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Contra Mundum: Separating Church and State

September 2nd, 2011 by MandM

Co-authored by Matthew and Madeleine Flannagan

The late Philosopher Richard Rorty once described religion as a “conversation stopper”, something that polarises discussion and ends or prevents fruitful dialogue. Rorty was an advocate of,

“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.”

The view that the public square – the legal system, economy, public education system, politics and so on – should be secular is now standard in contemporary political theory. When making decisions about their private conduct religious believers can utilise religious reasons in but in public they are morally bound to bracket their beliefs about God and appeal only to secular considerations.

In an earlier column, “Secularism and Public life”, Matthew criticised this position. He pointed out that a growing number of scholars working in philosophy, political science and law are calling the defensibility of this position into question. We will not repeat those points here instead we will address one interesting feature of Rorty’s comment above; Rorty referred to his position as “the … Jeffersonian compromise.”

In doing this he reflected a trend that began in the US the mid to late 20th Century and has spread around the Western World. The First Amendment of the United States (US) Constitution asserts that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …”. In a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, US Founding Father Thomas Jefferson stated that this amendment established a “wall of separation” between church of state. In the mid 20th century the US Supreme court argued that on the basis of Jefferson’s comments the US Constitution required the “separation of church and state”. This was then interpreted to mean that the US Constitution demanded a secular public square, religious ideals and beliefs were not to be allowed in public life.

It won’t be news to anyone who has watched any US television shows to hear that the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mean that religious instruction, prayer, references to God, displays of the 10 Commandments, nativity scenes — even where participation is voluntary — are banned from public institutions.

Separation of Church and StateWhen Rorty referred to his position as “the Jeffersonian compromise” he was alluding to this line of argument. It is an argument we have heard over and over: because our society has a separation of church and state, we are committed to having a secular public square. If one opposes a secular public square and believes, as we do, that religious beliefs should influence public life then one gets accused of denying the separation of church and state.

We think this inference is wrong-headed. It confuses the separation of two institutions, the church and state, with the separation of religion and public life. These are not the same things.

To understand separation of church and state some history is necessary.

Prominent legal scholar, Steven D Smith, observed that the church-state relationship, which would have been familiar to an eighteenth century American, was one where “governments controlled or directly intervened in the internal affairs of churches, and churches claimed and were formally endowed with governmental powers.” He elaborated that,

“Since the middle ages, scholars and polemicists of all stripes had argued-on both religious and political grounds-that the church should exercise control over the state or-again on both religious and political grounds-that the state should control the church. The common view for centuries had been that an established church was essential to political and social stability. …

In medieval Europe, for example, kings had claimed, and had exercised, the power to appoint bishops and popes. After the Reformation, the British monarch became the official head of the Church of England, and British government assumed control over both the selection of ecclesiastical officials and the formulation of religious doctrine.

Medieval popes regularly crowned earthly emperors and kings, and they claimed (and frequently purported to exercise) the authority not merely to excommunicate but actually to depose those kings. Popes sometimes asserted jurisdiction to adjudicate what were essentially political or property disputes. In England, the Church enjoyed-and still enjoys-official representation in Parliament. Immigrants later imported established churches in some form into most of the American colonies.”

Separation of church and state is the idea that the church should not be formally endowed with governmental powers and that the state should not try to intervene in or control the church. Now many people (including we, the writers) accept this. We do not believe that the government should set up an official state church or have any say in the liturgy, theology, choice of ministers and so on in established churches. Nor do we think that churches should be granted state powers, the right to hold seats in parliament, the ability to pass legislation, prosecute or tax people and so on. We wholeheartedly accept the separation of church and state.

However, separation of church and state is not separation of religious beliefs from public life – perhaps this confusion arises because both concepts have the word “separation” in them. Church and state are formal institutions; public life is not an institution nor is a religious belief an institution. To assert, as so many commentators do, that separation of church and state commits us to a secular public square is to offer a non-sequitur.

Some examples will illustrate this point. Suppose New Zealand were to allow the establishment of a completely private university; this university would not be an official state university, it would not be endowed with any political status nor would it does it hold any judicial, legislative or executive powers. The government would not choose its employees or its curriculum and the scholars within it would have total academic freedom. If this were to occur we would say there was an institutional separation between the state and this university.

Now, imagine that the science department at this university did some important research; perhaps it discovered that a certain government policy in practice has harmful effects on the health of citizens. Would the fact that this was a private university mean that the government should ignore this information? After all, there is a total separation of university and state in play.

The answer is obvious: no; the government should pay attention to this study. The fact that there is an institutional separation between the university and the state does not mean that the ideas the university discovers and teaches should be excluded from public life. Separation of institutions is one thing, separation of the ideas an institution expounds from public life is something else. It would be ridiculous, and a tad paranoid, to argue that anyone who takes the research of a private university seriously and exhorts politicians to take it into account must, of logical necessity, support investing the university with political power and making it into a state run and controlled institution.

If this example is too abstract, we can think of plenty of others. Consider the large number of voluntary organisations that exist quite independently and autonomously from the government. Many have a profound influence on public life in terms of their impact on culture, education, media, and so on. Voluntary organisations of this sort often lobby successfully for various polices, provide valuable critique and insight on all manner of social and cultural issues.  These examples show that an organisation’s institutional autonomy is entirely compatible with the organisation’s ideas having an importance influence on public life.

So, separation of church and state does not entail that the public square should be secular and devoid of religious or theological influence unless it also entails that no institution or organisation not under state influence or control must also be kept from public life.

The idea that the US Congress meant something more than mere separation of church and state when it passed the First Amendment – that it meant secularism – was birthed in the mid to late 20th century, some 200 years after the Amendment’s passage, by the US Supreme Court when it began to hear cases about school prayer and complaints over the funding of Catholic schools.

Of course, it may be politically useful for proponents of secularism to conflate the two. Undoubtedly, the false dichotomy between a secular public square and a society where the church exercises judicial and legislative power over its citizens is rhetorically powerful. But like many rhetorically powerful pictures it lacks accuracy. If the secular public square is to stand as a defensible position it needs to be based on fact, not verbal sleight of hand.

Matt writes a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled “Contra Mundum.” This blog post was published in the September 2011 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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  • “So, separation of church and state does not entail that the public square should be secular and devoid of religious or theological influence unless it also entails that no institution or organisation not under state influence or control must also be kept from public life.”

    It also doesn’t entail that religion should be allowed into the public square, which makes the argument rather weak. Most people I know take the separation of church and state to encompass both.

  • Everyone brings a worldview and pushes it into the public square. Even if you don’t verbally speak forth your worldview, then you are at least acting it out.

    If you are practicing being honest, then you are pushing that aspect of your worldview. If you decry corruption, then you are pushing yet another aspect of your worldview. How can it be escaped?

    The only way I can think of not to push your worldview in the public square is to remove yourself from it. Yet even this itself is pushing a worldview — it is saying that perhaps you believe you have nothing to offer, or “I accept the secular/sacred divide”

  • “It also doesn’t entail that religion should be allowed into the public square, which makes the argument rather weak. Most people I know take the separation of church and state to encompass both.”

    Ironically, this is a weak argument. In light of the fact that so many people who are affected by these systems have religious convictions, in a supposedly liberal democracy it makes no sense to just “assume” that religion should be kept out. That’s not the default position.

    The burden of proof is on those who insist that religious views are the only worldviews which should not be allowed into the public square, otherwise it is just special pleading.

  • A

    I agree seperation of church and state does not entail either that we do or that we do not have an obligation to leave religion out of the public square.

    Of course no where did I argue it had this entailment, my point was that people who appeal to “seperation of church and state” as grounds for excluding religious reasons are mistaken.

  • Hugh, thats correct. If people want to say a particular type of premise needs to be excluded and not others then we need a reason as to why these premises are singled out.

    And if the reason offered applies with equal force to the ones they do not exclude then there argument is special pleading.

  • This appears to be a more difficult issue than it actually is. The advocacy of a secular public square is not to rule out the personal religious viewpoint but the wider group religious viewpoint.

    History shows us, even today, that once any faith or religion becomes dominant, particularly when legislatively endorsed, it seeks to reduce the influence of all other faiths and religions.

    I’d be far happier with the Lords Spiritual if they were from a far wider religious background than simply the C of E. Somehow I cannot see the C of E ever agreeing to that.

    Isn’t that the real problem ?

  • “History shows us, even today, that once any faith or religion becomes dominant, particularly when legislatively endorsed, it seeks to reduce the influence of all other faiths and religions.”

    Why single out ‘faith or religion’? Once any belief (humanism, atheism, socialism, etc) becomes dominant, it seeks to reduce the influence of all others. That’s why the government should not endorse or favor any and just let them all participate in the public square equally.

  • Everyone expecting state provision for their religious scruples….

    How does that actually differ from Political Correctness Gone Mad? (Just kidding!)

  • The late Philosopher Richard Rorty once described religion as a “conversation stopper”, something that polarises discussion and ends or prevents fruitful dialogue.

    And what is the fruit of this supposedly fruitful dialogue? Why, just more dialogue.

    “Religion” — Christianity is the target, not some non-existent generic “religion” — is a “conversation stopper” because it isn’t about having a never-ending “converstaion”, it’s about trying to get to the truth of the matter.

  • The US Constitution’s Establishment Clause is not about “separation of church and state”, much less is it about “separation of religion and public culture”.

    The Establishment Clause is about precisely what its words say — that Congress shall make no law whatsoever touching upon any establishment of religion. Thus, Congress shall neither establish a religion at the federal level, nor disestablish any of the established religions then existing in several of the States.

  • The US Constitution does not establish the US Federal regime as secular, in the mode of the French Republic, but rather as non-sectarian; it assumes Christianity, but takes no denominational side.

  • M and M, great article.

    What do you think of Gary North’s thesis that the US Constitution was an intentionally God-less document? (He explains his viewpoint in detail in Conspiracy in Philadelphia, which is currently free online.)

  • Not everyone in the US sees things as M&M do

    An alternative perspective can be found here:

    http://atheists.org/blog/2011/09/03/repudiating-the-myth-o
    f-christian-persecution-in-the-united-states

    Enjoy!

  • The separation of church and state is a wildly leftist idea – primarily French. Indeed France and the US are the only two Western countries with such a separation: along with them, Australia and New Zealand are almost unique in having no established church
    (technically, along with Wales). Certainly most of the former Soviet countries have returned to the fold. What’s good enough for England, Scotland, German, Scandinavia, italy, Spain, Portugal, Eire – frankly most of the rest of the world – should be good enough for NZ, Australia, Wales and yes the US.

    Some of the benefits, though, separation of church and state has of course been lost in those countries. Clergy are subject to civil courts – rather than purely religious courts – and religious courts (Beit Din, Sharia courts) are typically restricted solely to family law and cannot impose traditional punishments.

    Logically, there is no problem whatsoever in a free society if a church is free to impose, say, the traditional remedy for heresy – providing the heretic is granted every opportunity to leave that church if they so wish. But if they do not leave, then the church certainly should have the freedom to burn them.

  • Matt and Madeleine,

    In your post, you sometimes distinguish, but generally conflate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state with a political doctrine of the same name and, in the process, make a hash of the former.

    Separation of church and state is a general principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. They later buttressed this separation with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions.

    Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that is the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    While the First Amendment undoubtedly was intended to preclude the government from establishing a national religion as you note, that was hardly the limit of its intended scope. The first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision (“no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed”) and ultimately chose the more broadly phrased prohibition now found in the Amendment. In keeping with the Amendment’s terms and legislative history and other evidence, the courts have wisely interpreted it to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were the Amendment interpreted merely to preclude government from enacting a statute formally establishing a state church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by government doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion–stopping just short of cutting a ribbon to open its new church.

