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).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

richarddawkins.net and Freedom of Religion and the Secular State

It's nice of richarddawkins.net to promote the book in this post. I'm grateful for this, and I thank Mike Cornwell and/or Richard if he was involved personally and/or whoever else was responsible (it wasn't prompted by me).

I've got to say that some of the comments on the thread are discouraging, beginning with the very first one. This is just one case where the sorts of comments made in that forum don't seem, to me, to reflect the thoughtfulness, seriousness, and fairness of Richard Dawkins himself.

Okay, okay, I get that we don't think religious doctrine should influence the law or politics. That's pretty much what the book argues. But we do get an intersection of these three things in practice, and this is important enough to merit examination and critique. Religion, law, and politics interact all the time, constantly in dialogue and influencing each other. If we don't think that should happen, or if we want to limit or structure how it should happen, we need a theory as to why. And it's no good simply saying that religious doctrines are all false. We're in real trouble if atheists are the only people who'll accept some kind of functional separation, or distance, of religion from law making and politics. That separation can't await the mass deconversion of, say, the United States of America. Furthermore, such separation as does exist is under constant challenge.

In fact, I think that there are good reasons for a functional separation of religion and political power ... and once they are explained they should be attractive not only to atheists but also to many (perhaps most) religious people. But they need to be articulated in a clear, modern, accessible way. I don't know of any book that has done this really well: too often, highly controversial ideas in political philosophy are relied on; or else the argument is only accessible to law professors; or else it's rather crude and unconvincing; or else it just doesn't deliver what it claims (too often, only a very weak separation is really argued for, and the most important aspects of separation may not be the ones that actually get advocated).

I've made an attempt to do this job ... to fill the identifiable gap.

And I try to work through the implications, examining the relationship between secular government and the classic liberal views of people like John Stuart Mill. That takes me to the implications for hot-button topics relating to freedom of religion - such as the burqa - and to large topics in liberal thought, such as freedom of speech.

Whether or not I've done a good job of this remains to be seen. It's not up to me to judge, and maybe the book will end up being a failure. Perhaps, for all I know, it will encounter powerful criticisms. At the least, it will encounter controversy.

For all that, I'm proud of my work at this point. It's nice that the book will see publication next month. But knee-jerk dismissal of such an exercise as either unimportant or easy doesn't exactly inspire me. The job is neither unimportant nor easy.


Legal Eagle said...

Personally I look forward to the book. And as a lawyer who is agnostic and of no particular religion, I do not think law can be separated from religion because historically, many legal systems have their genesis in religious belief. Think of the 10 Commandments, for example. One can't just pretend that religion didn't (or doesn't) influence law. In fact, I have referenced the Talmud in a legal article before because it contained an interesting analysis which may inform the development of our law in this present day. Same goes for politics really.

Russell Blackford said...

You must see some limits, though. Surely you don't think, for example, that it would be okay for the Victorian or NSW government to enact a law tomorrow requiring everyone to become a Roman Catholic.

And I actually doubt that the ten commandments have any influence on the law in modern nations. Look at what they actually contain when you go through them one by one, such as laws against making graven images (perfectly legal), laws against "coveting" other people's spouses (perfectly legal), etc. About the only overlap between our laws and the ten commandments are laws against murder and theft - but any society will have to have some kind of law against its citizens killing each other, plus some kind of property system that is then enforced by political power.

We have good secular reasons to keep laws against murder and theft, and to protect the legal system with some sort of law against perjury. But if someone actually tried enacting a law against graven images, on religious grounds, I think we'd be pretty upset (and we'd hope that it would fall afoul of some kind of constitutional provision).

Unknown said...

Blog commentators frequently indulge in idle chatter -- I wouldn't worry about what they say. Personally, I think that your book looks very interesting. I look forward to getting my hands on it when I can.

Sean Wright said...

It looked to me as if the commenters didn't really have an interest in the book. They took what they thought the book was about and railed against it. Very shallow thinking and engagement with ideas and stating there own personal views without a view to what is practical/realistic.

Aegist said...

RE 10 Commandments, I was surprised to find out recently that the 10 commandments that everyone knows and loves to talk about, aren't the commandments that Moses brought down the mountian carved in stone... Those ten commandments were about owrshipping god, keeping the sabbath holy, maintaining certain traditions and gems like "Do not cook a baby goat in his mother’s milk."

It is point 4 in this list anyway for more details: http://www.atheistconnect.org/2011/07/31/the-top-10-shocking-things-christians-don%E2%80%99t-know-about-the-bible/

Anonymous said...

Yes, Russell,I saw the comments in question (on the Dawkins page re your book, right?).Interesting you say all of that because I , too, felt people took the blurb (technical word, that, lolz) on a wholly superficial reading. (and you know I speak as a C-c-c-c-c Catholic :)))
I agree totally that the three intersect often and should not; we live in a secular society and that seems the fairest way to travel. Your thesis is reasonable and merits serious consideration. Mishy Godard Dunleavy

Legal Eagle said...

Of course I think there's limits. But you can't say "no religion ever enters into the law."

So - our laws are secular and rightly so. But if one seeks to understand laws against theft, or murder, one has to understand the historical (and therefore the religious) origins of such a law. That's all I'm saying. And just because a law has a religious origin does not render it worthless if it can be justified on rational grounds.

Russell Blackford said...

The "justified on rational grounds" bit is the important bit, I think. In fact, I'm even prepared to put up with a bit of religious legacy if it's not coercive, even if it couldn't be justified on rational grounds if it were introduced today. Repealing some provision might have a different effect on the life of the polity than not enacting it in the first place.

This is a bit cryptic, though, and there are many kinds of situations. More in the book. ;)