Liberal societies conventionally treat religion as unique under the law, requiring both special protection (as in guarantees of free worship) and special containment (to keep religion and the state separate). But recently this idea that religion requires a legal exception has come under fire from those who argue that religion is no different from any other conception of the good, and the state should treat all such conceptions according to principles of neutrality and equal liberty. Cécile Laborde agrees with much of this liberal egalitarian critique, but she argues that a simple analogy between the good and religion misrepresents the complex relationships among religion, law, and the state. Religion serves as more than a statement of belief about what is true, or a code of moral and ethical conduct. It also refers to comprehensive ways of life, political theories of justice, modes of voluntary association, and vulnerable collective identities.
Disaggregating religion into its various dimensions, as Laborde does, has two clear advantages. First, it shows greater respect for ethical and social pluralism by ensuring that whatever treatment religion receives from the law, it receives because of features that it shares with nonreligious beliefs, conceptions, and identities. Second, it dispenses with the Western, Christian-inflected conception of religion that liberal political theory relies on, especially in dealing with the issue of separation between religion and state. As a result, Liberalism’s Religion offers a novel answer to the question: Can Western theories of secularism and religion be applied more universally in non-Western societies?
Reviews and Endorsements
“The standard story that liberalism has told about religion since the Enlightenment is that they are sibling rivals—frères ennemis—battling each other for control of the modern world… The standard account…is not wrong, Cécile Laborde argues in Liberalism’s Religion, her important and illuminating…book, but it needs substantial revision.”—Michael Ignatieff, The New York Review of Books
“It’s a major contribution to its field, likely to displace a lot of other texts from reading lists. It will command attention from political theorists, philosophers, and legal scholars for years to come.”—Bernard G. Prusak, Commonweal
“An elegant philosophical exercise of rigorous conceptual analysis, erudite discussion, and challenging normative engagement with the conceptualization of ‘religion’ as an object of concern for liberal political philosophers.”—Ethics
“Splendid… Should receive attention from anyone interested in liberal democracy or in the place of religion within modern secularized societies. Laborde has thought deeply and subtly about the problems which she ponders, and her contemplation has paid off in the form of a truly fine book.”—Modern Law Review
“Liberalism’s Religion is a paradigm-shifting book and an exemplary academic achievement… Given its unquestionable status as a landmark contribution to the field, it is not unreasonable to suggest that this book will become a fundamental reference point for the foreseeable future… By demystifying the concept of religion, Laborde gives liberalism an opportunity for self-reflection and renews the possibility of taking on the challenges facing contemporary plural societies with a sharper focus.”—Eugenio Velasco Ibarra, Oxford Journal of Law and Religion
“A major theoretical accomplishment, one that ought to shape theoretical analysis of religion and politics by liberal egalitarian, democratic, and critical theorists long into the future.”—Political Theory
“[An] outstanding contribution to debates about religion in political philosophy and [an] excellent window for moral and political theologians on the most advanced liberal thinking on the subject.”— Studies in Christian Ethics
“Cécile Laborde [shows],…against secular fundamentalism, that the state can, without ceasing to be liberal and losing its legitimacy, use religious ideas to justify its actions far beyond what existing theories of liberal neutrality suggest. But, without any contradiction, she also shows that religious freedom extends beyond the boundary that some impenitent secularists would like to set for it.”—Jean-Fabien Spitz, La Vie des Idées
“A powerful, original, and nuanced book. The implications of Cécile Laborde’s views will have a wide impact for a long time to come.”—Corey Brettschneider, Brown University
“The question of the proper place of religion in liberal societies proves to be a perennial problem. In this masterpiece, Cécile Laborde, one of the most powerful political theorists of our time, addresses the many aspects of this question in a most thorough and original way. Her arguments for the disaggregation of religion and for ‘minimal secularism’ open up new perspectives of thought and practice.”—Rainer Forst, Goethe-University Frankfurt
“Liberalism’s Religion is a major contribution to a crowded field, offering a distinctive and powerful approach to the familiar problem of the relationship between religion and state. Professor Laborde also offers a shrewd critical map of the intellectual territory. The book is more than an application of liberal political philosophy to religion. It deepens our understanding of liberalism itself.”—Andrew M. Koppelman, Northwestern University