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How Should Religion Behave in Public?

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The positive enthusiasm garnered by the writings of the New Atheists evidences a growing sentiment in North America about organized religion and the role it should play in the public square, especially when it comes to setting public policy and legislation. The enthusiasm is a reaction to what many feel is a long overdue, justified and growing response to the church's historical abuses and their continued bullying tactics, particularly in the public square, with what feels like their very obvious elbows in our collective nose.

The New Atheists are hardly the first to speak out against these sorts of abuses. Although there have always been those who have challenged religious authority, the Enlightenment was climacteric as various social and intellectual forces swirled together to rise up against the self-appointed moral powers of traditional political and ecclesiastical institutions. Along with struggling for democracy and with it, personal autonomy, two centuries later we now talk about (borrowing from Harvey Cox) the "secular city." Not surprisingly, this is the very notion religious conservatives want to challenge.

Yet while the writings of the New Atheists are a natural evolution of a cultural struggle, from the perspective of the scholarly study of religion and theology, their collective studies disappoint. They typically look at the most common examples of religious belief and practice provided by organized religion and conservative Christians, and then reduce a highly complex phenomenon -- religion -- into jejune explanations and conclusions. It's evident in the very titles of their books that the New Atheists overreach: Religion poisons everything (Christopher Hitchens); religion is a delusion (Richard Dawkins); religion is a spell that must be broken (Daniel Dennett) and needs to be ended (Sam Harris). Again, theirs is a natural reaction to the past and current abuses of organized religion, but not surprisingly, just like other cultural pendulum swings, it too is an overreaction both emotionally and scholarly.

Despite their reductionist view of religion and that some of their particular criticisms are not well justified, many of their criticisms are on the mark and merit our thoughtful consideration. The New Atheists' most serious argument is the moral one: their charge that God (or belief in God) is not necessary for morality, private and public. It's a charge that is in direct contradiction to the position of Catholicism and the Christian right: that left to its own devices secular society can't be moral and, as a corrective, scripture (such as the Ten Commandments) must be invoked to ensure the moral stability and continuance of society. As the latter see it, the only alternative is "moral relativism," where a mishmash of moral beliefs are proffered without any truly solid reasons for believing them. It's an "everyman for himself" sort of morality that'll inevitably slide down the slippery slope into social anarchy.

The New Atheists are right to think that this is a serious mischaracterization of how we make our moral decisions. The actual feature of moral relativism is that morality isn't dependent on God or other religious or authoritarian sources. Instead, its dependence is on the offered reasons for why we should behave one way instead of another. The reasons we offer, in turn, must be open to scrutiny, examination and analysis by the wider community. Our reasons can't be based on what we think God demands or what our particular scripture dictates. Interestingly, if we stipulate relativism this way, it isn't necessarily opposed to acknowledging some moral absolutes, at least in the sense that they are universally held, for instance, in a society that upholds the prohibition of murder. (But this admission is hardly startling: how could there be a society if we could murder for the fun of it?)

The process of moral deliberation, without appeal to religion, reflects the approach of the greatest moral theories in the western tradition, whether Aristotle's virtue ethics, Kant's deontology, Mill's utilitarianism or contemporary Feminist ethics. These are all powerful moral theories that make no appeal to God, yet nonetheless offer important guidelines for moral decision making.

This brings us to why its objectionable to proclaim religious values in the public square. It has been called "a conversation-stopper" because of the deeply controversial, metaphysical assumptions undergirding the stated moral claim: that God exists, that He is the God of Christianity, that the Bible is authoritative on moral matters, that Christian morality is binding on the society at large, that it has been interpreted correctly and so forth. It's what Jürgen Habermas has called the difference between the secular discourse that claims to be accessible to all men and the religious discourse that is dependent upon the truths of revelation.

A painful example of religion's potential to negatively influence public policy debates made the news last week when Congressman John Shimkus explained his reasons for opposing energy policies like cap and trade. Reading passages from the Bible, he argued that "the earth will end only when God declares it's time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth; this earth will not be destroyed by a flood." In other words, God has promised mankind that He will not destroy the planet again, and therefore it is impossible for human action to negatively impact it. Sadly, Shimkus is now running to become the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman.

This isn't to say that religious believers can't express their values in the public square. The real issue is that like everyone else, religious believers, once in the public domain, must subject their moral principles and standards to the political test of scrutiny and analysis. This is, after all, the very basis of reasonableness extended into proper democratic discourse: that we provide transparent justification for our beliefs, with the concomitant quality that our justifications are subject to counter-reasons. If this standard can't be met, the result is straightforward. Their right to continue voicing their views remains, but the rest of us have no obligation to take them seriously.

Co-written with G. Elijah Dann, author of God and the Public Square and co-author of An Ethics for Today: Finding Common Ground Between Philosophy and Religion.

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