Skip to main content
Toggle Banner
You can make an impact in the fight for reproductive freedom.
Conscience Magazine

A Post-Religious, Post-Secular View

By Daniel A. Dombrowski April 25, 2016

Long before the idea of religious liberty existed, political thinkers have struggled with what is good. Premodern political thought concentrated on two major tasks. The first was to figure out the characteristics of the good. The second: to figure out how to get those who understood this good into power, and then to make sure that they were succeeded by rulers with the same understanding. Conflicts between different ideas of good sparked some long, bitter wars during that era, just as they fuel political contests today. How to deal fairly with pluralism is a new innovation since Plato considered the good. How do societies move from “the good” to more than one good?


Premodern thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther and Calvin may have had different ideas of their singular good, but they agreed that one of the main tasks of political thought was to come to grips with it intellectually. How many individuals were equipped to understand the good, how difficult it would be to get them into power, how to solve the problem of succession—these were other areas of difference. But in each case, the overall goal was to get those who understood the good into power and to keep them there.

In premodern political thought, toleration was not seen as a virtue. Indeed, it was seen as a vice. Think of Plato’s expulsion of the poets from the ideal city, or Thomas Aquinas’ willingness to have recalcitrant heretics put to death.

Rulers’ successes were measured in terms of how well they led the populace towards the good and protected it from anything that would lead it astray.

But in the early modern period in Europe, something of a crisis occurred in political theory. In the Reformation era, there were two competing conceptions of the good, with both Protestantism and Catholicism qualifying as a comprehensive doctrine. (I use the term “comprehensive doctrine” rather than “religion” in order to include worldviews that are nontheistic, indeed nonreligious, as well as those that are religious.) Each claimed to have the truth on its side, and each asserted absolute political authority. Like Aquinas in his day, the influential Protestant leader John Calvin also supported the execution of dissidents. Society was ripped apart in religious warfare.

John Locke’s famous “Letter Concerning Toleration” and the Catholic Jean Bodin’s less well-known “Colloquium of the Seven” were initial attempts to deal with this crisis. One option was to wait until one of the competing comprehensive doctrines eventually got the upper hand and dominated the other. Or, one could develop a political theory that would allow adherents to competing comprehensive doctrines to co-exist in peace. Democratic political theory is the disciplined effort to think through carefully and to justify the latter approach.

In contrast to our premodern forebears, today’s democratic political theorists see toleration not as a vice, but as a virtue. In fact, toleration is seen as necessary for people not only to survive, but also to flourish when there is a plurality of comprehensive doctrines.


Our primary concern in politics should be justice or fairness, in contrast to the good or the truth. To bring about justice, questions regarding the good have to be largely taken off the table in politics, although it makes sense to debate them elsewhere. Politics is not the place to decide ultimate questions regarding the purpose of human life, the meaning of death, the existence of God or the problem of evil. Rather, politics must find ways for defenders of different comprehensive doctrines to get along with each other in a peaceful and fair manner.

The Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray is one of several thinkers who discovered the implications of democratic political theory for Catholicism. For instance, he concluded that there was something inconsistent in church leaders trying to leverage their power over non-Catholics when Catholics were in the majority, and yet pleading on behalf of the rights of Catholics and members of other groups when they were in the minority. When there are multiple belief systems, justice requires that we be fair to everyone in society, regardless of his or her beliefs, so long as they are reasonable. In this context, the term “reasonable” refers to a willingness to abide by societal rules and regulations arrived at as a result of a fair decision-making procedure.

The conceptual problem we face at present is not religion, but the various sorts of dogmatism and fundamentalism that can undermine otherwise reasonable doctrines.

Is it ever appropriate to bring one’s own comprehensive doctrine into the public square? One can imagine two quite different responses to this question at opposite ends of the inclusion spectrum. The pure inclusivist view is that citizens should be free to bring their comprehensive doctrine to bear in the public square, because to restrict such activity would involve a denial of their freedom of religion, one of the things that democratic political theory is meant to secure. However, this view implies that it would be legitimate to ram one’s own belief system down the throats of everyone else by enacting legislation that would violate the rights of citizens with different convictions. Pure inclusivism has been tried in the past, and it proved to be a miserable failure.

The inadequacies of the above scenario, however, should not lead us to go to the opposite extreme: pure exclusivism, the view that citizens should always exclude their comprehensive doctrines from the public square. Theocracy or an aggressive version of an established religion has its defects, but these are not remedied by dogmatic versions of religious unbelief or an omnicompetent laicist state which excludes religion entirely. Viewed against this alternative, there is more than a grain of truth in citizens’ claims to religious freedom. Another problem with pure exclusivism lies in the effort to supposedly “privatize” religion. This overlooks that religious believers tend to worship together, making religious belief one of the most potent social forces at work within contemporary states.


The proper task is to find the right balance between these two extremes in a view that could be called partial inclusivism. A comprehensive doctrine can legitimately enter into the public square, but only if this enhances, rather than detracts from, public reason. Or better, one’s religious beliefs can be brought to bear on public policy issues, but only if doing so contributes to the overarching common good—which includes all the competing definitions of good, whether religious or nonreligious. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of a time when all of God’s children would walk together hand in hand in a discrimination-free society. Reasonable atheists and agnostics, along with reasonable religious believers from different faiths, knew exactly what he was getting at: a more secure grip on the basic rights owed to citizens in a society working towards justice. A rule of thumb might be: If there’s a doubt about whether bringing one’s own value system into the public sphere really does contribute to the common good, then one should probably listen to that doubt and hold back.

This is what distinguishes partial inclusivism from pure inclusivism. The pure inclusivist never hesitates to push his or her own comprehensive doctrine into the public square, even if that offering is unwelcome.

