Sunday, 4 March 2012

Should Religion Be Kept Out Of Politics? (3)

Charles Taylor's lecture, "The Future of the Secular" has been our gateway into exploring the matter of whether religion should be kept out of politics. In the first post I outlined the goals of a healthy secularism, as understood by Taylor, and showed how a focus on restraining religion is a contamination that obscures these goals and clearly restricts freedom of expression. In the second I continued the damning assessment of this focus on targeting religion and showed how it misconstrues what impartiality/neutrality is really about. To conclude, it's time to paint a constructive picture of what a healthy secularism looks like.

Taylor argues that politicians of whatever rank should be free to articulate the deep convictions that drive their politics. Christians should be free to express their Christianity, Hindus their Hinduism, Naturalists their Naturalism, and so on. In determining how to live together and how to negotiate between the two interlocking values of freedom and impartiality, we should be permitted to have such a maximally open discussion. Of course, you may lose support from this corner or that if you bring to the fore your deep convictions, and so you may not always want to, but you should be free to, if you wish.   

What's very important to note is where Taylor says the reference to these deep convictions ought to stop: the legislation itself. The actual legislation of the state needs to be drawn as inclusively as possible. For instance, let us say that after much discussion, opinion converges on the view that taxes need to be decreased. But perhaps there is a difference of opinion as to what justifies this view. For some it's Kantian principles that to that conclusion, for others it seems like that view is Biblically warranted. The law would not say, "taxes will be reduced because Kantian principles entail..." nor would it say, "taxes will be reduced because the Bible teaches..." Likewise, even if our justifications converged, say, on utilitarian principles, the law would still not say something like, "taxes will be reduced because it has been calculated that the greatest amount of happiness..." In all cases it would just be, "taxes will be reduced."

In other words, no particular justifying reason is enshrined in the state, whether religious, non-religious, or anti-religious. Lest I be seen to be contradicting what I said in the last post, such laws will obviously not be neutral in the sense that they are totally position-less. After all, a law about tax reduction faces a particular direction, that is, away from tax increase. What such framings of law are impartial toward are the justifying motivations we might each have for commending a law. The practise operates on the understanding that the law was decided upon democratically, by representatives of very different deep convictions and traditions. 

This is what the separation of church and state ought to amount to. It is about preventing one particular viewpoint from being interwoven in the state itself. It is absolutely not about preventing any participation of those viewpoints whatsoever. There seems to be a massive false dichotomy at work in many people's minds: either religion is excluded from politics, or this wall of separation is breached. But that is nonsense! Christians can participate as Christians in politics without the state thereby being Christian. Muslims can participate as Muslims in politics without the state thereby being Muslim. Atheists can participate as Atheists in politics without the state thereby being Atheist. And so on. There simply is no such principle to appeal to so as to justify an exclusion of religion (or any other stance) from politics.

Now although we don't have to, we could, for the sake of argument, grant that when separation of church and state was originally conceived (by whatever government we have in view), it did mean to exclude such participation. This makes no difference. If that's what it meant (and that's a position which would require argument) then, simply put, we should oppose it. We ought to regard it as unjust. We should instead support the kind of separation that Taylor is arguing for.

But one worry we might have is that this participatory model looks rather prone to chaos. Won't it just be a bunch of incompatible views and voices struggling for dominance? Won't the Christians just be out to get their moral positions backed by the law, leaving everyone else to lump it? Won't the Humanists be out just to spread their values, everyone else be damned? Sure, that could happen. But if it did, it would already be outside the vision of a healthy secularism.

Taylor concedes that a healthy secularism only works when the people involved (politicians, voters or whoever) genuinely do engage in politics with the goals of a healthy secularism in mind. They need to truly cherish everyone's right to freedom of conscience, and they need to truly cherish impartiality between different people and their positions. Such people will not campaign and vote simply to get their hobby-horse views propelled by the power of government. Sure, they will have political views that won't be shared by everyone, views they nonetheless have a right to promote, but these views will be developed after careful reflection on whether they will allow a healthy secularism to flourish or not.

A Christian, then, should not automatically go from, say, "the Bible says that homosexual relationships are wrong" to "homosexual relationships ought to be banned or discouraged by the government". Rather they should pause and consider whether it would be good, given the diversity of views held in the public and the freedom that ought to be given to the expression of these views, to make this a political matter. Perhaps one would conclude that these sorts of matters aren't the kind that the state should be involved in. On the other hand, if after such reflection, still being mindful of the goals of healthy secularism, a Christian considers that there are good reasons to make the issue a political one, then fine. The point is, this reflection needs to take place. And the need for this reflection makes sense within the Christian tradition itself, which stresses that laws and moral duties do not themselves make people virtuous, or Christian, and that Christ's mission did not centre around acquiring power within earthly systems of government.

Moreover, Christians ought to be mindful of where other people are coming from. For instance, although a Christian should be free to express their belief that the Bible is God's word, and articulate their position in those terms, they should appreciate that not everybody considers the Bible to be such an authority. Thus it may not be helpful to argue a political point from the Bible. It isn't that the Christian should never bring up such commitments, it is rather that one needs to be mindful of one's conversation partners. Likewise, naturalists shouldn't just take it for granted in discussion that the world is without a higher purpose driving it. That'll hardly be accepted by theists, for instance. It'll be a virtue in such discussions to understand the other's position and even to demonstrate to that person how their own position ought to motivate them to the position you are arguing for. The naturalist who wants to increase, say, income support for the jobless, could argue with the Christian that Christ's own compassion for the needy ought to drive them to want the same. Of course, some differences will be irresolvable, and here it will especially important to value the goals of healthy secularism. In these occasions one will have to be aware that they won't get what they ultimately want, but that they'll have to argue for a compromise - the best solution to a messy problem.