    It is important to distinguish between the “public square” and “government” and between “individual” and “government” speech about religion. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

    Nor does the constitutional separation of church and state prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you. http://tiny.cc/6nnnx

    While some people may favor a broader political doctrine to secularize the public square as you argue, it is important to distinguish that political dialogue from the constitutional law.

  • “Ironically, this is a weak argument. In light of the fact that so many people who are affected by these systems have religious convictions, in a supposedly liberal democracy it makes no sense to just “assume” that religion should be kept out. That’s not the default position.”

    It wasn’t an argument for that conclusion. It was provided as reason to believe that ordinary people (religious or not) tend to take the phrase “separation of church and state” to mean both the exclusion of church and state from each other’s business, but also the absence of religious reasons from the public square.

    And the reasons for excluding religious reasons from public discourse are pretty clear, as I argued in the other thread. Religion does not command the sort of widespread consensus over what counts as a proper method of dispute resolution.

    Ask any scientist, no matter what their opinion on a particular scientific matter, how differences over such a matter ought to be resolved, and they will give you more or less the same answer.

    Ask religious people how a particular matter is to be decided and the answer will be relative to the creed at best, but probably more sectarian and perhaps radically relative.

    Religion does not command a practical consensus that would enable it to satisfy the basic requirement that all proposed laws are capable of being given informed consent by those who are to be subject to them.

    If you want to throw that away, then fine (I have). But you will no longer be talking about a properly democratic system of government, but mob rule.

  • [...] – Matthew and Madeleine Flannagan discuss the separation of church and state. [...]

  • A, I answered that argument in my original post and in susbsequent comments where people repeated it.

    The problem is almost all substantive ethical and philosophical positions do not enjoy the kind of wide consensus you refer to.. Most secular moral theories for example would be equally rejected as would almost any method for esthablishing ethical principles and so on.

    You can’t therefore justify excluding religion from public life on this basis without special pleading.

    Moreover the natural sciences can’t form a basis for public policy issues because you can validly esthalish normative conclusions from science and the so called consensus amoungst natural sciences breaks down quite quickly if you start to ask questions about their interpretation. Is science true in a realist sense or anti realism true. What is the correct method for science,, inductivist, falsificationist, covering law model? and so on.

  • Matt, I suggest it is not at the level of meta-theory that consensus counts most but in every-day practice, whether in science, ethics, law – or indeed religion.

    For when religions do find common cause (eg. in disaster relief, famine aid, prison or hospital chaplaincies and the like) they are generally well-received in the public domain, and often even government-subsidized.

  • Matt, I suggest it is not at the level of meta-theory that consensus counts most but in every-day practice, whether in science, ethics, law – or indeed religion.

    For when religions do find common cause (eg. in disaster relief, famine aid, prison or hospital chaplaincies and the like) they are generally well-received in the public domain, and often even government-subsidized.

    Peter my point is that theological claims are no more or less controversial than numerous secular moral claims that we do not claim should be barred from public discourse. The claim “God commands us not to commit infanticide” for example is no more controversial than “infants have a right to life” the former suggests infanticide has the property of being prohibited by God, and hence assumes God exists. The latter suggests that infants have the property of having rights and hence assumes rights exist. I don’t know of any basis for saying that the existence of rights is any more controversial than the existence of God. There are moral perspectives such as certain types of Utilitarianism, and virtue ethics and Kantianism which reject the existence of rights.

    In fact I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that the existence of moral obligations themselves are as far as I can tell not much better than the existence of divine commands. Most people believe in God, a small minority do not. The same is true with moral obligations most people believe they exist a small minority of nihilists, and various non cognitivists and so on would reject that they do.

    So I don’t see any basis for arguing that theological claims should be excluded from public discourse on the basis of them being no shared by all that does not also exclude appeals to such things as rights, obligations, the propriety of appealing to positive consequences and so on.

  • Doug

    First, you write

    Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity),

    This shows a misunderstanding of early modern political thought, you assume that establishing government on the power of the people means its not esthablished by God. In fact if you read many of the leading political tracts of the 17th century, Pufendorf, or Buchanan, or Samuel Rutherford, or Mornay, or most importantly john Locke whom the founders followed and so on, you will see they understood this to be a false dichotomy. They believed that governments were established by God and derived there authority from God, via the process of consent of the governed. There is a good article on this by Richard Mouw called “John Locke’s Christian Individualism”, published in Faith and Philosophy 8 (4) 1991

    The declaration of independence reflects this understanding
    which goes back centuries in Christian thought. Some for example argue that Aquinas ( hardly a secularist) believed in a form of government by consent.

    In light of the historical context one can’t take “government based on the power of the people to mean its not based on a deity, because most political theorists who believed it was based on a deity spelt this out in terms of government derived from the people.

    (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion,

    This is a fallacious inference from silence, because they did not mention God in the constitution it follows they did not believe religion should influence public life, that does not follow and there own writings suggest its false.
    Again the declaration of independence is a good example.

    They later buttressed this separation with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions.

    Actually it doesn’t say this, it says congress (the federal government) shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or restricting the free excercise thereof. Congress did not prohibit esthablished churches. It said it would not pass any legislation on the matter. The states on the other hand were not prohibited from esthablishing a religion and several in fact had state churches and continued to do so well after the constitution was signed. Thats a historical fact.

    Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820).

    Yes Madison was opposed to a state church, he was not however opposed to bringing religious reasons into public life or politicians being motivated by because in his debates in favour of religious freedom he actually utilised “theological arguments” for freedom of religion and expected people to heed them and politicans to heed them.

    It is important to distinguish between the “public square” and “government” and between “individual” and “government” speech about religion. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square–far from it.
    I agree that was the point of my article

    Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately.

    This is a different issue, no one denies a person has a legal right to express their views or make religious arguments. The issue is whether citizens have a moral obligation to not advocate for or base public policy considerations on the basis of religious arguments. The first amendment does not speak to this.

    The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated..

    This does not follow, you argue that because the federal government has a commitment to separation of church and state and not establishing a national church ( true) and conclude from this individual government officials can not act on religious reasons. This does not follow. There is a world of difference between a government official acting on a religious basis and that official setting up a national church. See our article above where we illustrate this distinction with the case of a university.

    . The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

    That’s the controversial “lemon test” interpretation of the law and its disputed. It certainly is not the current consensus view of the courts.
    But again this argument does not follow, you have argued ( correctly) that the constitution has separation of church and state, you then conclude from this prohibits the state advancing religion. But again that’s not the same thing, establishing a religion that is setting up a state church is not the same as merely advancing religion.
    An official might advance the cause of a private university, it does not follow from this that they are establishing this as the national state university. An official might advance the cause of a union, it does not follow from this it is establishing this union as the official sole union of the US.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you. http://tiny.cc/6nnnx

    Thats rather patronising, in fact my wife ( a legal scholar) and I have gained our information from legal studies not the blogosphere ( note the reference to the texas law review article) and in fact there is no “consistent” law of separation of church and state applied by the courts. There are in fact several different contradictory tests, the lemon test, no endorsement test, coercion test and so on which have been applied in different cases, the consensus is that the courts jurisprudence on this is something of a mess, your welcome to read this good summary article http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles4/MunozSupremeCourt.php which was first publishing first things by Vincent Munoz who is currently a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. You could also read the article in the Texas Law Review by Steven Smith which Madeleine and I cited from. Neither are caricatures from the blogsphere

    While some people may favor a broader political doctrine to secularize the public square as you argue, it is important to distinguish that political dialogue from the constitutional law.

    I agree that was one point of the article.

  • Matt, I would agree with your reasoning if “God” was kept as a philosophical abstraction, as are rights, truth, reality and such like.

    But “God” in typical religious usage, when brought into the public domain, carries so many contentious ramifications, doctrinal claims, and historical and institutional baggage that any sort of workable consensus about its relevance is much harder to find – except perhaps when grounded, as I suggested, in some basic “good works” of obvious benefit to all.

    (And of course some sources, like the Letter of James for instance, tell us this is what True Religion really consists in anyway.)

  • Peter

    Your response really does not contradict my point, which was that references to God is not any more contentious than many straightforward secular appeals to things such as rights or obligations, or consequences or virtues and so on.
    Your response is to suggest both are contentious when kept as a philosophical abstraction but in typical usage are not.

    Even if thats true it tends to confirm my point that excluding appeals to religious claims because they are contentious and not shared by all is unjustified. If God is no more contentious than these other claims then there is no basis for excluding it when we allow these other claims.

  • Is there a difference between religious ideas being excluded, and religious ideas being evaluated and then just not given the weight you so desire?

    To you this might be irrational (you likely believe that the arguments you are handling are the rational ones). But are we required to be rational? Do we have a moral obligation to act rationally?

  • Matt, there is plenty of implicit and “unbranded” spiritual faith and practice enriching the public domain, and welcomed within it. The problems come when people or organisations try to assert ownership and control, and make contentious metaphysical and historical claims going beyond this pragmatic bedrock.

    It’s that legacy of dogmatism, partisan bickering and political strife that has made Religion (and with it, God) very difficult to deal with in public life in modern societies, and so these matters are left as much as possible in the realm of private opinion and personal behaviour.

    There’s nothing particularly sinister or surprising about this, it seems to me, when you view it historically and in practical terms. Religion has brought it on itself.

  • religion should be able to influence public policy. i am a pastafarian, and i know that it is immoral to eat meatballs, because the flying spaghetti monster says it is.

    on this basis, i want my views to be represented in our society: no member of new zealand society should be allowed to eat meatballs, and they should not be classified or recognised as a food type. because they are not. supermarkets and butchers should not be allowed to sell them, and restaurants should not be allowed to serve them. and i want our public school system to teach that the consumption of meatballs is a sin.

    my ideas are valid despite being religious, and my religion is being discriminated against by this evil immoral force called secularism. i should not be expected to keep my beliefs and values private.

  • Ennenex Is there a difference between religious ideas being excluded, and religious ideas being evaluated and then just not given the weight you so desire?

    Yes, the standard liberal view actually grants that religious views can be rational held and accepted by reasonable people. It is not the claim these views are irrational, its a claim about what the obligations of a citizen are.

    I quoted some comments from Tooley in my article, this comes from a section where he is defending the morality of infanticide, he notes religious arguments and rejects them not because he thinks the premises are false or the argument unsound (though Tooley does think the premises are false) he rejects them because in a pluralistic society we should ignore religious premises. Thats not uncommon to read in discussions of social ethics.

  • Sam g, actually that argument, though amusing does not address my point. I agree that we would not want to make eating meat balls illegal on the basis of Pastafarian arguments. But the key question is why would we not do this. I don’t think its plausible to say the reason we reject this argument is because its a “religious” argument ( as opposed to a secular one) and that citizens have a moral obligation to not advocate on the basis of religious reasons.

    The reason we reject the argument is that we think the premises are false, and the position lacks rational warrant. It has nothing to do with the religious nature of the argument.
    I could construct equally silly counter examples to allowing secular reasons in public life. Suppose I held that some really wise extra terrestrials who had studies humanity for decades from the planet Zoom, had come to me in a UFO, they had told me that meatballs is the cause of the AIDs virus and asked the legislature to ban eating meatballs on the basis of this. Would we accept it, No, we would consider it pretty much on par with the pastafarinan argument you cite. But note, this argument employs wholly secular premises, it does not invoke god or a religious text, all the premises it employs are about natural entities.

    Now does my UFO argument show that secular reasons should be excluded from public life. Obviously not? Consequently your pasta-farian argument does not show religious reasons should be either.

  • Again Peter I fail to see why this justifies privatising religion, one can make the same point about secular positions as well. There is and has been partisain bickering over secular ideas, people make contentious secular metaphysical and historical claims to gain control over people. (witness for example Marxism in eastern Europe or the numerous nationalisms that have done this) people cite ideals like liberty and equality, to justify all sorts of hegemonic take overs or use dubious psudeo science to justify things.

