Monday, November 25, 2013

Charles Taylor on religious liberty

Andrew Koppelman

Most contemporary liberal political philosophers in this country are kindly disposed toward the idea of religious liberty. But ever since the Reagan era they have been anxious about the rise of the Religious Right, and correspondingly eager to contain the influence of religion over politics. Drawn to the notion that the state ought to be neutral with respect to any controversial conception of what constitutes a good life, they have spawned a number of theories that aim to recast what is politically salient about religion in neutral, nonreligious terms, such as “conscience” or “individual autonomy.” Unhappily, this move toward abstraction discards everything that is specifically valuable about religion, even as it threatens to deprive us of the legal and political tools we need to deal with the problems that religious diversity generates.

For many years, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has been a leading voice for a more historically and ethically grounded approach to the complexities of religious practice in secular society. In his most recent writings, however, Taylor has started to sound a lot like the advocates of neutrality. In an essay titled “Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism,” he argues that “all spiritual families must be heard” in the process of social self-determination. And in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, a 2011 book co-authored with Jocelyn Maclure, he writes that the democratic state must “be neutral in relation to the different worldviews and conceptions of the good—secular, spiritual, and religious—with which citizens identify.” Anything else, he insists, would make some into “second-class citizens.”

These claims can be read two ways. One of these takes them as a call for a negotiated common ground, working from whatever commitments citizens happen to have—religious or otherwise—toward an outcome that will honor all those diverse commitments while adjudicating the inevitable conflicts among them. In present U.S. law, for instance, accommodation is given to ritual peyote use in Native American religious ceremonies but not to recreational use of hallucinogens, and nobody gets permission to use heroin. The other view is that Taylor has joined cause with those theorists who claim that the state ought to be neutral with respect to any conception of the good. Which view of Taylor’s thinking is more accurate?

The rest of this post is in the current issue of Commonweal magazine, and is available here.

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