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The University of Southampton
Southampton Ethics Centre

Secularism, Symbolic Religious Establishment and Democratic Citizenship Event

12:00 - 14:00
3 May 2017
Highfield Campus, 58/4121. All welcome, lunch provided.

For more information regarding this event, please email Adriana Bunea at .

Event details

Debates in liberal political philosophy have recently focused on the question of what secularism means, and in what sense it is required in liberal democracies. Attention has notably been drawn to the issue of symbolic religious establishment (SRE), i.e. the non-coercive recognition of religion through the symbolic establishment of a church or through public endorsements such as the display of religious symbols or the recognition of religious holidays. To what extent is SRE permissible? Does the principle of state neutrality towards religion apply to symbolic acts? Because SRE is purely symbolic, it does not affect any citizen’s rights and it does not entail discriminatory or unfair treatment. The only way, then, to justify the impermissibility of SRE is if one can identify an expressive harm caused by the meaning of a religious symbol itself (Anderson & Pildes 2000; Eisgruber & Sager 2007; Nussbaum 2008). The application of this expressivist argument is however problematic: SRE cannot be said to be impermissible in general, and whether or not there is expressive harm is always a highly contextual question (Laborde 2017; Laegaard 2017; May 2012; Seglow 2017). The objective of this paper is to improve the applicability of the expressivist argument by providing clear guidelines to assess actual cases of SRE in contemporary liberal democracies. I distinguish three elements of a religious symbol that should be evaluated from the perspective of a context-sensitive reasonable observer: (i) its content (to what extent the symbol refers unambiguously to something divisive), (ii) the framework in which it is displayed (how closely it is associated to the exercise of political power or to the definition of the political community), and (iii) its purpose (whether it can be supported by public justification or not). I argue that all three of these elements should be taken into account together to assess the permissibility of SRE, and I identify specific conditions under which SRE represents an expressive harm, and therefore is impermissible.

Speaker information

Dr Aurélia Bardon ,University of Liverpool,Aurélia holds a PhD from Columbia University and Sciences Po Paris (2014). Prior to joining the University of Liverpool, she was a Research Associate at University College London. She specializes in normative political theory; her research focuses on public justification, especially on the implications of public justification for religion and religious reasons, as well as on secularism and bioethics.

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