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The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do, by Ronald A. Lindsay (Durham, N.C.: Pitchstone Publishing, 2014, ISBN 9781939578129). 224 pp. Softcover, $16.95.
In a better world, Ronald A. Lindsay’s The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do would never have been written.
In a better world, the tenets of political secularism that Lindsay so ably defends would be unmistakable and cherished truths, firmly established through centuries of hard-won political experience. These sensible principles—that government should not involve itself in religious matters, that secular reasoning rather than religious doctrine should drive public policy, and that religious institutions and beliefs should not enjoy special social privileges—would be celebrated by the religious and nonreligious citizens that profit from their (as yet imperfect) implementation. Americans in particular would laud the sagacity of Paine, Madison, Jefferson, and the disestablishmentarian Founding Fathers.
Yet even as Lindsay’s book went to press, the Pew Research Center released new polling data suggesting that a growing share of the American public favors more, not less, mixing of religion and politics. Alas, ours is far from the best-possible world, and The Necessity of Secularism could hardly be more timely and essential.
In its opening pages, Lindsay marshals a wealth of demographic data that establish the book’s undeniable relevance to present sociopolitical conditions. Ours is a world in which a significant and growing share of the population self-identifies as nonreligious. At the same time, religious belief—along with belief in the privileged status of religious beliefs and institutions—remains resilient among a sizeable portion of the population. Some form of conflict is all but inevitable. Although Lindsay focuses his analysis mainly on the United States, where religious persecution has generally subsided and sectarian violence has given way to political and legal skirmishing, he reminds us that religiously motivated brutality still rages in many societies abroad.
The Necessity of Secularism presents Lindsay’s prescription for avoiding conflict and maintaining harmony in a religiously mixed society. His purpose is not to eradicate religion but to convince both religious and nonreligious citizens that political secularism, as defined above, is the best guarantor of their shared rights and common interests. The book is therefore written as a simultaneous appeal to the faithful and the faithless.
This is a book that believers and unbelievers alike can welcome. Its pages are brimming with clear, accessible, and relentlessly respectful language. Among its chief strengths is Lindsay’s insistence on treating religious believers’ perspectives seriously. He thoroughly expounds the anti-secularist position, its motivations, and its principal supporting arguments in considered, measured prose. Where contrarians lack coherent arguments, he generously supplies them. The works of the New Atheists have been maligned, rather unjustly, as shrill and belligerent polemics. Critics will be hard pressed to hurl such an accusation at The Necessity of Secularism. The book is neither a mere antireligious screed nor a tiresome recitation of the political evils wrought in the name of religion. Rather, it is a meticulously crafted argument, built from first principles, demonstrating that political secularism provides the best means of safeguarding freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all in a pluralistic society.
The book’s argument proceeds in three phases, reflected in the ordering of its chapters. Lindsay begins by tracing the development of the secular state and the secular society, outlining their historical motivation and the practical needs they serve. His opening chapters outline the religious intolerance and persecution that prevailed during the American Colonial period; the drafting of the Constitution and the legislative history of the First Amendment’s religion clauses; and the advent of the modern secular society, in which policy discussions are restricted voluntarily to secular arguments and believers are encouraged to translate their religiously motivated concerns into secular terms. Lindsay persuasively argues that the secular society provides the optimal conditions for open, robust democratic discourse. He rightly distinguishes the secular state, which remains neutral between religion and irreligion, from the state atheism of communist nations, in which government makes a show of religious neutrality while persecuting and discriminating against believers.
If religious arguments are to be excluded from public policy debates with moral dimensions, morality must be shown to have a secular, nonreligious basis that believers and nonbelievers alike can grasp without reference to divine authority. The book’s middle chapters are devoted to making this demonstration. In a philosophical tour de force that is too detailed to summarize here, Lindsay shows not only that moral differences can be resolved without recourse to religion but that religion is incapable of grounding morality in the first place. (Hence the book’s subtitle.) Lindsay draws upon a wealth of philosophical writings to conclude that morality is a practical, human institution serving human needs. Its dictates, however, are far from “subjective”; their objectivity can be found in their success in serving morality’s social functions.
The final chapters of the book are an illustrative application of Lindsay’s general prescription for secular reasoning to a particular policy issue that has been the subject of frequent and grandiloquent religious pronouncements: physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Lindsay illustrates how woolly religious shibboleths—for instance, the “sanctity of life”—can be imbued with substance and intelligible meaning by translating them into secular concerns, such that parties who do not share a religious advocate’s peculiar theology can engage with him or her in fruitful discussion. The book closes by inviting believers and nonbelievers to reason together, exhorting them to embrace rather than lament the fact that we cannot rely on divine directives to tell us what to do.
The Necessity of Secularism possesses many virtues one might extol. Foremost among them is its effective union of the practical and the theoretical. Lindsay threads a fine needle that has confounded many writers in this field. Some secularist authors merely catalog the corrosive effects religious dogma exerts on public policy, devoting scant attention to profound philosophical issues concerning the foundations of secular ethics and morality’s alleged dependence on religion. On the other hand, some professional philosophers engage in rarefied musings on religion and politics that quickly become unmoored from the practicalities of real-world legal and political systems. For example, a few philosophers Lindsay criticizes have argued—rather astonishingly—that secular interests are best served by jettisoning our common insistence on secular reasoning and encouraging the faithful to inject their religious arguments into policy discussions, where their ardent beliefs are supposed to shrivel under the illumination of reason. This view simultaneously overstates religionists’ willingness to engage in dispassionate reasoning and papers over the enormous impracticality of transforming policy discussions into protracted theological squabbles.
Lindsay admirably avoids such pitfalls, deftly interleaving moral philosophy, political theory, and legal and policy analysis. Readers will not want for pertinent facts, figures, and informational gems. The book abounds with them, and Lindsay employs them liberally in the service of exploring profound philosophical matters. Yet while his explorations are thoroughgoing and rigorous, they are always made with an eye toward the realities and imperfections of the legal and political systems with which humanity must cope.
Although Lindsay’s writing is by no means dry or academic, here it lacks some of the rhetorical glamour characteristic of some celebrated secularist authors. This is a strength rather than a weakness, and I suspect that Lindsay purposely employed a more muted approach when writing this book. In a discourse devoted to probing nuanced questions at the heart of moral and political philosophy, a more colorful style would be distracting. In the end, the book is carried not by rhetorical seduction but by the sheer force of its arguments.
Lindsay’s joint expertise as a lawyer and a philosopher shines throughout. He skillfully wields historical facts, sociological data, legal arguments, and philosophical analysis to examine a breathtaking range of issues ancillary to his main thesis—from establishment clause jurisprudence to the meaning of life without God to the alleged disparity between religious and nonreligious charitable giving—without once losing the thread of his argument. The breadth of the book’s scope is impressive, and it is altogether astonishing that Lindsay accomplishes so much in just over two hundred pages.
The Necessity of Secularism is a remarkably robust, compelling and concise defense of political secularism, peppered with engaging discussions on related topics in law, politics, and philosophy. Anyone interested in the interplay between faith, morality, and public policy would do well to read this book. One might spend years of study and contemplation, pursuing a mastery of moral philosophy, legal and political theory, and relevant history before gaining a comprehensive understanding of the subject. Or one can reap the benefits of Lindsay’s having done much of the hardest work for us. How lucky we are to be his readers.
Derek C. Araujo was formerly a campus leader and then in-house counsel and a member of the board of directors for the Center for Inquiry. He is currently pursuing a PhD in physics.