Freedom of Religion and the Secular State now published

Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (by Russell Blackford, 2012)

If we use Amazon’s date for it, at least the date that is there this morning, today is the publication date for Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. In practice, the book will be available at slightly different times in different countries. I see that Amazon UK actually has a date of January 6 on its site.

I’m not sure when it will be in your local bookshop, but you should at least be able to get it now/soon from Amazon or Amazon UK … or direct from John Wiley and Sons if you have an account there.

Briefly, what the book is – Freedom of Religion and the Secular State deals with many of the hot-button issues that arise when religion and politics meet. It examines the nature of religion and secularism, and the classical idea of liberalism. It does so in historical and philosophical context, as I actually defend an updated version of Locke’s arguments in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), while applying these in ways that Locke would not necessarily find palatable.

What the book is not – it is not an anti-religious book, even though I am openly an atheist and have argued forthrightly in favour of atheism elsewhere. The main arguments of the book should appeal to many religious people as well as to secular humanists and other non-believers. Indeed, Locke was himself a religious believer. The arguments and views should be acceptable to moderate and liberal Protestants and many of the arguments should even be acceptable to relatively conservative Protestants. They will not be acceptable to someone who strictly follows the Vatican line on freedom of religion, but many Catholics will be able to accept them anyway (since many Catholics don’t strictly follow the Vatican line on anything!). Likewise, many moderate religious people from other traditions will be able to accept their premises and adopt their conclusions. Conversely, some hard-line anti-theists will probably think that I am “soft” on certain issues.

It all comes down to how you regard the role of the state, taking into account its history and various philosophical arguments about state power. In particular, what role should the state have in relation to teachings about an otherwordly realm, spiritual transformations, and the like?

The other thing that the book is not is a proof all the way down that the state should be essentially secular – i.e., guided by this-worldly considerations. I don’t claim that the arguments will be intellectually compelling to all comers, irrespective of their initial premises (which may be theological ones). Some people would not be able to accept the arguments in the book without first abandoning their current theological positions (not necessarily becoming non-believers, but at least adopting theological views more congenial to a functional separation of spiritual teachings and state power). In my opinion, that is inevitable. I don’t think that we are ever likely to find arguments that work all the way down in this sense, at least not arguments relating to issues of this sort.

We can, however, find arguments that ought to be persuasive to many people with a variety of worldviews. Or so it seems to me, and I hope to you.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Neat, thanks.

    I’m interested in knowing more about how you would classify your political view, if it is not based on natural or supernatural law. Would you endorse something like Rawls’s constructivism (presented in, e.g., “Political Liberalism”)?

  2. Congratulations on the book Russell.

    I find the introductory chapter is available to read here:

  3. @ BSN … I tend to call myself a Millian liberal. In other contexts, if we’re talking economic policy, I may call myself a social democrat but my broader views are not inconsistent with more conservative (or more “leftist”) forms of economic policy. They leave the detail of economic policy underdetermined.

    I do see merit in some things that Rawls says, and I refer briefly to Rawls in the book, but I don’t subscribe to or rely on the Rawlsian system (or any of its variants, as Rawls kept fiddling with it).

    Yes, Jim, you can sample the book for free on the Wiley site.

  4. I’d love to read it, but it currently (at the time of me writing this) is at 71$ for the Kindle edition, just an 8 dollars off the hardcover?! WTF? Surely an error, right?


  5. “They will not be acceptable to someone who strictly follows the Vatican line on freedom of religion, but many Catholics will be able to accept them anyway (since many Catholics don’t strictly follow the Vatican line on anything!).” Emphasis mine.

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but, no, Catholics have to profess the faith and assent to doctrine to remain Catholics. The Church determines who is Catholic and who is not, and one bar of determining that is assent to Catholic doctrine. Those baptized in the Catholic Church who don’t assent to doctrine are certainly Christians, but are heretics in the eyes of the Catholic Church, whether formally impugned or not.

    It doesn’t surprise me that an atheist would take delight in, and promote as something “good,” religious relativism because the sheer ridiculousness of religious relativism is certainly something to point and laugh at. I know I do, but for a different reason than the atheists.

  6. I’m not sure what “religious relativism” is in this context, or why you attribute such a thing, whatever it is, to me based on a few lines in a blog post and presumably without having read the book.

    As for what Catholics believe, I am well aware of what you seem to be saying. Yes, it may well be that strictly speaking someone who does not subscribe to all the formal Vatican teachings is a heretic from the viewpoint of the Church. But I never said anything to the contrary, and it wasn’t my point.

    I simply stated a fact – most Catholics, at least in the Western world, don’t actually subscribe to Catholic doctrine on everything … or necessarily on anything much. In particular, most of them don’t subscribe to Catholic doctrines on such issues as birth control. I expect that many don’t subscribe to the Catholic notion of “freedom of religion”, which continues to include the idea that the state should enforce the “moral law”.