Religious believers should be especially skittish about using the coercive apparatus of the state to restrict others’ freedom, including reproductive freedom. There is always the temptation on the part of religious believers to return to the old idea that toleration is a vice, not a virtue. But there is no reason to return to premodern habits. The very best in religious traditions focus on the reality of agape, a love that is giving and selfless, and on the concept of an all-caring divinity.


We should not lose sight, however, of the danger posed by overly aggressive agnostics or atheists who want to impose their comprehensive doctrines on others. For this reason, the word “secular” must be used carefully. Sometimes it is used to mean replacing allegedly outmoded religious beliefs with nonreligious ones. In the context of today’s pervasive pluralism, a just democratic society should be seen as both post-religious and post-secular. What we want is a social world in which all reasonable citizens can survive and flourish regardless of what precepts they affirm, whether religious or nonreligious.

The rules that govern society should be freestanding. This doesn’t refer to the impossible sense of being suspended weightless in midair with no conceptual foundations whatsoever, but rather to the more realistic sense of having several foundations constructed by any one of a number of different comprehensive doctrines. For example, the rights of individuals and of associations can indeed be supported by the natural law tradition in Catholicism, but also by the foundations provided by other religious traditions, along with nonreligious foundations in utilitarianism, social contract theory, etc. Basic rights can be defended in many reasonable ways.

When there are multiple belief systems, justice requires that we be fair to everyone in society, regardless of his or her beliefs, so long as they are reasonable.

The view I am defending is largely dependent on the politically liberal philosophy of John Rawls. Remember that democratic political theory’s great achievement was ending the wars of religion in the early modern period. This is not a piece of antiquarian lore. Today, this view could teach us to reach, at the very least, a modus vivendi among people following different doctrines. Perhaps it could even forge an overlapping consensus among all reasonable believers, including adherents to all of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The greatest impediments to success are the various sorts of dogmatism and fundamentalism in different comprehensive doctrines, both religious and nonreligious.


We often talk about the pluralism among belief systems, but there is also pluralism within comprehensive doctrines themselves. Herein can be found grounds for hope. To cite a few examples within Catholicism, despite opposition to contraception on the part of the church hierarchy, about 99 percent of sexually active Catholic women of childbearing age in the US have practiced some form of birth control that is at odds with official church teaching. And, according to a 2014 poll by Belden Russonello Strategists, 84 percent of American Catholic voters favor legalized abortion in some form.

This pluralism of opinion is rooted in multiple views about how to best translate the Catholic tradition into an authentic life in the contemporary world. Perhaps the best-kept secret in the Catholic intellectual tradition is that its two greatest thinkers—Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas—denied that the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy was a person, a view known as delayed hominization. But today’s hierarchy tends to espouse immediate hominization—the idea that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. The point here is that Catholicism is not a monolithic whole, but instead an umbrella under which can be found several different political views and ideas about how to respond to the most significant moral issues of the day. I assume that the same could be said regarding other forms of Christianity, as well as various types of Judaism and Islam. Most religious believers can look to their faith traditions for the tools to participate in a pluralistic society.


The overall point is that the particular problems we are likely to face should not prevent us from keeping sight of the realistic utopia that we can imagine. There are certain approaches for accomplishing this.

My suggestions for co-existing in a pluralistic, democratic society can also be called the translation proviso. Our citizenship duties should lead us to be reluctant to introduce our own doctrine into the public square unless such terms can be easily translated into language that any reasonable citizen could possibly accept, whatever his or her comprehensive doctrine happens to be. Martin Luther King, Jr., used explicitly religious language regarding his view of the US as a multiracial society, but his ideas achieved general acceptance. His message was not only translatable, but easily understood by people of many different belief systems.

A second example of the translation proviso is Pope Francis’ emphasis on the preferential option for the poor. In this view, the problem of global poverty should be solved not in terms of a “trickle down” of wealth from the rich to the poor. Instead a “suffuse upward” stance is translatable into, and is supported by, other comprehensive doctrines as widely divergent as Peter Singer’s version of utilitarianism and Rawls’ version of Kantianism.

Sometimes, religious believers fail to change society. This is very often due to an inability to translate. For example, religious opponents to abortion often do not even try to translate their arguments into terms that all other citizens could possibly accept—such as their religious claim that God breathes a soul into a fertilized egg. Or they translate in ways that citizens do not find persuasive. Consider attempts to support immediate hominization by appealing to genetic evidence: Everyone can agree that the early fetus is genetically human, as is a cancerous tumor, but this is quite different from claiming that an early fetus is human in a morally relevant sense.


It is not unreasonable to hope that defenders of belief systems—whether religious or nonreligious—will exemplify political ideals that are not only compatible with public reason, but actually enhance it. The ground for this hope is that religious believers in the Abrahamic and other traditions are firmly committed to the value of persons, a commitment that undergirds the basic human rights at the core of democratic political institutions. Those who think that human beings are merely accidental by-products of a mechanistic and reductionistic version of evolutionary history may lack the motivation to consistently pay their membership dues to a human rights organization like Amnesty International, as various followers of Rawls and Jurgen Habermas have argued. But religious believers in the Abrahamic (and other) traditions have reason to pay these dues with a straight face and with perfect consistency.

In short, the conceptual problem we face at present is not religion, but rather the various sorts of dogmatism and fundamentalism that can undermine otherwise reasonable doctrines—religious or secular.


Daniel A. Dombrowski
Daniel A. Dombrowski

is professor of philosophy at Seattle University, as well as the chair of the Catholics for Choice Board of Directors. His publications include coauthoring the book A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion.