No religion

According to the most recent census information, released this past week, nearly 30% of Australians have “no religion.” Understandably, that statistic was front and centre in much of the Australian news. The most recent available information for Canada comes from 2001, in which about 17% of Canadians reported that they had no religious affiliation. In 2001 that number was basically the same for Australia. Presumably Canada can expect similar census results in the near future.

Based on the most recent data, let’s say that between 20 and 30% of the population in Australia, Canada, and the USA are “nones.” Somewhere between one in five and one in three of the people you pass on the street will have no religious affiliation. It’s not just that religious affiliation in general is declining, and that large groups of people in these societies are finding other ways of orienting their lives. While I take the point made by those columnists who caution against reading too much or too neatly into these statistics, I do think it’s worthwhile to try and connect this data to the shape of our society and its politics. To me the so-called “rise of the nones” in Australia, Canada, and the USA probably serves to reinforce the anxieties felt by the declining proportion of white Anglophone Christians in these countries. It cannot be completely disconnected from the shape and sound of recent political developments.

In the USA more so than in Australia and Canada, the religious identity of the state’s political representatives stands in fairly sharp contrast to that of the population. But generally speaking our political representatives report being much more religious than the rest of society. There’s something more going on here than a gap. And it’s worth asking ourselves if there aren’t any serious consequences for this discrepancy between the makeup of our social fabric and our political representation. Some of the gap is surely due to the fact that social change is happening at a faster rate than in the past, and our representation has yet to catch up. Though that doesn’t explain why far less than 50% of our representatives are women. Alternatively, and perhaps more substantively, some of the gap is due to the fact that political, social, and personal identities have become completely uncoupled from one another for large numbers of people, something not really seen before the Second World War. A Catholic voter today may not vote for a Catholic political representative.

There are some other telling differences between Australia and Canada on the one hand, and the USA on the other. For instance, in various polls many Americans continue to report, in numbers higher than in Australia and Canada, that they want political representatives with strong, traditional religious beliefs. If we were to put this in terms of revolutionary French republicanism, a commitment to “equality” and “liberty” is anchored by a “fraternity” that seems to possess a distinctly religious character in America.

Even as personal, social, and political identities have become uncoupled from one another, contemporary liberal democracy can still exert increased pressure for “authentic” political representation. This demand has led many polities to dispense with the idea that WASPy men can somehow adequately speak and act for the rest of the population, particularly in deeply diverse societies such as Australia, Canada, and the USA. There are of course very good reasons for this change, but it is a change which has not been completely fulfilled. And I don’t think this is simply a matter of our representation catching up with society.

Where some states have pursued the political ideals of enshrining individual rights in a charter or constitution, others have sought to maintain collective or community rights (language rights, say). Most states in Europe and the Americas maintain some sort of mix between the two. This can help explain why it apparently remains so difficult to imagine an atheist as President of the USA. If recent surveys accurately reflect political ideals, in which most Americans are said to prefer religiously affiliated representatives, it is perhaps no surprise that American political culture remains relatively closed to the religiously unaffiliated. But the same drive that removes restrictions placed on political representation based on gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation seems likely to carry over to religion and freedom from it. Put simply, liberty and equality seem to be bumping up against religiously-infused fraternity. Given the trajectory of religious affiliation, particularly amongst younger generations, this probably can’t be sustained in the long-term. Though it is rather amusing to find that some polls report that a significant number of atheists in America say that they prefer political representatives with traditional religious values.


Consider some of the historical factors at play in the prejudice towards atheists. In the distant past, when society was understood as intimately connected to and authorized by a relationship with the divine, an atheist was nearly unimaginable. The hierarchical cosmos of archaic and ancient societies made virtually no space for the step outside their divinely-sanction orders into what we would recognize as unbelief. Yet even when modern natural rights theories were first articulated in Europe they tended to cast atheists in the role of scapegoats, turning what was once an anathema into an anxiety. For instance, in the late seventeenth century, when John Locke wrote several important tracts defending religious toleration, he did not extend that toleration to atheists. Why? Because even Locke thought it was necessary to believe in God for the social contract based upon natural rights to work. Put simply, without the security offered to natural law in oath-taking, he thought an atheist would undermine the foundation on which society was based. Since an atheist could not sincerely take an oath in the belief in God, thus guaranteeing their allegiance to the society in ultimate terms, an atheist represented that which would undermine the political contract. Many tracts in Locke’s day depicted atheists as akin to non-rational animals, “brute beasts” in their parlance, supremely selfish individuals unable to form friendships because they spurned the transcendent basis for trust. This distrust of atheists remained entrenched in British life for centuries. It was dramatically confirmed in the furor which surrounded the atheist MP Charles Bradlaugh in the 1880s. Yet even in Locke’s day there were those who were beginning to offer a different take. In the early eighteenth century Bernard Mandeville, drawing upon the pioneering work of Pierre Bayle, made the controversial point that an atheist was not threatening to the state, where the state was understood along the lines of Lockean natural right. For Mandeville, the state existed to provide the means for individuals to pursue their pleasures and interests, contributing to society’s prosperity as they did so. The true threat, he argued, was the otherworldly concerns of meddling priests, not unbelievers.

