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?