How Open is the Secular Mind?

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Why Politics Needs Religion: the Place of Religious Arguments in the Public Square.
Author: Brendan Sweetman
(IVP Academic: 2006)
Reviewer: Graham Veale

Secularism is the new orthodoxy in British politics; our politicians cannot, must not, and shall not “do God”. The Prime Minister might mention that God is important to some people; but not so important that theology could have a role in public policy. There is an unspoken assumption that the Anglican Communion has an important cultural role in England’s green and pleasant land; after all, it excels at organising bring and buy sales. Beyond that, the Church can promote any political agenda that Parliament likes. That is, when the Church dips its toe in politics it must be supporting a cause that could be approved by the secular left or right. Churchmen who oppose gay marriage or stem-cell research are dismissed as evangelical enthusiasts; in the United Kingdom we can be religious, but we must not be enthusiastic about it.

Some theorists point out that government always involves an element of coercion. So an absolute pacifist pays for aircraft carriers, an environmentalist for nuclear power stations. But democracy depends on citizens treating each other as rational decision makers; our laws are meant to be built upon consent rather than coercion. So how can we justly impose a law on individuals who passionately disagree with it? One response is to insist that laws could be agreed upon by every citizen in principle. Secularists insist this means religious motivations and doctrines should never form a basis for a law, or any public policy. The assumption is that religious belief depends on traditions, purported revelations and religious experiences. These sources of belief are unique to each religion; therefore those outside religions could never, in principle, consent to a law based solely on religious reasons.

If we use religious dogma as a source of law we are overriding the rights of those citizens who do not share our religious convictions; they cannot consent to a religious law because they could never be convinced that it is rational. Secular rationality, in contrast, appeals to reasons that everyone can agree on. No matter what else occurs, we must not impose our beliefs on others; so we must protect a democratic society from religious arguments. By excluding all religious arguments from the playing field we create room for a genuine consensus. We simply agree to base public policy on what is empirically verifiable; whatever our worldview we can surely agree on the results of science. Everyone’s rationality is respected.

John Rawls vision for political life also excludes religious arguments from the public square. Rawls notes that in a pluralist society there are competing, and irreconcilable, worldviews. Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Marxists, Buddhists and Hindus simply cannot agree on what is best for humanity. There is little hope of building a political consensus out of these comprehensive conceptions of the good; Rawls also argues that there is little hope of settling the debate between the various religions and ideologies.  There is little hope of moral consensus;   and we need some way of regulating disputes between the various moral communities.

Rawls argues that we must draw on our culture’s liberal political tradition; after all, the liberal political tradition has principles latent within it that most communities respect. Rawls believes that freedom, equality and reasonable standards of public discourse form the basis of a rational society. The different communities should set aside their own conception of the good, and work towards a well-ordered society. A core principle of a rational, liberal society is that religious reasons will not normally have a place in political discourse. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail would be allowed, but only because King’s position can also be supported by secular arguments. We can use religion to rally the troops, but not to form strategy.

Brendan Sweetman’s  Why Politics Needs Religion is, quite correctly, suspicious of these arguments; it is more than a little coincidental that they favour an atheistic worldview. Atheistic secularism seeks something more than freedom of religion; its stated aim is freedom from religion. It recognises science as of the paradigmatic form of knowledge, and tends strongly to the view that religious beliefs cannot be rationally justified; atheists cannot consistently maintain that religious arguments are rationally compelling. So it is convenient, to say the least, that secular theorists have developed such principled reasons for excluding all religious argument for the pubic square! The atheist need not even argue for the rational superiority of his worldview. He need merely point to the fact of religious pluralism, insist that it would be unfair to privilege one view over others and claim that a consensus is unlikely. It follows that we should restrict our political arguments to empirical facts; fortuitously the secularists preferred source of knowledge.