    So again, it seems to me this argument, fails to show that religious beliefs are anymore contentious than many secular moral ideals are, nor are they any more prone to being used to stir up political strife, so why do these concerns justify privatising religion and not also privatising appeals to things like “equality” and “liberty” which have been used to justify all sorts of hegemonic policies and the source of lots of bickering and so on.

  • you are right, the key to the question is why we would not ban the consumption of meatballs, so can you elaborate any more on why we wouldn’t?

    you say:

    “The reason we reject the argument is that we think the premises are false, and the position lacks rational warrant.”

    but my premise is the existence and divinity of the flying spaghetti monster, which is not false or irrational.

    for a non-religious person to accept the argument ‘meatballs cause AIDS’, they would require something to support the claim, for example statistical analysis or another visit from the really wise citizens of Zoom, who would still need to provide some evidence. at the very least a semi-plausibly theory on how it could do so.

    but even if it were shown that meatballs were possibly causing AIDS, this would still not be a comment on the morality of eating meatballs. it would just be a safety issue like wearing sunscreen at the beach to avoid skin cancer; it’s not evil to not wear sunscreen, just ill-advised unless you are deliberately trying to get skin cancer, so meatballs causing AIDS is not analogous to this discussion.

    so i still insist that the consumption of meatballs should be banned in new zealand for no other reason than that it is immoral, and the premise for my argument is the divinity of the flying spaghetti monster, which i hold to be a true premise.

  • Matt you are right about there being contentious non-religious topics too, of course. I think it is just a matter of degree. I suggest there have just been far more powerful and polemical religious structures and ideologies thoughout Western history at least, affecting far more people at non-academic and day-to-day levels, than with most of the contentious non-religious topics you mention.

    And even today, it is possible to think of non-religious topics, like vegetarianism, say, or life-style choices like celibacy or naturism or alternative therapies, which are usually felt to be too controversial for useful public debate, and so are left as matters for private choice. Religion (except in the caring and sharing areas I spoke, of, where it is thoroughly accepted in the public domain) tends to be put into a similar too-contentious basket. We may not agree with this, but I don’t see it being as serious a political/philosophical issue as you do. Perhaps I am being simplistic.

  • Sam G

    I think I get your point,
    I believe you are saying that it would be wrong to force your seemingly arbitrary beliefs of morality on others, simply because you believe it is immoral due to the fact that your deity says it is immoral.

    What you are missing though is the distinction between church law and natural law.
    As a Catholic I am obliged, by church law, to fast on Fridays, go to mass on Sundays, and confess my sins to a priest minimum once a year, (In normal circumstances.)
    To fail to do any of these things, as a Catholic, (In normal circumstances) constitutes a gravely immoral sin.

    Now no Catholic politician would push these beliefs of morality into law, because they already are law – church law, and if they did try to legislate this for the country, they would be forcing their beliefs on others, and violating people’s freedom of religion.

    On the other hand we have natural laws, which should be legislated; such as the criminalisation of rape, prostitution, murder, and abortion. (Which back in the day, I believe, were all illegal.)

    These things do not require us to believe in the revelation from a deity to know they are wrong, the immorality of each can be proved from a purely philosophical point of view. To legalise them would be to allow the violation basic human rights.

  • Sam g when you have serious response rather than just trolling let me know.

  • matt, this is exactly how your arguments appear from the outside, ie, ridiculous and more than a little bit disturbing that someone actually takes them seriously.

    the statement that eating meatballs is morally wrong is directly equivalent to the statement that homosexual relationships are morally wrong. justifying anything on the premise of the divinity of the flying spaghetti monster, without being required to show that he/she even exists, is directly equivalent to justifying something on the premise of the divinity of god without being required to show that he even exists.

    you know full well my response was serious and you’re accusing me of trolling so that you don’t have to address the issues raised, which is just cowardly and pathetic. but i can understand why you did it, because there’s is absolutely nothing you can say to set yourself apart from a flying spaghetti monster and holy meatballs, which just shows what a ludicrous joke your own position actually is.

    so come on, just for arguments sake, i’m a pastafarian and eating meatballs is immoral: try to present a rational argument why should you still be allowed to eat them.

  • hi rosjier, yeah i think you get, and i’m glad to hear you say that it would be unreasonable to expect people outside your faith to follow your church laws. i will never tell you that you shouldn’t fast on fridays or eat meatballs or whatever, and if anyone does try to tell you you shouldn’t, i will probably come to your defence.

    you say:

    “These things do not require us to believe in the revelation from a deity to know they are wrong,”

    which is exactly my point. if something can be shown to be wrong without an appeal to a deity, then it can easily be legislated for in a secular society. where is religion in this picture? if we can all agree on something, then that’s fine. it isn’t really meaningful to say that the church should be involved in state if it will never promote anything that non-christians wouldn’t agree with anyway. it is only meaningful when implying that the church might direct societies behaviour in a way they wouldn’t willingly choose for themselves.

    if i said that the flying spaghetti monster said that anyone could eat meatballs whenever they chose to, it would be meaningless to try and legislate to protect peoples right to eat meatballs, because they already all agree for completely non-religious reasons. religion wouldn’t be a major factor in the outcome at all.

    the problem then is with your understanding natural laws. for example, prositution. how exactly do you know that this violates a natural law and should be legislated against? are you sure your not getting confused with your own personal beliefs and then trying to force them on others?

    “the immorality of each can be proved from a purely philosophical point of view.”

    feel free to try and prove it, but possibly over on this other thread: http://www.mandm.org.nz/2011/08/response-to-william-lane-craig’s-question-225-“the-‘slaughter’-of-the-canaanites-re-visited”-part-ii.html

    i’ve been busily arguing that statements of morailty can never be proved.

  • Sam, I said you were trolling because when I pointed out why your argument did not refute the point you made you responded with.

    “but my premise is the existence and divinity of the flying spaghetti monster, which is not false or irrational.”

    You clearly do not think this, hence your response was trolling.

    The position I was criticising is the liberal view that acknowledges that people can rationally believe in God and divine commands but contends citizens have a moral obligation to refrain from advocating public policy on the basis of such beliefs.

    Your argument is one where a person puts forward an argument which we recognise is not rational and we don’t accept it for that reason hence its not analogous.

    If a person sincerely and rationally believed in a Spaghetti monster I would not consider them to be under a moral obligation to ignore these beliefs in public policy making. I might disagree with them and think there beliefs false, but I would not consider them to be acting immorally in taking what they sincerely believe to be true, into account.

  • “Your argument is one where a person puts forward an argument which we recognise is not rational and we don’t accept it for that reason hence its not analogous.”

    come on matt, that’s just stupid. i don’t think your christian faith is rational, so it is exactly analogous. in fact, that’s the whole point, if you can demonstrate something to be rational, then of course you can lobby the secular state on that basis. it’s ridiculous to argue for legislation on the basis of a religion if you can’t show it to be rational.

    “If a person sincerely and rationally believed in a Spaghetti monster I would not consider them to be under a moral obligation to ignore these beliefs in public policy making.”

    yup, so if i had actually been serious about banning the consumption of meatballs, and meatballs happened to be your favourite food, there is nothing you could say to stop me trying to influence the state to make it illegal for you to eat them. if they were banned, on what grounds could you try to make it legal again? you’d just have to not eat them, or risk being caught.

    likewise if i was trying to enforce burkha or ramadan, offerings to krishna, or meditating on the principles of buddha in public schools, for no other reason than my religion, there is no argument you can bring against me.

    but there is a wee little concept which can protect you from other peoples religions, and the only price you have to pay is to not lobby the state against homosexual marriages on the basis of your own religion. if you could show that it definitely caused harm, then you could present your evidence for scrutiny, but like sunscreen and skin cancer that would have nothing to do with morality or your religion.

    it used to be that legislation could be legitimised by the church, who acted as a mouthpiece for god, or king X claiming to have been appointed by god. when asked to demonstrate the existence of god the church was unable to do so, and until they can that means of legitimisation is no longer available. in the mean time, a publicly binding legislation can only be legitimised by the public choosing to be bound by it. there is no church in this picture.

    back when christianity was dominant in society it didn’t need the protection of secularism, and was able to impose itself on everyone (i still resent not being able to buy alcohol on easter weekend, but anyway). it has now lost it’s privileged position and needs to stop throwing a tantrum like a spoilt arrogant little child, because it’s just downright ugly. the best path forward for christianity is to attempt to save peoples souls before influencing how they live.

  • Hmmm. I guess I have some idea of where you’ll be going on Monday, then?

    If the state takes into account the opinions of religious organizations on public policy it seems to me that it puts the state into the awkward position of having to judge the merit of one religious group or belief against another; perhaps that’s part of the motivation for conflating church/state and religion/public life separation.
    I understand Britain now has some kind of faith consultation process, and I don’t know how it works (perhaps you do). It seems pretty difficult to me for a government to take religious arguments into account, particularly when you can find a religious group to support pretty much whatever position you want supported.

  • Hi again Sam,

    Me saying:
    “the immorality of each can be proved from a purely philosophical point of view.”

    and you saying:
    “if we can all agree on something, then that’s fine”

    are two different things,
    and then if you say:
    “I’ve been busily arguing that statements of morality can never be proved.”

    Well that’s just a whole other ball game.
    If statements of morality can never be proved, then why ask me to begin?

    Do you believe paedophilia is immoral?
    (For this example we’ll take away any blurry lines and say is it immoral for a 30 year old normal sane man to force himself on a six year old girl)
    If so, Do you believe this can be ‘proved’ philosophically?

    If it can’t be proved, should it be decriminalised?
    As I’m sure in some cultures in some periods of history it was not illegal.

    If it can be proved, do you believe people will suddenly all agree, and then everything’s fine?

  • “The problem then is with your understanding natural laws. for example, prostitution. How exactly do you know that this violates a natural law and should be legislated against?”

    I’m curious as to why you picked prostitution, and not abortion. Do you believe that abortion is immoral?

    As you said we probably shouldn’t do it on this thread. However if you respond to the earlier post I would appreciate it.

  • Ben you write

    “If the state takes into account the opinions of religious organizations on public policy it seems to me that it puts the state into the awkward position of having to judge the merit of one religious group or belief against another; perhaps that’s part of the motivation for conflating church/state and religion/public life separation.”

    Again however this seems to involve special pleading, because the same thing is true with secular or non religious perspectives. Utilitarians, Kantians, social democrats, libertarians, aristoleians, marxists, secular humanists, may disagree over the merits of some policy. if the state allows secular reasons to influence public policy then it follows the state will have to judge the merits of the arguments of one group over another, so by parity of reasoning it should not consider the positions of any non religious group either.

    Once again this argument assumes that religious reasons are some how controversial in a way secular reasons are not, I pointed out that this is false.

  • “come on matt, that’s just stupid. i don’t think your christian faith is rational, so it is exactly analogous. in fact, that’s the whole point”

    Yes bui I was not discussing your argument, I was criticising the arguments of people who claim its morally wrong to advocate on the basis of religious reasons even if one rationally holds them to be true. So your argument does nothing to address this issue.

    “if you can demonstrate something to be rational, then of course you can lobby the secular state on that basis. it’s ridiculous to argue for legislation on the basis of a religion if you can’t show it to be rational.”

    Problem is, Sam g, is that in the previous thread you argued one cannot demonstrate the rationality of any moral claims wether religious or secular, so if this argument is sound no secular moral claim should be used in public discussion either, in fact public discussion would be impossible.

    “if you could show that it definitely caused harm, then you could present your evidence for scrutiny, but like sunscreen and skin cancer that would have nothing to do with morality or your religion.”

    No actually showing that something causes harm does not provide any reason for opposing it unless you assume that its wrong to cause harm, or that causing harm is bad

    But you have argued we can’t prove moral claims are rational and so one cannot argue against things on the basis of them being harmful if we accept your position either.

    So if we accept your position, no one should advocate any laws based on secular moral reasons either.

  • Hi Peter you write “Matt you are right about there being contentious non-religious topics too, of course. I think it is just a matter of degree. I suggest there have just been far more powerful and polemical religious structures and ideologies thoughout Western history at least, affecting far more people at non-academic and day-to-day levels, than with most of the contentious non-religious topics you mention.”

    I am not sure I buy this, in the last century we saw numerous wars and human abuses done by extremely powerful secular ideologies, and numerous wars motivated by things like nationalism and so forth more than religion.

    But I think a careful look at history would paint a different picture. How many wars throughout history for example have been fought for mundane secular reasons such as getting land, or wealth, or in the name of justice, to keep the peace, and so on. Is supect wars like this would outnumber the number of specifically religious wars quite substantially. Moreover events like the Killing feilds in Cambodia, the French Revolution, Vietnam and Korean wars, the purges of Stalin and so on would paint a different picture of recent history.

    Moreover many of the “abuses” done by religious people if examined often were justified on mundane secular grounds and for secular reasons, one common reason for persecuting heretics for example was that uniformity of belief was necessary for social stability and cohesion, thats a fairly secular worry. Witches were burnt because it was believed they were causing harm to innocents and one should protect the innocent and so on. If you stripped all the secular reasons from these cases, and removed situations where people killed for nationalist reasons and simply uised religion as an identity marker. I think you’ll find religious reasons have not by played a signifcantly greater role in justifying atrocities than secular reasons have.

  • I would go further Matt, i would suggest that in many so religious wars/conflicts, Religious reasons were used as the “spin” or the propaganda rather than being the actual root of the problem.
    Take the Catholic/Protestant conflicts in England, at a really basic level it was an family dispute for power in the vacuum left by Henry viii. Even during Henry’s reign it was more about his sex life and the necessity to ensure sucession, than about actual religious differences. Power was the issue, religion just happened to be the context.

  • Matt and Jeremy,
    Suppose you are right and religious reasons are in fact no more controversial than secular ones (though I’m not sure how we make such abstract calculations) there remains the problem, still today, of sheer religious diversity, both in beliefs and in ritual laws and practices.

    For instance, I’ve read that food laws cause a major headache in multi-cultural British schools. Now like you, I would wish every child’s or their parents’ religious wishes to be catered for if possible.

    But school meals are one thing – marriages, burials, holidays, dress code, recreations, attitudes to sex and gender, economic values and so on, will create far greater conflict, if they are admitted to the public domain for debate at large (rather than being treated as occasional cultural accommodations and conscientious exceptions to generally-agree-on laws).

    Shouldn’t some clear lines (maybe adjustable over time) be drawn between “religious” and “secular” demands and reasons, for pragmatic purposes at least, if not for philosophical ones?

  • I think the key issue, now I think more about it, is that most religions see their ritual and social laws as Divine Commands just as much as they do their moral ones (if they even make that distinction). So on your argument, I assume, they should have the right to argue for those laws and practices as objective truths to be taken account of in public law and politics.

    To take account of this, our society would need pluralistic epistemologies and institutions which we simply do not at present have (maybe countries like India or Japan could provide models).

    The question for Christians, it seems to me, is which would be the “lesser evil” – liberal secularism or multi-religious pluralism.

    While I personally could be happy with the latter I doubt if many Evangelicals are ready for this. Maybe I am wrong about that.

  • “of sheer religious diversity, both in beliefs and in ritual laws and practices”

    how does this differ from the sheer diversity of secular ideas, who gets to judge between cultural vs religious beliefs etc

    and [if i've understood M and M correctly] its nor particularly relevant to the discussion. Itseems to me that Matts point is that just because a position or argument has its origins in relgious conviction should not automatically exclude it from being used in public square debate.
    When William Wilberforce was campaigning against slavery it was his Christian convictions that motivated him and it was Christian arguments concerning the equality of all men regardless of race that he argued with. Much latter Darwin first published “On the Origin of Species”[or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Sruggle for Life] , the USA was still debating whether Negroes were even fully human, then the eugenics movement showed up with the Nazis in Germany and as a underlying philosophy with Sanger and friends in the USA. Do you think Wilberforce should have stayed out of the public square with his slavery concerns until the secular world caught up some time in the mid 20C?

  • Hi Jeremy
    It’s not diversity of religious ideas here that is the main problem, but diversity in religious practices – what people do or think they should be allowed to do, in obedience to their divine commands.

  • “wrong to advocate on the basis of religious reasons even if one rationally holds them to be true.”

    if you rationally hold them to be true, then feel you should be able to show why they are true to other rational people. you’re more than welcome to advocate on the basis of your rationale, but that hasn’t been working out too well for you, has it? i’ll come back to that.

    “that something causes harm does not provide any reason for opposing it unless you assume that its wrong to cause harm”.

    well done. like i’ve already said: “it’s not evil to not wear sunscreen, just ill-advised unless you are deliberately trying to get skin cancer”

    “you argued one cannot demonstrate the rationality of any moral claims wether religious or secular, so if this argument is sound no secular moral claim should be used in public discussion either”

    and

    “So if we accept your position, no one should advocate any laws based on secular moral reasons either.”

    why does this sound familiar? oh yeah, its the exact argument you used against pluralism over here: http://www.mandm.org.nz/2011/08/a-godless-public-square-do-‘private’-christian-beliefs-have-a-place-in-public-life-part-i-matthew-flannagan-theology.html

    i explained on that thread why this was just not a problem at all. 5 days later you still hadn’t replied, so i politely asked for some feedback; that was over a week ago now and it’s there for everyone to see that you still haven’t answered. are you ready to carry on with that conversation again now? i can copy and paste everything i’ve already said into this new thread if you want.

    i’m getting a bit sick of this so will wrap up and probably leave you alone for a while:

    i feel threatened by the fact that you are claiming you should be able to impose legislation without being required to prove the truth and rationality of your premise when scrutinised. it frightens me that in my society there are still people like you who want your views to be binding on all people even if the majority of people disagree with them.

    do you know what i think is actually going on here? when the christian heritage party, of which you were a member (justice spokesman and te atatu candidate?), only got a dismal 0.12% (for americans reading this, new zealand is a tiny country, that only equates to 2821 people) in the 2005 elections, it became apparent that nowhere near enough people actually did share your views. and then your leader was found guilty of child molestation and you lost all credibility. clearly that option wasn’t going to work so the party disbanded, and now you are trying to short-circuit the whole democratic process by arguing that your views should be recognised by the state even without public support.

    http://www.electionresults.govt.nz/electionresults_2005/e9/html/e9_part1.html

    it amuses me that you can’t even defeat the feeble arguments of pluralism, because pluralisim is just the infantile off-spring of your true enemy, democracy.

  • @Peter D
    Same problem with the diversity of secular ideas, lots of people advocate for all sorts of terrible things based on secular beliefs. As noted Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao all justified terrible things based on their secular ideas.
    Or how about FMG, often asociated with Islam but really a cultural practice around long before Islam. Or as previously mentioned Sanger and friends advocating eugenics.

    The argument for “secular” really comes down to an argument for “a western scientific understanding of knowledge” as the only foundation for public decision making. This in itself is an ideological philosophy that is borderline religious in character [ie one true belief system]. Proponents are therefore as guilty of proselytising as anyone else, just not self-understanding enough to admit it.

  • @Jeremy

    OK, so should we choose “an eastern pluralistic understanding of knowledge” as the foundation for public decision-making?

    Fine by me, if we can make it work.

  • @ Sam
    you were doing so well and then you sink back to insult and ad hominem.Sad.

    “i feel threatened by the fact that you are claiming you should be able to impose legislation without being required to prove the truth and rationality of your premise when scrutinised.”

    i sometimes wonder whether we see the same words on the page, nowhere have i seen M or M make this kind of claim, rather to quote from the above article…

    “Consider the large number of voluntary organisations that exist quite independently and autonomously from the government. Many have a profound influence on public life in terms of their impact on culture, education, media, and so on. Voluntary organisations of this sort often lobby successfully for various polices, provide valuable critique and insight on all manner of social and cultural issues. These examples show that an organisation’s institutional autonomy is entirely compatible with the organisation’s ideas having an importance influence on public life.”

    WRT you comments on the previous thread, your argument seemed to come down the “government rules at the consent of the governed” and “majority [collective] agreement trumps minorities”

    Trouble is that even in a democracy we dont accept these ideas. We in fact have many laws that overrule the wishes/attitudes of the majority… they are the basis of human rights legislation and protection of minorities, its also why citizen initiated referenda are not binding on Govt in NZ. We also have law that over rides consent. the Public Works Act and National Security type legislation spring to mind.

    “because pluralisim is just the infantile off-spring of your true enemy, democracy.”

    Sorry Sam but this comment just doesnt make sense. It seems to me that Matts comments , about some secular ideologs who argue against religion having any place in the public square , effectively accuse so called “secularism” of hypocrisy ie of being selectively restrictive in their pluralism and consequently anti-democratic.

  • “it frightens me that in my society there are still people like you who want your views to be binding on all people even if the majority of people disagree with them”

    Where has this intent been displayed claimed or argued for.
    The only political claim is that he should not be excluded from representing his views in the public square solely because they have a religious component

  • hi rosjier,

    you deserve a longer more in depth reply than i’m going to be able to give you sorry. please see what i’ve already said on the other thread.

    “If statements of morality can never be proved, then why ask me to begin? Do you believe paedophilia is immoral?” i don’t know if paedophilia is immoral or not. on what known facts can i base my decision? if morality can’t be proved, then it would just be my subjective opinion. i asked you to begin because i wanted to know if you could prove it. if you could, then i would be wrong and would want to know more about this provable standard of right and wrong.

    “If it can’t be proved, should it be decriminalised?”

    no it can still be criminalised. criminality is a socially constructed concept which goes hand in hand with a social contract. we the people can choose what should and should not be criminal without checking it is consistent with one of the many conflicting moral theories. we would not want to be raped at any stage let alone when we were 6, we do not want our children to be raped, and we have an evolutionary social instinct to try and prevent the suffering members, as social animals which draw our sense of identity from our group we have a sense of empathy which in some small way makes their pain our own pain (documented by psychologists). moral or not we can agree that we won’t rape 6 year old girls, and can establish disincentives if one of us breaks that contract. the 6 year old girls are just as much members of our society as anyone else and the deal is that if we want the group to protect us, we protect other members of the group.

    see the thread http://www.mandm.org.nz/2011/08/a-godless-public-square-do-‘private’-christian-beliefs-have-a-place-in-public-life-part-i-matthew-flannagan-theology.html . laws aren’t really based on any specific standard of morality anyway (if they are, which one? there are so many conflicting, as matt manages to point out), they are based on our wanting to protect ourselves from certain behaviours. moral theories come along after and try to explain this.

    i also picked prositution ahead of rape and murder. the reason i picked prostitution is because of all the examples you gave, it is by far the most obvious that with prostitution all parties are consensual, and no one is being treated in any way they do not want to be. that is, until an interfering christian comes along and says jack can’t have the sex he wants and jill can’t get the money she wants. if anything it is this treatment of prositution which violates any ‘natural law’.

    you know what would end this discussion? indisputable evidence of the existence and nature of ‘natural law’, whatever it may turn out to be.

