I spent much of today at the “Secularism on the Edge” conference at Georgetown, organized by Jacques Berlinerblau, Sarah Fainberg, and Aurora Nou. Aside from the opportunity to meet face-to-face with people I have only known online previously, this first day was an exciting and multifaceted look at how secularism works in different nations. The opening public interview of John Fea by Berlinerblau was a joy, illustrating perfectly that secularism is not a project exclusive to the irreligious, and I’ll discuss it here later, but I wanted to touch on a point made in the second discussion of the day, Fainberg’s interview of Jean Baubérot and Henri Peña Ruiz. The two French scholars, both of whom were involved in the 2003 Stasi Commission which restricted religious apparel in French public schools, spoke on the importance of laïcité to the modern French republic.
Toward the end of the interview, in the context of the French National Assembly approving gay marriage, Baubérot argued that a secular state cannot accept the natural law or moral law of any particular religion. Peña-Ruiz, a philosopher, broadened this notion, saying that the secular ethic should be one that prevents the universalization of any particular religious claim.
I can easily agree with the philosophy of this claim, but I felt that Peña-Ruiz in particular, and the predominant French approach to religious pluralism in general, fails to acknowledge that in practice, secularism faces pre-existing claims of universalism. The French approach seems to forget that while secularists want to prevent religionists from universalizing their beliefs in the political realm, many religionists see their beliefs as always and already universalized–just not recognized as such by the state. Universality is there in the name of the Catholic church, for example.
This is not a uniquely French problem, of course. Any time a state tells religious believers that their worldview cannot be made into civil law because it is not universal truth, the response could be, “But don’t you see? It is universal truth.” This is one of the greatest challenges secularism faces: discovering how to navigate the rhetorical and cognitive divide between relativism (broadly defined) and universalism. The current French method is trying to pound secularism into society with a sledgehammer–it’s no surprise that there is some resistance.