It is a common point to make nowadays that the state is secular and that religious considerations are thus inadmissible in matters of policy. That there ought to be separation between religion and the state, and religious considerations belong to the personal and/or inner-communal life of the religious, whereas in matters of public import religion ought to be absolutely silent.
Now I have great sympathy for this sentiment. I think it stems from a perspective that is first of all charitable – after all, public affairs necessarily affect the lives of non-religious people as well as practitioners of other religions. No doubt it is in wariness of tyranny by a dominant religious group to the detriment of others that we countenance this idea of strict separation. We suppose it a reasoned compromise for there to be religious freedom in the private affairs of people, but for religiousness to be put away in the larger discourse of society, to avoid the inevitable conflicts of views that would otherwise arise.
Reasonable as this may sound on the surface, I do not think strict, no-questions-asked separation of this sort is ultimately wise(*). For one, it is naive, and perhaps even a little condescending. It tends to cast religion as merely a sort of strange behavioral quirk for which civility demands tolerance. If we are honest, we may even go on to admit (as exemplified by snarky remarks such as this) that we do not suppose that religion contains within it anything of real substance – why else would we not want to hear from it at all in matters of importance?
Religion as a holistic philosophy of life
Against this I shall forward two claims. Firstly, religion – most major religions at any rate – are emphatically not limited nor limitable to the domain of private life. To spend some private moments in prayer, or attending a segment in a place of worship, and then to “switch it off” when returning to “normal life” is entirely against the very nature of most major religions. The whole appeal and usefulness of religion is in its being a holistic philosophy of life – the practitioner ought in principle to be thinking about it at all times, and it ought to have something to say about as many aspects of life and the human condition as possible. That’s the entire point of a religion. Therefore, in order for the religious to hem in their religion in matters of society, there are really only two possibilities: either they must be compelled to such silence by force, or they must cease to be religious in a genuine sense.
Secondly, I will challenge the usually unstated implication that religion has nothing to say that is of worth in the wider social context. When stated explicitly like this, the very idea begins to sound absurd. It again betrays the tendency to think of religion as a sort of embarrassing and archaic quirk or a mere set of fairy-tale mythos, a sentiment that simply would not hold to any real scrutiny. After all, most major religions have centuries – if not millennia – of history of being variously at the forefront of human thought, where they have at different times been vigorously developed as well as harshly challenged by eminent thinkers. It seems to me impossible to deny that the major religions in their surviving forms are significant parts of our intellectual and philosophical heritage. Certainly, there are progressive thinkers today who may, with their own intellectual ammo, reject many of the ideas that are passed down in the religions – and this is perfectly fine. But there ought to be dialogue, is the point. One may seek to refute religious ideas as they are professed by their believers, but I can see no sense in seeking to prevent the professing in the first place.
Religion and the secular – a healthy tension
Let me argue a little more concretely for the substance of religious ideas. Secular morality has a tendency to be comparatively nebulous and fluid. It is actually rather hard on investigation to find a solid basis for a purely secular morality. In the last resort we would probably fall back on a common moral intuition that we use to justify certain far-reaching principles – like human rights. However there aren’t actually too many secular resources that can be employed to defend these principles – if in the last resort moral intuition is merely personally felt, a) how can you be sure that what you built on your intuition matches what I feel in mine? and b) even if we agree on the intuition on what grounds should I be compelled to obey it?
Unsurprisingly, progressive moral ideas tend to be in the direction of loosening rigid traditional standards – and I hasten to add that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Oftentimes the loosening comes as a result of identifying fundamental moral ideas and then recognizing that existing standards are incongruous with them. However, such “debunking” obviously cannot go on forever, there must be a counterbalance that asserts the baseline inviolability of certain ideas, so that there is a rock bottom. The critical apparatus works best when it is dismantling superficial moral standards for deeper, stronger ones – when it is taking apart appearance in service of Truth. But how can we identify these deeper moral Truths? Of course, there is no easy answer, but I think it is fair at least to say that pure secularism is here standing on shaky ground.
On the other hand, properly viewed, religion is an important edifice of the larger philosophical point of view that regards morality as transcendent and divine. It makes it its business precisely to define this baseline while adopting a metaphysic that could justify it. Of course, religious ideas ought not be simply accepted but should be open to challenge, but that is quite exactly the point – religion helps provide the material for the critical apparatus to function. It already has a long track record of doing so, having, as previously noted, been already subject to centuries of debate. There is certainly no reason for the debate to stop now – the best chance for society to remain humane and sane is neither to have limitless skepticism nor settled uncritical belief, but for the two to be in constant, healthy tension.
Let views be aired – and defended and challenged
What, then, of the practical concern that rival religious groups are by definition irreconcilable. How do we accommodate religious views if accommodating one religious view involves violating another rival one? Well, the simple answer is not to accommodate. Let the rival views be aired, and let them be defended and challenged, and then let due democratic process decide what makes it into public policy. What I am here arguing for is really simply a species of freedom of speech: that the secularity of the state should not be invoked to require silence from religious points of view.
I would also go on to point out that there is a desirable effect to the sort of discourse I am advocating – the religious would be incentivized to cast their ideas in more generalized terms and appeal to common thought. After all, simply pointing to a verse in a holy book is not likely to win you support. Practical interpretation and exegesis of religious texts is already a normal operation in most religions anyway, and having the task of convincing a secular audience would encourage the making of more connections between aspects of sacred tradition and common life. On the other hand keeping the religious silo’d in their private lives and forbidding them from participating in public discourse is likely to have the opposite effect and exacerbate the faultline between the religious and secular parts of society. In a real sense, blind faith and fundamentalism are a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Atheist thinkers have long labored boldly to demolish the walls that insulate religious people from criticism. If their efforts have produced any fruit, then we certainly ought to apply them in critical examination of religious voices. However in order for that to be possible in the first place, the religious should be encouraged to speak widely and uninhibitedly on all manner of public issues, so long as due process is observed. After all, in accordance with democratic principles, it is through more speech, as Rowan Atkinson says, that we arrive at our best public consensuses.
(*) To be clear I am here talking primarily of moral issues, and not of things like customs, rituals or purely-religious rules. Happily, these other aspects are not normally controversial – Christians are not usually keen to push the Eucharist ritual on non-believers, and Muslims are not usually concerned to enforce practice of the Salat on non-Muslims. These indeed belong with the private life of worship. It is the aspects of religion that bears on the day-to-day public life of the believer that is of interest here.