Sweetman argues that there is no “neutral” view that can satisfy all parties; and he seems quite correct. For example an atheist and a Christian will disagree about human nature. The Christian believes that humans have a purpose, and that humans have metaphysical significance. Human nature cannot be reshaped to our preferred ends. There is a great deal of existential comfort in this worldview. Secularists can point to a common evolutionary history and a common genome; but they must confine their account of human nature to physical causes. However, they have more freedom in deciding what does or doesn’t count as moral behaviour. Sexual ethics provides an obvious point of comparison. The secularist can argue that sex may be “for” whatever we choose.  Christians approach the matter differently; it is not so much that human beings were given the gift of sex. Rather, humans were given the gift of marriage, and sex is an essential part of that gift.

In the Christian tradition, marriage is a lifelong and exclusive sexual union. This union is aimed at new life; it creates a family which can welcome the next generation into the world.  There is some common ground; the Christian and the secularist both believe that “love” is important in sexual relationships. But the atheist tends to define “love” as an emotional experience; Christian revelation defines love as a commitment to value another more than oneself. Love is a Christian virtue that shapes the whole person; it forms our personality and our emotional life. Christian love is expressed in promises and sacrifices. So a secular theorist and a Christian can agree that society should honour romantic love. But the Christian will see the covenant made in marriage as the proper end of romantic love; secularists will be just as happy with contractual relationships that should only be maintained while all parties are happy and fulfilled.

Secularists and Christians can also agree that stable procreative relationships are good for society, and should be supported by law. However the Christian demands something more than a functional unit for human reproduction; the purpose of sex is to create families, and the purpose of family is to nurture love and commitment. This basic design is written into human nature, and any attempt to re-engineer the nature of families is bound to lead to harm. Culture and law should honour the marital union of one man and one woman, as this covenant provides the source of the next generation. Secular thought is not convinced; it cannot allow talk of “design” and “purpose”. Therefore humans should feel free to honour other romantic relationships, and should not be afraid to use technology to alter human procreation.

We are left with a “zero-sum” game. If the secularist view of marriage prevails, then Christians are forced to live in a society that does not recognise their most basic commitments. As legislation is put in place to protect new “forms” of family from discrimination, Christians find that they cannot express their moral views as freely as they might expect. Education and the popular media begin to promote views that they cannot endorse. On the other side of the ledger, if the Christian view prevails, many will find that they cannot express their sexual preferences as publicly as they desire, and will at times face public censure. There are winners and losers; and if the victors claim that their gain is merely the triumph of common sense and reason, they compound the loss of the defeated side.

But the greatest strength of Sweetman’s book is his insistence that we should regard atheistic secularism as a distinct worldview with substantive content and rules of conduct; and like any other worldview it stands in need of rational justification. For many secularists atheism involves much more than the denial of theism; many atheists now strongly identify with naturalism. Naturalism is a substantive worldview. It contends that reality is composed only of forces and structures that can be described by science; it follows that the scientific method is the paradigm of rationality. It also reckons that human autonomy is the chief moral and political good; in the absence of transcendent values, humans must create their own significance. This can only be achieved when artists and authors have the freedom to express themselves.

So naturalism is a coherent set of ideas that aims to give a comprehensive account of reality, and that prescribes how we should act and live. That is all that it takes to be a worldview. But it is not at all obvious that naturalism is a rationally compelling worldview. It struggles to give an account of moral value, human significance, or even conscious experience and personal identity. Christian theism is a competing worldview (although there is much more to Christian faith than belief in a worldview). And it is crucial to realise that Christians can appeal to evidence to substantiate their worldview. Sweetman contends that that the evidence from design, moral values and contingent existence ,and the evidence from the resurrection of Jesus Christ justify Christian Theism’s core doctrines.

Of course Sweetman’s claims are hotly contested. But that is precisely his point; the debate has not been resolved in the academy, and it shows no sign of being resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. We shouldn’t conclude too much from the fact of disagreement; that’s just life in philosophy. It’s certainly a fact of life in politics – equally rational individuals of good will and integrity can come to different conclusions when faced with the same evidence. Politicians and economists disagree over the fairest form of taxation and the merits of the welfare state; they still have to decide on a course of action. It is not surprising, then, that individuals disagree about worldviews. But the key point is this – Christians need not appeal to private experiences or traditions to establish their worldview. Christianity can appeal to evidence.

