Secularism is impossible…
…just like Libertarianism.
Now, before showing why this is so, let us just say that both have their merits as concepts. The merits, however, are exceedingly superficial.
Libertarianism, for example, is the idea that government should leave people alone to the fullest extent possible. In fact, a thoroughgoing Libertarian might well say that there ought be no government at all (anarchy).
It is readily abundant to any thinking person that government is a problem humanity has never properly solved. Moreover, those especially under the government’s thumb at any given time are keen to be out of it. But the only thing worse than government is no government.
What is government, after all, but concentrated power? So, fine, eliminate it: What is left?
Towns? But what defines the town? Without a centralizing influence of some kind, and an authority (here is the key) to enforce it, there is no town. There are just families and individuals living near each other.
Clans, families? But these are also governed. (To be fair, I have not heard a Libertarian say that even families should be dissolved in deference to his politics, but I’m sure they’re out there).
So the individual is the basic unit of society, the locus of power which cannot be further dissolved – at least not without degenerative biological consequences. The idea behind Libertarianism is that individuals may rule themselves, and no one should rule over them.
But is this really possible? Let us take one example.
It is clear to all that no one is completely self-sufficient. Leaving aside the vulnerability of childhood, few have the skills to survive completely unaided by another human being, and fewer still want to. There is a social instinct and need in human beings which must be satisfied for sustained health. (Remember, we are regarding Libertarianism as optimal, not merely bestowing the possibility of survival).
Some interaction will be required among the individuals in a Libertarian society. There will be bartering, for example. Still more, there will be agreements – promises to perform, contracts – which make possible the advancement of human well-being.
Now, as the basic unit of power, I may decide that it is in my interest to make a contract with you, and then break it once you have delivered on your promise. This is obviously bad for you, and it is also bad – tangibly and in principle – for our society. But I am a locus of power. Who can stop me?
And this is only one kind of treachery. I might also choose – in my own interest, you understand – to harm you for amusement, or to steal all you have, or even to murder you. Who can stop me?
Someone or something stronger. And that will likely happen. But see – if it does, now you either have government, or you have might-makes-right. The former we are trying to avoid by definition; the latter is functionally the same, though the slope slides toward tyranny.
Now a similar thing happens with Secularism.
First, a note: Secularism has often been conceived as a compromise among sects of a single religion – usually Christianity – and not as the complete absence of religion in public life. Indeed, it would be fair to say the Founders of the United States had exactly that frame of mind, particularly when you read men like John Adams.
Certainly, others have conceived of Secularism as the absence of all religion, and among the undiscerning, this seems to provide the same societal goods. Let us have this, then.
The idea is that the state will not adopt or favor any religion, but will govern in the common interest in a pluralistic society. The citizens may be adherents of any number of religions, or no religion. The assumption is that they will all benefit if the state does not show any deference whatsoever to any religion at all.
After all, Christians might not like living in a Hindu society, if the government there enforced Hindu doctrine. Likewise, Muslims may not appreciate living under Christian rule, and Buddhists might like to be free of Muslim oversight.
A funny thing happens here, though: Those of no religion win. They don’t like to admit this, of course, but it’s logically guaranteed.
In a society where Christianity is the official religion, Christians win.
In a society where Hinduism is the official religion, Hindus win.
In a society where no religion is state sponsored, those with no religion win.
The counterpoint is that, somehow, a state with no religion is a state where every religion wins. I don’t know…how did the Orthodox fare in Stalin’s Russia?
Moreover, when you’re talking about governing in the common interest, you have to appreciate that a perfect consensus is as mythical as …atheism. (Just as interesting, too.)
And so, whenever you do not have a consensus – say, on whether to go to war with a given country – you are violating the spirit of Secularism. And notice that you are violating it both ways.
In other words, if you go to war against the will of some – then they no longer perceive that you are governing in the common interest (whether or not they are guided by religious conviction).
And if you don’t go to war, you are also governing against the common interest – whether or not they are guided by religious conviction.
Indeed, as I’ve pointed out before, in the context of Secularism it is better to think of religions as worldviews, and atheism as a worldview, and then it all becomes obvious: SOME worldview must dominate.
But if you get tired of living in a Secular society, perhaps a Libertarian society will do. Maybe you can get there on your Hydra.