Paul Litterick was recently interviewed by Russell Brown on Public Address. The topic predictably is his criticism of conservative Christian groups whom Russell appears to have no time for. Here I will make to criticisms of this broadcast, first one of Russell Brown and the second of Litterick.
Turning first to Russell Brown; Brown mentioned in detail the New Zealand Association of Rationalist Humanist’s (NZARH) exposure of Bruce Logan’s plagiarism, elaborated how this damaged Maxim’s credibility and meant they had little media respectability as a result. It was also stressed on the show that this incident showed that they were a bogus think tank.
However, Brown seemed almost silent about NZARH’s own apparent deception that both Litterick and I have discussed. Yet it is clear from what Brown does say that he does know about it but he omits to mention it – even in contexts where it is relevant.
For example, Brown mentions that there was an interesting story about Littericks falling out with NZARH but will not go into the details and he queried why Litterick even made the issues of the falling out public but he never ventures to state what they were.
There seems to me to be a clear double standard here. NZARH make media comment about religion and public issues, so do Maxim. If Logan’s deception is newsworthy and calls into question Maxim’s media credibility then why is this not equally true of NZARH?
Moreover, if Brown feels it is acceptable to make Logan’s alleged plagiarism public, which he does on his show, why then does he query the appropriateness of bringing up NZARH’s actions on air? Is privacy something that applies only to secularists perhaps?
Turning now to Litterick; Litterick states he has no issue with private faith but is opposed to religious values guiding public policy. This is because he is concerned that the views of one group of society (those with a religious faith) are being used to restrict the freedoms of everyone else in society, many of who do not accept the religious beliefs in question and may in fact openly reject them.
Now this is a common line of argument. However, despite its pervasiveness, this argument is erroneous. In the literature on Religion and Public Life Christian Philosophers like Nicholas Wolterstorff, Christopher Eberle and Philip Quinn have published cogent rebuttals of it. Here I can summarise the issues.
The main problem with this criticism of using religious beliefs to guide public policy is that exactly the same thing can be said about secular, non-theological beliefs. Beliefs that Litterick and Brown hold to and would advocate public policy changes on the basis of. Phillip Quinn articulates this point,
… if the fact that religious reasons can not be shared by all in a religiously pluralistic society suffices to warrant any exclusion of religious reasons for advocating or supporting restrictive laws or policies, then much else ought in fairness also be excluded on the same grounds.
Quinn notes correctly that secular moral theories such as Utilitarianism or Kantianism, Intuitionism, Socialism, Libertarianism, can all be reasonably rejected in a philosophically-pluralistic society.
Indeed, it would seem that the appeal to any comprehensive ethical theory, including all known secular ethical theories, should be disallowed on the grounds that every such theory can be reasonably rejected by some citizens in a pluralistic democracy. And if justification of restrictive laws or policies can be conducted only in terms of moral considerations no citizen of a pluralistic democracy can reasonably reject, then in a pluralistic democracy such as ours very few restrictive laws or policies would be morally justified, a conclusion that would, I suspect, be welcome only to anarchists.
Quinn is substantially correct here. There is special pleading going on whereby theological beliefs are rejected on certain grounds while secular ones are not, even though the same grounds and reasons should lead to their rejection as well. If it’s unjust to restrict a person’s freedom on the basis of beliefs held by only some members of the community and which are rejected by others then all laws are unjust.
It could be added that such arguments are frequently incoherent. After all, such beliefs propose a moral viewpoint that many reject, the view that theological beliefs are not to be appealed to in public. Given that many reject this view, some people think that they should be appealed to in public, it should not be appealed to in public debate about policy. Moreover, since this position is generally defended by appeals to normative principles about freedom or pluralism or conceptions of equality that many reject, many of the arguments for this conclusion should not be utilised in public debate either.
Perhaps, however, I am being uncharitable here, perhaps what Litterick means to assert is not that the religious beliefs can be reasonably rejected by some people – that would, as I note above, lead to anarchism – rather, his point is that a majority of people reject them. This too, however, is problematic.
Implicit in this argument is the claim that a necessary condition for any principle to be utilised in public debate is that the majority accepts it as true. However, this is subject to numerous counter-examples. Consider a culture where the majority believes that a husband has the right to beat his wife. Would an advocate of majoritarianism contend that in such a society criticism by a feminist minority of this practice and the advocacy of norms forbidding spousal abuse is an unacceptable imposition of a narrow, feminist perspective in a pluralistic society? Would it be true that in such a society public policy could not be based on the moral principle that it is wrong for a man to beat his wife?
Consider an Islamic society where the majority believe that conversion to a rival, trinitarian monotheistic religion is immoral and should be a capital offence. Not to execute converts to Judaism or Christianity in such a society would, by this reasoning, be unjust. In societies where a racial majority thinks a racial minority is sub-human, it would be unjust to grant equal human rights.
There is a further objection to this argument. Many normative positions that are currently supported by the majority or a wide section of the populace were once minority views. Over time, however, the minority has persuaded others and or converted them to its cause. If “narrow” views are to be excluded, this type of reform is not possible. A minority would never be able to propose its ideas until it was no longer a minority view. However, it cannot cease to be a minority view unless it is proposed in the first place. Consequently, this stance freezes societies in whatever popular prejudices currently exist. The reforming minority that critiques contemporary culture would be effectively silenced if we were to hold that only the views of the majority are the just ones.
So in sum: It seems to be that Russell Brown is inconsistent in his treatment of the issue and Litterick uses common but erroneous and, I think, discredited arguments to justify his secularist stance.
 Phillip Quinn, “Political Liberalism and their Exclusion of the Religious,” in Religion and Contemporary Liberalism, ed. Paul Weithman (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 144.