Excursus: Neutrality, and Why I Am Neither For Nor Against It


As I wrote the last couple paragraphs of “Heresy:  Systems of Control“, I began to fudge on the phrasing a bit, and it occurred to me that I ought to write another post explaining why, and elaborating the issues involved.  I almost said that in a pluralistic society we must respect all religious beliefs while keeping public policy neutral.  However, that little word–“neutral”–has caused issues in blog discussions elsewhere to which I’ve been privy, so I want to look at it here.

In a confessional state, there is no question of neutrality.  A given religion is the official one, simple as that.  How this is manifested may vary:  there may be no separation between church and state at all, or there may be moderate separation, or the state may acknowledge the state church in merely symbolic ways.  Religions other than the official state religion may be banned and persecuted, tolerated with restrictions, or left totally alone.  Regardless of the specifics, though, there is no pretense of neutrality–there is the state religion which is favored and enshrined in law, and there is everything else.

The United States, of course, not only has no state religion, but the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment ensures that there never will be an American state religion.  We have been a pluralistic society from the beginning:  first, with most forms of Christianity represented in colonial times;  later on, with immigration and religious ferment, almost all human religions have come to be found within the boundaries of the USA.  As a result of this, we tend to think of ourselves as “neutral”–that is, people of all faiths are treated the same, and no one religion should have a special place over any other.  This had always seemed to me, for one, to be self-evident.  However, in the course of various blog discussions I’ve had over the last year, I’ve come across a frequently expressed counter-narrative.

According to this counter-narrative, we are not now nor ever have been neutral, because neutrality is not possible.  If one religion has hegemony, there is of course no neutrality.  Such hegemony need not be in the form of a state or established church–if there is a cultural expectation that people ought to be Christian or have “Christian values”, for example (this would apply to other religions in other countries, too, of course), then there is a “soft” hegemony rather than a “hard”–read “legal”–hegemony, but a  hegemony nonetheless.  So much as this is uncontroversial.  The assertion by those who make this argument, though, is that treating all religions equally is not neutral either; and not only that, it is itself hegemonic.

The reasoning goes as follows:

  1. Religions often (not always) make exclusive truth claims; that is, Religion A claims to be the One True Faith, and all others are to some extent or other wrong and misguided.
  2. Religion permeates every aspect of life–it is not something restricted to an hour or so of religious service once or twice a week.  For example, kosher laws affect an Orthodox Jew’s diet every day; a Muslim is required to pray five times every day, regardless of whatever else she does; and so on.  The believer’s actions are informed at all levels by her faith.
  3. In a state that is officially pluralist, though, the treatment of all religions as equal undermines their truth claims.  In other words, even though Religions A, B, and C each claim to be the One True Faith, they are treated identically; but this implies that none of them actually is the One True Faith.  This is not a metaphysical truth claim–as far as the state is concerned, it makes no difference which, if any, is true.  However, when believers are exposed to a culture in which their religion is treated as no better or worse than any other and no more likely to be true or false than any other, they will tend over time to view it that way themselves.  That is, if your faith is given no special treatment, and no one else’s is, either, you tend to develop a sort of inchoate indifferentism.  You tend to think, “Different strokes for different folks.”  This has the effect, though, of your taking less seriously the exclusivist claims of your own religion, and taking it less seriously; thus, you move into a vague point of view that particulars don’t matter much and you tend towards what has been described as “moralistic therapeutic deism“.
  4. Finally, it is argued that not only does pluralism weaken religious faith as described in 3, it actually acts against it.  A pluralist state has perforce to put limits on religious expression.  Even pacifists can be drafted (though to non-combatant roles); meat is sold on Fridays and pork on all days no matter what Traditionalist Catholics or Jews and Muslims may think about it; men and women intermingle freely, despite the concerns of traditionalist religions that frown on this; citizens’ taxes support things to which they’re religiously opposed; and so on.

Thus, the counter-narrative says that so far from being neutral, a secularist pluralist state is hostile to religion:  passively, because the implication that all religions are equal erodes belief in their uniqueness and their truth claims; and actively in that it necessarily limits, however mildly, full expression of religious beliefs in all areas of life.  Thus, when those who favor a secularist pluralist state argue that such a state is neutral, the supporters of the counter-narrative accuse them of hypocrisy and/or ignorance, since they (in the view of the supporters of the counter-narrative) are, so far from neutral, in fact pushing their own hegemony, a hegemony of secularism.

