Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Should Religion Be Kept Out Of Politics? (2)

There are two kinds of people in the world, the conscious dogmatists and the unconscious dogmatists. I have always found myself that the unconscious dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic.” - G.K. Chesterton

We're addressing the question, “should religion be kept out of politics?” to which I'm answering “no”, and explaining why by unpacking (as simply as possible), Charles Taylor's lecture, “The Future of the Secular”. Last time I presented Taylor's view of what a properly functioning “secularism” is like by outlining its two core values and its third mediating value. I argued that when this healthy form of secularism becomes contaminated with a single-minded focus on “restraining religion”, these values are violated.

It should have been clear from the first post that, if restraining religion is our focus, then religious expression will be curbed even when it hasn't stepped on the toes of impartiality. What's interesting is that, from what I've encountered from people who hold to this view of secularism, to them it doesn't seem like that is what's going on. Or rather, they concede that religion should not be free to exist in politics or public life, but they don't see why this is such a big deal. Indeed they view this restriction as the very thing which enables any sort of freedom of conscience whatsoever. How has this happened? I'm going to argue that it comes out of a butchering of the second goal of healthy secularism: equality and impartiality. Charles Taylor's lecture doesn't explicitly follow the analysis I'm about to give, but I do think it's within the same current of thought.

Clearly, it's right to say that impartiality really is required to have genuine freedom of conscience. That's important to note. If I'm a Hindu and the whole operation of government is prejudiced against Hindus then I'm not going to have a great amount of freedom. Or if I'm a naturalist and the whole of the state's dealings are prejudiced against naturalists then, again, I'm not going to have a great amount of freedom. It's not hard to find real historical examples of how partiality (read: prejudice) has restricted freedom. The problem isn't in the construal of that relationship. The problem is that “impartiality”, in the case of contaminated secularism, has been misinterpreted.

See it is easy to re-cast “impartiality” into the language of “neutrality.” And "neutrality" can do the job well enough, but it is also more ambiguous in a certain sense. Allow me to explain this with an illustration (courtesy of my MS paint skills)

You see there are two very different ways of reading neutrality. Neutrality 1 is neutral in that it allows every colour and tone into the frame equally. It is neutral between colours. Each colour gets to participate. But with Neutrality 2, every colour is shut out. It is a colour-free zone and is neutral in that sense. And these two readings can also take effect within politics and public life. Read neutrality in the first way, and every view-point gets to participate. Read neutrality in the second way and every view-point gets shut out. You can't bring your convictions, religious, philosophical, or otherwise, to the table on the second reading.

Neutrality 2, I would contend, is the reading that supporters of a contaminated secularism have become used to operating with. According to this misreading, neutrality is about political discourse (or the public arena generally) being free of reference to any partisan views. But how does this end up translating into the exclusion of specifically religious views only?

Some readers might have noticed that I've done something a little sneaky in my graphic illustration of Neutrality 2. I described Neutrality 2 as a frame absent of colour, but of course it isn't literally free of colour. It is, after all, full of the colour grey. The picture isn't really neutral at all - it is totally biased toward grey. Everything except grey is shut out. But that bias may not have been immediately obvious. Grey isn't so obviously a colour as red or blue and so it's easier for it to slip under the radar. But grey is still a colour. This illustrates well exactly how it's possible for people, consciously or not, to hold onto Neutrality 2, but single out religion while keeping other views safe.

A religious view, say, Christianity, is obviously a particular view, or position, or philosophy, or ideology, or meta-narrative, or stance, or outlook, or way-of-life, in the same way that red is obviously a colour. Christianity, with its explicit doctrines, rituals, and communities, grabs your attention immediately, like red draws your eyes instantly. But we shouldn't forget those things that are more subtle. A colour being subtle doesn't make it any less of a colour. Likewise, a particular position being subtle doesn't make it any less of a position.

