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).

Monday, March 08, 2010

Social division with a vengeance!

Taner Edis takes me to task

My colleague Taner Edis, who contributed a fine essay to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Atheists , has, alas, written a new essay over on the Secular Outpost blog, in which he takes me to task for my recent criticism of Gary Bouma.

The main point made by Edis is this:

Secularism, particularly when it extends to public criticism of religion and policies that inconvenience religious communities, is a source of social division. Secularists keeping quiet is, in fact, in the interest of peace and public order in many present circumstances.

So, he argues, if secularists want social peace we will actually abandon secularism and shut up. Or, at any rate, we will cease to advocate the key idea of secularism in the sense under discussion: the separation of church and state.

Needless to say, I disagree. I can't, however, cover all the issues in just one blog post, at least not without making it very long and cumbersome. Consider this to be Part I, and I'll return with the second, and final, instalment tomorrow.

Democracy and disagreement

Let me make one concession at the outset. If I express any controversial idea, there is a trivial sense in which it causes social division. I.e., there will be people who'll oppose me, and we'll be divided by our disagreement. I will fall into one camp, they into another.

Some others may side with me, and still others with my opponents, so there will be, in a trivial sense, division over the issue under discussion. My original controversial idea might have been about the superiority of the Collingwood football team to its rivals (or the superiority of Arsenal, or New Orleans, or whatever choices might be suggested to you by your preferred football code). Or it might be about the rights and wrongs of criminalising homosexual conduct, or about the morality and prudence of embarking on a foreign war (against Iran, let's say, but there always seem to be proposals for foreign wars). So I concede that social division in this trivial sense is caused by any opinion, publicly expressed, on any controversial topic. In this trivial sense, social division is caused by a proposal that the government of my local jurisdiction ignore traditional Christian morality and apply the harm principle when considering such topics as the legality of homosexual conduct.

If this is what Gary Bouma meant when he accused secularists of creating social division, he is correct. We can't express any opinion on anything at all controversial without encountering disagreement, and, so, in a trivial sense, causing division.

Democracies, however, thrive on disagreement. The usual assumption is that disagreements about government policies can ultimately, if not entirely satisfactorily, be resolved at the ballot box. I say "not entirely satisfactorily" because the various political platforms on offer are package deals, and no one may be entirely pleased by the platform of whatever party or coalition obtains power. Democracy is an imperfect system, but it's often been observed that the alternatives are even worse. Thus, we persevere with it, and it does at least have the advantage of tending to weed out the most tyrannical, corrupt, idiosyncratic, or just plain incompetent governments. Parties that are serious contenders for political office will be pushed towards the centre, to fielding candidates with at least some claim to competence, and to acceptance of a certain degree of individual liberty.

Even this can have its downside: while individual liberty is a good thing, centrism sometimes stifles creativity. Still, democratic processes eliminate many opportunities for tyranny, while creating pressures for honesty and competence. Many politicians in democratic states may be corrupt, but corruption is at least frowned upon, and the level of corruption is insignificant by historical standards or those of more authoritarian systems. The point is that democracy is imperfect, yet supportable - and, most importantly for my purpose, that it assumes a measure of robust disagreement within society, at least about political issues.

When secularists argue for freedom of speech, the harm principle, separation of church and state, and so on, we merely do what democracy requires. Our opponents can reply with arguments that the state should be more theocratic, more responsive to distinctively religious morals, and so on. They can, for example, argue that homosexual conduct should be banned on the ground that it is condemned in the Bible. If they say such things, they will meet with disagreement, perhaps even with disagreement expressed as satire or mockery, but that is part of what democracy is all about.

So yes, when secularists argue that the state should not impose religion or religious morality we do, in a trivial sense, create division. That is, we provoke disagreement and argument. Does that mean we should shut up, or at least adopt a unilateral code of niceness that excludes mockery and satire? Of course not. The alternative is that we acquiesce in the contrary view, that religion or religious morality should be imposed by state power - either we don't oppose that view at all or we do so with one hand tied behind our backs. But once that view is accepted and acted upon by the state, social division will be taken to a new level.

