About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Why can't we just argue for secularism? Why be so nasty?"

Please note the inverted commas in the title of this blog. It's often asked why we horrible "New Atheists" actually have to criticise religion. Why be so nasty? Why not just argue for secularism, for a separation of church and state? This is asked so often, that it's hard to think of the best example - any ideas, anyone, of the locus classicus of this argument, so we can cite it?

It sounds vaguely plausible, but it is totally wrong. Reading Michael J. Perry this week has brought home to me even more strongly just how wrong it is. What our religious friends often mean by "separation of church and state" is that the state does not interfere with the activities of the church, but the church is free to persuade the state to impose a religion-based morality on the citizens - including (or especially!) citizens who reject that morality. With relatively minor qualifications, Perry argues for something like this, as do other high-profile Christian scholars working in such areas as legal philosophy and constitutional law. Less erudite versions of the same doctrine are widely adopted by Christian leaders from the Pope down and accepted by ordinary Christians. This is the real world that we live in, a world where there is no consensus for accepting the harm principle and other liberal principles (and where such phrases as "freedom of religion" can be given Orwellian meanings by people who wield power and influence).

I think this is an absurd and unfair interpretation of the idea of separation of church and state, but that's not the point. In the real world, politicians often do use the law to impose their specifically religious morality, in the absence of any strong or even plausible secular case for what they propose to do. They do so with a clear conscience, believing that this is legitimate. Many lobbyists and electors applaud, and even urge them on. And that means that it is, at least covertly, always an election issue just which religious morality if any is actually correct. Which further necessitates that there is no choice but to enter into arguments about whether the holy book that a religious morality comes from really is divinely inspired ...or whether it is a human construction entrenching many of the barbaric moral assumptions of an earlier time. In the real world, we have no choice but to scrutinise the claims of religion and persuade as many people as possible that those claims are actually false, or at least doubtful. I wish there were less urgency about this, and that we could all be nicer about it, but that's not the world we live in.


Daniel said...

We criticise religion because beliefs matter. In so far as a proposition is actually held to be true, it will influence the actions of the person.

In a democracy, everyone has a vested interest in their neighbour's beliefs.

It seems so obvious, yet even in a country like Australia people pick up the concept of "each to his own" and run with it way way too far.

Charles Sullivan said...

I think, along with Dennett, that religions have established a powerful meme of non-criticism, a protective blanket of automatic respect.

This magic blanket is so powerful that it even influences peoples of other religions and, what's worse, non-believers as well (ala Chris Mooney).

It really is about time we hold religions' feet to fire.

Sean Wright said...

Just reading Wallace's Purple Economy it seems that in Australia separation of church and state means, that the state gives the church money through tax concessions, funding for social welfare and education while the state buts out of religious decisions to discriminate against women and homosexuals.

That Guy Montag said...

I've managed only my second ever email to a radio programme yesterday. I emailed BBC Radio 4s today programme over a report of theirs into the Anglican General Synod and calls for more deference from the media. What startled me was that in order to defend BBC coverage of religion they brought on the BBC's head of Religion and Ethics and that I think sums up the problem.

As anyone who understand the Euthyphro knows, there is no place for religion in ethics except on ontological grounds. Because religious ontology is so shaky there is therefore no place for religion in ethics. The problem is the religious say it so often and the claim is never properly challenge, so it's become accepted. I suspect that this is a bigger problem than the presumption of respect.

I think what this also shows is that the current tactic, pointing out things like paedophile priests and the moral failures of the religious, isn't the right one and I suspect that's because it always takes a lot of analysis to go from an individual wrong to a general principle.

My point is roughly then that the failure is that people don't grasp that the only ethical systems we human beings have are in fact secular; it's a failure of philosophical competence on the part of most commentators.

Unknown said...

The religious can break someone's jaw and get a friendly slap on the wrist. We atheists can't even raise our voices, can't even use italics in our blog posts, without being called "nasty".

Sean P said...

I couldn't agree with you more. I believe the state of affairs everywhere demands that secular minded people continue to speak out and agitate for a meaningful examination of religions claims to authority. If you haven't already I strongly recommend reading Austin Dacey's "Secular Conscience". I would love to hear you opinion.