Thus, for supporters of a secularist pluralist approach–and I am such a supporter–what to say to this?  An analogy I’ve used in this regard riffs on the classic teacher response to the kid who brings food to class:  “Did you bring enough for everyone?”

Let’s say Mrs. Smith is a sixth-grade teacher, and that her policy is that if you bring food to class, you have to share with everyone; otherwise, you have to put it away and don’t get to eat any yourself while at school.  This is because that’s “just fair”.  In short, if Mrs. Smith were to articulate her perspective in detail, she’d say that distribution of snacks should be equitable–everybody gets some, or nobody gets any.

Now let’s say precocious little Ayn comes to class with food one day, and is admonished by Mrs. Smith either to share or to put her food away.  Ayn refuses.  Mrs. Smith tells her that this isn’t fair.  Little Ayn, though, defends herself thus:  “Look, you’re the one who’s not being fair.  I do chores for my parents and they give me an allowance.  I used that allowance to buy this bag of chips.  I earned the money; I bought the chips; I deserve what I bought with my own money that I earned.  No one else deserves a single chip.  If they want snacks, let them get an allowance and buy their own.  Forcing me to give what I earned to everyone else just so they have some, too, is what’s not fair!”

Now this is interesting.  On the one hand, the idea that everyone gets some or no one gets any–that is, equality of outcome–is appealing to us egalitarian Americans.  “All men are created equal”, and all that.  On the other hand, the idea of deserving what you worked for appeals to the American notion of the self-made man, and we rankle a bit that those who didn’t do the work should share the fruits thereof.  How does one answer this?  Who is right, Mrs. Smith or little Ayn?  The answer is “both, and neither”.  In short, there is no neutral, transcendent position from which one can say that Ayn “should”  or “shouldn’t” share.  Both Mrs. Smith and little Ayn can argue their cases  with equal passion and logic.  There is no basis on which to say that either is or isn’t “fair”.  So what is to be done?  Well, in an actual classroom, this is the point at which the teacher trumps Ayn by saying, “But I’m the teacher and I enforce the rules!”  At which point Ayn shares, puts the chips away, or gets detention!

Chairman Mao once said that all power comes out of the barrel of a gun.  We may not like him and be glad he’s dead all these decades, but he had a point.  All philosophy and idealism aside, at some point every form of society has to enforce societal norms–emphasis on the “force” in “enforce”.  If humans were angels, this would not be necessary.  Unfortunately, the world is far from angelic.  From a high school clique that enforces norms by shunning, shame, or ridicule, to a government that enforces norms with jail or even execution, all forms and all levels of human society use force as a last resort when all argumentation fails.  Mrs. Smith forces little Ayn to share; a theocracy forces everyone to belong to the same religion; a secularist pluralist state uses force to prevent full implementation of any particular religion.  We may not like it, but there it is.

Thus, whose narrative do we accept?  Well, there is no doubt that religion has an awful lot of blood on its hands:  crusades, jihads, holy wars, etc.  It is true that Communism and fascism are arguably forms of atheist and/or secularist hegemony  (though with fascism it’s much murkier) that has had as much blood on its hands as religion.  However, I think it’s reasonable to view Communism as an aberration–religion has led to bloodshed more often than has secularism.  Fascism, as I said is murky, often being entwined with religion; but some forms of religion are actually quite amenable to fascism, so I think it need not be counted in this.

Therefore, I’d argue as follows:

  1. The proponents of the counter-narrative are correct in that there is no true, arbitrary, transcendent neutrality.  Secular pluralism is no more neutral than religious hegemony of either the formal or informal varieties.
  2. Secular pluralism will inevitably have some negative effects on religious believers and on religion in general, no matter how mild it is.
  3. However, the proven dangers and risks of religious hegemony, even informal hegemony, are in my judgement greater than the dangers and risks of secular pluralism that treats all religions equally.
  4. Therefore, while I no longer claim that secular pluralism is neutral, or that it doesn’t have a certain amount of cost in terms of full religious freedom, I think that on a balance it’s still the best system and that it should be preferred in a democracy such as ours.

In short, to put it in Churchillian terms, secular pluralism is the worst system except for all the others!


Posted on 21/08/2014, in religion, social commentary, society and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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