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Is Religion Special? Reformulating Secularism and Religion in Legal and Contemporary Theory

Final Report Summary - RAPT (Is Religion Special? Reformulating Secularism and Religion in Legal and Contemporary Theory)

Western liberal societies conventionally treat religion as unique under the law, requiring both special protection (as in guarantees of free worship) and special containment (to keep religion and the state separate). But recently this idea that religion requires a legal exception has come under fire from those who argue that religion is no different from any other conception of the good, and the state should treat all such conceptions according to principles of neutrality and equal liberty.

The RAPT project has comprehensively engaged with this question, and has developed a new theory of the ‘specialness thesis’ – the thesis that religion merits special treatment in the law.
The main outcome of the project is a monograph, entitled Liberalism’s Religion, written by PI
Cécile Laborde (Harvard University Press 2017). Laborde agrees with much of the liberal egalitarian critique of the specialness thesis. But she argues that a simple analogy between the good and religion misrepresents the complex relationship between religion, law and the state. Religion serves as more than a statement of belief about what is true, or a code of moral and ethical conduct. It also refers to comprehensive ways of life, political theories of justice, modes of voluntary association, and vulnerable collective identities.

Laborde’s main theoretical innovation is to suggest that religion should be disaggregated into its various dimensions. This approach makes two important contributions. First, it shows greater respect for ethical and social pluralism by ensuring that whatever treatment religion receives from the law, it receives because of features that it shares with nonreligious beliefs, conceptions, and identities. Second, it dispenses with the Western, Christian-inflected conception of religion that liberal political theory relies on, especially in dealing with the issue of separation between religion and state. As a result, Liberalism’s Religion offers a novel answer to the question: Can Western theories of both secularism and religion be applied more universally in non-Western societies?

More broadly, the RAPT team has conducted a comprehensive re-examination of the status of religion in liberal political theory. 30 prominent international experts on the subject participated in an international conference organised in London in June 2015. The proceedings are being published in an Oxford University Press volume, entitled Religion in Liberal Political Philosophy (ed. Cécile Laborde & Aurélia Bardon 2017).

The project was interdisciplinary from the outset, as one of the key hypothesis of RAPT was that liberal political philosophy had operated with a limited, truncated, at times ethnocentric understanding of religion. Therefore, the project drew on the expertise of other disciplines: sociology, anthropology, history and religious studies, notably. Notable publications by the RAPT team include: Lois Lee, Recognizing the Nonreligious: Reimagining the Secular, Oxford University Press, 2016; C Laborde and J Cohen (eds.) Religion, Secularism and Constitutional Democracy New York: Columbia University Press, 2016; L. Lee, C. Laborde and F. Guesnet (eds.) Negotiating Religion. Aldershot: Ashgate, forthcoming. This is the outcome of a UCL Grand Challenges Initiative, which brought together scholars of religion from different disciplines: law, history, geography and political science. The RAPT team also collaborated with the other ERC-funded ReligioWest Project in Florence EUI (Cf. Aurélia Bardon, Maria Birnbaum, Lois Lee and Kristina Stoeckl (eds.), Religious Pluralism: A Resource Book. European University Institute, 2015).