  • hi jeremy

    firstly, citizen initiated referenda should be binding on the government, no argument there. government is the collective representation of the people, if the actual individual members of government try to override the people as though they were somehow an entity separate from the people, their authority to do so is illegitimate.

    i just want to check something before i proceed, because i’m not sure what you’re getting at and am worried i might be missing your point:

    “We in fact have many laws that overrule the wishes/attitudes of the majority… they are the basis of human rights legislation and protection of minorities,”

    and

    “We also have law that over rides consent. the Public Works Act and National Security type legislation spring to mind.”

    in the context of this discussion, are you trying to say that if we already have secular laws which override the wishes of the majority then religious laws should be allowed to override the wishes of the majority too?

  • @ Sam
    this is the problem you and Matt seem to be having, you keep inferring things that no one said or claimed.
    The comment concerning laws over riding the will of the majority is in response to ideas you raised which amounted to “consent of the governed” and “collective agreement”, my comment points out that even in our democracy these ideas are only partly true in practice.
    A representative democracy does in fact operate with a govt that is “an entity separate from the people”, and if we try to dispute or ignor its rulings then the authority and the force of the state will soon be brought to bear on us.

    No one is arguing that because “we already have secular laws which override the wishes of the majority then religious laws should be allowed to override the wishes of the majority too?”

    The argument is about whether labelling something as a religious idea or an idea being based in religious conviction should automatically exclude it from entering debate in the public square. Matt makes the point that arguments supporting that idea apply equally well to secular ideas as to religious ones.

  • @ Samm
    “it is by far the most obvious that with prostitution all parties are consensual, and no one is being treated in any way they do not want to be.”

    I find this statement very disturbing.The freelance voluntary prostitute who is happy in her work is mostly a “hollywood” style myth possibly used by men to justify the use of women. I am sure you are familar with words and phrases like, pimp,stable, handler, white slavery, drug use, poverty, and the realities such words refer to when speaking about prostitution.

    Are you aware that some of the more liberal countries in the world like Sweden have made not only the selling of sex illegal but also the buying. Trading in human flesh is considered wrong even if the seller is apparently consenting. Chosing to be exploited and abused hurts the participants and society as a whole.

  • hi jeremy,

    i’m going to back track a bit and try a slightly different angle if that’s alright.

    it is not just religious claims which should be kept out of influencing state policy, it’s also any subjective personal opinions which are impossible to verify. this is why i was so willing to accept matts claim that if we don’t accept religious beliefs as justification for public policy then we also need to reject other non-religious theories of right and wrong. of course we do, and i think the key is in what they have in common.

    so this will probably just be stating the obvious, but i need the frame. when any legislation is proposed, there must be an underlying claim or premise. for example ‘it should be illegal to drive faster than 100km/k because the number and lethality of accidents increases with faster speeds’. now imagine that same statement without giving a reason. ‘it should be illegal to drive faster than 100km/h.’ ‘why?’ you can’t just say ‘because i think it should be’ and leave it at that.

    the problem with this is that any further discussion is absolutely impossible; there are no grounds on which anyone can disagree or be made to understand. the underlying premise cannot be examined to see if it is even true. once an actual reason is given, ‘because there will be more crashes and more fatalities’, then we can look at things like the speeds at which crashes have occurred in the past, the autobahn which has no speed limit, the state of our roads, and weigh up costs and benefits of the legislation.

    you just did it yourself when you said that you disagree with prositution because of the suffering and exploitation of the girls. how could the conversation continue if you hadn’t provided a reason?

    right, so far so good?

    next step: if i advocate for legislating without even providing a ‘because’, i am expecting you to follow a law which has no stated reason. i am saying that this is what we should do and am expecting you to take my word for it without explaining why, and aren’t even giving you any grounds on which to object or disagree.

    i know i haven’t actually tied this to religion yet, i just want to stop and see what you think so far. you can probably already see where i’m going. matt if you’re out there in the cyber-ether, i’m sorry for being insulting before, and would love some feedback.

  • @ Sam
    i agree with you, but i also expect that Matt does too. This is not what he was arguing against.

    However on a side note, as best i can tell all the moral commands God gives us meet this criteria. Even many of the OT commands [purity and ceremonial] to Israel show an understanding of health issues or personal need issues that were way beyond the knowledge and understanding of the time.

    Interestingly i have just read a book called “The Paradox of Choice: why more is less” by Prof Dr Barry Schwartz. He pulls together lots of research and contemporary social science. At the end he comes up with some advice based on all the science he has pulled together. Dont covet, dont try keeping up with the Jones, practice satisfaction, count your blessings, all stuff God was trying to teach the Israelites a long time ago.

    Drifted from the point a bit there, however just because an idea is religious in origin like “Do not covet” doesnt make it invalid.

  • you haven’t got side tracked, you’ve illustrated my point perfectly. will wait and see if matt wants to reply first though.

  • Sam
    if you rationally hold them to be true, then feel you should be able to show why they are true to other rational people. you’re more than welcome to advocate on the basis of your rationale, but that hasn’t been working out too well for you, has it? i’ll come back to that.”
    This argument assumes that
    if a person rationally believes some position to be true then they can demonstrate its truth to others./i>
    This assumption however is false.
    First, it entails a vicious regress, when one demonstrates the proof of a proposition one does this by arguing for its truth on the basis of other things one takes to be true which are called premises, but if what you say is correct, one cannot rationally accept the premises until one has a demonstration of
    their truths but that means you need further premises to demonstrate the first set of premises. But one can’t rationally accept these further premises without further ones and so on. This would require an infinite regress of proofs where demonstration was foreover put off.
    Second, the assumption is self defeating, if its true then no one can rationally accept it unless you offer a demonstration of its proof. You haven’t and so it can’t be rationally accepted.
    I have made these points before.
    but that hasn’t been working out too well for you, has it? i’ll come back to that.”
    Actually as I pointed out almost no philosophical position on of any substance can be demonstrated in the way you demand. Including every substantive secular theory and including almost every premise you propose in your arguments so this is really not a criticism of substance.
    well done. like i’ve already said: “it’s not evil to not wear sunscreen, just ill-advised unless you are deliberately trying to get skin cancer”
    Well first, what’s the basis for saying its ill advised, to say something is ill advised as opposed to being well advised is to appeal to some evaluative judgement. Its to suggest one action is better than another, but its precisely evaluative judgements like this that can’t be proven in your view.
    Second, if something is just ill advised and not wrong, then you can’t justify conclusions about whether the state ought to permit or prohibit it. To get answers to questions of the sort public policy asks, one needs moral premises, which is exactly what you suggest can’t be demonstrated.
    i explained on that thread why this was just not a problem at all.
    The problem is you did not rebut the view, nothing in your comments actually addressed the premises of my argument. You did insinuate I believed other things I did not, and you made some false claims about contemporary ethical theories. But there was no argument.
    5 days later you still hadn’t replied, so i politely asked for some feedback; that was over a week ago now and it’s there for everyone to see that you still haven’t answered. are you ready to carry on with that conversation again now? i can copy and paste everything i’ve already said into this new thread if you want.
    I am not obliged to answer every comment put to me, especially when I perceive the person is not interested in responding to what I actually said.
    My position is that almost every position on a significant public policy matter cannot be justified from premises all reasonable people accept.
    i feel threatened by the fact that you are claiming you should be able to impose legislation without being required to prove the truth and rationality of your premise when scrutinised.
    Like I said above, the idea that you have to prove every claim is indefensible. The fact your are threatend by the denial of an indefensible claim does not make it defensible.
    “it frightens me that in my society there are still people like you who want your views to be binding on all people even if the majority of people disagree with them.
    This is again based on a false assumption. You assume its unjust to claim that the views of a minority are biding on the majority. This is clearly false. Take a society which accepts wife bashing, but a small minority think thats unjust. By your reasoning its wrong or scary for the minority to advocate that wife bashing be outlawed. I think thats obviously absurd. Majorities often are wrong and should be challenged, despite there popularity.
    Again the fact that the denial of a false claim “frightens you” does not make it true. Rational people believe things that are true and follow rational considerations they don’t dismiss true claims as false because they find them “frightening”

    do you know what i think is actually going on here? when the christian heritage party, of which you were a member (justice spokesman and te atatu candidate?), only got a dismal 0.12% (for americans reading this, new zealand is a tiny country, that only equates to 2821 people) in the 2005 elections, it became apparent that nowhere near enough people actually did share your views. and then your leader was found guilty of child molestation and you lost all credibility. clearly that option wasn’t going to work so the party disbanded, and now you are trying to short-circuit the whole democratic process by arguing that your views should be recognised by the state even without public support.
    Here you default to the fallicous tactic of diagnosising peoples “real motives” and casting them in a negative light. Unfortunately you don’t refute a persons argument by allegeging there motives for it are in some way mistaken. To refute and argument you need to actually address the argument.
    Basically all we have here is a indefensible and self refuting claim, followed by a false assumption, expressions that you feel frightened or threatend by certain views, followed sby fallicous attacks on others motives. Thats not really a serious or rational response which is why I don’t feel obligated to take it seriously and offer a response. There is an awful lot of comments I receive on MandM and I tend to limit my comments to those I think are made in good faith by serious people interested in a rational discussion.

  • matt

    But one can’t rationally accept these further premises without further ones and so on. This would require an infinite regress of proofs where demonstration was foreover put off.

    it’s not infinite, it stops at the existence of your own mind, but you’ve lost sight of the goal anyway. in the context of this conversation it can stop at sensory data because we are attempting to establish how to govern our own group behaviour, and sensory data is something that the members of our group overwhelmingly all seem to have in common, if any other members actually exist.

    the assumption is self defeating, if its true then no one can rationally accept it unless you offer a demonstration of its proof.

    ok, so what should be the default position of our public square be?

    nothing in your comments actually addressed the premises of my argument your argument was: If we are to exclude appeals to theological beliefs because not all reasonable people accept such beliefs then we should be consistent and exclude from public discussion appeals to all secular moral, political, philosophical, beliefs about which reasonable people do not agree. and i said yup, that’s exactly right, we should exclude them all, and in fact we already do.

    to say something is ill advised as opposed to being well advised is to appeal to some evaluative judgement

    yup, your own. do you want to increase your own chances of getting skin cancer? up to your evaluative judgement. actually, it’s not quite that clean cut, your decision could also affect your loved ones and dependents, so there are others evaluative judgements to consider as well.

    Take a society which accepts wife bashing, but a small minority think thats unjust. By your reasoning its wrong or scary for the minority to advocate that wife bashing be outlawed.

    this only makes sense if you don’t see the wives as members of the society, or are suggesting that they want to be bashed. otherwise there are going to be plenty of society opposed to it (the wives, in case you’ve missed that). want to find a different analogy?

    i’m going to back track a bit and try a slightly different angle if that’s alright.

    it is not just religious claims which should be kept out of influencing state policy, like i’ve already said it’s also any subjective personal opinions which are impossible to verify. this is why i was so willing to accept your claim that if we don’t accept religious beliefs as justification for public policy then we also need to reject other non-religious theories of right and wrong. of course we do, and i think the key is in what they have in common.

    so this will probably just be stating the obvious, but i need the frame. when any legislation is proposed, there must be an underlying claim or premise. for example ‘it should be illegal to drive faster than 100km/k because the number and lethality of accidents increases with faster speeds’. now imagine that same statement without giving a reason. ‘it should be illegal to drive faster than 100km/h.’ ‘why?’ you can’t just say ‘because i think it should be’ and leave it at that.

    the problem with this is that any further discussion is absolutely impossible; there are no grounds on which anyone can disagree or be made to understand. the underlying premise cannot be examined to see if it is even true. once an actual reason is given, ‘because there will be more crashes and more fatalities’, then we can look at things like the speeds at which crashes have occurred in the past, the autobahn which has no speed limit, the state of our roads, and weigh up costs and benefits of the legislation.

    jeremy just did it himself when he said that he disagreed with prositution because of the suffering and exploitation of the girls. how could the conversation continue if he hadn’t provided a reason?

    right, so far so good? i haven’t really said anything outrageous.

    next step: if i advocate for legislating without even providing a ‘because’, i am expecting you to follow a law which has no stated reason. i am saying that this is what we should do and am expecting you to take my word for it without explaining why, and aren’t even giving you any grounds on which to object or disagree.

    i know i haven’t actually tied this to religion yet, i just want to stop and see what you think so far. you can probably already see where i’m going.

