Some Thoughts on Cities, God, and a Test Case

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.

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  1. I think I agree with you here. 🙂

  2. […] Olson writes in response to Richard Chappell (below) on religion, reason, and the public square. It’s a provocative challenge, I think, and I look forward to Chappell’s response: 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. […]

  3. Richard says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful response!

    First of all, let me clarify that I am in no way endorsing attempts to force convergence. I was more just suggesting that truth (or “rightness”) can be defined as that which a rational society would ultimately converge upon in the long run. That’s a theoretical suggestion about the nature of truth, not a practical recommendation of totalitarianism! Actually, the society I’m recommending is highly pluralistic, in that different opinions must be tolerated and debated fairly — indeed, they must be given genuine consideration — and the majority is not justified in simply imposing their will, etc.

    On to the core of your critique: I don’t think it’s true that all people are dogmatic in their dependence on unrevisable axioms. I reject foundationalism in favour of coherentism. That is, I think the axiomatic model should be replaced by Quine’s “web of beliefs”, or a crossword puzzle, where all our interconnected beliefs are mutually reinforcing, but any one of them is potentially subject to change (if, for example, it could be shown that its negation fits better with our other beliefs).

    Now, you ask, who exactly do I invite to the public square? All and only those who show civic respect to their fellow citizens, and thus a desire to deliberate together in inquiry towards discerning the common good. This requires receptivity and fallibilism. That is, they grant the possibility that their present views may be mistaken, and so give genuine consideration to their opponents’ critiques. In short, they are open-minded and willing to change their mind if faced with sufficient reason to do so.

    What I describe here are individual character traits that are independent of anyone’s first-order beliefs. There are dogmatic catholics, and open-minded catholics; dogmatic atheists, and open-minded atheists, etc. In each case, it is only the open minded who are capable of contributing to a pluralistic democracy. Dogmatists aren’t interested in collaborating with others; they simply want to bend them to their pre-determined will.

  4. Mark says:

    You may be right that not all people are dogmatic in their dependence on axioms with which they refuse to revise. And I realized that you aren’t recommending totalitarianism.

    However, I don’t think it’s right that you need to restrict your public square so narrowly. I think you need merely restrict it to people do not entertain violence as a means to do so. In my example, I don’t think you need exclude from the public square people who are fixed and unwavering in their opinion on abortion from the public debate/square, just those who resort to violence. Their receptivity (notions of the error of their position) might very well be limited only to the idea that the best legislative solution to the conflict of ideas has not been found.

    Thus a pluralistic society need not restrict itself to people who are open to change, but that it just must allow for each the possibility that their view may prevail to act as a safety valve for the impulse to violence.

  5. Richard says:

    Hi Mark,

    The worry I have with that is that you end up condoning legislative violence, i.e. a majority using the law to force others to conform to their personal dogmas without any common/public justification for doing so. That’s easy enough for a Christian in today’s America, of course. But what if you lived in a society that happened to be mostly Muslim? Would you be happy for them to “peacefully” impose laws on you without the slightest regard for your own views and reasons? Isn’t that plainly oppressive? So why is it any better when your friends do it to me?

    P.S. Your first sentence was meant to read “not all people”, right?

  6. Mark says:

    I fixed the comment (it being my blog and all), and yes you were right, my mistake.

    Well, a few points in response:

    • First, I’m not suggesting we get away from the court systems, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights. In fact, one might argue that those are essential in order to both protect us from a majority enforcing those notions (dogmas?) which are explicitly excluded from the public square. My example, if not clear, was wherein Sharia law prescribes death to a Muslim who leaves the faith. This is an explicit dogmatic teaching which directly proposes violence to be done to those who (now) disagree with you. It is that sort of dogma that is excluded. If however, I am unbending on my opinion that life is more important than a (smallish) imposition on autonomy, that is a dogma of a different sort, because it doesn’t inflict the same sort of violence on the person who doesn’t believe the same as I.
    • Second, in a situation where a Muslim (or whatever other group … say for example Roe v Wade and those who feel autonomy must trump life) inflict their laws on me. Well, so long as I have a notion that within the framework of the system I can address change, then I don’t need to go outside of the system to address that change.
    • Here’s how I see our difference in opinion so far, with abortion again as the example. You would claim that in the public square we it would be preferable if those people who feel that their particular view of abortion is fallible are receptive to revising that view are contributing to the debate. My view is that everyone but those resorting to violence should be involved and furthermore all parties must have the notion that their view might someday prevail (to help avoid the tendency to circumvent the system). Compromise and other legislative sausage-ology is the one of the ways by which the tendency to violence between different strongly held views such as these is kept to a minimum.
  7. Mark says:

    Oh, and I hadn’t noticed, but what do you mean by,

    So why is it any better when your friends do it to me?