Neutrality 2 plays right into the hands of a massive cultural blind-spot (one that Taylor argues in his book, Sources of the Self, is near the heart of modernity itself). The blind-spot is the perception that many of us have that we simply don't hold any particular views. That we are without philosophies and ideologies and cosmic narratives and ethical visions. That those are what religious people have, perhaps shared only by the rare non-religious person who view themselves a Kantian, or Utilitarian, or what-have-you. The rest of us just get by without any of that stuff.

I think this is a deep error that could be unearthed in many ways, but perhaps it is best to demonstrate it with a particular focus on our notions of The Good Life. A couple weeks back I wrote an entry on whether it's shameful to be a virgin or not. I noted that many of us would regard a 40 year old virgin to be a pitiable character (there is a comedy dedicated to such a character, after all). But note that in these disapproving attitudes there is no accusation that the virgin has violated a moral obligation. He or she hasn't flouted their ethical duty (so long as they aren't one of only a few post-apocalyptic survivors anyway!) They've done nothing they ought to be arrested for. Rather the sense is that there is something valuable missing from their life, which, as a result, has made their life more impoverished, or diminished, or unfulfilled, or lacking, or lower in some generic sense.

In other words, the disapproval of the 40 year old virgin reveals the belief or sense many of us hold that The Good Life (or A Good Life, if we're feeling more pluralistic) is one that includes sex - that a worthy or truly rich life includes that particular good in it. This stance need not be a religious one but it is a stance nonetheless. Indeed it can clash with certain religious stances. It isn't in some neutral position-less territory. Of course, some people won't feel that they have a satisfying articulation for why this good is so special and worthy (though some might, e.g. “because of evolution we are a species wired primarily for sex”) but these people are nonetheless attracted and orientated toward such a good. Any articulation which denied its worth would be rejected by such a person questing for a satisfying articulation. Such people are still facing one particular way and not another.

Although quite a common, mundane view, the understanding that sex is a necessary component of a fulfilled life is still a view. It may not have been obvious right from the get-go, but that doesn't change its status. And that is just one example – there are many more we could draw upon to highlight how even very culturally taken for granted views are views. This mistake of thinking one is without views is usually down to a lack of self-awareness but it needs correcting (although some folk strike me as being more duplicitous in this error, as with the pop-atheists who claim that they merely "lack" belief, a notion I shall refute more targetedly elsewhere). To single out religion, then, would be to exclude red while letting all the grey in. It would be totally biased. That bias, I fear, is where our country may be heading.

Well okay then, some might say, what we need is to stick to Neutrality 2 while making sure we catch all the grey as well as the red. In response to this I'd say that a totally view-less public arena is impossible. Consider public media, for instance. How on earth can a TV show not present a particular message? How can songs not convey the viewpoints of their singers? Should we ban TV and music? No. The only real option before us is to be open to TV shows that express and defend Christian views, and shows that do the same for Muslim views, and Atheist views, and so on. The solution is not to try the impossible task of shutting every view out. Rather, the solution is take Neutrality 1 and be open to every view participating.

This is especially important for political discussion itself. If we feel that we cannot bring our deep convictions to the fore, we will feel unable to really articulate and share what actually matters to us. To a certain extent we have simply bitten the bullet on this point here in Britain. This is surely one of the primary reasons why politics has become so horrifically uninspiring. Politicians will voice their concern for tolerance, and freedom, or whatever, but will refrain from articulating why these are goods worth pursuing. Granted we (hopefully) do think these are real goods, but these whys are the very things that motivate us to care for them. The lack of strong political leadership is down to our self-imposed restrictions and taboos; leaders present visions that inspire their followers, but we have cut off the access to these visions.

To have a fair and healthy politics we must read neutrality in the first way – as a frame that allows every colour in. A contaminated secularism, with a focus on restraining religion, misreads neutrality and fosters an unbalanced and discriminatory practise. In the concluding post we will explore more of what equal participation, the third mediating value of a healthy secularism, looks like, drawing more heavily again on Taylor's analysis.


Garren said...

Looking forward to the next post's preview of what healthy secularism would look like, so I can decide to embrace the principle or support another theory because I don't like the result.

(Nice visual analogy.)

Martin said...

Hehe thanks, I'm quite pleased with the illustration myself ^^