Secular Liberalism Misunderstood

Published by timdean on

The ABC site, The Drum Unleashed, posted another of my missives, this time on the merits of secular liberalism, regardless of one’s spiritual (or otherwise) persuasion. And already the comments are flowing. I’ll attempt to respond to them in this post as they roll on.

First up, to those who have criticised my term “believe in atheism”, you’re right. That was a poor turn of phrase on my behalf. Should properly be “whether you believe in God or are an atheist”. Doesn’t affect my argument though. Okay, moving on.

To those who suggest that Richard Dawkins isn’t seeking to abolish the teaching of religion, rather he seeks to abolish the indoctrination of children into a particular religion – I agree that he is in favour of the teaching of comparative religion, as well as the teaching of the Bible as an historical text. However, he has made strident claims against religious teaching of the, well, religious flavour. While I oppose supernaturalism, I would suggest that any attempt to banish religious education would be problematic, as I’ll elaborate below.

Now, on to the specific comments:


Secular liberalism ultimately ends in nihilism because it gives no measuring stick on how to judge values.

It is plainly a false dichotomy to suggest you must believe in either one fundamental value (eg many flavours of monotheism) or no values (nihilism). You can also believe in many values (pluralism). And in doing so, you’re not committed to believing in all values (relativism).

Liberalism, as I’ve spun it, is quite compatible with pluralism – Berlin’s, Rawls’s or another version. It can most certainly give a measuring stick on how to judge various values, but it might find that there will be multiple values that will inevitably come into conflict from time to time. But it can also say that some values are bad.


complete agency is not possible. We are all caught up in the social powers that run our society.

Agency doesn’t need to be ‘complete’ to be agency. The implications of determinism on free will are entirely orthogonal to this meaning of agency. This kind of agency is a psychological agency – the capability to have and pursue one’s own interests. As long as you accept that, then liberalism can work. If you don’t, then presumably slavery would be just as acceptable an option for you.

michael m:

How can an individual believe freely if they have been indoctrinated as a child? Wouldn’t banning religion for children promote diversity, objectivity and liberal thought?

A liberal state does have a responsibility to educate its citizens and equip them with the tools for rational thought – at the very least with the tools to comprehend liberalism and to exercise one’s agency. So religions can teach what they want (within the bounds of the liberal system – so no teaching people to go out and impinge on the interests of others), but they can’t stop the state, or anyone else, teaching rational enquiry or other values.

Gigaboomer ®:

For example, criticism of the naturalistic theory of origins is simply not permitted in science despite the evidence. I would dearly like to list some but the moderators seem to censor that information.

There’s a big difference between facts and values. I’m suggesting the state can’t mandate a set of values to teach. But the state most certainly can mandate that reliably known facts be taught, and reliably false facts not be taught. This is why Copernican heliocentrism is taught in school, but the Ptolemaic system isn’t. This also extends to empirical claims made by religions, such as that the Earth is a smidge over 6,000 years old or that the bacterial flagellum is to complex to be a product of natural selection. Religion could still preach other things, but if it steps into the bounds of science and is proven wrong, then it needs to step back out again. That’s why creationism ought not be taught in school, except in an historical context.


Religion doesn’t tolerate and won’t tolerate any other view, but their own.


Interesting article Tim but i see a few flaws, you do not once mention the covert infiltration of religion into the machinery of state.

Indeed, but the beauty is that liberalism prevents that religion from mandating their own views on the rest of the society. And it’s even in an intolerant religion’s interest to buy in to liberalism, because liberalism prevents another intolerant religion from gaining dominance and wiping the other out. And while those intolerant religions are in stalemate, secular thinkers have an opening to convince people there is an alternative to intolerance.

OFistFullOfDollars :

Why not just believe in the truth.

There are things that can be reliably known, and as mentioned above, they can be taught by the state. But there are things that can’t reliably be known – both natural and so-called supernatural facts. At this point I’m inclined to evoke a pragmatic maxim, which says: any policy that is put in place must have a chance of actually working, and must have a minimal chance of being corrupted. If you have a policy that teaches ‘the truth’, then that policy also makes it much easier to teach false things, either through error or corruption, so it’s a bad policy.