    What is that about? Where did that remark come from?

  8. Richard says:

    Oh, that was just to make the point vivid, contrasting us as a generic Christian and non-Christian, respectively.

    Anyway, I don’t think you’ve addressed my point about legislative violence.

    I think there are reasonable secular pro-life arguments that can be made, but setting that aside for now, let’s imagine that a religious majority is set on criminalizing abortion for private reasons (and aren’t receptive to opposing arguments). Now suppose that a pregnant non-Christian ignores this edict, and continues to go about her own life peacefully — including a visit to a non-Christian abortion doctor. Are they left in peace? No, the religious majority calls out the police and lands them in forced confinement (jail) — on threat of police violence if they resist this intrusion.

    How is this any different in principle from, say, a religious minority hiring a gang of thugs to go around intimidating those in abortion clinics? Do the thugs magically become legitimate when they’re supported by 50% of the population? Come on.

    Re: Sharia, you don’t need anything so extreme as being put to death. Just suppose that the Muslim majority pass a law saying that females are not allowed to leave their home without a male relative escort. (Or a radical feminist majority who do it vice versa.) Would you really accept that?

  9. Richard says:

    Actually, I agree with your central response: “Well, so long as I have a notion that within the framework of the system I can address change, then I don’t need to go outside of the system to address that change.”

    But that’s why receptivity is crucial. It means that you can effect change, by convincing those who currently oppose you to change their minds. If a majority is dogmatic/unreceptive, however, then there’s no way “within the framework of the system” that peaceful change can happen. They’re stuck in their ways, and the minority is stuck being oppressed, unless they do something radical about it. Surely our democratic theory should seek to avoid this…

  10. Mark says:

    All legislation is a form of institutionalized violence in some form or another when it is not in line with our ethical standards. But I think Legislative violence is preferred to the other kind.

    On your abortion example, you could equally point out to the scandal impressed on the religious pro-life advocate forced to stand peaceably aside whilst almost a million children are killed in the name of “autonomy”. The abortion supplicant in your example is subject to police violence (fines, imprisonment, or service). The pre-natal infant is dead. Violence occurs in both situations.

    Receptivity is an ethical good in your moral universe, but it is not necessarily so for everyone, e.g., most of the faithful desire to increase in their faith and understanding of their religion that is “hardening” their dogma. You don’t effect change by swinging those who are convinced. Of some recent notoriety, Ms Marcotte is as likely to change her opinion on abortion as am I. Heck, I don’t even comprehend the POV of the other side in any significant fashion (though I’m still trying). Perhaps I take a longer view of things than you?

    Your receptivity can be found among those who are not yet decided, those who have not actually considered the matter, and the young. Those are they with whom one might seek as audience when seeking to promote change. Additionally, there’s the method which Mr Steyn (America Alone) makes note of at the turn of the century and going forward. Demographics. Breed a majority. As for that … if Mr Steyn is right conservatism in the US and Islam in Europe will overrun their respective areas by means of birth rates.

    The point is, you don’t need to exclude from your polis or theory of democracy those who are not receptive to change. After all, as Mr Chesterton once said,

    Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.

    Keeping an open mind isn’t the end, it’s the means of seeking for the seekers. Once you’ve found what your looking for, what need is there to keep wandering? Furthermore, while it’s true for some that the self-examined life is the only one worth living. But look around, that’s not the choice of most of your fellow travelers. What’s right for you, isn’t necessarily right for everyone. For many, the self-examined life is, I think, distasteful and difficult. This may be one of the attractions of dogma. But, does that make it so bad a priori? Legislative violence is ultimately unavoidable. The is no alternative except using just another form of violence if you insist on a means of insuring that we all remain wandering to be good members of the polis.

  11. Richard says:

    I think Legislative violence is preferred to the other kind.

    This is really the fundamental question of political philosophy: when is the State legitimate? I think it has to meet certain standards (in particular: responsiveness to reasons). But I guess that’s a topic for another post — one I’ll hopefully write soon.

