal lives.

Atheism is “a critique and a denial of the major claims of all varieties of theism.” It can have a broad or narrow version. The broad version of atheism denies the existence of god or gods. On the other hand, the narrow version focuses on the theistic God. Narrow atheism does acknowledge other conceptualisation of the concept of god, such as Tillich’s “symbol of our ultimate concern” and J.A.T Robinson’s “ultimate reality.”

However, these conceptualisations are not the subject of the critique of narrow atheism. Various “negative ideas and attitudes” have been associated with atheism; and “atheists have a reputation for being arrogant, militant, missionary, zealous, and also impolite if not rude.”

For this reason, Cliteur suggests that it might be better to “use the term ‘non-
theism,’” or “private atheism.” Private does not mean invisibility in public space. It means a non-dogmatic approach. Private atheism means that “the atheist should not commit to the view that all people have to subscribe to his or her view of life in order to live peacefully together.” This kind of atheism is part of the secular outlook Cliteur endorses.

Lastly, agnosticism stands in between theism and atheism. If theists affirm the existence of God and atheists deny it, agnostics claim that we cannot know for sure. Cliteur finds agnosticism an unattractive intermediary position because of the inconsistency of its position: “The agnostic says he suspends judgment while in every act he chooses in favour of or against God.”

Nonetheless, Cliteur remarks the attractiveness of agnosticism because “it scorns dogmatism” and “has an air of liberal- mindedness, of tolerance about it.” These qualities are similar to the qualities Cliteur confers to non-theism, or an atheism without the missionary zeal to convert others. However, non-theism is not an intermediate position; it is “an explicit intellectual choice,” a conviction of the non-existence of God. Having these distinctions in mind, the definition of secularism offered earlier needs to be extended.

SECULARISM IS ABOUT the way we should legitimize our moral commitment. Since
non-theism is an integral part of the secular outlook, God, or more properly the belief in God, should not be the factor that legitimizes moral commitment. This however does not mean that religion does not have a role in public life. Some may say that religious beliefs do not have any place in the public space, and that they should be relegated to the private realm. This however is a position that would be hard to sustain.

The separation of the secular and the religious is like the separation of reason and faith. A separation that assumes that reason can come up with moral beliefs that can be totally distinguished from religious ones. But besides secularism’s rejection of the role of God in legitimizing moral commitments, is there any secular moral commitment that has no religious equivalent? Separating the secular from religious is like what Kant attempted when he rejected that God is the source of morality. In Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, George Lackoff and Mark Johnson assert that:

what Kant does is to replace God’s Reason with an equally transcendent Universal Reason possessed by all people. God’s commandments, as moral laws, are thus transformed into the absolute moral laws issued by Universal Reason.

Although Kant changed his method from faith to reason, he still ended up with moral beliefs similar to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This suggests that, save for the role of God, secular and religious moral beliefs are not mutually exclusive but mutually constitutive. The secular and the religious have a dialogical relationship.

In my reading, the secular outlook Cliteur recommends does not reject that religious belief may be a factor that can inform personal or public moral commitments. Indeed, religious beliefs may be invoked in the process of deliberating public policies for the simple reason that the composition of the public is not purely secular. Religious beliefs can influence but cannot dictate the outcome of the deliberation.  The democratic process, and not some Holy Scripture, should determine the outcome.

However, though the democratic process is neutral, it is not empty of initial positions. In Polity and Group Difference: A Critique of the Ideal of Universal Citizenship, Iris Marion Young argues that “an impartial general perspective is a myth” because

people necessarily and properly consider public issues in terms influenced by their situated experience and perception of social relations…which influence their interpretation of the meaning and consequences of policy proposals and influence the form of their political reasoning.

For the democratic process to be neutral, what is needed is not a repudiation of initial positions but a “critical distance” from them. Initial positions – whether secular or religious – are to be taken as points of departures rather than of arrival. What this implies is that the public is a political space, and must remain as such; and it requires the avoidance of the tendency called “religionization of politics.”

The secular outlook, with its rejection of the dogmatism of both theism atheism, is an outlook that seeks to combat the “the religionization of politics,” which Zygmunt Bauman warns against in Living on Borrowed Times: Conversations with Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo. Religionization. It is when politics turn “conflict of interests calling for negotiation and compromise…into an ultimate showdown between good and evil that renders any negotiated agreement inconceivable and from which only one of the antagonists can emerge alive.” The secular outlook rejects this tendency because it is against the missionary zeal of militant theism and atheism — both of them require similarity of beliefs in order to live together. The secular outlook is not anti-religion; it is anti-fundamentalist.

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