Book Review: Secularism or Democracy? by Veit Bader

Cover of Veit Bader's book, Secularism or Democracy

‘Secularism or Democracy? Associational Governance of Religious Diversity by Veit Bader, (Amsterdam University Press, 2007).

This is a comprehensive book that explores issues of religion and state such as what role should religions have vis-a-vis the state, the role of secularism in government and society and how the state can deal fairly with the various religions.  The author, Veit Bader, is an emeritus professor of sociology and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam.  This is an academically rigorous book.  It is most definitely not bedtime reading.  However, if you want a deeply thought and carefully argued book that does not shirk difficult questions or pose glib solutions this book is for you.

Bader is concerned to avoid both the temptation to “universalise particular moralities” and on the other end of the spectrum the problem of moral relativism which implicitly condones anything. In order to avoid these poles, Bader proposes that the state should seek to secure a moral minimalist position. In arguing for moral minimalism, Bader concedes that, “the content of a minimal universal morality is not uncontested… it is historically developing and even basic needs are always articulated from within particular cultural traditions”.  However he argues that a moral minimalist position can be identified.  He cites political theorist, D. Miller, who says that “at a sufficiently fundamental level… we should expect conceptions of need to converge” (cited by Bader, p. 71).

So what is the moral minimum that Bader has identified?  He lists the following:

Minimal morality:

  • Basic rights to security and subsistence
  • Rights to life, liberty, bodily integrity, protection against violence
  • Rights to basic subsistence, basic education, basic healthcare
  • Minimal due process rights
  • Minimal respect
  • Collective and individual toleration (freedom of conscience)
  • Agency and legal autonomy

Veit Bader, p. 72

He regards the minimal morality required in liberal-democracies to be more demanding as it includes such things as equal civic and political rights, equal legal rights and political autonomy (p. 72).

It is notable that the minimal morality identified by Bader does not refer to either religion or secularism.  Bader argues throughout his book that the perceived opposition of religion vs secular is not helpful when considering issues of how the state should handle issues arising from diversity of beliefs in a modern society.  Instead, he says, the focus should be on upholding the virtues of liberal-democracy. The issue of how the state recognises and deals with the various world-views adopted by its citizens should be framed in terms of the state’s priority to uphold the democratic principles under which the democratic state operates.

I found his discussion of the issues regarding neutrality and the state resonated with me.  Bader states that “completely independent, impartial, neutral and objective knowledge is impossible…” (p. 68).  He further argues that, “‘blindness’ or ‘benign neglect’ of religious diversity can only result in presumed neutrality hiding actual bias in favour of religious majorities” (p. 83).  A state that practices ‘neutrality by taking a ‘hands-off’ approach to religion will effectively allow the religious group(s) which have been favoured in the history of the nation to continue to maintain their privileged position in society.

Attempting to remove religion from the public sphere is both unfair and fails to recognise the need to focus on supporting democracy says Bader.  Those who represent religions are restricted in their ability to argue in support for democratic principles in the public sphere.  Bader also points out that threats to democracy can occur from people who hold any belief, whether it be a form of atheism or one of the myriad religious views.  By singling out religious perspectives for exclusion from the public sphere because these are a perceived threat to democracy, the state fails to recognise the fact that democracies have been damaged by people espousing secular perspectives as well as those operating under a religious banner at various times in the past.  All world views, whether religious or secular have a history of supporting democracy.  Both religious and secular views have also had a history of damaging democracy.  It is not the world view that is the issue.  The state needs to foster support for democracy from all its citizens whatever their belief (pp. 84-85).

Bader takes care to avoid extremes and to recognise that there is no neat or complete solution to the issues he addresses.  Bader points out that not even France and the United States practice strict separation of church and state (pp. 63, 84).  For example, the French government funds some religious schools and the United States Congress has a chaplaincy service and its’ sessions are opened with a prayer.  Instead of strict separation Bader supports minimal separation.  States need to be independent of religions and religions need to be free from unreasonable state interference (pp. 46-47).  While recognising that a state cannot be neutral he advocates a pro-active stance by the government to foster ‘relational neutrality’. He regards state involvement as necessary to correct the unfair advantage that has been amassed by some religions for historical reasons and also to fairly include newer religions.  He argues that liberal-democracies do not need to align themselves to a particular world-view whether it is secularist or otherwise (pp. 48-9).

Bader gives close attention to the role of government and religion in education and religion. I found myself nodding in agreement at many of his arguments, but not this one:

In adverse contexts, direct interactions amongst students tend to breed hostility instead of toleration, and more segregated schools provide better teaching and learning opportunities and may at least prevent ‘teaching’ the wrong practices (serving as a breeding ground for ‘vices’).  The crucial question, then, is how to break through vicious self-reinforcing circles and create beneficial ones, both in governmental and non-governmental schools.  This is the strategic problem to be solved, and in my view, voluntarism of student enrolment is crucial.

