Secularism is an Imperative for the State and Also for Religion

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By Felipe Berrios, Jesuit Priest, writer, chaplain and founder of the NGO Techo and Infocap, Instituto de Formación y Capacitación Popular: La Universidad del Trabajador

Translated by Anthony Rauld

I remember as children we would take over the street.  We would use stones as goal posts.  The two best players would choose the teams.  And the game would start.  Every once in a while, however, cars wanted to get by.  They would honk their horns.  We would say, “but the streets are public.”  Those drivers had to understand that.  But we also were very clear about it.  We always let the cars go through.  In other words, we took over the street, but “not entirely.”  It would have been in bad taste to appropriate what was public, not to mention clumsy.  Because, in the end, there was nothing stopping both of us, the players and the drivers, from sharing something that was ours precisely because it also belonged to the other.

This example can help to understand how it is that churches can contribute to the public good, as well as how they sometimes can illegitimately claim goods that belong to all of us.  Should the state finance civil society activities, including those of religious organizations? It depends.

What is public has to do with something that belongs to no one in particular.  It has no owner, unlike things.  Nobody can prevent an owner from selling, renting, or destroying his goods.  What is public not only doesn’t belong to anybody in particular, but it can be something that belongs to everyone, but in a general sense.  Like the street shared by children and drivers.  As far as I know, no one can prevent us from swimming in the ocean or breathing the same air that passes from lung to lung.

I’m not a lawyer, but I see that, besides public goods for public use, there are also private goods put to use for public service, and private institutions that generate public goods.  In recent debates, some have argued that universities with “owners” can, in fact, carry out a public function.  Can they?  We would have to see, since there have been cases that are quite worrying.  There are universities that are owned by ecclesiastical institutions that are quite sectarian.  There are Catholic universities, for example, whose ecclesiastic interventions impede freedom of thought.  They are not autonomous.  They are not, in fact, real universities.  It is essential that all universities can secure the unhindered use of reason.  What often happens, as we have seen, is that ecclesiastical authorities can keep people in line by a single blow.  Why should the state fund a university whose Catholicism serves the richest of the country?

But if the state were in a position to demand that private universities become real universities; in other words, if they were in a position to ensure research devoid of censure, as well as a genuinely open curriculum, then there should be no problem in their receiving state funding.  In fact, it would be good for the state to finance them.  The role of the state is to guarantee that everyone can effectively use the goods that belong to everyone.  By contrast, if the functionaries who control the state sought to monopolize the public sphere, then they would be doing a disservice to the nation, because instead of harnessing the creativity of citizens organized to serve the community, they would be depriving society of imagination, passion, entrepreneurship and disinterested generosity.  The state can often be constraining.

The state, unlike private organizations, has the obligation to guide the public in order to ensure that the country’s diverse cultural, philosophical and religious traditions can find expression, instead of trying to monopolize them.  These are values and they give meaning to life.  In large part, it is up to the state to ensure that the multifaceted richness of a people can find the pluralistic channels to express itself.  The state can be expected, among other things, to prevent specific groups from appropriating what belongs to all of us, and even to favor some particular groups, which can, for the common good, be developed in a special way.

How do I understand secularism? In relation to religions, I think that secularism is not opposed to religion.  It is, however, opposed to how religious organizations can sometimes take advantage of what is in the public domain.  When it comes to the public domain, organized religions should also be “secular”, since it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that what belongs to everybody cannot be appropriated by anyone in particular.

If the public domain is protected legally by the state, secularism is, then, the virtue that ensures the fulfillment of that public service function.  Secularism is a characteristic of modern states.  In pre-modern societies, the state can be Catholic, Protestant or Muslim.  In these cases, the public function does not exist, since the society is ruled by a particular creed.  This is not a secular society like, for example, the feudal society.  During the colonial period, Chile was a possession of the Crown.  During that time, Spain controlled the economy just as it impeded other non-Catholic religions from entering America.  In confessional monarchies, religions have benefited from the state, and the state, in turn, has benefitted from religions.

In these cases, the possibilities for citizens to develop themselves in the public arena are privileges, but they are not a right.  In modern societies, however, religious “creeds” do not lead to preferential treatment, benefiting some at the expense of others—which is the same as imposing a creed on those who do not share it.  The secularism of the state in modern societies demands that they abstain from all favoritism.  In this sense, the secular state is responsible for pluralism.  It must be neutral.  Furthermore, because it is secular it not only has to abstain from granting arbitrary favors, it must also intervene against intolerant groups that threaten the peace or that try to take advantage of the state for their own benefit.  Historically, state secularism emerged in order to prevent religious intolerance.  Has it fulfilled its promise?  We must find out where.

Furthermore, we should also ask: has the secular state fulfilled its promise of ideological abstinence when it comes to the powers that be or interest groups?  Almost never.  University faculties, to go back to the example, are sometimes captive to sectarian devotees of republicanism.  What often happens is that some “trade unionist” state university faculties, whether they are ideologically from the Left or the Right, have become a closed reservoir of academics that “have lined their own pockets.”  I wonder if this has taken place in Masonic universities. I really do not know.

Secularism is a virtue that helps the state to be independent and to ensure the common good.  But nothing prevents, and I would say that it is even obligatory, that secularism rise to the level of a virtue, which every citizen should aspire to.  I believe that civil society organizations, the churches, and similar organizations, beyond their respective members, should also be “secular”. This should be a characteristic of modern societies, and not just of the modern state.  The Catholic Church, for example, should be responsible for ensuring that the public domain can be guaranteed to everyone equally.  The Church should abstain from asking for special treatment.  Every Chilean should be “secular”, respect the state’s function to represent the public good and demand from it whatever it needs to develop its initiatives, but only when these are motivated by the common good.

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