Supporters of secularism and secularization can best rebut attacks from religious critics by emphasizing how the two are vital for democracy, personal liberty, and even religious freedom. Secularism prescribes state neutrality in religious matters, but they are not morally or politically neutral. They are positive goods which must be defended as foundations of liberal democracy. This is why they are opposed by authoritarian religious institutions and authoritarian religious leaders. Secularism and secularization enhance the broad distribution of power and oppose the concentration of power in the hands of a few.
What does it mean to be 'free' in a liberal democracy? At the very least, it must mean that people are able to form opinions and pursue goals relating to the direction of their life with a minimum of interference from the state. If people are prevented from developing their own ideas about what constitutes a good and moral life, they simply become tools of the state. This is especially true when the state promotes the ideology of any one religion as defining what is good and moral.
Perhaps the best way for a group or person to exercise power in a manner that harms others is to convince people that one doesn't actually have any power to begin with. This is the tactic adopted by many conservative religious institutions in America: despite wielding tremendous direct power as well as indirect power through their influence, they have persistently argued that they are powerless due to American culture being secularized.
A common complaint from the Christian Right is that strict separation of church and state threatens to create a 'godless
' or naked public square
and that the goal of secularists, godless atheists, and godless liberals is to do just that. A godless public square
appears to be the worst nightmare for the Christian Right, and even some liberal Christians have bought into the idea that there is something wrong with this. They don't realize that the public square is already godless — as it should be.
Godless secularism is not a threat to religious liberty because the secular nature of public institutions, the public square, the media, and other aspects of our society cannot infringe on the ability of individuals, whether acting alone or in private groups, to practice their religion and believe religious doctrines. The fact that government or society in general doesn't take sides when it comes to religious beliefs or disagreements does not prevent anyone from going about their religious business.
When, if ever, should personal religious morality
take precedence over neutral, public laws and standards of justice? In a civil, secular society the answer should probably be 'never,' but not all religious believers agree with this. One issue which underlies so many religious conflicts, not to mention religious extremism, is the conviction held by many religious believers that their religious morality, supposedly from their god, should take precedence when they believe the law has failed.