Instead of the state permitting a vast range of religious (and moral) positions to exist side by side without their adherents suffering persecution, the state becomes a site for realistic contests to determine just which controversial religio-moral views will be imposed by force, even on those who disagree. Once the state brings force against those who disagree, the stakes are upped enormously. Those who lose out in the political struggle no longer have the choice of living side by side, and openly, with those who disagree with them. Instead, they must either go underground or stand up and resist.

Social division with a vengeance

We don't need to go back to the wars of religion in Europe to see how this happens, though the bloody wars and persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries should not be dismissed as irrelevant. If Western countries have had few religious wars, persecutions, insurrections, and so on, for some hundreds of years, that has been because the state has exercised restraint. In a small number of cases, religious sects have, indeed, been overpowered by the state, as when mainstream Mormons in the US were forced, in the nineteenth century to abandon the doctrine of plural marriage. Generally speaking, however, the state apparatus in Western nations has not aimed at imposing a religious orthodoxy, and any persecutions have been directed at easy and unpopular targets such as the Mormons. A revived policy of demanding orthodoxy would lead to evasion of the law, police corruption, estrangement of huge numbers of people, and (very likely) large-scale violence.

Although the state has been reluctant to impose strict religious orthodoxy, it has often adopted large-scale experiments with moralistic laws backed by the prevalence of traditional religious attitudes to bodily pleasure. One relatively recent example was Prohibition in the US, which led to corruption, gangsterism, and other harms on a scale far greater than anything that might have been caused by the legal consumption of alcohol. A current example is the disastrous "war on drugs", which has led to huge numbers of people being locked up in cells and/or having their property confiscated. The number of Americans currently in prison, mainly because of crimes connected in some ways to drugs, is shameful - it looks like a war by the government on its own citizenry.

As long as the war on drugs continues, peaceful drug users must live their lifestyles covertly, rather than openly, and are to that extent excluded from society. Meanwhile, we have seen massive adverse effects in the form of police corruption, organised crime, and acts of violence. All of this is social division with a vengeance!

Consider a paradigm case where religious morality is imposed by force - criminalisation of homosexual conduct. The effect of this is that homosexuals must appear to conform or else face punishment (executions, canings, being locked up, or whatever the local barbaric treatment may be). This compels people to live false lives, drives homosexuality underground, and estranges homosexuals from the mainstream society. This is not merely division in the trivial sense of open disagreement, which is healthy, but in the far more profound sense that we have one group of people, the majority, who are included in society, while another group is excluded and has every reason to feel alienated. If homosexuals are unable to reverse such a situation through democratic processes (and they will be enormously disadvantaged if they try to speak up), then their most obvious option is to live one of the most important parts of their lives covertly.

Of course, they have other options. Some may respond with sufficient violence to make the oppressive laws that they face largely unenforceable in certain districts. Before getting to that point, they may try campaigns of peaceful civil disobedience, and such campaigns are sometimes effective. If, however, the state insists on enforcing laws against essentially harmless conduct that is very important to the people concerned, one outcome will eventually be violent riots. Meanwhile, morally good, otherwise law-abiding people will find themselves not only being disagreed with, or even satirised (something that gays have to put up with in our society), but actually executed, or locked up, or subjected to other outrages. Once again, social division with a vengeance!

Surely it would be better if the state reasoned that its essential goals are worldly, e.g. keeping of the peace, protecting citizens from violence, providing a system of property and a social safety net. Surely it would be better if the state did not operate with any concept of sin. In that case, it would know better than to ban essentially harmless conduct - or even conduct with more-or-less manageable and largely self-inflicted harms, such as drinking alcohol. It would, surely, be smarter if the state followed the harm principle, rather than a principle of enforcing religion or a religion-endorsed morality.

That outcome is more likely to be obtained if it becomes a widely expressed and accepted sentiment that the state ought not to enforce religious and "traditional" views of morality, but ought merely to protect worldly things such as life, liberty, health, and property. This can become part of a political culture, as has happened to some considerable extent in the West. Where attempts are made to undermine that sort of secular liberal political culture, we ought to oppose them unambiguously, rather than risk losing what has been won over hundreds of years.

