The French take their secularism seriously. They are currently debating a proposed law which would ban the wearing of religious symbols in schools. This would forbid the wearing by students of the Muslim hijab, the Jewish jarmulke and large Christian crosses.
I was interested to read the reaction of a British liberal, Gary Younge, to the proposed French law. (The Guardian 26/1/04) He made it clear that he himself is a secularist. This is not because he is convinced of the truth of atheism. In fact, he declares himself to be a lapsed agnostic, who is largely unconcerned with religious issues.
Instead, he is a secularist because he feels that it fits better with his liberalism. Liberals want people to be self-created by their individual will and reason. Younge, therefore, doesn't want his own fate to be influenced by a God external to his own will ─ he has, in his own words, "a philosophical problem with submitting my destiny to a higher being."
Similarly, Younge can only accept a personal morality that he decides and which applies to himself alone. He doesn't like the idea that a morality might be formalised, even to the extent of being given a name. As he himself puts it, he has a "problem with giving a name to my sense of what is morally right and wrong."
Younge's account of his secularism is a warning to churches which try to base themselves on a liberal philosophy. The logic of liberal individualism is to lead people to reject the authority over them not only of a church as an institution, but also of its moral code, and even of the idea of God existing externally to our own will.
As a staunch secularist you might expect Younge to agree with the banning of religious symbols in French schools. In fact he does not.
Younge distinguishes between a ruling, oppressor group in society and marginalised oppressed groups. According to him, the Catholic Church was part of the privileged oppressor class and it was therefore proper that it was "sidelined" by secularism following the French Revolution of 1789.
Younge identifies Muslims in France, though, as being "ethnically and racially marginalised" by the racist French majority. Therefore it is legitimate that they seek to preserve their "racial and ethnic identity" of which Islam is a "crucial part".
Younge does not want Islam, being so crucial to the identity of a marginalised ethnic group, to be sidelined by secularism. In fact, he sees the attempt to do so as being just one more proof of the racism of the European French majority.
Of course, what you have here is the great left-liberal double standard which so perplexes conservatives. Younge not only allows, but encourages, ethnic minorities to keep their "racial and ethnic identity". Any attempt to defend such an identity by the majority, though, is condemned in the harshest terms as "racist".
Such an approach has the absurd consequence that it doesn't allow a mainstream culture to exist. Once you become the majority you become illegitimate.
Why would Younge hold such a view? Younge's arguments do make some sense within the confines of a liberal philosophy. After all, liberals want to be self-created by their own reason and will, and not by the national or ethnic tradition they are born into.
So what they are really looking to deconstruct is the mainstream culture that has some claim over them. It's not so important that they undermine the ethnic traditions of minority groups. In fact, it may even be an advantage to encourage such groups to hold to their traditional identities. It is presumably helpful for liberals if there continues to exist a visible minority toward whom the majority can actively practise "non-discrimination."
There are several possible reactions to the left-liberal view of things. Some people react sensitively to the accusation that they are part of a racist majority. They try to re-legitimise themselves by going to increasingly greater lengths to prove that they are not racist.
This is futile. The French have already gone so far to accommodate immigrants that they have undermined their own future existence as a distinct people and culture. And still they are branded a racist majority.
French Muslims, meanwhile, have spearheaded attacks on French Jews, and yet are still accorded the status of victims of racism. They are protected from accusations of racism by their minority status.
In other words, it's not possible in the eyes of left-liberals for the majority to be exonerated of the accusation of racism. Trying to win legitimacy by taking increasingly desperate measures to prove how "anti-racist" you are is a losing game to play.
Another reaction to views like Gary Younge's is to reject the whole left-liberal approach in favour of a right liberal one. Right liberals are no more likely than left liberals to uphold a national or ethnic tradition. However, their approach is not to entirely condemn the existing majority of a society. Instead, they want everyone to assimilate into a liberal culture, defined in terms of democracy, tolerance, free enterprise, individual freedom, a fair go and so on.
This has a superficial appeal to many people, because it avoids the sense of a self-hating double standard which is a part of the usual left-liberal approach. But the ultimate outcome is the same: it is still considered illegitimate for the majority to defend their own particular tradition as a part of public policy.
Centuries ago, our ancestors adopted liberal individualism as a political principle. They did so without thinking through carefully enough what the logical outcome of this principle would be.
Liberal individualism makes it impossible to defend the existence of your own national or ethnic tradition. This is because we are born into such a
tradition ─ we don't choose it through our own will or reason as liberal individualism insists we do.
The logical thing to do, to break the impasse that we are currently in, is to break free from the philosophy of liberal individualism: to finally recognise that it is a faulty part of our political tradition.
All this really means is a willingness to accept that we are created not just through our individual will and reason, and that this doesn't diminish our status as humans.
As part of this rejection of liberal individualism, we need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to be free, one which includes the freedom of all people, majorities included, to live within their inherited and continuing ethnocultural tradition.
Things will start to change for Europeans when we begin to challenge liberal individualism as the underlying, and sometimes unexamined, "first principle" of our intellectual and political classes.
(First published at Conservative Central 07/02/2004)