That’s why benevolent dictators are no good. Sure, a benevolent dictator has the power to make a good decision and put it into practice – perhaps even more reliably than a democracy, which might see a good decision stifled. However, the same power that gives the benevolent dictator the ability to push through a good decision also gives them the ability to push through a bad one. And it means there is much less ability to prevent that bad decision from being made, unlike in a democracy. Likewise in liberalism – we sacrifice the ability to teach ‘the truth’ because doing so would make it far more likely that we’d be teaching anything but. That’s a brand of pragmatism that not everyone endorses, but I reckon it makes sense.


Hudson Godfrey · 15th October 2010 at 10:43 pm

IMHO some of the views about religious education that you’ve slated to Dawkins are better attributed to Dennett.

Michael Boswell · 15th October 2010 at 11:22 pm

With all due respect, given many of the remarks on your article, I think the real problem is protecting the religious from the atheists. The connection of teaching religion with indoctrination might have have word association but that is all.

Jason Old · 16th October 2010 at 12:10 am

Following your link to the ‘strident claims’ of Dawkins just further backs up the point that he is against indocrination rather than ‘education’. He states in the article that RE should be brought into the national curriculum.

This again demonstrates your straw man in the original article by attributing a position to him and atheists in general that most simply don’t take.

Tim Dean · 16th October 2010 at 12:26 am

It depends on how you interpret Dawkins. But he’s not the only one who is calling for religion to be somehow managed or censured by the state, whether in education or elsewhere. My argument is against anyone who would seek the state to do such. If you don’t think Dawkins does, or even if I’m wrong in my interpretation of Dawkins, that doesn’t affect my argument in the slightest.

Jason Old · 16th October 2010 at 1:08 am

Of course you can keep pointing to some ‘other people/atheists’ who are fulfilling your criteria by which you form your argument, hence you say it doesn’t affect it.

I think it would be more fair to say that atheists want religion censored ‘from’ the state rather than by it, which does impact on your argument as it effectively removes the main push or your dichotomy.

Obviously you can keep pointing to ‘other people’ to prop it up but when if someone as radically characterised as RD doesn’t fulfill your criteria I’m not sure you can with any fairness lump atheists in general with your contention.

Cameron · 16th October 2010 at 1:11 am

Dawkins does not take the position you ascribe to him, though it’s not unusual for people who do not do their research to assume as much. Please elaborate though Tim – “But he’s not the only one who is calling for religion to be somehow managed or censured by the state…” Who are these unnamed people? What dastardly evil conspiratory ‘managing’ are they planning?

AL · 16th October 2010 at 1:16 am

It’s my view that you have seriously misunderstood Dawkins. To address your argument more directly, the state already does manage religion but it does so favourably. Whether it be preferential treatment through the tax system or allocating public school hours to the teaching of faith specific classes.

An important aspect of Dawkin’s argument is that the state should not favourably manage religion. In the absence of such favourable treatment, there would be little scope for religious education as it is presently taught. I don’t see this as being in any way contradictory to your argument. He merely takes it one step further by suggesting that teaching about religion serves a valuable educational function (historical, social, etc).

James Gray · 16th October 2010 at 7:48 am

“Professor Dawkins said that the end of faith-based education would mean ‘religion would be taught in a comparative way according to a national curriculum, not indoctrination'”. —

Your argument might not depend on representing Dawkins properly, but it’s still a good idea not to misrepresent people’s views.

James Gray · 16th October 2010 at 7:48 am

Daniel Dennett pretty much agrees with what Dawkins said. He wants there to be a religious education that isn’t indoctrination. He wants children to know about the various major religions. Many parents want to hide the existence of other religions from their children.

Arizona · 16th October 2010 at 10:00 am

Apologies for double posting, here and at the abc. This might be a more intimate and therefore more productive space for real conversation.

I cannot see how secular liberalism can uphold and sustain itself against a determined push by religious supremacy. We in “the West” are all now under the rule of Islamic law when it comes to expressing ourselves. That we can do nothing for the likes of Molly Norris says it all.

Reason, rationality, philosophy of all sorts … it’s all fine words but ultimately impotent against the knife at the throat.

Polony · 16th October 2010 at 11:37 am

Thank you for opening this discussion. Unfortunately, my time at uni was spent studying things of considerably more use to humanity, such as tax law. Hence, I have questions:

1) “agency” obviously has a meaning in this context that is different from the legal meaning – ability to bind a principle in a contract. I think agency means self-control with nuances, but am unsure. What does agency mean?

