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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Friday, December 28, 2007

Church and state - at least somebody gets it

Well, two people.

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle about church and state in the pages of The Australian in the past few days, but it was summed up well in yesterday's edition by a letter headed "Separation of church and state are essential to democracy", attributed to Rod and Annabel Crook of Sandy Bay, Tasmania.

The letter points out that, over the long history of religious and other conflicts, democratic political institutions developed, and came to see a separation of religion from the power of the state as essential. Democracies have solved religious conflict by embracing the idea of equal citizenship for all regardless of differences in religious and moral belief, opinion, and practice. This solution requires toleration of such differences and a willingness not to impose practices on others that are deeply unacceptable to them. In a modern pluralist society such as Australia, we have a wide range of religious and moral views in the community, and governments should not be so unwise as to impose a particular view on all, forcing many people to live in ways that they cannot accept.

It follows, for example, that we should be reluctant to compel abortions (even in circumstances where the state's bureacrats, or an electoral majority, would consider them wise) or to criminalise them (even though some people consider abortion to be morally equivalent to murder, and they may sometimes be in the electoral majority). Likewise with euthanasia and many other issues.

This analysis is exactly right. Of course, commitment to such an ideal embodies some beliefs - e.g., that there is value in the political ideas of liberty, tolerance, equal citizenship, and the rule of law. But those distinctively political beliefs are accessible to people from a wide range of comprehensive worldviews.

Unfortunately, some comprehensive worldviews really may be incompatible with modern political ideas. That seems to be the case with extreme, politicised versions of Islam (but I am not at all convinced that Islam itself lacks the resources to embrace liberalism and modernity). It also applies to the dogma espoused by the Catholic Church's ultra-conservative leadership, but not to most ordinary Catholics, who are tolerant enough in my experience.

Certainly, there are folk in the community (such as those to whom the letter responded) who want to have things all their own way, and are willing to bring their particular sectarian views to the table of political debate, with the aim of imposing them through the coercive power of the state. By modern political standards, that is unreasonable and intolerant.

Such people ought to be given short shrift in public debate. They can say what they want, of course, but unless they can translate their views into adequate secular terms the rest of don't have to listen.

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