  • “your decision could also affect your loved ones and dependents, so there are others evaluative judgements to consider as well. ”

    may have shot yourself in the foot there Sam

    what is a moral judgement or a statement of right and wrong if not an evaluation of your behaviour and how it affects others.

    The point of having external standards is your evaluation is not dependant on how you feel, not distorted by selfishness or lack of empathy, or perhaps by lust or expedience. If you are honest with yourself i am sure you will be able to remember personal conflict between what you wanted to do and what you ought to do.

  • what is a moral judgement or a statement of right and wrong if not an evaluation of your behaviour and how it affects others

    jeremy, your’e kidding, right? this whole time i’ve been saying that the only way we can possibly judge any action is by it’s impact on others (inconsensual suffering of minds and all that, remember?), but that this can’t be judged on an external objective standard of morality unless we establish that one exists, and exactly what it says.

    anyway, we’ve already had this discussion in the other thread, i want to try and stay focussed here, so yup i retract that comment about loved ones and dependents; there is absolutely no reason to wear sunscreen other than your own personal evaluative judgement of if you want skin cancer or not.

  • Sam
    the problem is you have also , the whole way through this discussion, assumed that God and His commands are not concerned with the impact of our actions on others.

    And you still havent addressed the discrepancy between what you think rational and empathetic people should arrive at as behavioural standards and the reality of human history.

  • jeremy, you’re letting yourself down; what about the discrepancy between assuming that god and his commands are concerned with the impact of our actions on others and the reality of human history? keeping in mind he’s omnipotent, i think it’s safest for me to assume he isn’t concerned. the discrepancy on my side is pretty easily explained, but won’t do that here.

    going back a post or two, you’ve agreed with those two basic steps i made, and said that matt probably would too. i can’t really see how anyone can argue, and once you’ve accepted them then you need to leave religious views out of public discussion:

    you pointed out that many of the commands of the bible are actually beneficial to secular and non-religious people. they have a ‘because’, and you are more than welcome to advocate on the basis of that ‘because’. no one is saying you shouldn’t. if some of the old testament laws concerning food were to do with health in a world without refrigerators, then we can scrutinise and verify this ‘because’, then decide how applicable it is to us now. it is very unlikely it would be a law, but may warrant a public awareness campaign on food safety or whatever. but it would never be a moral issue, it would be like sunscreen.

    this is like the ‘because’ you provided for prostitution; you’re problem with it was actually with the potential for exploitation and suffering that went along with it, and that it hurts society as a whole. in a hypothetically scenario where there was no exploitation, and society doesn’t get “hurt” then you wouldn’t have an argument. for example if some old girl wanted to pay me for a quick romp, i’d give it some serious thought and feel pretty annoyed if someone tried to tell me i couldn’t without being able to provide a relevant ‘because’. that would “hurt” society far more.

    no legislation should be rejected on the grounds that it is also consistent with a religious principle; we’re not going to screen all our laws against all the religious theories that might be out there. so you say just because an idea is religious in origin… doesnt make it invalid. and i agree.

    however, if you are arguing for public policy on the basis of a ‘because’ which can be verified, the fact that that policy would also be consistent with a religion isn’t really meaningful. the policy would still be passed on the evidence which can be produced to support it. or not, it all depends, that’s the point.

    if your ‘because’ is related to the divinity of your deity, then like any other ‘because’, you need to be able to present evidence to verify this before the conversation can continue. if you can’t, and argue simply on the basis of ‘these are my religious views’, you are not providing a ‘because’ and everything i said earlier about personal opinions applies.

  • listened to this yesterday and thought of you re:prositution. it’s a bbc audio documentary which shows sex workers in a totally different light, about 25 mins long, and should just play in your internet browser.

    http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/worldservice/docarchive/docarchive_20110820-1405a.mp3

  • @ Sam
    I think you need to go back and read some of Matt and Madelines actual articles.As best i can tell they have never advocated for religious ideas “just because”. The point was that leading philosophers and proponents of secularism argue that people should not bring their religious convictions into public life. Their reasons for arguing this amount pretty much to “just because” and if honestly and equitably applied are equally valid against their own secular viewpoint..
    I dont think Matt necessarily disagrees with you, what he is doing is making the “sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander” point.

  • of course. any non-religious viewpoints that are justified ‘just because’ have no place in public life either and should be kept private, for the reasons outlined, namely it’s impossible to take the conversation further. thats the point of secularism, although you kept trying to use it as though it means ‘anti-religious’. so yup, i agree wholeheartedly with matts ‘sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander’; any views which offer no ground to be verified should be kept private. verify your religious views by demonstrating the existence of god, or keep them private.

    also, when you say ‘public life’, do you mean it as different to ‘public square’ or ‘public policy’? i’ve got no problem with you telling people you’re religious, or gay, or racist, or support the wallabies or like vanilla better than chocolate, or all of the above. absolutely you should be allowed to discuss these views in public with others who disagree, and if this is what you mean by public ‘life’, then i’ll help defend you. it is only when you then try to influence pubic policy and legislation which will be binding on people who do not share the same views that i feel you’ve crossed the line.

  • Sorry Sam, meant to use the term public square.

    I posed this question earlier, no one bother to answer, so maybe you could consider it.

    When William Wilberforce was campaigning against slavery it was his Christian convictions that motivated him and it was Christian arguments concerning the equality of all men regardless of race that he argued with. Much latter Darwin first published “On the Origin of Species”[or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Sruggle for Life] , the USA was still debating whether Negroes were even fully human, then the eugenics movement showed up with the Nazis in Germany and as a underlying philosophy with Sanger and friends in the USA. Do you think Wilberforce should have stayed out of the public square with his slavery concerns until the secular world caught up some time in the mid 20C?

  • Sam
    You write ”it’s not infinite, it stops at the existence of your own mind,” This would mean that you cannot believe in the existence of other people or an external world unless you can demonstrate only from premises which affirm the existence of your own mind and nothing else. Thats pretty evidently not a sensible view.

    . in the context of this conversation it can stop at sensory data because we are attempting to establish how to govern our own group behaviour, and sensory data is something that the members of our group overwhelmingly all seem to have in common, if any other members actually exist.

    Actually this position has the same problem because its self defeating, your suggesting that: a belief is rational only if it is (a)sensory data or (b) inferred from sensory data alone.
    The problem is that this claim itself is not “sensory data” nor have you offered any argument for it which relies on sensory data alone. So if its true it would be irrational for you and I to accept it.

    Like I said contradictory claims do not really count for much.

    the assumption is self defeating, if its true then no one can rationally accept it unless you offer a demonstration of its proof.
    ok, so what should be the default position of our public square be?”

    This does not avoid the objection, I pointed out your position is self contradictory, you don’t avoid this problem by asking questions about other positions.

    and i said yup, that’s exactly right, we should exclude them all, and in fact we already do.

    Actually we don’t, political discourse is full of claims about rights, obligations, philosophical positions such as liberalism, conservativism, socialism and so on.

    But you have not addressed the point, if we exclude all positions which are not accepted by all reasonable people we will gut public discourse of any substantive content. Pretty much every public policy position would be unjustified


    “yup, your own. do you want to increase your own chances of getting skin cancer? up to your evaluative judgement. actually, it’s not quite that clean cut, your decision could also affect your loved ones and dependents, so there are others evaluative judgements to consider as well.”

    Exactly, you have to appeal to an evaluative judgement and yet by your own reasoning one cannot justify or rationally accept any evaluative judgements.

    If religious claims should be excluded from public life because they are on your view irrational, then evaluative judgements should be excluded because they are irrational as well. You can’t have it both ways. The fact its your judgement doesn’t change the fact its an evaluative judgement.

    “Take a society which accepts wife bashing, but a small minority think thats unjust. By your reasoning its wrong or scary for the minority to advocate that wife bashing be outlawed…
    this only makes sense if you don’t see the wives as members of the society, or are suggesting that they want to be bashed. otherwise there are going to be plenty of society opposed to it (the wives, in case you’ve missed that). want to find a different analogy?”

    Actually, this highlights further problems with your position. The claim that a women is an equal member of society is itself a moral judgement. So if moral judgements are determined by what the majority of society thinks you have a real problem. You need to have identified who is a member of society before you make judgements, but you can’t determine who is a member of society until you make judgements.

    But second, in fact there are societies in which women are socialised to believing wife bashing is appropriate and that they are inferior, so in fact in such societies majority of women may not be against it. If you have ever dealt with domestic violence you’ll know its common for the women to justify the abusive spouses behaviour, rationalise it and in fact stay with the man.

    The fact is the idea that a position is unjust because the majority disagree with it is pretty obviously mistaken. Majorities can and do support unjust policies. If the majority of Theists demanded you convert or die I think you would change your tune very quickly.

    “it is not just religious claims which should be kept out of influencing state policy, like i’ve already said it’s also any subjective personal opinions which are impossible to verify. this is why i was so willing to accept your claim that if we don’t accept religious beliefs as justification for public policy then we also need to reject other non-religious theories of right and wrong. of course we do, and i think the key is in what they have in common.”
    And I pointed out that all moral claims can’t be empirically verified, so if this is correct we should not make any moral judgements.

    In fact take your claim that : we should keep from influencing state policy all claims that are impossible to verify.

    This claim is impossible to verfify, you have not verified it. Hence it should not influence our considerations about state policy.
    Again contradictory statements don’t amount to much.

    “so this will probably just be stating the obvious, but i need the frame. when any legislation is proposed, there must be an underlying claim or premise. for example ‘it should be illegal to drive faster than 100km/k because the number and lethality of accidents increases with faster speeds’. now imagine that same statement without giving a reason. ‘it should be illegal to drive faster than 100km/h.’ ‘why?’ you can’t just say ‘because i think it should be’ and leave it at that.
    the problem with this is that any further discussion is absolutely impossible; there are no grounds on which anyone can disagree or be made to understand. the underlying premise cannot be examined to see if it is even true. once an actual reason is given, ‘because there will be more crashes and more fatalities’, then we can look at things like the speeds at which crashes have occurred in the past, the autobahn which has no speed limit, the state of our roads, and weigh up costs and benefits of the legislation.”

    This again is mistaken, like I said earlier, the claim ‘it should be illegal to drive faster than 100km/h.’ “ is not justified by the underlying factual premise that “there will be more crashes and more fatalities” to get the conclusion you need to conjoin that premise with a further moral premise “we should propose legislation which causes less crashes”. And this premise will not be empirically verifable. One cannot infer claims about what the law should be from empirical facts about speeds alone

    So in fact all moral arguments and reasoning relies on unverifiable underlying premises.

    Hence if we accept your position society cannot have any laws about speeding. To do so we need to utilise unverifiable premises and that on your view is not allowed.

    right, so far so good? i haven’t really said anything outrageous.

    Actually you have commited the is ought fallacy.

    “next step: if i advocate for legislating without even providing a ‘because’, i am expecting you to follow a law which has no stated reason. i am saying that this is what we should do and am expecting you to take my word for it without explaining why, and aren’t even giving you any grounds on which to object or disagree”.

    I already addressed this, while I agree that we often need to give reasons for a claim about what the law should be, these reasons will always involve other moral claims about what should be the case, and our reasons for these claims will involve still further ones. Unless people can make some moral claims which they do not further demonstrate or verify one cannot offer any reasons for public policy decisions.

    Basically you have not “responded” to my points, you have simply reasserted positions with the same problems.