    The book isn’t about what Catholics do or do not think, but I do think it’s a fact that a very large percentage of Catholics in developed countries don’t take much notice of the formal authority of the Vatican. E.g. very few Catholics in developed countries think that the use of the contraceptive pill is a sin, as taught in Humanae Vitae. Very many Catholics in developed countries will tolerate abortion in circumstances where it is considered sinful by the Church. Likewise for homosexual conduct. Many Catholics favour provision of same-sex marriage.

    It might actually be easier for me in many ways if all Catholics toed the Vatican line, but in practice the majority don’t in one way or another. You may not like it, you may wish it were otherwise, but those are the facts on the ground. If these means that most Catholics are heretics, strictly speaking, that is problem for the Vatican, not for me.

  7. Alex, not sure why the (US) Kindle price is so high.

  8. L. J. Giliberto

    OK, Russell, fair enough. However, I’m not talking about the book, I’m talking about the blog entry. This is a comment on the blog entry, not a book review. That said, I will explain myself, and please remember I am not reviewing the book in my comments, but what you have written in the blog entry. That said, I will put your book on my to-read list as I find the subject matter interesting and am always looking to read different opinions.

    The definition of religious relativism I’m going by, and that applies here, is: there is no one completely correct religion, and also one should judge religions on their own terms rather than within the framework of one’s belief (or non-belief) system. That is exactly what you seem to promote in your blog post when you say your book would appeal to certain segments – it would appeal exactly to religious relativists. It is also the typical atheist position in that all religions should enjoy the same amount of freedom or suffer the lack thereof, because, well, they’re obviously baloney to the atheist.

    BTW, it’s also inherent in the system your book is about, which is a secular government and various religions. Such a government is by necessity relativistic when it comes to religions. Which is one reason I do want to read the book and see what you have to say about this type of thing, and I hope that you also contrast such an arrangement with a government that professes a religion but is tolerant to other religions. If not, maybe in a subsequent book. 🙂

    But to the crux of my complaint: I don’t think you’re being fair when you say “some Catholics” or as in your comment “Catholics on the ground.” Say someone comes up to you and says, “I’m a Brit, and I’m for banning motorcycles!” When in fact, they are American and happen to have some British ancestors 5 generations back and talk with a Jersey accent. In other words, they aren’t recognized as a Brit by the people who have the authority to do so. Are you going to argue that Brits on the ground want to ban motorcycles based on a self-labelled Brit? If you aren’t, then I would hope you would be consistent and not argue what Catholics on the ground believe using people who do not meet clearly stated criteria for being Catholic.

    The Catholic Church defines who is a member in the same way that a government defines a citizen. It has a set of requirements and rules. So does Judaism, Islam, and most other religions. The big difference between Catholicism and other religions in this regard is there is one central authority who determines who and what is of that religion rather than different sects and denominations under a single umbrella (e.g., Sunni vs. Shi’ite Muslims). So if anything, it should be easier and operates as a secular government does.

    Obviously I have a dog in this fight, and it is this: you are helping, albeit subconsciously, to marginalize and dilute the Catholic religion by implying one could be a Catholic and opt out of certain teachings, when those with authority to define membership say one can’t do that. You are undermining a legitimate authority’s right to determine its own membership. Yes, it might be the Vatican’s problem, but you are helping to cause that problem, so you’re involved whether you meant to be or not.

    Again, let’s go back to the “Brit”. If a guy with a Jersey accent comes up to you with a Born in America T-Shirt and claims he’s a Brit, are you going to refer to him as a Brit? Likewise, if someone identifies themselves to you as a “Catholic” and they deny teachings of Catholicism that the Catholic Church requires assent to for membership, some teachings which you clearly know because you refer to them in your comment, are you going to refer to them as Catholic?

    The long and short of it is: my desire is that you don’t refer to those who reject Catholic teaching as Catholic, and you refer to Catholics as those would probably wouldn’t like your book because it conflicts with Catholic teaching.

    In any case, I look forward to reading your book. If I have comments regarding that, I will probably e-mail them to you instead of spamming your blog posts. 😉

    Thanks for your time in answering me and reading.

  9. Hi Russell. Well, I tried again, still high. I also just checked the Kindle Bookshop through my Android tablet, and it’s just as high there. I noticed that (the English one) have the kindle version at 17$, so could it be that they simply got the numbers back to front? (17 71)

    I don’t know if you should address someone with this, because there’s a lot of lost sales at those wierd prices … 🙂 I’ll hold for now and try again tomorrow after the good people at hopefully have had some coffee.