Contrast the natural rights tradition of Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith with civic republicanism and the political thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Whereas Hume and Smith characterized human reason in calculating terms, that is, as a disengaged stance to the natural and social world, one which lifts us to a universal standpoint and makes us the impartial spectators we need to be in order to be properly benevolent and self-interestedly enlightened, Rousseau regarded this picture as a cold, enslaving distortion. For Rousseau this disengaged individualism makes human beings into objectively strategic thinkers whose attempt to control others only renders social and political relations confused, conflictual, and catastrophic. Such thinking does not liberate us, he wrote, it makes us dependent. And so Rousseau used the language of virtue to fuse self-love and patriotism, linking one’s individual will with the general will of the republic.  The purpose of political representation on his view is to manifest the general will. A new burden is therefore placed on political representation, for if the general will is to be determined authentically then its citizens must be capable of virtue and free from possible corruptions or dependencies. Division, faction, and plot become the sources of deep political anxiety, as indeed they were in the first French republic.

For civic republicanism, then, difference can be seen as a very serious source of possible corruption. A foreigner is not threatening simply because they are different, but because they may not possess the right personal and social character that is regarded as constituting and sustaining a given society’s general will. The ability to recognize your fellow citizen becomes immensely important in republican societies. And while this recognition does not necessarily have to include a common religious element, it very often has. Robespierre presided over the Festival of the Supreme Being. Without straining the similarity, it’s hard not to imagine something analogous happening as you watch the Declaration of Independence being read by soldiers and celebrities before the Super Bowl.


If we can attribute the greater prejudice against the religiously unaffiliated in the USA to the demand made by modern republics for a high level “fraternity,” based on a common and constitutive sense of recognition, what might be a way forward? To answer this question adequately I think we need to come to terms with some broader dilemmas in our society. Let me first say that I do not wish to diminish the importance of the “rise of the nones.” But I’m going to situate that development within a broader social challenge in places such as Australia, Canada, and the USA: deep diversity.

An Awareness of What is Missing (2010) is a short book in which the philosopher Jürgen Habermas and several Jesuit scholars engage in a conversation about conversation, discussing the political and social negotiation of convictions from religious and secular perspectives. What emerges is the importance of engaging in conversations that are with others and not about others. Such conversations begin from the premise that the partners in a dialogue take each other’s core convictions seriously and that their convictions are intelligible when presented in a reasonable manner.

It seems to me that we could extend this way of framing “conversation” to the realm of political representation. Given that there are no reasonable grounds for excluding the convictions of the religiously unaffiliated in our political institutions today, and the importance placed on convictions by all parties, grounded in faith or reason or both, I think we would do well to follow former President Barack Obama’s Inauguration speech and openly acknowledge the existence of those with no religious affiliation in our cultural and political life. In an age sometimes described by “the return of religion” to the political spherethough I have to say I remain deeply skeptical and suspicious of those whose vision was so impaired as to have imagined it had ever leftwe need to be able to come to terms with deep social diversity more than ever. One step in this direction is an ethics of conversation.

In Oneself as Another (1990) the philosopher Paul Ricœur attempts to outline ethical implications of the ways in which we relate to one another as social individuals in modern liberal democracies. One of the ways we relate is through conflict. In institutional terms persons assert their equal rights at law, and they do so because good governments attempt to protect the goods of security, prosperity, liberty, equality, and solidarity. On an abstracted, interpersonal level, Ricœur writes, there are different ethical virtues at work. With friends, family, and colleagues we exercise prudence when making deliberations; but with acquaintances and strangers we exercise the analogous but anonymous “critical solicitude.” The point being made here is that we have specific ethical commitments to those in our society beyond that of our intimate community. And we need to articulate this to ourselves clearly so that we can see that in liberal democracies we need to treat individuals with a level of care befitting their place. In Ricœur’s language this turns the stranger who is an “other” into a person who is an “each.” Thus the moral esteem demanded by social equality, arbitrated by the institutions of law, inform the practical judgments reached on the political questions of justice.

By framing it in this way Ricœur also reminds us that a person’s efforts are never solitary. We are always acting with and in terms of others. When I speak and act, as an embodied being with a common nature and a shared intersubjectivity, I not only attest to my power to act, I listen to another’s attestation of an identical capability. The conclusion Ricœur draws from this about human nature is that we are fundamentally “being enjoined.” As a human being, as a member of society, I am always and already addressed in speech and action. To recognize oneself as another is to see oneself as a “being enjoined,” as someone called upon “to live well with and for others in just institutions and to esteem oneself as the bearer of this wish.”

In Secularism and Freedom of Conscience (2013), Charles Taylor and Jocelyn Maclure argue that we should manage deep diversity in liberal democracies by institutionally securing the basic principles of equality, liberty, and fraternity. But they make an important distinction with regards to how this should be done. Rather than becoming fixated on the procedures by which to maintain secularism as a means for coming to grips with diversity in our societiesi.e. getting hung up on metaphorical language, such as that of a “wall” separating church and statethey think we should focus on equality, liberty, and fraternity as goals around which people with very different moral sources can be motivated. They argue that there is nothing preventing a Buddhist and an atheist from finding within their worldview reasons for upholding these common and institutionally maintained social ends.

By drawing attention to our own history and to the philosophical work of Habermas, Ricœur, and Taylor, I mean to suggest that by articulating these social goals to ourselves, under the guidance of an ethics of communication, we can open the political culture of our democracies further to the possibility of deliberating from both religious and non-religious perspectives. This entails a recognition of one another as an “each.” And it implies a shared conviction that the outcome of reasonable dialogue depends on mutual respect and trust. Like a good translator, we will need to learn to become self-aware and appreciative about our differing viewpoints and the worlds from which they emanate. Hopefully in so doing we can be become citizens capable of speaking patiently to one another in the different registers of faith and reason. Justice might very well depend on it.

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