Understanding Religion, Governing Religion: A Realist Perspective

In Cecile Laborde & Aurelia Bardon (eds.), Religion in Liberal Political Philosophy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press (2017)
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Cécile Laborde has argued that the freedom we think of as ‘freedom of religion’ should be understood as a bundle of separate and relatively independent freedoms. I criticise that approach by pointing out that it is insufficiently sensitive to facts about the sorts of entities that liberal states are. I argue that states have good reasons to mould phenomena such as religion into easily governable monoliths. If this is a problem from the normative point of view, it is not due to descriptively inadequate accounts of religion, but a problem with a lack of realism about the sort of institutions states are. My conclusion is a three-way disjunction: either one must reckon with liberal states’ historically determined limitations in the management of changing social phenomena, or one should direct one’s frustration at the marriage of liberalism and the state, or the very existence of states is normatively problematic.
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