12th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Hagen

Annemarije Hagen

Can Secularism be Neutral? A Critical Examination of Religious Neutrality

Secularism is an ample concept that can have a wide range of meanings. However, genealogical studies show that secularism in its initial sense of laicité, translated as ‘religious neutrality’, was meant to grant equal religious freedom for every individual (Ferrara 2009). However, as the demographic presence of Islamic immigrants within Europe has intensified, liberal democracies, which embody the principle of religious neutrality, tend to frame the mere presence of Muslims as posing an existential threat to the dominant culture (Alexander 2013, Croucher 2013). This indicates that although secularism has the emancipatory aim of granting equal religious freedom, it produces a paradoxical effect when deploying antagonistic religious critiques; which leads to an increasing cultural hegemony that excludes religious actors from public discourse (Valenta 2012). In this paper I explore this tension functioning within secularism, by further examining the concept of religious neutrality. Not only by bringing into focus the contested nature of neutrality within the liberal paradigm, but also by  discussing the recent case of  Quebec’s Bill 60 which illustrates how the concept of religious neutrality can take on problematic stance towards religious minorities. Subsequently I will discuss critical thinkers which challenge the positive connection between neutrality and non-discrimination by revealing that the liberal conception of neutrality cannot live up to its universalist aspirations. However, it also becomes clear that the concept of neutrality seems to still be the most promising concept to fight exclusion and discrimination with; even if some discriminatory practices are developed at times due to neutrality’s own perverse functioning. At last I briefly outline my own approach to neutrality, stressing that it should be deployed as an instrument for critique; used to challenge and disrupt exclusionary practices and discriminatory policies, allowing it to live up to the liberal ideals of impartiality and equal religious freedom.