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).

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I've done my radio interview with The Pulse

I enjoyed the interview just now with Hilary Joy. I don't know a lot about 94.7 The Pulse ... but it looks as if you will be able to hear the interview by podcast at some stage if you check out its site now and then. We were talking mainly about the propensity for religious organisations - not necessarily all of them, but all too many of them - to try to prevent criticism of religion, while at the same time they attempt to impose their specifically religious moral views through political power.

I tried to make the point that religious organisations often support "freedom of religion" in the sense that political power will not be used to control their activities. They are, however, not necessarily interested in secular government, i.e., political power being used only for worldly purposes such as personal and collective security and economic welfare. All too often, there are attempts to impose religious conceptions of sinful and righteous conduct through the operation of the law. Thus, we need to be very careful about what is meant when we hear religious organisations and their leaders claiming to support "freedom of religion".

This is, of course, a theme of Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. I didn't get a chance to plug the book in the radio interview, so I'll do so again now. The segment did plug Warren Bonett's excellent edited book The Australian Book of Atheism (which includes my article, "Atheists for Freedom of Speech").


Danuta said...

Yep. That is certainly right. Too many a Saturday afternoon was spent listening to a minister urge his congregation to vote one way or t'other. The only time I was proud of the way the church used it's influence in secular politics was when the Catholic priests in some South American countries rose up with the people to support social and political change. Most of them, however, were excommunicated in the 1980s and 1990s unless they stood down.

Verbose Stoic said...

I've always had a problem with arguments about secular government precluding religions having political opinions or basing support or non-support of laws based on their religiously motivated conceptions of morality and righteous living. In a democracy, it seems to me that at lot if not most of the time we are expected to vote based on our conceptions of morality, righteous living, and the good life. Strongly religious people -- which I, for better or for worse, am not -- base those conceptions on their religion. Why is that somehow worse than humanists basing it on their humanist leanings or me basing it on a Stoic or Kantian leaning morality?

If we want to treat religion like anything else, then it should be treated equally to secular philosophies when it comes to guiding the behaviour of individuals, even in their public life.

Russell Blackford said...

It's all covered in the book, VS.

But of course I've always had a problem with governments making decisions on the basis of "moral" considerations. They should not, in my opinion, be basing decisions about how to exercise power over us on the basis of their views about otherworldly matters such as Stoic metaphysics. They should not even be basing their decisions about how to exercise power on an esoteric philosophy that hardly anyone understands, such as Kant's ethics.

Now, as I say in the book, this is not something that can be proved all the way down to all comers, regardless of their starting points. If someone is insistent that her relgious morality or her esoteric philosophical morality must be imposed on citizens by law at all costs - e.g. if her religion or philosophy, to which she is committed, actually requires this - then I don't believe that there is necessarily a knock-down argument against her. That's because she's probably going to be arguing from different fundamental premises. To persuade her, you'd probably first have to persuade her to give up her starting premises.

However, such a person thereby declares herself to be somethinbg of a danger to all those of us who see the downside of the government taking on such an extravagant role and are not driven by similar religious or philosophical imperatives.

Really, I doubt that anything at all can be demonstrated all the way down to all comers (no matter what their initial premises).

I certainly doubt that any moral ideas or any political ideas can be. At least with scientific questions, there's a chance that people will eventually bump against epistemic principles that almost no one denies. That does not apply in the moral and political arenas.

But I do think that there are powerful arguments for such political ideas as that the state should concentrate on protecting its citizens' civil interests (at least as its core activity), rather than trying to discover and impose the "correct" morality, all things considered. For a start, the state is very ill-equipped for the kinds of otherworldly and esoteric investigations that could help it do that. For another, it will lose its legitmacy in the eyes of anyone who disagrees with its conclusions. At a practical level, there is never-ending disputation, and often carnage, if the state begins to take on such an extravagant role.

On the other hand, though they are powerful, these arguments for secular and liberal government will not convince everyone no matter her starting point.

On the gripping hand, I think they will convince very many people, including many religious people. I think the arguments developed in chapter 2 of the book should be very compelling indeed to people with a wide range of worldviews and starting premises. Many different kinds of people can accept the premises that I am using and come to similar conclusions. Similar arguments from Locke and others have at least half-convinced (I think lots of folks fall into that category) very many people over the centuries. And here is an opportunity to repackage the arguments for a modern audience. I hope that a lot of people who are half-convinced will be fully convinced when they think it through. I hope a lot of people who are sceptical will realise that they are not really committed to the premises that make them so.

Russell Blackford said...

In any event, even if I can't convince you or some others, in the end, that secular and liberal government is a good thing, I may at least be able to convince you and them in the radio podcast, on this blog, etc., that when the Catholic Church and other organisations talk about freeom of religion they empathically do not mean secular, let alone liberal, government. They have a quite different concept in mind.

That concept might not be one that actually bothers you, but it will bother a lot of people, including a lot of religious people, if they understand the difference. Even getting some better understanding of that out there in the community is worthwhile.

Verbose Stoic said...


I think that there's a bit of a misunderstanding here over what my position is. My view follows from democracy and from individual values and choice, not from a direct notion of imposing religious values.

To me, in a democracy, everyone is expected to make their voting decisions based primarily on their own value systems and their own ideas of what makes a life good. We total all of those up and the direction that most of the people think is the way to go is the way that governments should proceed. Not absolutely, of course, since we don't want a tyranny of the majority, but as long as the measures do not directly impact the rights of the minority the will of the majority takes precedence. And to me, we cannot ask people in a democracy to vote based on what is objectively the best outcome because few if any of us are qualified to determine that.

But then when people vote, they will vote based on their own personal values, whatever they are. And politicians, if they want to be elected, will have to appeal to the values that people actually have, whatever they are. My concern about secularized views is that they often seem to suggest that even voting for a policy based on your religious values or a politician trying to appeal to religious values would be an unacceptable violation of a secular state. At which point, my question is why that would be that much different than the acceptably secular values of humanist, Stoic and Kantian philosophies. Even if those values are not yours, they are clearly secular, but I do not see any a priori reason to say that because of that they can be appealed to and religious ones not.

At which point, I think I can argue that this does not treat religious values like everything else, and so violates secular values.

Now, I can see the concern. The worry is that if the religious are the majority that then the laws will be based on religious values, which may be problematic. My reply to that, though, is that that's democracy for you, and trying to limit the values that can be considered in a democracy is only a recipe for not longer having a democracy.

Now, I'm not going to say that this position is yours. It's just one thing that leaps out at me whenever these sorts of value arguments and arguments about imposing values comes up. I don't think it any different to impose liberal values because the majority believe in them than to impose religious values because the majority believe in them. In both cases, we have to protect the right to believe as you will and practice your religion as you will, but beyond that in a democracy majority will should, it seems, carry the day.