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  • Secularism Minus Exclusion:Developing a Religious-Friendly Idea of Public Reason
  • Simone Chambers (bio)

Religion enters the public sphere by all sorts of routes and in all sorts of ways from questions of the Islamic head-scarf to tax exempt status to the language on our currency. This essay looks at one dimension only of the broad debate over the legacy and future of secularism. My topic is the appeal to religious reasons in public debates to justify policy preferences and state legislation. It used to be, not so long ago, that the academic debate about the place of religious reasons in the public sphere could neatly be divided into exclusivists and inclusivists.1 The former argued for the exclusion of religion from public debate and politics and the latter for the inclusion of such considerations. Furthermore, exclusivists were for the most part secular philosophers advocating secularism, while inclusivists were religious thinkers criticizing contemporary understandings of secularism. The picture is no longer so neat and tidy. First, secular liberal philosophy has developed a more nuanced, varied and critical attitude toward secularism, brought on in large measure by responding to criticism from religious quarters. To be a secular thinker leaves open the question of what form of secularism one endorses. Second, many if not most defenders of public reason no longer draw the line between public and nonpublic reason along strictly religious/ secular lines. Religion, as we will see, still poses some particular problems for the liberal public sphere but for the most part these problems are no longer dealt with by prescribing radical forms of god-ectomy. Finally, a number of secular philosophers argue not simply that one cannot and ought not exclude religious arguments from public debate but that religion can, has been, and will continue to be a positive force in the public sphere.

Exclusivist versus inclusivist cannot adequately describe the contemporary debate. More appropriate is the distinction between restrictive secularists and open secularists on the one hand and the non-liberal and liberal theists on the other.2 Restrictive secularists and non-liberal theists are still at a stand off. Sometimes the debate is mischaracterized as containing these two positions only.3 In contrast, I see a growing number of open secularists and liberal theists converging on a center position.4 The core of this position is an invitation to religious citizens, indeed all citizens, complete with their deepest convictions, to participate in public life and debate within certain liberal/moral constraints governing appropriateness of public justifications. Not all religious contributions will survive these constraints but nor will all secular contributions. It is an open question—hence open secularism—which actual utterances in public fall afoul of the constraints. While the rigor, content and intent of the constraint vary widely between adherents of open secularism and liberal theism, none understand the constraint to either exclude religion as such from debate or require sharability of reasons. Something like this position, with lots of variation in the detail, then represents the growing center of the religious reasons/ public reasons debate.


Jeffrey Stout claims that the defining feature of secularism is the "aim of minimizing the influence of religion as such" in the public sphere.5 I want to argue that this describes restrictive and militant secularists and not the growing number of open secularists. Stout points out quite rightly that the idea of 'religion as such' makes little sense as religious contributions to public life are so varied, plural, and diverse that it is both impossible and wrongheaded to try to minimize its influence as such. What would that even mean? Would it require that we avoid electing representatives with a religious education because that might have influenced the way they see the world? The difficulties with the 'minimizing religion as such' position are so great that one wonders how many secularists it actually describes. As with religion, perhaps we should be moving away from thinking about secularism as such. Stout's definition of secularism does not, for example, fit Jürgen Habermas' view: on the one hand, he agrees with Stout that blanket exclusion and suspicion of religion is unwarranted but on the other, he nevertheless insists...


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