Seeking Common Ground

Michael Jensen
March 8th, 2011

In debating the issue of same-sex marriage on Facebook (where else?) recently, a journalist friend of mine stated that he had not found any ‘convincing non-religious arguments’ that would prevent a change to the marriage act.

‘Non-religious arguments’: it sounds like a reasonable requirement for any public discussion, doesn’t it? The argument goes something like this. I am certainly free to hold views based on entirely religious reasons; but when I step into the public square, I must shed these and speak in an entirely non-religious way if I am to convince. I might believe that left-handed people ought to be banned from public transport because an angel told me, but in seeking to convince others of this view I need to leave the angels behind and argue on an angel-free basis. Otherwise I am simply attempting to ‘impose my views on others’.

Former British PM Tony Blair encountered this resistance to public religious speech a number of times. He was once told by his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, when he was about to talk about his Christian faith in an interview with Vanity Fair, that ‘we don’t do God’. Later, when Blair said that he was ultimately answerable to God for commanding the invasion of Iraq, he was met with a withering barrage of attacks from media pundits who were alarmed that this might mean a somehow unjustifiable intrusion of the religious into the political at the highest level.

The alarmed reaction that Blair experienced is not because these ‘religious’ reasons are not convincing to many people. Plainly, religious reasons do have an enormous power to convince many people, even in the UK and Australia. Evoking the ‘image of God’, for example, is an extremely powerful component in an argument for social equality. It was heard frequently on the lips of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the years of apartheid. When the leaders of the mainline churches speak, it is evident that they are given a hearing – if not always by the media, then certainly by the wider public. They can in fact openly appeal to the Bible or to theological ideas as part of their public utterances. If they want to get their point across to many people they need not, it seems, have one way of speaking in the cloister and another in the plaza .

It is not then because of lack of effectiveness that there is an appeal to trade only in ‘non-religious’ reasoning. Rather the opposite: the fear is that these religious arguments are all too effective. But it seems as if religious arguments are not open to the kind of scrutiny that non-religious ones are. They cannot convince the non-religious, and so they are imposed (if they can be) by majorities, or by noisy minorities. Secularists want to object that even if these reasons are compelling to lots of people they are illegitimately used as public reasons.

Does public reasoning always have to be ‘non-religious’?

I think three particular questions are worth putting in response to the claim that public reasons ought always to be ‘non-religious’. First: is it in fact the case that the line between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ is as easy to determine as it sounds? An argument based on a passage of the Bible, for example, sounds as if it is obviously going to fall into the ‘religious’ (and therefore illegitimate) camp. But you could easily make a case that the Bible has an historic moral authority in Western culture, government and law quite apart from any sense that it is the revealed Word of God, as orthodox Christians hold. For example, an appeal to Jesus’ teaching to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ would be entirely acceptable to most people in a public debate. Would such an appeal amount to a ‘non-religious’ reason? Or is it ‘religious’?

Conversely, when a politician makes an appeal to ‘Australian values’ or to ‘the ANZAC spirit’, are these not ‘religious’ claims? When they speak in this way, they draw on a mythology about the past that is not subject to quantification or contradiction in an economic or scientific sense. They are appealing to a sense of civic piety that is arguably every bit as religious as the public utterances of a bishop. In fact, the original meaning of the word ‘religious’, which comes from the Latin word religare (‘to bind, fasten’), had everything to do with the sorts of public duties and civic values of Rome to which the citizenry were bound. ‘Religion’ in this sense is very much part of the public space.

Second: are ‘religious’ arguments so hermetically-sealed that they are not in fact open to challenge and counter-claim from those who do not share them? In many cases, the secular commentator feels quite happy to intervene in religious discourse. As an example we could cite the judgement frequently offered in the media that there are ‘fundamentalist’ Muslims or Christians, and that this is a bad form of religion. From a secular standpoint commentators feel that it is legitimate to criticise the wearing of the burqa or female circumcision (for example).

What’s more, arguments that religious people put forward are not usually as simplistic as ‘an angel told me’, despite the way in which they are often portrayed. Each of the Christian denominations, for example, is in possession of extensive traditions of reasoning from their foundational principles and dogmas – reasoning which is in principle available to be understood and debated by others, especially when it is used to make arguments in favour of this or that public policy. That is not to say that there won’t be significant and passionate disagreement on what constitutes a valid argument, but an argument is better than silence.

If the first two questions were an appeal to secularists to relax a bit about ‘religious’ reasoning into public debate, the third question is one for the Christian church: is it not the case that we owe our neighbours a ‘reason for the hope that is within you?’ (1 Peter 3:15). In other words: in public debate, victory isn’t everything. We could simply say: it is not worth discussing the matter, since enough people accept our point of view without explanation in any case. This is how a lot of politics gets done, unfortunately. I think this would be an unacceptable abuse of the public space. Secularists may not agree with the reasons that we put forward, but it honours the sanctity (if I may use such theological language!) of the process of public debate about our common life if we at least seek to persuade those with whom we disagree.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.