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James Ensor: The Vile Vivisectors, 1925

The standard story that liberalism has told about religion since the Enlightenment is that they are sibling rivals—frères ennemis—battling each other for control of the modern world. In this view, liberalism’s central ideas—the freedom of the individual, the sovereignty of conscience, and the need to create a space for secular politics—were all forged in the crucible of implacable opposition from religious faith. The religious have battled to keep God in politics while liberals have fought to take Him out, convinced that religion makes citizens superstitious and fanatical and that relegating faith to the private sphere is the key to keeping politics peaceful. The faithful have never been happy with this solution. Some denominations—including Episcopalianism and Reform Judaism—have made peace with liberal secularism, while others—conservative Catholicism and Islamic fundamentalism, for example—do not want to be relegated to the private sphere and are reluctant to surrender their position as arbiters of public questions.

The standard account of liberalism and religion as sibling rivals is not wrong, Cécile Laborde argues in Liberalism’s Religion, her important and illuminating though difficult book, but it needs substantial revision. Laborde is a professor of political theory at Oxford, and what she means by her title is “the conception of religion that liberal theory relies on.” Her book concentrates mainly on the conceptual world of liberal political theory since John Rawls, while Andrew Copson’s Secularism presents a concise and usefully nonpolemical summary of the wide variety of liberal secularisms around the world.

Both Laborde and Copson agree that liberalism has never had a consistent relation to religion. There are liberal states that disestablish religion altogether, others that allow an established church, and some, like France, that enforce a Jacobin version of secularism known as laïcité. Liberalism and religion are rivals, but liberal states have defined their accommodation with religion in very different ways. Some aspire to neutrality, while others use public funds to support a range of religions. In some democracies, like Israel, the battle between secularism and religion is constant, waged, for instance, over marriage laws and public holidays. Within religions themselves, most evidently within Islam, there are violent disagreements about what accommodation to seek from liberal constitutions.

Laborde’s most interesting argument is that liberals make a mistake, ironically, by according religion too much respect. They view religion as shaping a person’s entire life and thus as a particularly important test of the liberal belief that the political order exists to shelter and protect many different, even opposed ways of life. Laborde contends, against this view, that religious commitments are not intrinsically different from secular ones, like environmentalism or veganism, which likewise direct a person’s attitudes and conduct as a whole. A free society should respect all “integrity-protecting commitments” in the same way, she argues, rather than privilege religious ones as uniquely worthy of respect.

Laborde also contests the common claim that liberalism is a “secular fundamentalism” or, as Carl Schmitt would have said, a political theology. According to such a view, liberals only pretend to respect and defer to the plurality of beliefs within a liberal society when in fact they view their own institutions and their doctrine of freedom as beyond argument. This attack has come at liberalism from both ends of the political spectrum. Back in the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse accused liberal America of “repressive tolerance.” Today it is conservatives who accuse liberalism of intolerant dogmatism whenever students shout down a conservative speaker.

Against the conception of liberalism as “the sectarian, comprehensive ideology of Western progressives,” Laborde wants to reframe its relation to doctrines other than its own, especially religious doctrines, as a story of inclusive accommodation. One wishes she had said more about the history of liberalism’s accommodating attitude toward religion—which developed in the 1960s as part of a broad adjustment to the newly multiethnic, multicultural demography of modern society. Instead she concentrates her philosophical acumen exclusively on the secular, cosmopolitan liberalism we have right now, one that seeks to turn ethnic, religious, gender, and cultural differences from facts we accept into values we embrace. Despite challenges from recent conservative, populist counterrevolutions, liberal accommodation is still intact, because it keeps the peace within today’s diverse societies.

Liberal states in search of civil peace, Laborde shows, are constantly making “reasonable accommodations” for the religious beliefs of their citizens. She follows the philosopher Charles Taylor in arguing that liberal states accommodate religious beliefs not because these beliefs happen to be true or because there is something intrinsic to religion that is entitled to respect, but because liberal society wants to enable individuals to shape their moral lives as they choose. Religions of all kinds shape moral integrity in a fundamental way, and liberal societies have a duty to protect the “integrity-protecting commitments” of their members. Should a Sikh be able to claim an exemption from health and safety rules that require workers to wear a helmet on a construction site? Laborde says yes, because wearing a turban is “an integrity-protecting commitment.” It is so essential to being a Sikh that an exemption is justified. The same Sikh should not be exempted from the obligation to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle, however, because riding a bike is not integral to a Sikh life project, while holding down a construction job may be. So exemptions are justified when both religious integrity and vital life projects are on the line.


