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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, March 23, 2012

Pew survey shows more Americans are getting wary of religion in politics

Go here to see for yourself. A small majority of Americans actually favour the churches not expressing views on political matters:
Slightly more than half of the public (54%) says that churches should keep out of politics, compared with 40% who say religious institutions should express their views on social and political matters. This is the third consecutive poll conducted over the past four years in which more people have said churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics than said they should express their views on social and political topics. By contrast, between 1996 and 2006 the balance of opinion on this question consistently tilted in the opposite direction.
Sooo ... only 40 per cent think that the churches should express opinions on social and political questions!

That's not, of course, to say that the majority of Americans would reject all policies that are difficult to justify on purely secular (such as utilitarian, for example) grounds. They may not have thought it through in that way. Perhaps, for example, many of them think that the churches should keep out of politics, while they still think the state should enforce various moral ideas that are (as a matter of fact) historically entangled with religion and/or difficult to justify outside of a theological context. There is a difference between being opposed to churches speaking up on social and political matters and being opposed to the enforcement of traditional morality that is (as a matter of fact) entangled with religion.

A small disclaimer - in my case, I'm not actually opposed to the churches expressing views on political matters, though I don't think their expressed views should be based on theological considerations (such as the idea that there is a an inviolable God-given order of nature, or that our sexual organs have "proper" functions within a teleological and sacramental order of things, or simply that certain things are forbidden or commanded by God).

If they wish to put views based on secular considerations such as the worldly harms that many people might suffer if social security payments are not raised, I have no objections. Anyone can say that and I won't object merely because of the identity of the speaker. And even if they do put views based specifically on theological considerations, their freedom of speech to do so should not be impaired.

Still, with whatever disclaimers and caveats we may wish to introduce, this survey provides still another indication that a lot of people in industrialised nations are broadly in favour of secular government. Not only that, there is currently an upward trend. As far as I'm concerned, that's good news. Those of us who argue in favour of secular government are not involved in some kind of futile, merely symbolic battle.

5 comments:

Alan Cooper said...

Why do you think that expressed church views on politics should not be based on theological considerations? Don't churches have the same right as any other groups to express views that are ill-founded and wrong?

Russell Blackford said...

Um, the arguments are in the book -http://www.amazon.com/Freedom-Religion-Secular-Blackwell-Philosophy/dp/0470674032/ref=sr_1_1_title_0_main?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1332490335&sr=1-1 - and have been alluded to on this blog quite often. Briefly, though, for example, the state knows nothing about these otherworldly, etc., matters, is not an institution that is any good at obtaining knowledge of such matters, has no historical record of being able to sort out these matters, has a record of making a mess of things if it even tries, and has as its whole point (or at least what it is historically somewhat useful at) the protection and promotion of worldly interests, or what John Locke called our civil interests.

But that is a very brief summary: you need to read the book to get a fuller version of the argument, with objections considered, distinctions made, etc.

And we are not talking about what the churches have a right to do. They have freedom of speech, so they have a right to say whatever they want, as I mentioned in the post. We are talking about what they should do. They should recognise, for example, that the state is a poor institution for adjudicating theological considerations.

What you have a right to do and what you should do are very different things. You mention one of these things in your first sentence and the other in your second sentence.

Alan Cooper said...

Thanks. That does help, but I may have been unclear in my use of the word "right", and I may have misunderstood your reference to "expressed views".

When I said "don't churches have the same right..." I was thinking of what might be called a "moral right" rather than a "legal right", and by assigning a "moral right" to do something I mean that I should not say that it should not be done (where here I am using "should" in the moral rather than the practical sense). With that sense of "right", what I have a right to do and what I should do are still very different (with the former strictly containing the latter by a wide margin), but what I should not do and what I don't have a right to do are essentially the same. So I don't think my two sentences were really as incoherent as it might have seemed.

With regard to my (mis?)understanding of "expressed views should not be based on.." I was interpreting the phrase as restricting the acceptable internally felt reasons for holding those views rather than either the actual content, or expressed arguments in support, of those views.

I would agree that groups of any kind don't have the moral right to advocate for legislative intervention in "otherworldly, etc., matters", and further that they should not (in the practical sense - just because it won't work) use theological considerations as the basis for their public advocacy of this-worldly positions.

If that is all you meant then, as usual, we have no substantive difference. But we might also agree on a stronger proposition - namely that we *all* (not just churches) do have at least some obligation to ensure that our opinions about this-worldly matters are as correct and well-founded as possible.

Please do let me know if you think what I have tried to express above is still wrong.

Russell Blackford said...

Alan, I don't think I'd accept the ideas of "I have a moral right to do X" means "No one should criticise me if I do X."

Moral rights are tricky, it's not at all clear to me that philosophers are agreed on what it means to have a moral right (or that ordinary people have a clear idea of what it means), and some people have questioned whether the idea is justifiable or even coherent.

But as best I can make out, to say that I have a moral right to do X means that no one should use force or subterfuge, or some other methods, to prevent me from doing X, even if X harms overall utility, or is clearly not in my own interests, or is in some other way contraindicated. But there may still be reasons, even moral reasons, why I should choose against doing X ... it's just that there are also reasons (perhaps even moral ones) why this sort of decision should not be interfered with, beyond persuasion (which still respects my autonomy and that this sort of decision is mine to make.

E.g., I might make a disastrous decision about whom I marry, you can see it is disastrous, it is likely not only to make me unhappy but also to detract from overall utility. Yet, I have the right to make that decision, and you only have a right to dissuade (if you can) or criticise, but not trick me or detain me to frustrate my decision.

So it might be that the decision is someone else's to make as to whether she will put certain kinds of arguments. I.e. she should not only be legally free to do this - the state should not try to stop her - but also she should be considered free to do so in the sense that other people should not attempt to override her will by such means as force or deception. But there might still be reasons why she should not act in that way, reasons that could be put to her in attempts at persuasion, or that could be put to her and others in criticising her conduct.

So, if you want to say that the churches and others have a moral right to put certain sorts of arguments, I could concede that (either because I agree or just for the sake of the discussion) while still saying that they should exercise their moral right of free political speech in some other way.

Russell Blackford said...

On your last couple of paras, are you distinguishing between the sorts of reasons wy I might be against, say, abortion in the first place (perhaps I'm against it because I think it is against the will of God, impedes people attaining spiritual salvation, etc., so I don't want to it to happen) and the sorts of reasons that I can reasonably expect the state to act on (e.g. we need to increase the population in, say, a desperate Battlestar Galactica situation; or I have research that shows abortion leads to women having some kind of depressive syndrome)? No one can really control what leads to people disliking a practice, but politicians and electors can develop a habit of scrutinising arguments and only supporting those that match up with a certain conception of the limited role of the state. We can also ask people to adopt that conception - perhaps by giving them good arguments that it's the correct or best one - and we can also give them arguments as to why they should not argue politically in certain ways if they adopt this (let's say, correct) argument that the role of the state is limited. So I do think we can give people good reasons to limit what arguments they put (and use as the basis for their own votes) in political debates. We could do that even if we thought that, in a certain sense, they had a moral right to say whatever they wanted. Perhaps, indeed, they even have a right to vote on whatever grounds they like (though the ability of their vote to be effective might be voided in some circumstances, e.g. if a new law breaches the constitution).

All a bit complicated, but I don't feel too much compunction in saying that people should have freedom of speech - perhaps even a moral freedom to say what they think - but they can still be criticised if they advocate or justify laws on otherworldly grounds, such as that the law will assist in spiritual salvation conformity to God's will, and so on.