    Note that I’m not claiming that civic respect or receptivity is a merely moral good (a virtue like generosity). Rather, I’m suggesting it is a fundamental political value, i.e. a precondition for a well-functioning democratic society. As such, it is binding on citizens qua citizens, no matter their personal moral views.

    (N.B. I would hardly pick Marcotte as a poster child for civic responsibility among pro-choicers.)

    I’m a little concerned about your suggestion that all old people who have considered an issue and drawn their conclusions will thereby be dogmatic about it. I mean, my own views are generally quite well defined, and I think they are as well-considered as anyone’s, but still I acknowledge my own fallibility and so remain receptive. (I can’t imagine why that would necessarily change with age, except perhaps that I might gradually become increasingly confident that there aren’t any counterarguments that I’ve neglected. That would never reach absolute certainty, however.)

    For more detail, see my post on open-mindedness: “Open-mindedness means that we will acknowledge the possibility that new evidence could in future lead us to change our mind. But it doesn’t preclude our drawing reasonable conclusions in the present.”

    But beyond the moral virtue of humility, and the epistemic virtue of fallibilism, open-mindedness is crucial for the political virtue of civic respect. The core of my argument is simple enough:

    1. (Legitimate) Politics is the collective endeavour of co-existence, i.e. deciding together how we are to live together.

    2. Receptivity and civic respect are preconditions for this collective activity.

    3. Thus, dogmatism is inherently illegitimate in the political sphere.

    Mind you, just because something is illegitimate doesn’t mean that I’d advocate the use of force to stomp it out. But I’ll at least advocate social censure against it. Dogmatism is bad for democracy, and should be recognized as such.

  12. Mark says:

    When is the state Legitimate? You answer that is Legitimate when it responds to reason. But that’s incorrect I think. The state is legit if its people respect its authority. The purpose of a state is to foster happiness (virtue). And I take authority in the sense described by M. Juvenel in Sovereignty, that is one might note that an authoritarian state, lacks authority which is why it must use force. If an entity has authority over a second, the second will obey requests within the sphere of the authority granted to the first.

    I chose Ms Marcotte as an example of a dogmatic person, not a civic minded reasonable one. My point is that she may be an extreme example but that such dogmatism is the rule not the exception. And I think your theory of government should consider the notion that it may be mistaken about the nature of man, that is, that dogma is the rule not the exception and if so, you may be falling into the same trap as Mr Marx (forming a theory of government based on a error in your the idea of the nature of man).

    I’m not quite sure I follow what it means for a civic virtue to be “binding on citizens”. I think your notion of reason, open-mindedness, and so on as required civic virtues flow from assumptions about the nature of government on which we don’t agree (in principle). Although I think in practice we agree on quite a bit.

    Finally, an issue which I’ve been considering of late. John Zizioulas has written that much of the problems which our governments wrestle rest in the problem of “other”. Put simply, the differences between us are good, the division is bad. Much of the problems that our states attempts to address are not going to be amenable to ethical or political solutions for the problem is more fundamental, i.e., one of ontology.

  13. Ruth Joy says:

    This is a terrific exchange and thanks to you both. I’ll just add a couple of thoughts here.

    Richard says that dogmatism should not be welcome in the public square, yet I suspect he is dogmatic when he says that civic respect is a precondition for people in a society deciding how we are to live together.

    Of course, as Mark has pointed out, requiring people not accept dogmas is an unacceptable requirement for participation in a liberal society and is itself illiberal. Saying that core beliefs –for instance the dignity of human life– must be subject to revision or elimination leaves us with people who don’t have much to hold onto in building a coherent identity or a stable society. It is the pseudo- autonomy argument.

    Finally, the trouble with leaving religion out of the public square is that it leaves society with no standard for resolving competing moral claims or for helping us to understand how to act on upon the values that we do agree upon. If, for instance, we agree on the value of tolerance, what and how much must we tolerate? If we agree that human life must be respected, what does that mean in day to day decisions?

    Thanks again to you both for plenty of food for thought.

  14. […] also results in differences in how we view such government might be best constituted. In a recent discussion sparked by the carnival of citizens. I’d like to bring some of that discussion “back to […]

  15. Mark says:

    Note to all, I’m trying to bring this “back to the top”, in this post as noted by the prior trackback.

  16. […] up at Positive Liberty.My post on Religion and Deliberation elicited an interesting response from Mark Olsen (I’ve left a comment there, in turn). Another post, by Ruth Joy, argues that Democracy Needs […]