2) As a Christian, my fealty is to God and my relationship with God is more important than my life. I am not alone in having these priorities. This makes the state, which can tax, kill, torture and privatise with no effect on the incorporal, relatively powerless.

Doesn’t this make Secular Liberalism the only stable political relationship with religion in the longer term, as noted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk when making Turkey, and noted by people waiting for Iran to implode?

Does this make Mustafa Kemal Ataturk the greatest (definition vague) political phIilosopher of the 20th century?

I personally wish that the church did not sleep with Constantine, allow itself to be corrupted by secular power with all the evil consequences. Is this the other side of secular liberalism?

3) I often notice people describing religious education of children as indoctrination. This contradicts my experiences of children who are vehemently capable of making up their own mind. Do people who describe religious education of children as indoctrination believe that children cannot exercise free will?

4) I am often see atheists presume that literalist interpretations of various texts are appropriate, when sensible (sensible being defined as agreeing with me) Christians do not. Is this a strawman argument?

Polony · 16th October 2010 at 11:47 am

Tim – “But he’s not the only one who is calling for religion to be somehow managed or censured by the state…” Who are these unnamed people?

The religious police – Iran.
The communist party – China.
Those who want nice churches but are afraid of Moslem community centres in both central New York and in Australian suburbs.

Those who use soldiers to encourage the church to come up with one official version of the religion so the Roman empire can have just one official religion. We still have the Nicean Creed.

Tim Dean · 16th October 2010 at 12:23 pm

@Jason Old, Cameron, AL, James: You are right. It appears I chose an ill-considered example in Dawkins.

@Arizona: I think the very fact we have Molly Norris, and that we’re discussing her gesture, is evidence that secular liberalism is working. But it’s still an ideal, and ideals need to be maintained by people. All the reason in the world won’t do you much good unless people are persuaded to back it up with action.

@Polony: 1) Agency can mean many things, but the definition I’m using is something like having the capability to have and pursue one’s own interests. Doesn’t exclude external influence or limits on interests or our ability to pursue them, but acknowledges that we aren’t entirely slaves to the will of another or to the environment. Communism or Hegel might see agency as dissolved into the state; feudalism sees agency of serfs subject to the will of the lord or king; theocracy sees agency subject to the religious leaders etc, whereas liberalism sees agency, to whatever extent we have it, belonging to the individual.

2) And I’d say that even someone who holds their faith above their commitment to the state might want to buy in to secular liberalism to prevent someone else who holds their faith above yours from telling you what to believe.

3) I also have deep concerns about indoctrination – in the sense that people are told ‘what they are’, and not presented with alternatives. Consider that people who are raised in a particular religious environment tend to adopt that religion without much reflection. But I don’t oppose the teaching of various values, as long as they don’t contradict the broad pluralism of secular liberalism.

4) Probably is a straw man. But there are many vocal religious people who are literalists, and they present the greatest threat to secular liberalism and atheism, so they probably also make the biggest targets.

Polony · 16th October 2010 at 5:27 pm

Tim Dean (12:23:12) : I think we have experienced different populations. Consequently, we should be able to solve all the world’s problems if we just organise and implement re-education protocols for those Theists with whom we both disagree.

“Consider that people who are raised in a particular religious environment tend to adopt that religion without much reflection”

I disagree: people I know do think about things, often spending several years disagreeing with their parents, then reach their own conclusions. They just might not do so noisily. What are recent research results regarding the relationships between parents’ beliefs, childrens’ beliefs and education levels?

“4) Probably is a straw man. But there are many vocal religious people who are literalists, and they present the greatest threat to secular liberalism and atheism, so they probably also make the biggest targets.”

Sampling bias problem: Religious people who are not literalists often do not want to force our beliefs onto you, do not bash you with large blunt Bibles, or make lots of noise. In my Bible, Jesus let a rich young man make his own decision and let him walk away without chasing him whilst screaming something about “repent or burn”.

I expect the loud and obvious are not the real threat to secular liberalism – what about political correctness that quiety prohibits you from criticising bulldust. Worse:politicians who (hand on heart with expressive language, reactionary conservatism and dodgy reasoning) find religion useful. For example, politician can appeal to some interpretations of religion when opposing gay marriage, but inconsistently also believe that civil weddings are valid. Uglier examples: Northern Ireland and the final solution to the Jewish problem.

