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May 10 2007

Respect for religion-4: Religion as Conversation-stopper

I have written in the past about how religion should be kept in the private sphere and out of the public sphere. I have since discovered that philosopher Richard Rorty wrote an interesting essay with the above title on this topic in 1994, that was published in his book Philosophy and Social Hope (1999). In the essay, Rorty challenges Stephen Carter who wrote a book The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. (Thanks to Michael Berube for bringing Rorty’s essay to my attention.)

Rorty says:

Carter puts in question what, to atheists like me, seems the happy, Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious. This compromise consists in privatizing religion — keeping it out of what Carter calls “the public square,” making it seem bad taste to bring religion into discussions of public policy.
. . .
We atheists, doing our best to enforce Jefferson’s compromise, think it bad enough that we cannot run for public office without being disingenuous about our disbelief in God; despite the compromise, no uncloseted atheist is likely to get elected anywhere in the country. We also resent the suggestion that you have to be religious to have a conscience — a suggestion implicit in the fact that only religious conscientious objectors to military service go unpunished. Such facts suggest to us that the claims of religion need, if anything, to be pushed back still further, and that religious believers have no business asking for more public respect than they now receive.

Rorty adds:

Contemporary liberal philosophers think that we shall not be able to keep a democratic political community going unless the religious believers remain willing to trade privatization for a guarantee of religious liberty.
. .
The main reason religion needs to be privatized is that, in political discussion with those outside the relevant religious community, it is a conversation-stopper. Carter is right when he says:

One good way to end a conversation — or to start an argument — is to tell a group of well-educated professionals that you hold a political position (preferably a controversial one, such as being against abortion or pornography) because it is required by your understanding of God’s will.

Saying this is far more likely to end a conversation that to start an argument. The same goes for telling the group, “I would never have an abortion” or, “Reading pornography is about the only pleasure I get out of life these days.” In these examples, as in Carter’s, the ensuing silence masks the group’s inclination to say, “So what? We weren’t discussing your private life; we were discussing public policy. Don’t bother us with matters that are not our concern.”

This would be my own inclination in such a situation. Carter clearly thinks such a reaction inappropriate, but it is hard to figure out what he thinks would be an appropriate response by nonreligious interlocutors to the claim that abortion is required (or forbidden) by the will of God. He does not think it is good enough to say: OK, but since I don’t think there is such a thing as the will of God, and since I doubt that we’ll get anywhere arguing theism vs. atheism, let’s see if we have some shared premises on the basis of which to continue an argument about abortion. He thinks such a reply would be condescending and trivializing. But are we atheist interlocutors supposed to try to keep the conversation going by saying, “Gee! I’m impressed. You have a really deep, sincere faith”? Suppose we try that. What happens then? What can either party do for an encore?

Rorty captures exactly the problems raised by the ‘respect for religion’ trope. Not only does the introduction of religious ideas not advance public policy discussions, it actually hinders them by introducing a non-evidence based, non-negotiable belief and thus stops the conversation dead in its tracks.

Rorty makes the excellent point that putting religion into the private sphere is the only way that can guarantee religious freedom. Once religion gets a toehold into the public sphere, it increasingly becomes dominated by a narrower and narrower range of views that seeks to exclude all but the true believers. So all those who worry about having freedom of religion should be working to keep it out of the public sphere.

What we should be doing instead is trying, along the lines suggested by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice, to find what moral premises we all have in common despite our differing personal backgrounds and belief structures.

Religious people might complain, in the words of Carter, that they are being forced ‘to restructure their arguments in purely secular terms before they can be presented’ in the public sphere and suggests that this is somehow unfair to them. Rorty replies that all that this requires is dropping references to the premises of the arguments (i.e., not saying things like “But that violates what it says in the Book of Leviticus….”) when discussing public policy, and that “this omission seems like a reasonable price to pay for religious liberty.” He goes on that this requirement “is no harsher, and no more a demand for self-destruction, than the requirement that we atheists, when we present our arguments, should claim no authority for our premises save the assent we hope they will gain from our audience.”

Rorty in his conclusions makes an important point: “Carter seems to think that religious believers’ moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs. He seems unwilling to admit that the role of the Enlightenment ideology in giving meaning to the lives of atheists is just as great as Christianity’s role giving meaning to his own life.”

So when atheists (of the ‘new’ variety and others) say that religion does not have any special place in any discussions of public policy and should not be immune from criticism, they are not being disrespectful or rude to religion, they are merely pointing out that “a speaker’s depth of spirituality is [no] more relevant to her participation in public debate than her hobby or her hair color.”

The new atheists are simply advocating a model of good democratic politics.

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