Reasonable accommodations can also be granted when a liberal state is able to respect religious traditions without sacrificing its interests. “It would be unfair,” Laborde argues, “to compel Orthodox Jews to endure an invasive postmortem autopsy in case of nonsuspicious death, if they consider this a desecration of the body.” According to Laborde, if no foul play is suspected, the coroner should leave the body of an Orthodox Jew alone and establish cause of death by noninvasive means like an MRI scan. If the case involved a homicide, however, the state interest in solving a crime might prevail over respect for Orthodox belief. Liberal societies allow Catholic doctors to refuse to perform lawful abortions and tolerate Muslim women who refuse to shake hands with men; some allow Muslim women to wear a full burqa in public, while others do not. Accommodation has its limits. Many liberal societies do not allow Jehovah’s Witnesses to deny blood transfusions to their children if the child’s life is at stake. Some municipalities erect a Christmas crèche, while others do not out of respect for religious pluralism.

Laborde is less convincing about why all integrity-protecting commitments deserve a presumption of good faith. Conservative Muslim or evangelical Christian fathers often invoke their faith to deny their daughters the right to marry whom they choose or to pursue a career. Why should liberal society assume that this proceeds from the father’s claims of religious integrity and not just a desire to perpetuate his paternal domination? And why should religiously grounded misogyny, just because it is an integrity-based commitment, be more acceptable than nonreligious misogyny? It is as if religion has backed liberalism into a corner: once liberals believe, as they must, in the value of a life lived according to authentic moral commitments articulated in the vernacular of faith, then they are compelled to accept any claim made in such terms. But doesn’t this give integrity and authenticity a trump card they don’t deserve? As Tim Crane points out in The Meaning of Belief, a lucid critique of the many ways in which atheists have misunderstood religion, religious opinions or beliefs are not entitled to respect just because they are religious. “What is closer to the truth,” Crane writes, “is that all people, rather than their opinions, are worthy of respect.”

Laborde’s discussion of religion as an integrity-protecting commitment also fails to take account of religion as a system of legal commands. Inclusiveness meets its limits when a religion claims to be a form of law. Where sharia law is concerned, for instance, most Western liberal societies assert the supremacy of their law and deny jurisdiction to sharia, while in Islamic democracies, sharia’s writ is confined to family and religious matters. Even if we accept Laborde’s thesis that liberal societies ought to accommodate religious commitments, it will still be necessary for them to push back against religion as law, on the reasonable supposition that there has to be one set of laws for everyone.

A second instance when liberal pushback might be justified—not discussed in Laborde’s book—occurs when those raised in a fundamentalist faith are prevented from leaving it. A woman who chooses to wear a veil or full-body covering in public should be able to do so, no matter how much this offends Western feminist sensibilities, provided that this “integrity-protecting commitment” is chosen or assented to, but not if it’s enforced or imposed by guardians of the faith, brothers, or husbands. It’s always hard to know, even from the inside, whether a religious life is freely chosen or not. A liberal society ought to protect the right to exit a religious way of life, but equally it ought to let the believer make the choice, rather than presume, as some feminists have done, that no women could ever freely choose confining religious commitments.

Public authorities should not try to determine whether private religious beliefs are freely chosen, but they do have the right to determine what children should be taught at public expense. Public schools should be able to teach evolution, whatever creationists may say, and even private confessional schools that do teach creationism should also teach enough Darwin to enable their students to pass state exams. Teaching Darwin, Laborde argues, does not disparage creationist myths; it exposes children to things they need to know. “The problem with teaching creationism,” she writes, “is not a disparagement problem: it is not that it demeans nonbelievers, but rather that it teaches bad science.” A liberal society can respect religious belief without allowing its children to be inculcated with “incorrect factual beliefs.”


Using examples like this, Laborde insists that liberal states need not be neutral in adjudicating between scientific and religious claims. Anyone who enters public debate, including the religious, has the right to make arguments, but a liberal state can only create and enforce laws on the basis of what liberal theorists call public reasons, which are public in the sense that they are intelligible and accessible to fellow citizens. The religious claim that abortion is an offense against God’s law has every right to be heard in public debate, but it fails Laborde’s test of being accessible, because such an argument cannot be proved: What evidence could be adduced to convince someone of different convictions?

