Irrational Religion and the Public Square

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Ken Taylor posts at the Philosophy Talk blog about what we should say about religion in the public sphere if religion is irrational. He's not assuming that religion is irrational, as many have done. He's simply considering what follows from that assumption. Many of the things he says in the post seem right to me. I won't try to summarize all of them. His main point seems to be that it doesn't immediately follow from the idea that religion is irrational that we should exclude religious people from having a voice in the public square. His main reason seems to be that many religious people have good values behind their religion and therefore advocate doing good things. It's where they do things he doesn't like that he worries.

He claims that religious beliefs will tend to have a totalizing effect. It wasn't that clear to me from this post, but in his second post he succinctly explains a totalizing effect simply as the tendency to want laws to force people to do things they don't think are wrong. Now it's pretty stupid to think that's always wrong. Some people think murder is ok, but we don't allow them to do it. So those who take this line will need some specific set of moral views that they think are inappropriate to have laws about. It can't be that the views are based in religious views, because my opposition to murder comes from religious views, as did that of the founding fathers (or at least the majority of them, even if not the most influential of them). He can't do it in terms of a rational argument everyone will accept (if they're being rational) because that would beg the very question he's trying to answer. Just asserting that will not establish the conclusion he wants.

But there's another element that I got the impression he was seeing as part of the totalizing effect, because he talks about it in the same breath. He thinks religious people will tend to be unable to question any of their beliefs, due to their religious beliefs not being subject to reason. I think he's right that this can happen, but he talks as if it's inevitable. I don't agree with that, but I'm not sure this is necessarily bad. What follows is a significant expansion of my comment on his post,

It may well be that if we assume religion to be irrational, then we get the result that the totalizing elements of religion should be kept out of the public square. Still, it's worth recognizing that such a conclusion is still only conditional. The exercise began by assuming religious belief to be irrational. If this discussion is to affect public policy, then we need agreement that religious belief is irrational, and that's not going to happen. In fact, it may turn out that the belief that religious belief is irrational is irrational, and then there might be a tendency to resist rational argument because of an irrational conviction that religion is irrational, thus excluding religion without argument. I think this can happen with some irrational secularists. I don't think this is what's normally going on, but I think it happens. Taylor wants to argue that the religious and the irreligious are asymetrical with respect to the totalizing effect, but I don't think that's necessarily correct. Either can go either way.

If these beliefs that morality should be enforced among all are rationally held, then why shouldn't they have a place in the public sphere? Isn't that what we generally think about murder? It's not as if very many people will be rationally moved by Hitler's attempts to justify what he did. That sounds to me like resistance to rational argument. But you say Hitler isn't rational? Well, that's one of the problems. Hitler started with some premises and reasoned to a conclusion. What most of us dispute are his premises, but that's based on a moral intuition most of us think so obvious that we really can't argue for it. Does that mean it's irrational? Does it mean a totalizing application of it that's immune to argument is improper in the public sphere? I certainly hope not.

What is the Christian philosophers Taylor mentions at the beginning of his post are correct, and it's possible to have rationally justified religious beliefs. I happen to think they're right myself, and I don't even think you need to have any access to why your beliefs are reasonable for them to be reasonable. This is a fairly common view among philosophers nowadays. If they're right, then religious beliefs could very well be rational, and rationally supported religious beliefs seem to me to be every bit as good as rationally supported beliefs that are grounded in secular principles.

Some will argue (and someone did in a comment on the post) that public debate is about convincing people who don't already hold the view that we should adopt that policy, and religious arguments won't convince people who don't hold those particular religious beliefs. That may be. Still, the problem there is that the arguments won't convince, not that the arguments have no place in the public sphere. The arguments have as much place as any other argument. Whether someone will accept their conclusion on the basis the argument gives is not itself a reason to think the arguments don't belong in the debate, because some people might consider them an important consideration, and those people will base their decisions on such matters. If that can be done rationally, I see no reason whatsoever to oppose it.

Besides, I'm not even sure Taylor is right if the views are irrationally held. Will that always lead to a totalizing effect or to the inability to consider rational arguments that might lead one to change one's views? I think in the end most people's moral intuitions are what guide them in approving or disapproving of public policy. For some people, those moral intuitions fit into a religious framework. For others it doesn't. Except in the case of the extremist who will never question any beliefs, the totalizing effect just doesn't seem to me to be present. I consider myself an evangelical Christian, and I consider the Bible to be without error (once it's made clear that figures of speech, rounding of numbers, poetic imagery, and so on can count as making statements that aren't in error). Yet I've changed my mind lots of times on plenty of issues, including ones at the center of philosophical debate, particularly in ethics. I think, therefore, that this insistence that religion leads to this totalizing effect is just insensitive to the facts about what religion requires of someone.

I'm not sure every view I've held has a rational basis. I know many of my current views have no rational argument that could convince someone who doesn't share my basic assumptions. It just seems to me that the same is true of everyone, and some of the most central of my moral beliefs are like this, not because they're based in Christianity but because they're the ones that everyone believes, and no one has arguments for them.

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