On The Idea That Religious Arguments Shouldn’t Be Used In Democracies

It is approaching a truism that religious believers ought to be free to believe what they like but they cannot impose that belief on others.

It seems like a good argument. There are countless examples where religious people make bad arguments, not just in terms of their logical construction but their effect. We want our civic deliberation to be driven by frameworks that don’t exclude and there is a fear lurking with good reason that thick theological convictions alienate voices. I can understand why people use this line of argument. I can see why it has gained such widespread appeal. It is received truth for a reason.

Like most received truth, we would do well to reject it.

Firstly, it posits a situation that isn’t real. Religious believers regardless of the strength of their influence, whether in Ireland or the deep south of the US or the islands of Greece, are unable to impose their beliefs on others. The imposition of belief, the coercion of intellectual assent is quite simply impossible.

If we narrow the claim and enquire whether religious people are capable of imposing legal strictures that arise as implications from belief, then we enter into the territory that is possible. Possible in theory, impossible in practice (at least in the sphere of the world I live in and most of my readers live in). There is no situation in the western world where a religious group is strong enough to impose its will on any single serious issue of law without reasoning that is more amenable to general discourse. In other words, where laws are passed that are religiously inspired (for example: the ban on abortion in Malta, the immigration reform passing through the US parliament, Sunday trading laws in Germany) are imposed because the argument gains tractions on grounds other than theology or revelation.

But this leads into the second reason why the “religious people can be religious in private but their religious beliefs shouldn’t play a part in the civic contributions” argument achieves ends directly counter to the intention. It alienates a large number of people from the public square.

Let me unpack that claim.

What does it mean to live in a scientific age?

It means, among other things, that certain formulae are lights that we live by. So we “believe in” Newtonian physics. Now when we say that we don’t mean that people dedicate a block of their brain to recognise the truth that

Every point mass attracts every single other point mass by a force pointing along the line intersecting both points. The force is proportional to the product of the two masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

Most people don’t know that by rote. But rather they live it out by trusting certain things that are constructed as a result of it. These constructions can be conceptual or concrete. The trustworthiness of their car, the bridge their car drives across, the sign posts warning people about the dangers of falling off the bridge are all, in one way or another, dependent on living in a scientific age. The age we live in describes gravity in particular formal ways. The formal definitions are not what matters in the course of life lived so much as the things we build with them.

Now what holds for scientific doctrine holds for all doctrine- political, theological, aesthetic… whatever. People become convinced of things in the same complex, human way. So when someone holds that there is a God and he carefully created the Cosmos and he is Triune, what matters for public discourse is not that this position is “religious” (it is) or that it is “irrational” (it is not) but that it leads to trust being placed in certain things and worth being attributed to certain things. Thus, to use an obvious, knock-down argument, the American civil rights campaign of the 1960’s was a theological movement. It expressed itself, ultimately, as politics but in the nuts and bolts of what was going on, we were seeing what “religion” looks like.

What does it mean for people to have a right to hold religious beliefs “in private”? It means that private citizens are bound to express themselves politically and culturally in public in ways shaped by their religious imagination.

When approached right, this is simultaneously inevitable and un-worrying. If the rationale for political or cultural convictions remains ensconced in the vocabulary of the theological community from which it arises, then the public movement will gain no traction. If however, the movement does gain traction, it will win support not from brainwashed, religiously benighted fools, but by democratic citizens whose imaginations have been captured by a picture of the potential future that excites them.

To exclude religious reasoning from the public sphere is either irrelevant (because no one will support my campaign to reform and liberalise Ireland’s asylum policies if I simply argue that Jesus was a refugee and hence Christians must welcome all refugees) or a blatant power play (because the large minority of people who are “pro-life” get written out of the conversation if their opinions betray any trace of metaphysical speculation).

You can’t have a naked public square. When you think you have achieved it, it will be dressed in the uniform of tyranny.

Your Correspondent, His spine is unbreakable, because it is made of jelly

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