Upcoming is a Carnival of Citizens in looking to see if I’d missed the chance to contribute to this episode, I chanced across this post by the gentleman (Richard Chappell) at Philosophy, et cetera. In lieu of coming up with a independant topic for this carnival, I thought I’d ape reply to Mr Chappell’s post, although I am neither a philosopher nor a political scientist by trade or training.
Mr Chappell thinks that religion is allowed to enter in the public square only under specific circumstances. He writes:
I guess that depends on the nature of the religion, and the way one tries to bring it into politics. If one’s religion is based on public reason, then I see no problem in principle. For example, if you think that God’s hand is evident in nature, and his perfect character transparent to reason, then you may try to bring me to see this.
On the other hand, the more dogmatic forms of religion have no place here, for they are inconsistent with civic respect. For example, if you are certain that the truth has been revealed to your group alone, and that all others are irredeemably blind to it, then you will be incapable of meaningful deliberation with them. The dogmatist is not receptive to alternative possibilities, and may see no point in collaborating with “morally degenerate” infidels.
There are a few small problems with this notion. Christianity for example has (at least) two major arcs of theological thought. One via Clement, Augustine, and Aquinas is in basic agreement with Mr Chappell, that the Christian faith is amenable to reason. Another current, via Irenaeus, the Cappadocians (Basil, Gregory, Gregory, and John), Dionysus, Maximus disagree (disclosure here, I’m a recent convert to this second current). Faith for them is not amenable solely to nous (reason). Does it therefore follow that the Eastern tradition is not permitted in the public square? The second problem is this, is that my guess would be that Mr Chappell probably does not include Roman Catholicism, Augustine/Aquinas notwithstanding, into the subset of religions which are “based on public reason”. If not, what religions practiced today are so included? If that set is null, then this argument is dishonest one, proposing that for religious believers to debate in the public square they must adhere to a religion not practiced by men.
Dogma is a term which, to quote Inigo Montoya (or at least William Goldman), “I don’t think that word means what you think it does.” Dogma is the canon of beliefs held by a faith. All faiths have them. It is what defines the believer as one of the faithful in a particular denomination or religion. Part of the doctrine/dogma of a particular religion involves how to treat with those of other faiths. One particular instance of a statement of Christian dogma toward other denominations and religions is: “Our way is the best way, we make no statement regarding others efficacy toward finding salvation.” This is, it seems, somewhat different than “all others are irredeemably bad”, yet does not necessarily have the compliance Mr Chappell sees as required for being allowed in the public square, that is it has dogma and is not necessarily transparent to reason. It is clear that some religious dogma toward the “other” (where other is those of other faiths) is more problematic, e.g., Sharia law regarding those converting away from Islam. But that is not true of all faiths or dogmas.
Let’s examine how abortion might (is being?) be brought into debate. Ethics becomes interesting typically at the juncture wherein two notions of good collide. One such example is abortion. There are a number of ethical principles that might thought to be at play here, but let’s restrict ourselves to just two. We will take for the nonce that the only two principles in conflict are the value of human life and the value of personal autonomy. Both ideas are thought to be good by everyone. The issue at stake is, which one wins in the case of the unborn. These two notions life and autonomy in a particular ethical framework is either a derived or axiomatic principle. For weighing a conflict between the two is this important? If the ethical framework provides an answer to which of these two notions is more valuable then a person has a given position on the issue. Depending on how important these principles are to the ethical framework will determine how strongly the person might hold his ground in a debate. Nobody is debating whether autonomy or life are not good. The debate is only which wins when in conflict in given situations and how the society might best deal with the situation. Mr Chappell (who is not alone in this I think) hold that the religious derivation which holds “Life is Good” (actually sacred), because this is an axiom of their particular ethic as a disqualifying them from the debate. Yet, every ethical framework has axioms. Christianity has about 2000 years of tradition in its opposition to abortion. It has long held that the personal autonomy is less valued than human, even pre-natal, life. On the other side, there are modern liberal thinkers who hold in an equally unbending fashion (if with somewhat less history) that a woman’s autonomy always overrides the value of the pre-natal life. Mr Chappell, if I read him rightly, would seek to remove both from public discourse. This in turn is an untenable notion because it ultimately would excludes all human beings from civil society so defined. That is it would serve to exclude men at the very least from contributing to those issues on which they have strong opinion. (that is: All men have axiomatic statements within their ethical framework. When axiomatic ethical principles come in conflict an axiomatic resolution is required. But one’s axioms are not open to discourse, which then disqualifies him from the polis so defined.)
Must adherence to a particular tradition/dogma disqualify this sentiment from public debate? Neither the Christian nor the feminist is going to be particularly amenable to the others axiomatic statements about the relative valuation of autonomy or life. There is no external method for correcting either’s viewpoint as both are consistent within the particular ethical framework of the individuals and it would be a work of violence to insist that the other treat the opposite as a good. The exercise of polity is to come to a peaceful solution where these two parties are not abrading each other to the point where violence is seen as the required alternative to civil activism. Oddly enough, for both parties this means, whichever is in ascendance the other must have the notion that they may prevail through peaceful means.
So where do we end up? I agree with Mr Chappell that religions which hold as dogma hard principles of disrespect (or heaven forbid violence) against those of other faiths are not fit for a pluralistic society. However, I disagree that holding strong unwavering belief in axiomatic or dogmatic principles disqualifies one from the public square. In fact, I argue that this is a problem that all men would fall prey to in some situation or another. Therefore it is how we deal with those conflicts which lies at the crux of the matter. And in that, it is less important that a solution which can be found which is acceptable to all, but instead that a balance found between the laws in place and the belief in the ability to have (ultimately) unacceptable laws changed to stave off the resort to violence (or exodus from the society). It is also worth noting that non-pluralistic societies are under no such compunction, that is there is no outward reason for not holding to strong dogmatic beliefs in a uniform society. Finally I have a notion that a society such as suggested by Mr Chappell as follows:
The right policy is that which the general public would converge upon, following informed ideal deliberation. In reality, that ideal remains out of reach; but we do the best we can. As a deliberative democrat, I hold that we should promote informed deliberation among citizens, in hopes that the best-justified positions will ultimately carry the day.
is exactly such a non-pluralistic society and recent history suggests attempts to non-pluralize a society is accompanied by the deaths of milions.