Theres another religious arguement about secular liberalism that is not here: In the same way that I find “Merry Christmas Tomatos $5.99/kg” offensive in December and I find hot cross buns offensive in January, I find it offensive when the state tries using my religion to gain some form of legitimacy.

Arizona · 16th October 2010 at 5:42 pm

“I think the very fact we have Molly Norris, and that we’re discussing her gesture, is evidence that secular liberalism is working. ”

We did have but we no longer do have Molly Norris. And we don’t know how to get her back. That’s the issue here.

Secular liberalism can only work among people who pretty well all agree to adopt it. It’s pretty lame when confronted with those who want nothing of it. There is a confidence and a passion that is indistinguishable from religious fervour and without which we arrive at where we are now: subject to a God that does inspire such confidence and passion in His followers.

James Gray · 17th October 2010 at 5:17 am


Yes, indoctrination can be a powerful force. People can be given an argument without the tools to know why it’s wrong. A good education in reasoning plus religion might not be “indoctrination.” However, if you look at actual arguments given by “indoctrinated” Christians, you will see a lack of understanding of reason and opposing viewpoints. For example, arguments that evolution are false because “why else would monkeys still exist?” Children at an Islamic school all agreed to this fallacious and awful “argument” unanimously! They all rejected evolution (in part) because of their religion, lack of understanding of reasoning, poor arguments presented as facts, etc.

Also consider how powerful of a force “propaganda” is despite being a bunch of baloney. People uncritically accept “the facts” all the time. If they hear something enough, there’s a good chance they will believe it. Although it is possible not to believe it, there is also a chance people WILL believe it uncritically.

Imagine people indoctrinating children to believe that harming animals is OK. It might be that almost no one would believe that without indoctrination, but some people do believe it (perhaps because of indoctrination, and such a force can make a difference.)

Michael Boswell · 17th October 2010 at 11:43 am

@ James Grey – it might supprise you that the vast majority of Christians (and others) have accepted evolutionary theory. Actually, there was no conflict between evolution and Christianity. Much of the early opposition to evolutionary ideas was to Herbert Spencer and not Charlse Darwin. You are talking about a very vocal minority! and I have ben abused by them for most of my life. However, the assertion that creationsit have inferior abilities in logic and reason is simply false and, completely rude!

@ Tim, you might need to acknowledge that so-called secular Liberalism came from a Christians who refuse to worship the state church. Indeed, the frst time asuch an agrument liof this was put in English was by the Baptist Thomas Helwys (1574-1616). He sent a copy to James I and was thrown into prison for it were he died. The first time it was implemented was by another Baptist, Roger Willaims.

James Gray · 17th October 2010 at 2:45 pm

@ Michael Boswell

it might supprise you that the vast majority of Christians (and others) have accepted evolutionary theory. Actually, there was no conflict between evolution and Christianity. Much of the early opposition to evolutionary ideas was to Herbert Spencer and not Charlse Darwin. You are talking about a very vocal minority!

Where did I say that all Christians are a bunch of idiots? I never said that. I was making a simple point — Indoctrination is possible and it happens.

However, the assertion that creationsit have inferior abilities in logic and reason is simply false and, completely rude!

People’s “abilities in logic and reason” tend not to be very good. What classes teach people to think philosophically in high school?

Whether or not “creationists” in particular are “inferior” in these abilities is irrelevant. Again, I was making a simple point. Accepting poor arguments in favor of a conclusion is a mark of poor reasoning ability.

You read what I say as “offensive” by twisting what I say, which is not proving your ability to reason or argue. If you want a good ability to reason, you need to stop twisting people’s words and defeating straw man arguments.

Polony · 18th October 2010 at 11:29 am

1) Didn’t Socrates suicidally start secular liberalism?

2) What are the results of objective research into the relationships between intellect, brainwashing, theism and belief in various statements. Just reciting examples does not demonstrate anything further than perceptions that some notable situations exist in some groups.

Hudson Godfrey · 18th October 2010 at 1:37 pm

Did Socrates live? We don’t know for sure. It is more for the thought that ideas attributed to his school of thinking have inspired that he is given credit.

I don’t know exactly what your second question is trying to get at, but I think we can say fairly objectively that Jim Jones brainwashed a large group of people into ingesting poison.

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