So the Christian is not, in any sense, imposing a view on secularists that they could not agree to in principle. The fact is that the Christian is making a perfectly rational and legitimate interpretation of the available evidence. Sweetman allows that I can argue that the government should care for the weak and helpless because the New Testament reliably records that Jesus criticised the elites of his day for discriminating against the poor, and that the authority of Jesus has been established by the resurrection. I have not appealed to private experience or to the authority of the Bible; I have appealed to historical evidence. The secularist can argue against my interpretation – good luck to him – but he cannot accuse me of bypassing rational debate.

Again, Sweetman seems quite correct. But perhaps he could have made a little more out of the fact that every worldview appeals to subjective, private experiences to establish its arguments.After all, political rhetoric appeals to the emotions as much as the mind; public relations experts and spin doctors might tend to sophistry, but politics necessarily involves emotional appeals. The abolitionist movement worked hard on the sympathy and empathy of listeners to establish the humanity of slaves. So Christians should not be embarrassed if they have an experiential basis for their faith. And if the preacher cannot convince his audience of the truth of Christianity with rhetoric, perhaps his message can at least awaken a sense of the dignity of human life. If soundbites have a place in politics, why not homilies?

Perhaps one part of a religious vision will prove appealing to the secularist. For example, Jonathan Sacks has used the biblical concept of “covenant” to articulate a programme for building a genuinely pluralist society (“The Home We Build Together” (Continuum:2009)). His vision is inspired by the Bible, and does not appeal to public evidence. But Buddhists, Hindus and Atheists might find the project attractive.  And there is no reason why atheists cannot “preach to the converted.” For example, an atheist might claim that a consistent Christian should oppose public prayer in council meetings, as Jesus promoted the value of private prayer in Matthew 6. Sweetman might have strengthened his book a little by exploring these options.

Furthermore, while many secularists adopt a fully-fledged worldview, Sweetman overstates his case when he describes secularism as a religion. Sweetman acknowledges the difficulties with this position, but he maintains that the only difference between an atheistic worldview and a religion is that religions appeal to a supernatural, unseen realm. On this view, a religion is just a worldview with metaphysics. But this is an inadequate view of religion; though Platonism and Aristotelianism are coherent worldviews, which have inspired both passionate advocates and small academic communities, they are not religions.  Religions all believe in a metaphysical and unseen realm, but they also insist that this “unseen realm” provides the deepest answers to substantial human needs; they then form a system of communities and practices that help humans to find those answers. Atheism has no answer to this attempt to meet emotional and existential needs; it can only mimic religious services with “reason rallies” and the like.

Religions have a motivating power that secularists envy and fear; the religious are equally suspicious of atheism’s track record with religion. Revolutionary France and Russia, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and even the New Atheism’s rank intolerance give scant grounds for comfort. Yet Sweetman refuses to give in to either community’s apocalyptic expectations. While secularists foresee the collapse of science and Christians await the destruction of the family, Sweetman urges patience. In a pluralist society we must not search for quick-fix, universal rules that will settle the relationship between Church and State once and for all. Rather we should take each case on its own merits. Should Schools be permitted to begin the day with an act of Christian Worship? It is up to the pupils, the parents and the teachers to reach a fair solution for all parties. Should towns be allowed to display religious symbols on public property? It depends on the town, its religious make-up, who travels through it, who works there, and what they desire.

This encourages citizens to promote their views in a democracy, especially on the level of local politics. Learning to agree to disagree with other adults is a mark of personal maturity; Sweetman reminds us that it is also a mark of cultural maturity.  We need to include as many viewpoints as possible into public debate. We can learn from other community’s perspectives, even if we disagree with the bulk of their beliefs. It is healthy to open our own stances to public critique. Far from reopening culture wars, Sweetman is trying to defuse them. After all, if religious arguments are excluded from public debate by secularist fiat, then rational discussion is no longer an option. Religious communities and their secular critics can only engage through power-politics and demagoguery; and the public square will be impoverished as a result.


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