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Paul Litterick on Religion and Public Life: A second Look

August 7th, 2007 by Matt

In a previous post I criticised an argument made by Paul Litterick for the conclusion that theological arguments should not affect public policy. Paul has responded saying that this post consisted of a “lengthy misrepresentation of [his] views”

Now I do not wish to caricature anyone’s views. I would rather refute Paul’s actual arguments than ones he did not make. That way I have actually refuted them. So let’s look again at what Paul stated. The statement to which I was responding is the following:

The only way it [theological moral arguments] matters to me is in the public political sphere. I am more of a secularist than anything else, I just think these sorts of arguments shouldn’t be effecting the vast majority of people who don’t share them and there is always a difficulty with arguments that are put over as being matters of faith, or matters of, say Christian Heritage of the nation and so and therefore we must do these things that they will take precedence over the views and the freedoms of everybody else.

Here, Paul appears to express two concerns about theological arguments in the “public political sphere” (i) laws enacted on the basis of such arguments will take precedence override everyone else’s freedom and (ii) the majority affected by these laws do not share the beliefs to which the arguments appeal.

Now that sounds very much like the objection is that laws enacted on the basis of theological premises will restrict the freedom of the majority who do not accept these premises. Certainly it’s a reasonable construal of Paul’s claims. And, as I pointed out in my previous post, this objection is problematic. Laws based on secular ethical theories also restrict people’s freedom and most people affected do not hold to the theories in question. Hence if this argument were sound it would exclude almost all philosophies from public discourse whether they were secular or religious.

Nether the less, I accept that that may not be what Paul really meant. He has generously clarified his position. His view is rather that “a secular society is the best means of guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of all, regardless of their differing beliefs.”

That is an interesting thesis. Unfortunately Paul only states it and provides no argument for it. That of course is not Paul’s fault he can hardly be expected to lay down all his reasons in a short comments section. But, it is also true that, in the absence of any argument, those who do not already hold this belief have no reason at all to accept it.

It also seems to me that there is an ambiguity in Paul’s claim. One problem is that the truth of his thesis depends on what one considers to be “the rights and freedoms of all” another is that there are various different models of a secular society.

Some examples will illustrate this. Take the model of a secular society proposed by Ayn Rand. It’s clear that on certain libertarian understandings of “the rights and freedoms of all” this model of a secular society will guarantee these rights and freedoms better than one which follows the premises and arguments proposed by religious conservatives. On the other hand, on the same understanding of “the rights and freedoms of all” listening to religious conservatives will guarantee our rights and freedoms much better than listening to the secularism of Karl Marx, or Chairman Mao.

A further and related problem is that any attempt to compare the beneficent and malevolent effects of religion will depend in part on ones secular or religious philosophy in the first place. If the rights and freedoms of all includes a right to life, and fetuses posses this right, listening to religious conservatives will greatly decrease the abuse of human rights in this country. On the other hand if a woman has a right to an abortion, then it will not. However, it is not unlikely that some secularists and theologians may differ on the moral status of feticide or numerous, other substantive moral questions that affect the conclusion.

It seems trivial to say that a Marxist society will guarantee rights and freedoms as understood by a Marxist and that a theologically conservative society will better embody the ideals of religious conservatives. It would also be question begging to exclude religious premises from the arguments from which one derives an account of rights and freedoms if this account is to be used in a premise for the conclusion that such arguments should be excluded from public policy debates.

To substantiate Paul’s thesis what is needed is some: (a) account of the freedoms and rights of all (b) some non question begging argument as to why this account is correct as opposed to its rivals (c) some argument as to why secular philosophies always guarentee these rights and freedoms as opposed to religious ones. I am sceptical such an argument can be made. Of course I could change my mind if a compelling argument is forthcoming, but I am not holding my breath.

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