Religious Values in Public Debate

1. There is a tendency by some to frame the issue as: look, more and more fervent and stronger religious arguments in the public square.

2. The danger is that “religion” is thought of in derogatory terms e.g. irrational.

3. This assumes that only ‘secular’ views (humanism? Darwinism? Nazism? Fascism? Communism? Liberalism?) are “rational.” Or “neutral.” Very big assumptions.

4. Some argue: in a polity with disparate views, only allow ‘rational’ views which we can all accept. This is a very basic liberal argument designed to shut down certain moral voices by calling them ‘religious.’ It is an attempt to silence the opposition. It is censorship and undemocratic.

5. A religious person may speak to public policy out of religiously-shaped convictions (as much as a secular humanist speaks out of humanistically-shaped convictions) but does himself no favour by appealing to religious text for authority in a multi-religious setting. We all appeal to different sources of authority – Bible, Koran, sevenfold path or abstract values like ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’ – we should speak to the common good, not try to ‘impose a religious (or non-religious) worldview.’ That is, in the public square, we persuade by force of the better argument i.e. examine the merits of an argument, not its origin.

6. If secular argument is liberal or empirical argument, remember we cannot derive an ought statement (moral principle, point of evaluation) from an ‘is’ observation. O, here is a man killing another man. Is it good or not? Secularists also appeal to a priori or metaphysical premises to locate value. Read Stanley Fish: Are there Secular Reasons?

7. Rawls and overlapping consensus: the function of public debate is “to reach consensus about conclusions, but not necessarily consensus about the reasons for the conclusions.”

8. So, what does secularism mean and what does secularism require?

a) Is it a substantive ideology? Liberal ideology in disguise?

b) Is it a procedural framework: all faiths co-exist and compete for acceptance? All citizens with faith based convictions (secular or otherwise) may speak to public debate.

9. There is no neutral grounds. Indeed, assertions about neutrality are rarely neutral. What’s so neutral about neutrality?

The Illusion of Moral Neutrality

The Intolerance of Tolerance, DA Carson:


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