Archive for December 13th, 2007

December 13, 2007

talking religion in politics

Good old Habermas (and yes, he’s 77 years old) is intent on us purifying our political talk of any religious vocabulary. He wants people to find non-religious arguments for every one of their political ideas. For one, I don’t think that is possible: too many people feel too deeply about religious matters. That means that for many people religious vocabulary is their primary thinking tool and they cannot easily switch to non-religious equivalents. For another, i don’t think that secular-only talk is desirable.

Let me explain. Religion is not something that can be reduced to ethics for all political intents and purposes. Rather, ethics is a type of religion. This means that arguing from religion is no different than arguing from Kant or Darwin, on moral/political matters. Let people make the arguments they want, however weak or dubious you might find them yourself. Because (a) they in turn find your arguments just as weak and (b) the point is not to be right in some absolute/scientific sense but only to convince (this is politics after all!).

The same argument from The Free Thinker commenting on a commenter named Tom:

“If there are pragmatic reasons… use those reasons; don’t give me quotes from the bible.”  But it is a very common practice in political discourse to quote a respected source.  I might quote an expert– an economist, or a scientist– as evidence of the soundness of a policy which we don’t have the time to elaborate the technical case for, or aren’t qualified to make the technical case for, or don’t think our audience could understand the technical case for.  I might quote a widely-admired figure, say, Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln, to inspire the courage or patriotism of my hearers and/or to show that greater minds that mine have agreed with what I am saying.  Tom implicitly insists that political discourse consist only of “pragmatic reasons,” which is an absurd restriction.  And the call for “pragmatic reasons” begs key questions.  Are “pragmatic reasons” the only appropriate reasons in politics?  Are ethics always inappropriate?  It seems to me that pragmatic reasons pertain to means, but what about ends?  How are those to be determined?  If Tom assumes that only utilitarian ends– more pleasure, less pain– are appropriate, he will have to find a way to disenfranchise most of his fellow-citizens, for most of them are not utilitarians.  What are we to do with the thirty, or forty, or, who knows, maybe sixty or eighty percent of the population for whom the Bible, more than any other book, illuminates man’s purpose in this world?

December 13, 2007

secular europe rocks (and america doesn’t).

from Roger Cohen at the NYT:

 ST. ANDREWS, Scotland. The cathedral here, on which work began in the 12th century, was once the largest in Scotland, until a mob of reformers bent on eradicating lavish manifestations of “Popery” ransacked the place in 1559, leaving gulls to swoop through the surviving facade.

Europe’s cathedrals are indeed “so inspired, so grand, so empty,” as Mitt Romney, a Mormon, put it last week in charting his vision of a faith-based presidency. Some do not survive at all. The Continent has paid a heavy price in blood for religious fervor and decided some time ago, as a French king put it, that “Paris is well worth a Mass.”

Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, was dismissive of European societies “too busy or too ‘enlightened’ to venture inside and kneel in prayer.” He thereby pointed to what has become the principal transatlantic cultural divide. (thx ed.)

Now Cohen doesn’t actually say much except that he is worried about how politics are mixing into american politics. But perhaps that is all he needs to say. I, of course, have a few more cents to put in.

What should probably be noted, and which does not come out so clearly in the opinion piece, is that european secularism is not equivalent to the separation of church and state. The later does not mean (correct me if im wrong) that you cannot talk about god in politics, but only that you cannot legislate in favour of or against particular gods or religion in general. But arguing that we should ban X because god Y is against it is perfectly alright as long as god Y doesnt show up in the text of the law.

So, to work with habermasian concepts, separation of church and state allows you to talk in religious terms about politics and legislation, but the legislation itself must conform to Habermas’ injunction that it must be translated into purely non-religious, that is secular terminology (no god talk).

So Cohen is perfectly right to chide Bush for invoking god in his war talk (what was he thinking? for that matter, (what) is he ever thinking?) and Romney for his sidelining unbelievers. That is certainly a very dangerous infiltration of religion into politics. But the American habit of fighting religious wars by political proxy, while perhaps rather barbaric by european standards, does not seem to me to be condemnable by constitutional ones.

Now that doesn’t mean that i don’t find america’s political religion deplorable. But i don’t think we can blame it on an imperfect separation between church and state. What we can blame it on is an imperfect understanding of the role of government. As surprising at it might be, it think americans have here a more extensive view of government than europeans do. The latter believe that government should limit itself to legislating those matters which everyone agrees we should legislate (even if they absolutely disagree on how to do so); americans see it rather as an all-out moral battle, where the majority should be able to impose its morality, whether or not everyone else agrees that we should legislate morality at all.

In some (rather perverted sense?) americans are rousseauists, believing in the dictatorship of the majority. Europeans, on the other hand, have basically introduced an informal separation between morals and state.

December 13, 2007

Finishing Secular Age

Well i just finished reading Ch. Taylor’s A Secular Age and am convinced it would have all fit in 500 pages (ah, the days when i will be prof. emeritus and can write whatever i wish at whatever length and get grad students to read it nevertheless…!). That being said, the book is one well crafted and convincing argument. I believe it is about the same arguement as MacIntyre (in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry) and Hillary Putnam (in “The Truth/Value dichotomy”), namely that science-backed Secularism is on the same moral and epistemological playing field as (thoughtful) religion. The strategies these authors adopt are also similar: show that science/secularism are also founded upon a number or moral elements. The arguements have always convinced me, though Taylor, i think, offers the definitive one.

This leads me to my last point. I think you can view ASA as more of an argument as to why christianity has disapeared as an argument as to why secularism has appeared. Of course, this is the opposite of what Ch. Taylor says he’s doing. But when at the end he comes out as a catholic christian, it becomes clear why he didn’t include any of the other western religions (esp. Judaism): they don’t interest him. I don’t think this in anyway affects the content of his argument (which is mostly confined to part I), but it does make for an interesting new reading browsing through of it.


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