Legal scholar Stephen Carter stated,
One good way to end a conversation – or start an argument – is to tell a group of well educated professionals that you hold a political position (preferably a controversial one such as being against abortion or pornography) because it is required by your understanding of God’s will. In the unlikely event that anyone hangs around to talk with you about it, chances are that you will be challenged on the ground that you are intent on imposing your religious beliefs on other people. And in contemporary political and legal culture, nothing is worse.
Carter puts his finger on an important perspective which is pervasive in contemporary liberal societies. This is the view that citizens of liberal democracies may justly support the implementation of a law only if they reasonably believe themselves to have a plausible secular justification for that law. Further, they must be willing to appeal to secular justifications alone in political discussion. The upshot of this perspective is that it is perceived to be unjust to support or advocate for laws for theological or religious reasons.
I will refer to this position as secularism, the commitment to the position that the public square should be secular. The secularisation of political culture is, of course, an implication of accepting this position. Richard Rorty described it as,
The happy, Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious. This compromise consists in privatizing religion — keeping it out of … “the public square,” making it seem bad taste to bring religion into discussions of public policy.
My experience as a New Zealand citizen is that secularism is widely held and taken for granted in our culture by media, politicians and popular culture. I also think, perhaps predictably, that secularism of this sort is questionable.
Let me begin by pointing out that several writers have observed that prima facie there is something unfair or discriminatory about secularism. Contemporary critics of secularism, Christopher Eberle and Terence Cuneo, note that it entails “There is an important asymmetry between religious and secular reasons in the following respect: some secular reasons can themselves justify state coercion but no religious reason can.”
Another critic, Philip Quinn, observes that secularists impose “burdens on religious people” that they nowhere suggest “imposing on nonreligious people.” Secularists do “not propose that nonreligious people must be sufficiently motivated by adequate religious reason for their advocacy or support of restrictive laws or policies. The lack of symmetry is striking.”
This raises an obvious question, why the asymmetry? On the face of it secularism appears to privilege secular ideologies and doctrines in public debate whilst relegating religious or theological perspectives to the private sphere. What is the basis for this? Two reasons are typically offered and neither is terribly compelling.
The first is that it is dangerous to allow theological or religious concerns into public debate. Defenders of secularism raise the specter of the wars of religion that tore Europe apart during the 17th century or they mention episodes such as the Inquisition and Crusades, which are said to be consequences of allowing religious reasons to influence public and political life. It is argued that the only way to keep social peace and prevent the kind of violence that Europe witnessed is to ensure religious reasons do not influence public life and that all political discussions take place on secular terms.
This argument assumes that appeal to religious reasons is the cause of religious wars and appeals to secular reasons protect us against such wars. Writing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Eberle and Cuneo note that the religious wars of the 17th century were caused not by the appeal to religious reasons per se but rather by the violation of religious freedom. Moreover, they note that even in the 17th century, religious persecution was typically justified on secular grounds. They go on to observe that religious freedom is not necessarily safeguarded by secularising public debate. They note that many “secularists have a long history of hostility to the right to religious freedom and, presumably, that hostility isn’t at all grounded in religious considerations” In addition, they note correctly that some of the most important defences of religious persecution and defences of religious tolerance, such as those proposed by John Locke and Pierre Bayle, appealed to explicitly theological grounds.
Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff makes a similar point, he notes that much of “the slaughter, torture, and generalised brutality of our century has mainly been conducted in the name of one or another secular cause–nationalism of many sorts, communism, fascism, patriotisms of various kinds, economic hegemony.” He also stated that “many of the social movements in the modern world that have moved societies in the direction of liberal democracy have been deeply and explicitly religious in their orientation.” Wolterstorff cites examples such as the abolitionist, civil rights and various other resistance movements as examples.
The assumption that secular reasoning is always tolerant and religious reasoning is always intolerant does not survive scrutiny. Particular types of religious reasons in particular political contexts can lead to wars and abuse, whereas appealing to other types of religious reasons in other contexts can be beneficent. The same is equally true of secular reasons. Certain types of secular reasons can be dangerous in particular contexts and other types of secular reasons are not. To single religious reasons out as being ‘too dangerous to be aired in public’ and insisting on a default to secular reasons seems ad hoc and unjustified.
The fear of religious wars is not the only argument typically offered for the secular public square. The main reason offered for secularism is that religious reasons are not accessible to all people. Auckland Law Professor Paul Rishworth observes, “some have contended that the nature of religious belief is such that, while it may be integral to individual autonomy and development, it has no proper role in public policy debates and that these ought to be conducted exclusively in secular terms that are equally accessible to all.” [Emphasis added]
Something like this is also evident in defences of secularism. Leading secular Philosopher Michael Tooley states, “For it is surely true that it is inappropriate, at least in a pluralistic society, to appeal to specific theological beliefs of a non moral sort… in support of legislation that will be binding upon everyone.” Robert Audi, one of the leading defenders of secularism, states “as advocates for laws and public policies, then, and especially for those that are coercive, virtuous citizens will seek grounds of a kind that any rational adult citizen can endorse as sufficient for the purpose.” [Emphasis added] In essence, because not everyone in society accepts the existence of God or some theological perspective on life then it is unjust to base laws governing their conduct on theological or religious grounds.
This argument is deeply flawed. If taken consistently it would require not just the exclusion of religious reasons but the exclusion of any reasons that were controversial and not accepted by all people. The problem is that many secular justifications and ideologies are also controversial in the same way. Quinn makes the point,
If the fact that religious reasons cannot 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 to be excluded on the same grounds.
He goes on to note,
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 of 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 can be morally justified, a conclusion that would, I suspect, be welcomed only by anarchists. [Emphasis added]
I agree with Quinn. 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, consistently applied, should lead to the rejection of secular beliefs.
On examining secularism and the main arguments for it, it certainly is not evident that a just or fair society will have a secularised public square. To insist this is the case prima facie seems to favour secular views of the world for no adequate reason. Contrary to what some maintain, secular reasons, like religious reasons, can be used to justify atrocities and human rights abuses. Further, like religious reasons, secular reasons are frequently controversial and not shared by all intelligent people. Of course, secularists might consider religious views of the world to be false but then, of course, religious people consider secular views of the world to be false and given the diversity of secular moral theories on offer they cannot all be true (some are at odds with each other) so why single out religious views? The question remains as to why morality requires that public discussions privilege secular perspectives by requiring that all such discussions are engaged in on secular terms. I suspect we will be waiting a long time for an answer.
[In this article I acknowledge being influenced by my wife Madeleine Flannagan’s supervised research paper “Religious Restraint and Public Policy” which she wrote under the supervision of Professor Rishworth, the Dean of the University of Auckland’s School of Law.]
I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled Contra Mundum. This blog post was published in the June 10 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.
Letters to the editor should be sent to: editorial@investigatemagazine.DELETE.com
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Tags: Christopher Eberle · Contra Mundum · Doctrine of Religious Restraint · Investigate Magazine · Michael Tooley · Nicholas Wolterstorff · Philip Quinn · Religion in Public Life · Richard Rorty · Robert Audi · Stephen Carter · Terence Cuneo63 Comments