  • you’re in too close, step back a bit. we appear to be minds that live in close proximity and need to establish guidelines as to how to interact with each other, so collectively create the state. the one thing we all have in common is sensory data. this doesn’t change if we are all plugged into the matrix and our sensory data is a lie, because the robots appear to be feeding us the same sensory data. and given that it is the only data we have on which to base any decisions, and it appears to be consistent, it is perfectly rational to base our decisions on our sensory data even if we can’t know that data to be ‘true’.

    so when you say that i say that a belief is rational only if it is (a)sensory data or (b) inferred from sensory data alone. you’re putting words in my mouth. i’ve said again and again and again that i don’t care what your beliefs are, only that if you want to convince someone else of them you have no means to illustrate the truth of them other than sensory data because it is the one thing that we have in common, so can not use anything else with which to argue in the public square.

    Exactly, you have to appeal to an evaluative judgement and yet by your own reasoning one cannot justify or rationally accept any evaluative judgements.

    are you for real? this evaluative judgement is an opinion formed in my own mind, the one thing i know exists, so i don’t want to get skin cancer then it is true that that is my evaluative judgement because i say so. so when we discuss whether we want a speed limit on our collectively shared roads, it is not a moral premise that “we should propose legislation which causes less crashes”.. it is a collection of personally held evaluative judgements. do i use the roads? do i want to be safe when i use them? yes, and i know this to be true because it is in my mind, i seek a sense of security. i have emotional attachments to others who use the roads, do i want them to be safe? yes again. you want to feel safe too? ok, well here are these statistics derived from things tangible to our senses which say that the faster we drive the less safe our roads will be, and we all agree we want to be safe when we use our shared roads so lets limit our speed in order to satisfy our mutually held desire for safety. where is the moral theory there? if we think the legislation will give us the goal we all want then lets do it, and it is verified by something which we all know exists, which is our own mind.

    Unless people can make some moral claims which they do not further demonstrate or verify one cannot offer any reasons for public policy decisions.

    so you keep saying, over and over and over again but i’ve just shown why we should have speed limits through an appeal to nothing but our collective desire for safety, which isn’t a moral argument at all. you keep making this assumption as though it’s supposed to be unquestionable, and just keep repeating it when i question it.

    political discourse is full of claims about rights, obligations, philosophical positions such as liberalism, conservativism, socialism and so on.
    but regardless of any theory, none can legitimised ‘because of theory X’, so the only way there can be a discussion is if you can show the public why they should want a particular piece of legislation. like ‘because it will make you safer, and here’s how i know that’.
    in fact there are societies in which women are socialised to believing wife bashing is appropriate and that they are inferior, so in fact in such societies majority of women may not be against it. If you have ever dealt with domestic violence you’ll know its common for the women to justify the abusive spouses behaviour, rationalise it and in fact stay with the man.

    and i’m not going to tell them that they shouldn’t be if they want to be. perhaps they see it as a trade-off they have to make for their children or to be feed and sheltered, and i’m not going to rip them away from their husbands if they don’t want to leave. i’m not even going to say that they ‘should’ leave, only point out that it isn’t actually a trade-off they have to make and provide them with the help they need if they choose to leave of their own free will.

    In fact take your claim that : we should keep from influencing state policy all claims that are impossible to verify. This claim is impossible to verfify, you have not verified it. Hence it should not influence our considerations about state policy.

    what i have verified is that you have no grounds to argue against someone trying to impose any religious claim, be it meatballs or burkha. you can’t argue against them on the grounds of evidence they produce because they don’t produce any, and you can’t require them to if you reserve the right to not produce any yourself. this is verified because you agreed with it and said “If a person sincerely and rationally believed in a Spaghetti monster I would not consider them to be under a moral obligation to ignore these beliefs in public policy making. sept 7. so we have a known point based on the real world, like speeding causes crashes, but still no ‘should’.

    this means that the requirement for verification in the public square will protect you from the unverified views of others, just like a speed limit will protect you from the dangerous driving of others. this may or may not be worthwhile protection, lets see: the price you will need to pay is to not speed/argue for legislation without verification yourself. is that to high a price to pay? lets look at that:

    in your own specific belief system it doesn’t actually achieve anything for your views to be recognised in legislation anyway because salvation does not come through behaviour alone. you can ban people from being in gay relationships, but they’re still going to burn in hell when they die unless you can convince them to ask for salvation. good luck with that while they are hating you for interfering in their sex lives.

    so i have verified that even for you the benefits outweight the costs of living in a society where views which cannot be verified should not be used in public policy.

    The fact is the idea that a position is unjust because the majority disagree with it is pretty obviously mistaken. Majorities can and do support unjust policies. i think it was churchill who said something along the lines of ‘democracy is the worst form of governance there is, except for all the rest.’ so yes majorities can and do negatively affect the minorities, but what is the alternative? actually the requirement for verification and empirical evidence will go someway to protect the minorities. there is no way to demonstrate against an objective standard that an ethnic group is inferior, or vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate, or that you ‘shouldn’t’ be christian or athiest or gay, so those views should not be allowed to influence public policy. the only thing anyone can comment on with any certainty is what they want in their own minds, and have no means other than sensory data with which to communicate to other members of society why they should want the same thing.

    anyway, you’ll be glad to know i’m not going to comment on this anymore after this.

  • jeremy, will get back to you on your question, don’t have time atm sorry.

  • “it is a collection of personally held evaluative judgements. do i use the roads? do i want to be safe when i use them? yes, and i know this to be true because it is in my mind, i seek a sense of security. i have emotional attachments to others who use the roads, do i want them to be safe? yes again. you want to feel safe too? ok, well here are these statistics derived from things tangible to our senses which say that the faster we drive the less safe our roads will be, and we all agree we want to be safe when we use our shared roads so lets limit our speed in order to satisfy our mutually held desire for safety. where is the moral theory there?”

    Great! Something to work from! – you may have thought I hadn’t kept reading since I last post – just been waiting and enjoying what’s been said.

    “do i use the roads? do I want to be safe when i use them? Yes”

    Why not go further? – Why do I want to be safe on them? Because I value my life. Because I value the lives of my loved ones and I want them to be safe while on the roads. Do you value your life and the lives of your loved ones? Yes, could it be that the lives of people is objectively valuable? Infinitely valuable? Yes again.
    If one becomes a prostitute does that mean they are selling themselves short? Is that just?, is consent all that is needed?

    If we have consent from one person who wants to speed and ignore the safety of others is it ok? – is it ok if they only endanger themselves?
    If we have consent from one person who wants to prostitute themselves and ignore the inherent dignity of their personhood is it ok?

    It seems that you value personal freedom of choice above true human freedom.

    People in a society are even freer if they choose to obey speeding laws, as they are free to use roads safely.

    People in a society are even freer if they choose to make/keep prostitution illegal, as people will be treated with dignity.

  • hi jeremy, i’m sure you’ll correct me if i’m wrong, but would it be fair to say that when wilburforce was campaigning against slavery on the basis of his christianity, the people he was arguing with were also christian? if so would it be fair to say that even if they weren’t arguing for slavery on the basis of their own christianity, they were at least disputing wilberforces interpretation of scriptures with their own interpretations? if so in light of this it was essentially an internal religious discussion on how to interpret the commands of god. they were all perfectly willing to accept the underlying premise of god as a framework for the discussion.

    if there had been anyone in the conversation who believed in a different deity which endorsed slavery, then there would be the same problems as i’ve already outlined, namely the conversation couldn’t continue until someone could demonstrate which deity was ‘true’. in this case yes, wilberforce would have been as wrong to campaign in the public square against slavery on the basis of his religious beliefs as christians are today to campaign against homosexuality on the basis of your religious beliefs. he would need to find some common ground to argue on or he would be imposing his views on others without being able to show them why they should share his views.

  • hi rosjier

    you make a couple of jumps i can’t follow:

    Yes, could it be that the lives of people is objectively valuable? Infinitely valuable?

    its quite a jump to go from subjectively valuable to objectively valuable, i’m not quite sure how you think you’ve done it. all animals value their own lives and all social animals value the lives of their groups, but this is all subjective. can you elaborate further?

    If one becomes a prostitute does that mean they are selling themselves short? Is that just?,

    i’m assuming you’re building on the value of life: if our lives are infinitely valuable then being paid for sex rip off or something, but having sex isn’t a matter of life and death, so that’s a second jump i don’t follow. and we all sell discrete chunks of our lives to employers and clients, normally for a lot less than a prostitute.

    is consent all that is needed? umm, yes. look at the flipside, if someone want to do something which otherwise won’t affect anyone, and you tell them they can’t for reasons they don’t agree with, is that just?

    If we have consent from one person who wants to speed and ignore the safety of others is it ok? – is it ok if they only endanger themselves?

    it’s fine if they only endanger themselves, this is why we have private race tracks people can use, and who am i to say they can’t? if they speed through town and ignore the safety of others, the answer to ‘who am i to say they can’t?’ becomes ‘i’m one of the guys whose safety they’re endangering’. in the case of prostitution, who are you to say they can’t if no one is bothering you? and you can deprive them of personal freedom to protect their ‘human’ freedom? you’re going to have to explain more sorry.

    i think your main point is here:

    People in a society are even freer if they choose to obey speeding laws, as they are free to use roads safely. People in a society are even freer if they choose to make/keep prostitution illegal, as people will be treated with dignity.
    which again i don’t quite follow. how does a) prostitution cause society in general to be not treated with dignity, b) this impinge on freedom, human or of personal choice, and c) even IF a prostitute has less dignity than anyone else in their workplace, why does this make it wrong if they are perfectly willing to accept remuneration for this loss of dignity?

    i know i’ve just been repeating myself, but i haven’t quite figured out your argument sorry. it just seems to me that being able to dictate someones behaviour even though they’re not harming anyone is a bit tyranical.

  • Sam g, sorry but I see only bluster their. Perhaps you can spell out for me the inference.

    How do you get the conclusion.

    [c1] The government ought to make the speed limit 100klm

    From the premise

    [p1]I don’t like being hurt

    Using only premises about perceptual states.

    In your comments you state

    do i use the roads? do i want to be safe when i use them? yes, and i know this to be true because it is in my mind, i seek a sense of security. i have emotional attachments to others who use the roads, do i want them to be safe? yes again. you want to feel safe too? ok, well here are these statistics derived from things tangible to our senses which say that the faster we drive the less safe our roads will be, and we all agree we want to be safe when we use our shared roads so lets limit our speed in order to satisfy our mutually held desire for safety.

    From what I gather from this the premises are,

    [P2] statistics show that the faster we drive the more likely we will get hurt.

    There are several problems here.

    First, [p2] is not derived solely from sensory data. For starters, neither you nor I gathered the statistics in question, someone else did, and published it in a study. Our knowledge of those studies is based on the fact they said they did and we read it. We have to assume that they are reliable. I doubt very much that every individual who reads this study has gone out and empirically verified every claim in the study themselves. So [p2] is not based solely on sensory data, it’s actually based on someone else’s unverified say so.

    Second, even the original person who did the study cannot have relied on sensory data alone. He could not be on every stretch of road at the same time. Instead he will have relied on his memory about what was done the day before, he will also extrapolate from sample sets to make generalizations, this will involve assuming that inductive reasoning is a reliable method, that assumption cannot be empirically verified. The researcher will also typically rely on reports others make about crashes on roads and so on. This will be based not on his own sensory data but on the say so of others.

    Third, if we start only from our own mind and sensory data alone, we cannot assume anyone else exists to begin with and so have no basis for thinking any other person actually existed who did this study. We would first need to demonstrate that other people exist premises that assume only our own existence and sensory states. Such a demonstration has never been successfully done in the literature.