And yet, as Laborde concedes, it is an illusion to suppose that secular arguments are always more accessible, and therefore more fit to serve as public reasons, than religious ones. There are plenty of people in the abortion debate, for example, who make the strictly secular argument that a fetus is a person and that abortion is murder. Their arguments meet the test of public reason. They are accessible and intelligible. Both sides in the debate meet on the same public ground, and yet the argument is irresolvable.

Going still further, secular people may also disagree as to whether the state ought to have sovereign authority over a personal moral question like abortion at all. We are back where we started—as we should be—in the rueful recognition that the best liberal societies can do is manage disagreements like this through free institutions: legislatures, courts, media, where decisions are never final but always contested, revisited, and sometimes revoked.

On matters relating to integrity-protecting commitments, there may be no evidence or argument that ends dispute or produces anything better than reluctant mutual acquiescence for the sake of civil peace. Laborde wants her book to clarify the right relationship between secular principles of justice and religious commitments, but religious and secular citizens coexist not on the basis of any argument about who deserves to prevail or be respected, but instead on the basis of a shared desire to avoid conflict. They both realize they need closure—the imperfect agreements enacted by liberal institutions—more than they need victory.

The frontier of reluctant mutual accommodation is always shifting. If liberal states are constantly adjusting to identity claims based in religion, religions too are constantly adjusting to the demands and pressures of liberal society. Immigrants accustomed to sharia law in their home countries have adjusted to the reality that sharia has no final legal authority in Western societies. Some members of liberal faiths like Reform Judaism or Anglicanism have become more accommodating to society’s expanding plurality of moral choices (the legalization of gay marriage, for example); these religions themselves may gradually become less dogmatic and judgmental as liberal societies become more accepting.

Members of other faiths, however—evangelicals, conservative Catholics, Islamic fundamentalists—have defined themselves by their passionate repudiation of what they consider the hedonist, individualist liberal order. This ought to make liberals rethink some of their historical assumptions. Since the Enlightenment, liberalism has believed in its inevitable victory over faith—that secular arguments, since they are based on science, evidence, and facts, are bound to prevail over religious claims, which, over time, will be confined to an ever-smaller private sphere. This story of secularization may be one of the most enduring and influential of all our historical narratives, but it is less and less convincing. Liberal societies themselves have retreated from grand self-justifying narratives claiming that history, in Benedetto Croce’s words, is the story of liberty, or, in Voltaire’s words, the story of the slow defeat of superstition. These stories don’t line up with reality anymore. Liberal societies are not running on iron rails toward liberty: they can jump the tracks.

Max Weber’s pessimistic version—that history represents the slow but inexorable “disenchantment of the world” and the gradual consolidation of the “iron cage” of Western science and reason—is faring no better. The Weberian story overstates the irreversibility of secular narratives and understates the irrationality of liberal society. For these societies have proved to be just as plagued by myths, fake news, enthusiasm, and the madness of crowds as more religious and supposedly more credulous regimes of the past.

Furthermore, globalization is not making the world more secular. In Secularism, his clear and useful survey, Andrew Copson points out “the precarious nature of secularism as a meaningful category in today’s world,” observing that while some societies are moving in a more secular direction, many more are moving toward state support for religion. As long as they cling to the myth that history is—or ought to be—a story of the inexorable rise of secular freedom, liberals risk being perpetually surprised and disillusioned by the times they live in.

Finally, a cardinal fact about liberal society is that it disappoints. It offers no radiant tomorrows, no redemption, no salvation. The most that the social democratic variants of liberalism have promised is a welfare state that seeks the slow reduction of unmerited suffering, the gradual diminution of injustice, and the increase of prosperity and individual flourishing. These public goals are what Western liberalism at its best has had to offer since Franklin Roosevelt, but they leave many people yearning for deeper collective belonging and stronger ties to tradition and community. This dissatisfaction leaves a void, which is constantly being filled by nonliberal doctrines.

Instead of seeing religion as a vestigial tradition inexorably fated to fade away, it makes more sense to see it as an eternally vital response to the problems of human experience. Since some of these problems—suffering and death, for example—cannot be cured by politics, we all stand in need of consolation, and here religion finds its ongoing role in providing believers with words and rituals that address these existential questions. In Crane’s words, “faith is not certainty but something more like a committed struggle to understand in the face of the palpable mystery of the world.” Liberalism thought it had won the political battle by forcing religion out of the public sphere and relegating questions about the meaning and mystery of life to the private sphere; but while this may have pacified politics, it has left a hunger for shared public conceptions about the purpose of life. For this religion offers a consolation that even some liberals find themselves turning back to as they stare into the endlessly receding horizon of liberal democracy.