Freedom of Religion or Freedom from Religion?

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There’s a curious tension in attitudes towards religion in modern society. Freedom of religion is a well-established human right and few people in Western democracies, whether religious or not, would wish to deny it. At the same, the view that religion should play little or no role in public life is very common. In fact, many people hold both views, advocating a freedom of religion in terms of personal belief and a freedom from religion in terms of public life and debate. In a recent article, I drew on some of the ideas of the philosopher Roger Trigg in his book Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatized (Oxford University Press, 2007) in my discussion of Human Rights without God? Here I pick up on some more of his views on this related topic.

Why think that religion should be excluded from public debate? Trigg discusses the views of philosophers such as John Rawls, Robert Audi and Richard Rorty on this matter. Rawls, for example, emphasizes the need for what he calls public justification of beliefs, which is roughly that beliefs need to be justified in a way that is acceptable to everyone. The focus is on reaching agreement and so we need to find approaches that we can agree upon to resolve differences. In this context, religion is often contrasted with science: it is claimed that science can resolve differences whereas religion does just the opposite. Rorty claims that religion becomes a ‘conversation-stopper’ because any particular religious viewpoint is only relevant to people in a particular religious community and so is of no use in public debate.

Against this, Trigg argues that Rorty plays down the role of disagreement in science. Scientific knowledge is at best partial and must be open to challenge and revision. Of course, there is scientific agreement on many issues, but disagreement is also prevalent, whether it is competing models in cosmology, explanations for the extinction of the dinosaurs, or causes of a given disease. This in no way diminishes science. Trigg believes that science gets at the truth about what the world is like, but he also emphasizes that ‘disagreement is the life-blood of science, and the bed-rock of democracy’ (p. 203). It is of course true, that any relevant scientific knowledge (or other type of knowledge) should be brought to bear on the topics of public concern and political debate, but in most cases science cannot resolve disagreements about what should be done. On debates about abortion, for example, disagreement mostly arises from diverging moral, not scientific, views.

For this reason, Trigg also rejects Rawls’s doctrine that only what people can agree should be admitted in the public arena. The point of a democracy is to handle disagreement and “there is no need for democratic negotiation or for politics at all if everyone in a society is in perfect agreement” (p. 203). In democracies, divergences of belief arise on all sorts of topics. As Trigg points out, ‘We all have different understandings and commitments, but that does not mean that public reasoning cannot take account of them’ (p. 204). As in science, such differences should be a spur for public, rational discussion. ‘The idea that any idea cannot be expressed and publicly discussed is a restriction on the very idea of democracy’ (p. 206).

Disagreements about morality and human rights can be just as profound as disagreements about religion, but clearly debates involving these kinds of disagreements cannot be side-lined. However, as we saw in the previous article, Trigg argues that if we are to take human rights seriously, we cannot ignore the grounds for their justification; yet it is arguably in the context of belief in God that the best justification can be provided. Religion, however, is of considered to be out of bounds and is put into a separate category. Why is this? As Trigg points out, ‘Only if religious views are not regarded as being rationally held in the first place, could discussion be inappropriate. This is a convenient position for those who wish to marginalize religion.’ (p. 206).

Rorty argues, religious believers can and should be granted religious liberty, but to secure this liberty they need to be willing to privatize their beliefs. This view is becoming increasingly common and leads to the tension noted at the start of the article. Far from being a solution, however, this makes matters worse since all religious beliefs end up being treated in the same way, equally side-lined from public debate irrespective of their contributions to the common good ( and “the common good”, as Trigg points out, is a phrase with a Christian pedigree). And this reinforces the idea that all religious beliefs are irrational since ‘the inescapable conclusion must be that if all religions are treated alike, and “religion” as such is to be treated as one, undifferentiated category, it is being tacitly assumed that they are all equally silly, and beyond the scope of reason.’ (p. 33).

At Saints and Sceptics we’ve given plenty of reasons for the rationality of belief in God and the claims of Christianity. Of course, we recognize that not everyone will agree with our conclusions, but there is no good reason to think that disagreements cannot be discussed in a rational way and so no good reason to think that religious belief should be privatized. In a democracy, religion should be allowed to contribute to public debate as should secular viewpoints. One side should not be allowed to marginalize the other by conveniently defining the rules in its own favour.

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