The Secular Turn

READ > Religion and Civil Order


In the modern era, those distinctive concepts of freedom and of toleration became detached from their original religious foundations and anchored to another, secular system of thought that rejected any preexisting obligation of divine origin. The idea of the good was demoted from its universal transcendent position and relativized to the individual. This shift reflected the displacement, in modern secular philosophic liberalism, of the religious view of human nature as a creation of God, by a (sometimes tacit) materialist account of human nature as self-creating and autonomous, of ultimate good as something private and (potentially, at least) different for each individual. Individual freedom retained its prominent position, but instead of freedom to recognize the good (that is, God), it was construed as freedom to choose between a plurality of goods or to create one's own good, but in any case, the self, not a transcendent source of that self, was the autonomous measure of its own good. The concept of covenant, as the origin of society, was replaced by social contract, in which the people themselves, and their private interests, were seen as the authoritative source of the social bond. By the twentieth century, a process that had begun with the attempt to apply religious principles to mitigate the problem of religious disunity had resulted in the eviction of the religious basis of the entire collective moral system which had been taken for granted as an indispensable foundation and the purpose of championing religious liberty at all.


A key feature of the secular turn in modern moral philosophy has been the attempt to separate the right, or justice, from any substantive conception of human good, such as would be found in a religious world view--that is, an account of reality, human nature, and purpose which gives direction and meaning to human life. This conception of justice is regarded as prior to the good and as universally valid because it does not depend on, and thus give privilege to, any particular conception of the good. While it has been given various renderings, the neutral conception of justice is generally concerned with ensuring a maximum, or an equal amount of, liberty (and thus opportunity) for individuals to pursue their own self-chosen conceptions of the good life.


However, the view that it is possible to do right independently of reference to the good would have been foreign to the thinking of such a religious philosopher as John Locke. According to Locke,

A good life, in which consists not the least part of religion and true piety, concerns also the civil government: and in it lies the safety both of men's souls and of the commonwealth. Moral actions belong therefore to the jurisdiction both of the outward and inward court; both of the civil and domestic governor; I mean, both of the magistrate and conscience.

Likewise alien would have been the modern secular notion of an autonomous human reason able to formulate its own morality or ethics without reference to God. For Locke,

A dependent, intelligent being is under the power of and direction and dominion of him on whom he depends and must be for the ends appointed him by that superior being. If man were independent he could have no law but his own will, no end but himself. He would be a god to himself and the satisfaction of his own will the sole measure of all his actions.

Locke's conviction that belief in God was the essential ground for a commitment to justice is reflected in his refusal to grant atheism the status of a moral foundation equivalent to religion. For "Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all. Besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretense of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration." This often misunderstood passage did not imply atheists should not have the same civil rights as other citizens; it merely refused to allow religious toleration to extend, by sophistry, to an opposite, antireligious position that, because it denied the source of legitimation for "the bonds of human society," lacked the basic commitment to authority necessary to uphold any civil order (and, of course, lacked any reason to consider religion worthy of toleration).


Locke, in sum, thought that the right was intrinsically dependent on the good, that the good was necessarily the divine good, and that while the coercive enforcement of sectarian dogmas and forms of worship--quite correctly--had no place in civil government, religious principles and moral values were inseparable from it.


In recent years, the idea that justice can be conceptualized in the absence of any commitment to a set of transcendent values, or with a minimal set of values, has been abundantly criticized and its contradictions enumerated, from a variety of perspectives, particularly with respect to its implications for community life.


Modern secular liberal philosophy was never intended to constitute communities but rather to provide a theory of neutral arbitration among the various individuals and communities over which the modern state has jurisdiction. Thus it is not surprising that the principles of liberal polity, emphasizing difference and individualism, should be in tension with the concerns and needs of communities, which depend upon unity and mutuality. In the historical experience of irreconcilable religious sectarianism which gave rise to modern liberal political theory, the irreducibility of disunity arose, as Locke was keenly aware, from the fact that the points of contention involved the assertion of secondary doctrines and practices above and beyond what was clearly warranted in the scripture. But because such doctrines were not warranted--or were not clearly warranted--they could never gain consensus by a conclusive proof of their authority, and thus could only appeal to probability; hence they could always be disputed. In contrast, he observed, clearly warranted deductions caused no division. Under the circumstances, without any universally recognized authority (for the same reason--absence of a clear scriptural warrant for any such institution), dissensus was inevitable and at best might be managed but never eliminated.


It is thus the absence of any infallible, scripturally warranted center of interpretive authority that is the root of the historical, religious problem to which the theory that would become modern secular liberalism was originally proposed as the solution. The presumption of irreconcilable difference, and hence of disunity, is ingrained in that system of thought; and this, along with the primacy of individual liberty (which as Locke noted became a practical necessity precisely because of dissension and the need to choose between competing sects), continues to shape contemporary concepts of the liberal polity. On the resulting model, the community, as Philip Selznick observes, is not to be "based on shared identity, shared purpose, or shared understanding of the common good; rather it is constituted by the principles of right ordering that govern liberty." But that emphasis on individual freedom and autonomy meets its limitations precisely where community life begins: for communities are constituted by unity and sustained by commitments to shared purposes. Regulatory rules and procedures for ensuring individual liberty cannot account for or provide, for example, "ideals of caring and social justice--including care for children, health, families, the environment, aesthetic values, opportunity, and the well-being of future generations." Such goals guided by ideals are unintelligible apart from a vision of human good, excellence, and happiness.

