Can Christians Contribute to a Secular Democracy?

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Government always involves an element of coercion. Absolute pacifists are taxed to pay for aircraft carriers, environmentalists for nuclear power stations. Yet 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 vision for society on individuals who passionately disagree with it?

One response is to insist that whatever laws and policies we enact 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. Their assumption is that religious belief depends on traditions, purported revelations and religious experiences. Each religion has its own, unique, sources of belief; those who do not acknowledge those sources could never be convinced that the resulting doctrines are 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, where everyone’s rationality is respected.

Other secularists argue that the members of a pluralist society will hold irreconcilable worldviews. Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Marxists, Buddhists and Hindus will never agree on what is best for humanity. There is little hope of settling the debate between the various religions and ideologies; therefore there is little hope of building a political or moral consensus. Yet we need some way of regulating disputes between the various moral communities. So, perhaps 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 could be that religious reasons will not be allowed any place in  political discourse.

Christians should be suspicious when secularists advance these arguments. Many atheistic secularists seek something more than freedom of religion; their stated aim is freedom from religion. It is convenient, to say the least, that secular theorists have developed principled reasons for excluding all religious arguments from the public square. The atheist need not even argue for the rational superiority of his worldview. He need merely point to the fact of religious pluralism and  insist that it would be unfair to privilege one religion over others. The secularist positions himself as the non-partisan referee.

In fact, atheistic secularism is a distinct worldview with substantive content and rules of conduct; and like any other worldview it stands in need of rational justification. 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; freedom of expression becomes an absolute good.

This  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, while naturalism is fashionable,  it is not at all obvious that it  is a rationally compelling worldview. It struggles to explain 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. Christians can appeal to  evidence from design, moral values and contingent existence and the evidence from the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Now secularists will fiercely reject Christian arguments. But 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 academia. 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 need not  impose 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.  Furthermore, every worldview will (at times) appeal to subjective, private experiences. After all, many atheists argue that our existential and aesthetic needs do not require religion. How can that argument be substantiated without an appeal to private experience?

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. Rather than awaiting persecution, perhaps both sides need to abandon their apocalyptic expectations and exercise a little more patience. Perhaps we should not search for quick-fix, universal rules that will settle the relationship between Church and State once and for all. Maybe we should take each case on its own merits. Should schools be permitted to begin the day with an act of Christian Worship? Ask the pupils, the parents and the teachers of each school to reach a fair solution. 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 fear or desire.

Learning to agree to disagree with other adults is a mark of personal maturity; it is also a mark of cultural maturity.  We need to invite 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, we ought 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 will only be able to engage one another through power-politics and demagoguery. The public square will be impoverished as a result.



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