Bader, p. 274

I agree that a hostile multi-cultural environment is damaging, however I feel that Bader’s advocacy of parental choice between a more secular school and religious schools fails to address some important issues.  Even if a government is happy to financially support all schools, whether run by the state, by religious organisations or other private organisations, it is not always possible to provide a number of different schools from which parents can choose if the population is not big enough to make this an economically viable proposition.  This is exactly the situation which Australian colonial governments faced in the nineteenth century before they introduced compulsory education.  There would be a number of struggling schools run by churches in towns that due to low student numbers could not afford to pay for the resources needed to provide good education for the students.  The colonial governments could not afford to support all these struggling schools and opted to allow these to close and to provide government-run schools instead.  Multi-cultural schools will still exist in Bader’s proposed system and some of these will have to address antipathy between students of different cultural backgrounds.  Many people don’t have a choice and still wouldn’t under the system that Bader advocates.  Even a religious school can be very multi-cultural and theoretically face similar issues to the multi-cultural government schools.

It is easier to oppose than to propose.  Bader is not an academic who sits back and merely criticises, he devotes a considerable portion of the book to advocating a system of governance that he believes will best meet his objections to the current models in place in the west.  He is an enthusiastic supporter of Associative Democracy as a system which he believes could address many of the problems states currently face when dealing with today’s multi-faith societies.  I respect him for his preparedness to put forward a proposal which inevitably will be subject of tough interrogation by others and his recognition that there is no one ideal model which will address all the issues thrown up today.  Overall I found his suggestions reasonable but as Bader says, it is one thing to suggest a solution on the pages of a book, it is another thing to translate the proposal into action.  In the last paragraph of his book, Bader talks of the need to work with politicians, administrators, “social movement organisations” and religions to implement specific proposals tailored to the needs of the nation in question (p. 299).  He says that “AD [Associative Democracy] self-consciously takes into account the limitations of theoretical knowledge.  It… tries to learn from practical ‘muddling through’…” (p. 298).

From the outset Bader makes clear that this book is primarily concerned with western liberal democracies.  Over the years many western thinkers have blithely supposed that the western experience is a global experience, Bader is not one.  While confining his commentary to the situation in the west, he urges his readers to consider the Indian experience and says that while debates about these issues in political philosophy rage in many countries, India hosts one of the few “really productive debates” (p. 24).  Thanks to Bader’s urging I now plan to read more about India’s experience and read the thoughts of Indian writers on this issue. One of the writers that Bader draws on extensively is Rajeev Bhargava.  Bhargava urges us to consider the Indian experience in this article.  Bader gives a taste of the arguments he presents in his book in a post he recently published in which he also refers to Bhargava’s article.

This book is well presented.  Each chapter has a very good introduction and conclusion and the cross-referencing throughout the text allows the reader to easily refer to other sections of the book where discussion of the matter at hand is also discussed.  The arguments are well expressed, albeit using more difficult terminology than what one comes across in publications directed towards the general public.  The terminology is not a barrier to the general reader but a glossary would be useful.  I found Bader’s use of acronyms annoying especially when some of the acronyms he used are commonly used by the general public.  While I know that when Bader uses the acronym IP he means ‘institutional pluralism’ not ‘intellectual property’ and that AD does not refer to a year in this book – it is the acronym for Associative Democracy.  But RIP gives a rather mournful tone to ‘religious institutional pluralism’ which I am sure was not intended by the author.

I have previously written about the importance of footnotes and endnotes.  It is essential to read the endnotes in this book.  Bader’s endnotes contain a lot of discussion which really should have been placed in the main text of the book.  I read this book with two bookmarks, one to mark my place in the main text and the other to mark the page in the endnotes I was up to.

This book is not a dry, detached scholarly treatise.  Bader is tackling issues that have been the subject of heated debates for well over a century.  He doesn’t sit on the fence either.  I can almost guarantee that anyone who reads his book will find at least one thing that they will disagree with.   I chose to read this book because I wanted to be challenged so I welcomed the chance to read a well-argued opinion that at times differed to mine.

As I said at the beginning, this book is not bedtime reading.  It takes work to engage with Bader’s arguments.  I wondered whether a review of this type of book should be posted on this blog given that this blog is directed towards the general reader.  However, I have posted this so that you can have a taste of some of the issues that are being debated by political philosophers.  The issues that it addresses are issues that concern us all and are the subject of much public debate.  Philosophy is not confined to obscure, theoretical academic treatises.  This book demonstrates that philosophers are concerned about the things that concern all of us and have a contribution to make in public debate.


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