The limiting consequences, as Selznick has noted, of conceiving the community as a mere "framework within which autonomous choices can be made" are that "The political quest for a distinctive kind of community is abandoned. We are not to seek, through politics and government, the kind of community that will best redeem the promise of fellowship or most closely approximate the potential for human growth, creativity, and responsibility." As the strictly value-neutral state attempts to exclude from public institutions and governance any reference to the kinds of ultimate goals associated with a particular good way of life--and thus with religion--it precludes and indeed disqualifies itself from being able to "advance human excellence." For to do that requires a conception of the good, something to which the neutral state disclaims any access.


As many have pointed out, modern liberal theory contains deep contradictions. It is now widely recognized that, despite disclaimers, a conception of the good and a theory of human nature--and thus a set of particular beliefs--is being implemented all the same in liberal theory, and this implies an exclusion of other beliefs:

Any conception of the human good according to which, for example, it is the duty of government to educate the members of the community morally, so that they come to live out that conception of the good, may up to a point be held as a private theory by individuals or groups, but any serious attempt to embody it in public life will be proscribed. And this qualification of course entails not only that liberal individualism does indeed have its own broad conception of the good, which it is engaged in imposing politically, legally, socially, and culturally wherever it has the power to do so, but that in so doing its toleration of rival conceptions of the good in the public arena is severely limited.

According to Selznick, "fundamental values--not only basic requirements of justice and citizenship but broader ideals of personal and social well-being" are inevitably employed if only tacitly; for instance, merely to have decided that human beings need liberty is already to have committed oneself to a belief about human nature. "The presuppositions of liberalism represent genuine moral choices, and their reaffirmation is a continuous act of moral choice, the more so as liberalism takes seriously the quest for social justice." As the pursuit of social justice becomes an aim and purpose in government, that endeavor embodies an ensemble of values far beyond any neutral or procedural concept of basic liberties. Thus, for example, "Education for basic skills may arguably be morally neutral, but not education for citizenship, for enlightenment, for social responsibility, for deferred gratification, for intellectual and aesthetic appreciation." And the same is true of a wide range of other social issues.

Ever more urgently, social theorists now call for recovering a balance between the individual and society, between rights and responsibilities within a coherent framework. "Our situation today," Selznick writes, "calls for a more robust idea of community, one that gives greater weight to the claims of mutuality and fellowship. Liberalism's thin theory of community weakens its capacity to speak with a clear voice where the public interest demands discipline and duty as much as (and in a given context perhaps more than) freedom and self-realization." For that same insistence on value neutrality and emphasis on individualism undermines the security and well-being of all when it eliminates any basis for calling upon individuals to sacrifice their individual preferences and concrete, short-term interests for the needs of a more abstract common good: "it is hard to justify sacrifice--a ban on gas-guzzling vehicles, a program of compulsory national service, a required course of study--when individual choice is held sacred."


The idea that civil governance requires a value-neutral ethic that strictly avoids all reference to a transcendent good is a peculiarly modern secular development, which appears to be an attempt to extend the principle of noncoercion in matters of belief into a vastly altered context. In the new context, the possibility of moral consensus upon any religious foundation has been wholly abandoned, and instead it is taken as axiomatic that the only available ethical common ground is secular, that is, nonreligious. And yet, every attempt to construct such a secular public ethic or conception of justice with universal validity discloses a tacit dependency upon what turn out to be spiritual values. When we trace the concepts and principles on which justice--including the essential ideas of human equality and obligation--order, governance, and citizenship depend, it becomes clear that any theory of these that was entirely stripped of all its borrowed religious values would be little different from the theoretical Hobbesian "state of nature": a war of all against all. Such a condition, ruled only by the unrestricted competition of self-interest, is nothing less than radical individualism. Yet the consequence of unbridled individualism is ultimately the erosion of the altruistic values on which community, civil society, and, some argue, human evolution itself, depend.


It has been suggested that even after the modern secular turn, and the resultant weakening of the authority of religion, the social order continued to run on the "accumulated moral capital" of the past, a fact that temporarily concealed the true social cost incurred by abandoning religion. As this reserve has gradually exhausted itself, we have witnessed an acceleration in the rate of social and moral deterioration, expressed in the loosening of every form of personal obligation, and have seen secular ideologies and theories go bankrupt, unable to create community, to teach moral values and virtues necessary to sustain the political order, or to stem the rising tide of conflict and violence. The progression of this disintegration has only thrown into relief the fact that "no matter how undermined, a remnant of the older morality provides much of what coherence our society still has." Such recognition has led to an emerging interest in the underlying principle at the basis of that morality, the idea of covenant, as "an idea whose time [has] come back."


READ > The Concept of Covenant


Wendy M. Heller explores the religious origins of the organizing principles of civil society, tracks their secularization in the modern era, and examines the prospect of an inclusive global moral order based on the enduring concept of covenant. This article appeared in the 1995-96 edition of The Bahá'í World, pp. 185-222.

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