  10. @Gilberto : A bit hard to actually pin down your point, but saying that most Catholics aren’t as Catholic as the pope wants them to be is hardly controversial. Wherever I go and meet proclaimed Catholics I always ask them about what they know of the Catechism. Most of the time it is very little, and it’s pointing towards the problem of cultural vs. believing vs. practicing vs. dogmatic Catholics; they come in many sizes, and still, most of them have no clue about what their category is supposed to be about.

  11. @L. J. Giliberto,

    If you don’t want those people labelled as Catholics that’s fantastic. Would you mind going and telling the Pope that he now doesn’t speak for a billion people and instead is merely a tiny cult leader and that his opinions on everything are no longer relevant and he should refund all donations from self-proclaimed but in point of fact non-Catholics.

    No? Then your criticism of Russell is unwarranted.

    It should also be pointed out that the Vatican’s entry requirements seem more pragmatic than one might expect e.g. regarding African members or the attempt to attract the more bigoted Anglican bishops in the UK.

  12. Alex, I’ll look into it if/when I can – I notice that Amazon UK has a much lower Kindle price.

    LJG, I don’t actually mind causing problems for the Catholic Church if it turns out that way, and perhaps it will.

    But that wasn’t the point of the impugned sentence or two. The point is that many self-identified, communicant Catholics could agree with the thrust of the book – even if they thereby become, strictly speaking, heretical. I think that many people from a range of religious traditions could do so. That’s not to say that all religions are true. In my view, they are all untrue. Nor is there any theoretical reason why they should all be able to join an overlapping consensus (since Rawls has been mentioned) on anything. In this case, though, I think a lot of them should be able to. The strength of the arguments does not depend on, say, philosophical naturalism being true. It depends more on common sense and history, and arguments about the nature of the state: on things that many people can accept.

    Nonetheless, some people won’t be convinced, and while I may think they are (in some sense) wrong, convincing some of them they are wrong may require first convincing them to give up aspects of their theological positions. If it can be done at all, that would require a different book (which might be a book by a liberal Protestant, or one of those “heretical” Catholics, or whatever … not necessarily one by an atheist).

    I think this is the practical situation we all face. There may, indeed, be many political, ethical, etc., ideas that are true, or useful, or whatever status such ideas can have – but demonstrating it to some people may, in some of the relevant cases, require first persuading them to change their minds on some very basic premises.

    Just how big a problem that is for social harmony is going to be an empirical question. I think that there’s a way ahead and that to a large extent we’ve already chosen it, albeit not consistently.

  13. L. J. Giliberto,

    You are a Catholic by baptism (or reception).

    Whilst heresy causes excommunication (whether it is formally pronounced or not),

    1) excommunication does not entail that you cease to a Catholic in the eyes of the church – just that you are not entitled to receive the sacraments (other than those of penance).

    There are no longer any means in current Canon Law by which you may formally elect to ‘defect’ however keen you are to affirm your apostasy.

    I may well be wrong about (1) and am happy to be shown to be. But if you consider yourself a Catholic, you might want to consult with a Canon lawyer before you assert who is, or is not, a Catholic in the eyes of the Church.

  14. It’s avaliable now from the Book Depository, and the eBook price there is also much higher than the paperback. I wouldn’t mind reading it eventually (I’ve been suggesting that interpreting religious freedom strictly as a human right, applicable only to human beings, not religious institutions or traditions etc, is the most progressive and defensible stance. It should logically enable charging “faith schools” with violating the human rights of the children sent to them, and could lead to the acceptance of an “age of consent for religious participation”).

    L.J.Giliberto, I’ve known many people who were baptised Catholic but who now loathe the Catholic church and its teachings and would never dream of calling themselves Catholic, but who know there’s no way they can get the Church to acknowledge that they are no longer amongst their number. It’s absolutely laughable to suggest that the Vatican is at all keen to shed the vast numbers of nominal Catholics and entirely lapsed Catholics who disagree with many basic tenets of Catholic doctrine.

  15. I’d very much like to purchase this book but the current Kindle price (US) is astronomical and the UK version cannot be purchased outside of the UK (even for Kindle). Could you please look into this as suggested above? I am more than certain that the added sales would be worth your effort. Thank you, Phil.

  16. @ Phil. Wow. Looks like you’re right. $17 is pretty high for a Kindle edition. I still may buy it though, seeing as I don’t buy anything other than Kindle editions these days. The price is still in-line with a hard copy.

  17. L. J. Giliberto

    I ordered the paperback edition from Amazon US and it showed up yesterday. Looking forward to reading it!

  18. @Ron S — The price was over $57 when I wrote that. It has gone down in the last couple of days. I guess $17 is OK even if you’re not getting a printed copy — they need to keep books profitable which I support. Bought the book, and am reading it.

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