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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).

Monday, February 20, 2012

Even more about secularism - Will Hutton and Richard Dawkins debate

Well, debate in a very civil and intelligent back-and-forth. I think Dawkins is spot-on on this occasion. Hutton is quite good, too, in his way, though rather confused as to what secularism is all about. I can't entirely blame him, as the word secularism and its cognates are used in various ways. Still, it shouldn't be that difficult to understand what is being spoken about here - essentially the idea that the government should not make its decisions on a religious basis. It should not do things for specifically religious reasons and should not give such reasons when it justifies its policies and actions.

That leaves everyone free to practise her religion and follow whatever canons of conduct it demands, above and beyond those in the secular law, as she pleases. It also allows others not to follow any religious practices or any specifically religious canons of conduct if they don't so wish. You need only obey the laws, which will be made for non-religious reasons. Secularism is closely connected with religious freedom (though not with religious privilege, such as the privilege to impose your views through political force, or the privilege of being exempt from certain laws).

Hutton is also confused about tolerance. Merely trying to persuade people to adopt a religious viewpoint, or to abandon one and become (perhaps) an atheist, is not an act of intolerance. Dawkins puts this well:
That doesn't mean religious people shouldn't advocate their religion. So long as they are not granted privileged power to do so (which at present they are) of course they should. And the rest of us should be free to argue against them. But of all arguments out there, arguments against religion are almost uniquely branded "intolerant". When you put a cogent and trenchant argument against the government's economic policy, nobody would call you "intolerant" of the Tories. But when an atheist does the same against a religion, that's intolerance. Why the double standard? Do you really want to privilege religious ideas by granting them unique immunity against reasoned argument?

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