There may still be debate about how best and how far to protect those worldly things that I mentioned, and there will still be strong disagreements and political rivalries, but at least no one will be harmed and stigmatised for essentially harmless (or mainly self-regarding) conduct. Moreover, if the government's policies are set on the basis of how best to protect worldly things, then the different sides of politics will all have some chance of obtaining real influence (and of gaining power). These are areas where changes can be made and compromise is possible, indeed frequently obtained. On this approach, no one is persecuted or driven underground, except for truly anti-social behaviour (violence, property crimes, and so on). The worst you can suffer from the state, if you are generally honest and non-violent, is taxation to provide funds for the social safety net ... and even the level of taxation will be limited by what the voting public as a whole will accept.

Free speech even for theocrats

I'm not suggesting that those who want the state to be more moralistic or theocratic should themselves be silenced by force (by fines, confiscations, imprisonment, and so on). They have freedom of speech, and attempts to suppress their speech would be just as divisive as attempts to criminalise homosexual conduct. If their speech were censored they would be driven underground and estranged from the larger society. They might ultimately riot if they found they had no other choice to regain their freedom of speech. The speech of moralists and theocrats is not directly harmful, and it is important to them. Even if their policies have no foreseeable prospect of being implemented within a healthy political culture, self-expression is too precious to people for the state to attempt suppress it. Indeed, we all have an interest in the continued expression of ideas that dissent from our own - otherwise, how can be sure that we are right?

Let the theocrats have their say, but let us continue to criticise their views and try to convince the state not to act on them.

In short, theocratic or moralistic speech should be permitted. But it does not follow that the policy prescriptions of theocrats and moralists should be implemented. Quite the contrary, they should not be. Nor should those of us who wish to criticise such policy prescriptions be silenced. If we are criticised, we should not call for the silencing of our opponents (notice that I have not suggested anywhere that Gary Bouma's speech should be banned), but we certainly have every right to defend our position, to criticise the criticisms, and to respond sharply to people who accuse us of being "divisive". Such accusations cheapen the concept of divisiveness, and we ought to say so.

Old-fashioned secularism?

Edis thinks that my views are old-fashioned. Well, it's true that views much like this were expressed as far back as the seventeenth century, notably in the writings of John Locke. Full-blooded versions of them needed John Stuart Mill's writings in the mid-nineteenth century, and they first became commonplace as recently as the 1960s, when governments became serious - at least some of the time - about the harm principle. Issues relating to separation of church and state, and to the harm principle, are still being worked through in Western parliaments and courts.

However, even if I am old-fashioned in my secularism, that does not make me wrong. Plenty of ideas that date back three or four hundred years, or more, have considerable truth attached to them, and we should not adopt some different view just because time has passed. Galileo staunchly defended the Copernican view of the solar system four hundred years ago; that does not mean that it is time for us to return, in a post-modernist spirit, to a geocentric theory. Of course, the views of Copernicus and Galileo needed much refinement, but they were on the right track. So was Locke, even though he knew nothing of the complications that would be caused by mass public education, the welfare state, technological change, and the sexual revolution.

For example, Locke thought that it was okay, or even necessary, to persecute atheists. He was wrong about that, although he provided a secular argument for his opinion, and his ideas need to be updated accordingly. (Briefly, the secular argument was that atheists cannot be trusted to honour their oaths. As it turns out, atheists are as likely to tell the truth in court or elsewhere as anyone else). Locke probably would have approved of laws against homosexual conduct, as he appears to have thought that heterosexual monogamy was crucial to the functioning of society. He was wrong about that, too - it turns out that modern societies can function just fine with a great diversity of sexual choices, especially in an era with highly effective methods of contraception.

By all means, let's update Locke's thinking, but none of that requires us to throw out his key insight, that the state exists to protect the things of this world, not to make us morally good by some religious standard or to promote our spiritual salvation. If anything, Locke did not go far enough. In any event, in a democracy people can disagree robustly about all sorts of things, including about whether Locke was right. But if we go down the path of theocratic or moralistic social policy we will have more than robust disagreements. Apart from all the other reasons for not persecuting people who've done nothing terribly wrong, we'll get social division with a vengeance.

Ironically enough, Edis turns to a much more old-fashioned model for the operation of society than anything imagined by John Locke or John Stuart Mill. That doesn't, in itself, prove that he's wrong, but perhaps we really have learned a thing or two since medieval times. Perhaps the struggle for liberal freedoms has not been in vain. More about that tomorrow, when I examine the proposal from Edis for what strikes me as a multi-cultural dystopia.