I think it's fair to say that contaminated secularism becomes more attractive in light of poor examples of religious participation in politics. People haven't felt that Christians (or religious persons generally) have carefully and considerately reflected on their political engagements. But sadly contaminated secularism makes the same mistakes. Rather than providing a better example for participation, it seeks to shut it out entirely. It seeks, consciously or not, the dominance of non-religious views, rather than participation on an equal footing. These two erroneous views have the dangerous power to reinforce one another. Feeling at the mercy of an inconsiderate religious political force, some seek to "secularise" politics by shutting out the very possibility of such abuse. But then religious communities feel that these secularisers are not being considerate to them and so they defensively assert the centrality of their religion to politics - "it's a Christian country, don't you know?!", which only reinforces the alienation of the secularisers, and so on and so on. Sadly, Christians have themselves partly to blame for the rise of this misconstrued secularism.

The answer is not in a "Christian country" nor a regime which shuts out religion from politics. It is in a healthy secularism which allows for equal participation in public life. Taylor concedes that a truly healthy secularism is a fragile and difficult enterprise. Perhaps the most difficult political undertaking any civilisation has attempted. But he asks us, what other choice do we have for living in a truly tolerant and fair society given all of our diversity? As I hope this series has demonstrated, a contaminated secularism, with a focus on restraining religion, only results in unfair religious marginalisation.

Of course, someone can still campaign for this marginalisation if they like. But they'll have to come clean. For instance, when A.C. Grayling claims that "[now] is the time to place religion where it belongs – wholly in the private sphere along with other superstitions and foibles, leaving the public domain as neutral territory where all can meet without prejudice as humans and equals"1 he should 'fess up to the fact that he is not promoting freedom and tolerance for all. He should admit that he wants religion to be singled out and restrained. He should focus on arguing that this unfair treatment is nonetheless justified. Perhaps there's a serious argument to be had there.

But what absolutely needs to stop is the masquerading of this anti-religious fetish under the banner of tolerance and liberty. It is terrifying to see how easily this oppressive force has clothed itself under the guise of democratic principles. Of course, I don't expect such transparency to actually emerge. The jig would be up if this injustice were exposed. But I can hope and pray. If the tendency toward a contaminated secularism is indeed growing in Britain then, frankly, I am very fearful for our country's future. This perversion of what secularism should really be about ought to be vigorously opposed, not just by the religious, but by anyone who truly values freedom and equality.       


Garren said...


This is at least an interesting rule to think about. One consideration in favor of keeping "reasons why" out of the legislation itself is that voters or representatives will rarely vote for uniform reasons. For example, a law banning abortion could be supported by some because of a Catholic natural law view and by others because of an inclusive view of human rights. The shared factor is the law desired, not its precise motivations.

Of course this might limit our ability to apply laws to new situations by referring back to the intent behind the literal reading of the law, but maybe that's not such a terrible defect. It would tend to put responsibility for responding to new situations in the hands of legislators rather than judges.

Suppose a religious group wants all movie theaters closed on Wednesdays, so they introduce a bill (or however things work) to that effect. Opponents of this bill could obviously say, "But that's inconvenient; sometimes we like seeing movies on Wednesdays!" What if they also say, "And besides, the main push for this bill is to push Midweek Church's religious convictions on the rest of us, and we don't like that sort of move!" Wouldn't that be a completely valid way to argue against the legislation under heathy secularism, not as a legal argument but as a political argument?

Martin said...

"This is at least an interesting rule to think about. One consideration in favor of keeping "reasons why" out of the legislation itself is that voters or representatives will rarely vote for uniform reasons. For example, a law banning abortion could be supported by some because of a Catholic natural law view and by others because of an inclusive view of human rights. The shared factor is the law desired, not its precise motivations.

Of course this might limit our ability to apply laws to new situations by referring back to the intent behind the literal reading of the law, but maybe that's not such a terrible defect. It would tend to put responsibility for responding to new situations in the hands of legislators rather than judges."

I think this is right. Taylor (probably not originally) refers to it as over-lapping consensus. Consider the belief in universal human rights. The theist might think humans have such rights because humans are made in God's image. A naturalist might think we have such rights because of our dignity as rational agents. Indeed, a healthy secularism presupposes such an over-lapping consensus. That is, we may all believe different things, but for one reason or another, we all want freedom of conscience etc.

Now, regarding your hypothetical group that wants a bill for closing theatres on Wednesdays (W for short). I'd want to be a little careful as to where we pinpoint the weakness in their stance politically (and I agree it is weak). It comes down to how we understand what it is to “push” a religious conviction on someone. It isn't wrong, given the principles of secularism outlined here, to try and persuade people in the public arena of a religious position or any other kind of position.

The problem with this group pushing W is that, prima facie, they don't have any legitimate means of persuasion. I take it that in this scenario, the group would be unable to provide persuasive reasons for W to anyone without their particular religious background (perhaps they only have scriptural warrant for W and only they revere those particular scriptures). It ought to be pointed out, then, that to most people, it seems like no actual good will be promoted through W. Unable to make a persuasive case for how W benefits society, it does indeed seem like they're be no reason to accept the bill except to arbitrarily enforce the views of one minority group. And political opponents of the group can point that out. Naturally, an arbitrary enforcement of one view just is prejudicial favour for it and thus counter to the spirit of a healthy secularism.

Things might be a bit trickier if the group's freedom of conscience were at sake but it seems like it isn't. It seems probable that it would only be a violation of the group's freedom of conscience if the group were forced to attend theatre on Wednesdays. But they aren't; they are free not to. So the issue isn't one of freedom of religious expression. The group have no means to persuade the majority, and their minority is in no need of governmental protection in this area.