The Books Interview: Charles Taylor

Your latest book, Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, has its origins in the 2008 commission on cultural differences in Quebec. Would it therefore be fair to describe it as a work of public philosophy?
Absolutely, because the issues discussed in the book arise out of what's actually happening. During the brief history of the commission, there was an election, then a scare along the lines of: "Are they going to change our culture?" And so on.

That's the context in which we delivered the report. Reasons for not having this terror are really what we had to provide.

So, for you, secularism today has to do with how we manage cultural and religious diversity?
The original model of secularism was one in which a very dominant religious group had to fight with other kinds of tendencies. That was the situation in France in the 19th century but it doesn't at all describe modern-day Canada or the UK. The kind of secularism [advanced in the book] answers the question, "How do we live together?"

And your claim is that living together requires our agreeing on certain basic or "foundational" principles"?
Right. Though anything like an overlapping consensus is always something you have to go on working for. Some people may deny it but it's something that must exist for all kinds of societies to succeed. I think that we can get, today, very wide agreement on issues [of equality and freedom of conscience].

Though all kinds of people from religious and anti-religious groups don't believe this - the Muslim Brotherhood, for example.

Why, in your view, is there more to secularism than the doctrine of the separation of church and state?
It's not that secularism isn't that separation. But I'm arguing that there are two basic goals [for secularism], one being the separation of church and state, the other being state neutrality [on religious and moral questions].

Does it follow that the institutional forms secularism takes vary over time?
That's right. I don't think, for example, that there's a terrible vice in there still being an established church in the UK. To fetishise separation is to not think about the issue in the right way.

You've written elsewhere of the "tragic and destructive consequences of hard-line secularism". What did you mean by that?
One of the difficulties with targeting religion, as some secularists do, is that as a concept it's incredibly fluid. What do we mean by "religion"?

You often hear people saying about Muslims, "They want to have honour killings; they want to have female genital mutilation." But that isn't Islam. That kind of thing has happened in many cultures, some of which were Christian or pagan. Honour killings happened in ancient Greece.

This is a very complex phenomenon, at the borderline of culture and religion. One of the difficulties with seeing religion as the problem is that any understanding of the relationship between culture and religion just disappears.

You redefine secularism in the book in such a way that "new atheists" such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would not count as secularists. Is that a problem?
That conclusion follows very naturally from everything I've said! The question is whether you think Dawkins and Hitchens are good guides to secularism.

Why do you think Dawkins's and Hitchens's style of atheism has made a comeback in the past few years?
It's very much like the reaction of Victorian bishops to Darwin. There was a certain view among Protestants, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the effect that civilisation and democracy were progressing and that they came from Christianity. And then this torpedo [Darwin] comes from the side and they're very upset by it.

Similarly, many of the liberal intelligentsia in the late 20th century thought that we were moving towards a higher civilisation, that religion was disappearing. Then suddenly, it seems to return. So a kind of panic and anger arises. It's the outlook of an emerging establishment that finds itself destabilised.

“Secularism and Freedom of Conscience" by Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor is published by Harvard University Press (£18.95)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.