Charles Sullivan said...

There is only one part of your argument that strikes me as needing more explanation.

Essentially, it's that if we adopt a unilateral code of niceness that excludes mockery and satire, then the alternative is that we acquiesce in the contrary view, that religion or religious morality should be imposed by state power - either we don't oppose that view at all or we do so with one hand tied behind our backs.

I can understand using mockery or satire and foregoing niceness. However, it's not clear that arguing without satire and mockery leads to acquiescing in the contrary view. There seems to be an important premise missing in this enthymeme.

Russell Blackford said...

But isn't it tying one hand behind our backs? Satire is a potent weapon; why would we forego it if our opponents don't? Indeed, it may be a more important weapon to us than to them. Satire is often all that is available as a counter to those who wield social authority.

Charles Sullivan said...

I seemed to have missed the word "unilateral" when I read your piece. Yes, I agree. If only the secularists excluded satire and mockery we would have one hand tied behind our backs.

The idea of acquiescence in the contrary view seems a bit strong at first blush.

But I could see one arguing that if we forgo the weapons of satire and ridicule when our opponents do not, then we would knowingly be giving them the upper hand. And I guess that could be viewed as acquiescing in the contrary view.

David said...

"In short, theocratic or moralistic speech should be permitted."

Why, thank you for that generous concession. That is mighty white of you.

Greywizard said...

I'm with you on this one, Russell. It seems to me simply obvious that communitarian mediation as the way of maintaining social peace is a recipe for disaster. In fact, the multicultural model for 'secular' society will, in the long run, I think, be seen as simply unworkable as a way of maintaining harmonious relations in a society composed of people from different cultures and religious allegiances.

In fact, I suggest that the only way to maintain harmony in such a society is to allow the kinds of criticism that Taner Edis wants to restrict. What this kind of criticism can do is to help create a homogeneous public space in which people who, in private, may follow many gods, can live peaceably together. In fact, encouraging secular criticism of all belief systems without restriction will have the useful function of leveling criticisms that religions and cultures make of each other - and this is something that no amount of pleading is going to end, since most religions include, as intrinsic parts of themselves, rejection of other religions, and often specific, named religions at that. Most religions also disadvantage one or other group in society, as well, whether women, homosexuals, or just ordinary lay people.

Religions may not like to be criticised, but it's only by means of criticism that their totalising claims - and practically all religions make such claims - can be moderated and contained.

One of the problems with Mill's liberalism is that it was developed in a society which had already learnt many of the painful lessons of allowing religions free rein in shaping society. Much of the work of developing conditions in which Millsian liberalism could flourish had already been done by people like Milton, Locke and the 18th century philosophers like Hume, Smith, etc. The introduction to this largely pacified mix, of (predominantly) Christian traditions, of religious traditions that have not had the European experience makes it that much more important that we continue to have freely expressed criticisms of all who claim to have the best ideas for how society ought to be organised. Sure, that kind of criticism is, as you say, divisive, but not nearly as divisive as religions have shown, and continue to show, themselves to be.

Anonymous said...

Why, thank you for that generous concession. That is mighty white of you.

Wow. I will never understand why David's views are not taken seriously by bloggers.

-Dan L.

Unknown said...


Nairb said...

Secularism, particularly when it extends to public criticism of religion and policies that inconvenience religious communities, is a source of social division. Secularists keeping quiet is, in fact, in the interest of peace and public order in many present circumstances."

I really appreciate your staunch defense of secularism.
I think there is perhaps a stronger argument.

Firstly I think there is some confusion of secularism and free speech, two seperate concepts.
It is not secularism that allows criticism. It is laws on free speech.

Secularism only says that the the government has to be strictly neutral/blind to religon. In other words it recognises none.

Now for "Policies that inconvenience religous communities".

Here secularsim may be the origin of such "inconvenience".But it is based on a well known fundamental principle the law or the constituution.
What Taner Edis seems to not realise here is that the state is ABOVE the various religous communities and has a special "contractual" relationship with EACH and ALL individuals of the state.

If individuals are inconvenieced by this than there are standard mechanisms to deal with it- elections, law making, constitutional changes etc.

Secularists do not have to keep quiet becasue they are simply asking for application of the law.( which does not allow interference of religion in the state).