    Fourth, even if P2 could be verified, the conclusion one gets from all this is not that one ought to have speed limit laws, but simply that you want there to be such laws. Unfortunately simply pointing out that you and others want something does not provide those who don’t want it with any reason to do it unless you assume that people ought to do what people want, and that is an empirically unverifiable moral claim.

    I am not asserting my position, without question. Anyone familiar with the history of philosophy from Descartes to Kant knows that if you rely solely on sensory data alone and the existence of your own mind then you can prove very little, this is something well known in epistemology. I simply assumed you were familiar with it.

    As to the other points,

    I stated “In fact take your claim that : we should keep from influencing state policy all claims that are impossible to verify. This claim is impossible to verfify, you have not verified it. Hence it should not influence our considerations about state policy.”

    Your response is
    what i have verified is that you have no grounds to argue against someone trying to impose any religious claim, be it meatballs or burkha. you can’t argue against them on the grounds of evidence they produce because they don’t produce any, and you can’t require them to if you reserve the right to not produce any yourself. this is verified because you agreed with it and
    Actually you didn’t for several reasons.
    First, when you refered to verification you were clear you meant it can be based on sensory data alone, assuming only the existence of your own mind. In that sense then the sense relevant to the discussion you have not verified this claim. So again until you do your position is self contradictory.
    Second, your argument here is invalid. You claim that you have no grounds to argue against a position. If the person who holds that position does not offer evidence for . This is confused, there is a difference between there being no evidence for a position and there being no evidence against it.
    Third, this assumes that the only grounds a person can appeal to in disputing a philosophical claim is empirical evidence, that’s false. One could point out the claim is self contradictory, one could point out it contradicts other things a person believes. One could show it entails positions that person accepts, one could show it fails to cohere with their other beliefs. One could show that alternative positions answer important theoretical questions and are more consistent and coherent with what they believe and so on. This sort of thing happens all the time in moral philosophy.
    Similarly you tried to avoid self refutation by arguing “if you want to convince someone else of them you have no means to illustrate the truth of them other than sensory data because it is the one thing that we have in common, so can not use anything else with which to argue in the public square”

    This again simply rephrases the problem, take the claim

    [1] No claim is convincing to others unless it can be verified by sensory data.

    I note you have provided no sensory data to verify this claim. If that claim is true then I should reject it.

    Moreover again, the argument you give in this quote is invalid. You state that only way you can convince someone else is by sensory data because that’s the only thing we have in common with everyoneelse. But this does not follow if I want to persuade Z then all I need to do is appeal to premises Z holds to. I do not need to hold to those premises myself, nor does anyone else.

    Of course if I want to construct an argument that both I and every person in the world accepts I would need to appeal only to premises held in common. But there is no reason that I must have this ambititious project in mind when I attempt persuade someone else of my position, all I need to do is provide that person reasons for why they should adopt my position.

    Note also that when the issue of Prostitution comes up you throw your claims to the wind what you say is

    it just seems to me that being able to dictate someones behaviour even though they’re not harming anyone is a bit tyranical.

    Here you refer to actions being tyranical, this is a moral claim not an empirical one, and you justify it by saying “it just seems to me that”.

    Strange how when its your own secular permissive stance we see appeals to substantive moral claims based on moral intuition and not demands for empirical verfication.

  • Matt, if you can go into that much detail on one person’s blog comment you have too much time on your hands. What do you do outside of blogging?

  • Matt, you’ve given this topic more thought than most Christian philosophers. So what is your suggested solution to the problem of conflicting ritual demands which religions want to be recognized in the public square (food laws, dress codes, holy days, caste rules, punishments, etc.)? These are all typically regarded by believers as divine commands and not simply as issues of private conduct.

    Doesn’t your rejection of a “secular compromise” run aground on the rocks of religious diversity?

  • Hi Peter,

    I agree those are difficult issues, I am not sure how the “secularist” position however solves it because the same problems can arise with purely secular holidays. Different cultures for example have different calenders, different traditional festivals, different times to celebrate new years and so on. I suspect the same is true with many cultural rituals around marriage, and so on.

  • Matt, the difference it seems to me is that non-religious holidays, traditions, cultural rituals etc. are generally argued for or defended in the public arena on social, political or humanitarian grounds – not as derived from theologies or revealed scriptures.

    The message I take from this is that while a Divine Command approach to morality (and ritual) may carry some weight as offering “public truth” at an abstract, philosophical level, it is lot harder to give it plausibility once we are dealing with diverse and particular religions in modern public life.

  • you’ve still lost sight of the context of this conversation. the problem is, you and me still need to live together and interact with each other so are trying to set guidelines for our behaviour. this is the role of the state and the source of this whole conversation, so it should be kept in mind throughout. i asked earlier what should be the default position of our shared society if i couldn’t verify that we should keep unverifiable opinions out of the public square; you brushed it aside like it was beside the point, but it was the whole point, because we still need to live together.

    i’ve got to respond to some of your other points first, but will get back on track, i promise.

    so when you ask how i got:

    The government ought to make the speed limit 100klm
    From the premise
    [p1]I don’t like being hurt

    the answer is i didn’t, i got it from the premise that neither of us like being hurt, and once you look at what the government actually is (the combined representation of us both), the question loses meaning.

    there seems be some confusion over the word ‘ought’. there is a subjective ‘ought’, such as “IF you don’t want to get skin cancer, then you OUGHT to wear sunscreen BECAUSE that will lower your chances of getting it”. it requires a want and verifiable consequences. this is the ‘ought’ in “we (via the government) OUGHT to make the speed limit 100km/h” and requires that we want safe roads and evidence that a speed limit will help us achieve this. then there is the objective ‘ought’, which doesn’t need to offer a ‘because’ to be verified, and which is true independent of the point of view.

    your attack on ‘p2′ is just ridiculous. the study of vehicle crashes and road speeds is firmly grounded in the world we can sense. try to study the effect of low-quality pixie dust on the mid-air collisions of the local fairy population, and you’ll see what i mean. we use abstract concepts such as counting and speed to make theoretical models and then need to communicate the results, which may be what you’re struggling with.

    Anyone familiar with the history of philosophy from Descartes to Kant knows that if you rely solely on sensory data alone and the existence of your own mind then you can prove very little, this is something well known in epistemology. I simply assumed you were familiar with it.
    while there are plenty of things you know that i don’t, the next time you imply that you are teaching me something, please check that it’s not something i’ve already said. i simply assumed you read others comments before you replied to them:
    matt: “This would require an infinite regress of proofs where demonstration was foreover put off.”
    sam: “it’s not infinite, it stops at the existence of your own mind”
    and
    sam: “(our dependence on sensory data) doesn’t change if we are all plugged into the matrix and our sensory data is a lie, because the robots appear to be feeding us the same sensory data. and given that it is the only data we have on which to base any decisions, and it appears to be consistent, it is perfectly rational to base our decisions on our sensory data even if we can’t know that data to be ‘true’.”

    if I want to persuade Z then all I need to do is appeal to premises Z holds to

    again, see my sept 15 post to jeremy about wilberforce arguing against slavery on the grounds of his religion, where i’ve already said “they were all perfectly willing to accept the underlying premise of god as a framework for the discussion.” lets try and keep this discussion relevant though, given that our society today has a wide range of views and religious beliefs as Peter D just pointed out, and there are very few such premises we all accept.

  • and finally the main point, sorry i had to get all that other stuff out of the way first.

    i can’t prove that we ought to keep unprovable opinions from the public square. this appears to be self-refuting, but the problem is with the use of the word ‘ought’, and my appeal is subjective. i can’t prove that we objectively ‘ought’ to have a speed limit of 100km/h, but i didn’t try too. instead, i tried to show you how that would protect you by keeping you safer on the road. this is exactly analogous to my argument about religion and the public square. it is not an absolute claim, and it is conditional: if anyone can show the truth of their religious views then of course we should all follow them. if anyone can show that we objectively ought to not have a speed limit then there you go, we ought to not.

    i’m going to have to repeat myself here again, because you’ve never actually replied to these points before except to complain that they don’t prove anything, but they’re not meant too and i really would appreciate a comment:

    firstly, like you do not want to be killed on the road, you do not want others unverifiable opinions to be imposed on you, for example meatballs. a more relevant example might be an aggressive atheist or anti-christian theist who expresses the opinion that no member of our society should be allowed to go to church, pray, or read the bible. a secular public square offers you protection from them like a speed limit protects you on the roads, and if anyone offers the unverified opinion that you shouldn’t be allowed to practice your religion, i will side with you. in this sense i am totally pro-christian. the price you need to pay is to not speed yourself, ie, try to impose your unverified religious views on others, for example the view that we objectively ought to be heterosexual.

    secondly, this actually isn’t a very high price for you in particular to pay, because a) you drive a lada which b) maxes out at 100km/h anyway. ie. a) in your religion following behavioural rules is not a sufficient condition for salvation, and b) people may be less likely to genuinely convert if they resent your interference in their otherwise private affairs.

    so you subjectively ought to agree to a speed limit/secular public square.

    yes this sounds a lot weaker than “Thus Sayeth The Almight God!!”, but you can’t show that he actually does sayeth thus, i can’t show that he doesn’t, and we still need to live with each other. and also, yes i know i’m just re-asserting what i’ve already said over and over again, but you’ve never actually directly replied on it except to scream that it still doesn’t prove anything, which is already obvious. in particular, i would like your feedback on how the secular public square protects your ability to practice as a christian from both atheists and people from other religions.

  • Dear Sam,

    I presume “safety” is just one of those things that we can agree to value, a premise that doesn’t need to be proven, as well already value it. What about the boy racer that values neither his safety or the safety of others?
    To him your law of 100Kms/hour limit is arbitrary and your premise would need to be proved.

    In regards to the inherint dignity of the human person, is this not a premise we can have and agree on?

    If I was to continue to prove this to you and fill in those ‘jumps’, it would require me to know what you have experienced, and I would have to ask you slightly personal questions. Let me know if you want me to continue.

    Kind Regards,

    Rosjier

  • hi rosijer sorry for taking so long to reply.

    your boy racers example is probably a bit of an over simplification, i’d suggest that it’s not that they don’t value anyone’s safety so much as are less able to calculate consequences and don’t seriously believe that they might get hurt in pursuit of adrenalin and the sexual competitiveness which is their real motivation.

    (actually kind of analogous with matt… he doesn’t really believe there is any chance of other religions being forced on him, so doesn’t mind saying what he has been, and he gets a feeling of prestige when other christians think he’s really clever.)

    i still take your point, but i’m not overly worried about it, security ranks pretty important in maslows hierarchy of needs, we’re not starting with a completely blank slate here, people universally understand safety, as do animals. but lets say someone is endangering or harming us without any consideration for the fact that we weren’t doing that to them, then something that me and matt agree on is self-defence. this is why we can try to dissuade people from speeding to the point of taking away their vehicles if they insist, and it’s not a high moral theory, it’s animal instinct for survival and self-preservation. but to avoid this being misused, it is still crucial that we can first show that their actions were endangering or harming others, ie we need the verify the ‘because speeding increases the chances of crashing’, which is why that part is so important.

    are:prostitution, ask me anything, worst i can do is not answer. i’ll give you a head start though, when i was young and naive and overseas i slept with a couple of prostitutes who i now know were almost definitely in modern day slavery, and i feel bad about sponsoring their suffering, but only because they were being exploited inconsensually.

  • Hi Sam I’m also sorry for taking so long to reply. My wife gave birth last week.

    So basically you would have no problem forcibly stopping someone from harming you even if they didn’t value your safety.

    My first question was actually going to be have you ever been in love?
    Have you ever loved someone so much that you would do anything to see them flourish as a human person? Even to the detriment of yourself? – not caring about the cost.

    “Let’s say someone is endangering or harming us without any consideration for the fact that we weren’t doing that to them”

    Fair enough, but what if someone was harming themselves? Could you not also step-in in this situation?

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