Should religious people keep their divisive beliefs away from policies about marriage?
The green activists got up in arms about the introduction of genetically modified plants into the New Zealand market. But there is, as far as I can see, no widely lampooned caricature of people with environmental concerns as being socially divisive – in spite of those among their number who vandalised the farms of people suspected by them of having genetically modified crops. Large numbers of parents (the clear majority of those who voiced their opinion, in fact) raised their voices in protest when the government threatened to criminalise all use of any force in disciplining a child, while offering the benevolent promise that not all such criminals would be prosecuted (guess which way I lean on that). Parents were ignored and the law was changed, but more importantly here, nobody now thinks of parents as a uniquely divisive group within society. Many other people with common concerns or causes have likewise raised their voice in unison over other issues that concern them, but the fact that groups who do this in general do not get singled out as divisive or polarising is demonstrated by the way that just which groups spoke out over what issue is the kind of thing that tends to fade into obscurity in a relatively short time. But religion? Oh, that is different.
If conventional wisdom about such things tells us anything, it tells us that religion, that scourge upon a free and harmonious society, is a uniquely divisive force in our world, polarising us and setting us against each other. This supposed nugget of modern wisdom that we are all supposed to be aware of has been thrust into the spotlight yet again in New Zealand in light of the fact that a private members Bill to create same-sex marriage has been drawn from the ballot to be debated, and maybe even passed into law. Notice that I do not say “legalise” same-sex marriage, since it isn’t even against the law now. Same sex marriage in New Zealand law is not an illicit union that involves lawbreaking. In legal terms, same-sex marriage just doesn’t exist. But that’s another issue, merely the backdrop for the one I want to focus on here. The possibility of the creation of same-sex marriage in New Zealand has people pointing the finger (and doing much more besides) in the direction of religion. Oh look, it’s the religious again, dividing people, polarising the debate as they so often do.
Obviously this “us vs them” style of argument (where “us” refers to the good-natured, civil, secular minded people of the world who are committed to reasonable discourse, and the “them” refers to the divisive, ideologically driven and anything but rational religious types) only really gets any traction once we’ve got a good idea about just what the real distinction between religious and non-religious really amounts to. I was reminded at a recent public lecture by William Cavanaugh (on “The Myth of Religious Violence”) of the comments from Christopher Hitchens in his rather blunt instrument of a book, God is Not Good: How Religion Poisons Everything. While assuring us that religion was bad for society in virtually all ways conceivable while “secularism” (code for godlessness) was good, Hitchens offers some startling revelations. In spite of his overt atheism, Stalin and his actions were really religious after all, because as we all know , he was an absolute dictator. And since, Hitchens reasoned, absolutism and dictatorial regimes are inherently religious, so too was the communist regime, with or without God. This method of analysis serves to dispose of any notion that secular regimes or even values can be bad no less than religious kinds. But what of those pesky positive examples of the influence of religion on people? Religion had nothing essential to do with it, Hitchens declared. Of the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Hitchens insisted, “In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.” If this sounds outrageous to us, we must bear in mind, as Hitchens explained in that chapter, King was a peaceful man who cared about people. But Christianity, as we all know, advocates mass slaughter, vindictiveness, totalitarianism and the like. Since King was none of those things, he wasn’t really much of a Christian, Hitchens concludes! Cavanaugh didn’t announce that he was telling a joke when quoting from Hitchens, and yet the audience laughed anyway on hearing this. Clearly what was happening was that Hitchens was shovelling everything he despises about bad societies under the mat of “religion,” while all the things he finds virtuous, well, those are secular, naturally.
Disingenuous though this sort of tactic might be, it has relatives in more respectable discourse on religion in public life as well. As Cavanaugh was drawing chuckles with the example of Hitchens, I was reminded of a much more moderate critic of religion in the public square, Robert Audi of Notre Dame University. Rather than taking the unpromising line that “religion poisons everything” or “religion causes all wars” etc, Audi claims that as citizens we shouldn’t bring our religious beliefs into our political advocacy and decision-making (specifically, we shouldn’t advocate any policy for which our justification is religious), because
[R]eligious disagreements are likely to polarize government, especially regarding law and policy concerning religion… Each religious group will tend to have its own conception not only of what constitutes a religion in the first place but also of what criteria a religious group must fulfil to receive exemptions and other benefits. ((Audi, Religious Commitment and Secular Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 39.))
But if polarisation and divisiveness alone are grounds for not bringing a belief into the public square, why single out religion? This is effectively the question that Hitchens was trying to fend off when trying with all his might to make all dictatorships seem religious. Surely there are other things that have the effects that Audi is concerned about – things that are not, in the normal way of talking about things, religious.
Audi believes he has a comeback for this potential rebuttal:
Granted that secular disputes can also polarise, other things equal they have less tendency to do this or at least to produce irreconcilable differences. If ideological disputes, say between communism and fascism, seem exceptions to this point, that may be in part because of how much an ideology can have in common with a religion. Indeed there may be no sharp distinction between certain kinds of deeply internalized ideology and certain kinds of religion. ((Audi, Religious Commitment, 39.))
But wait just a moment. Audi gave, as a reason for keeping religious beliefs out of public life, the claim that differences in religious perspectives result in polarisation, whereas secular disputes are more easily resolvable (although he did not argue for this claim). Where those who take issue with this claim might find evidence to the contrary in examples of polarisation between political ideologies, Audi says that this is because such ideologies are actually similar to religious views, so they cannot be included in the category of secular views that he is referring to – You know, the views that tend not to polarise! If the fact that other things polarise is met with the retort that they too are therefore at least quasi-religious, then it appears the fact of polarisation is virtually being identified with something’s being religious.
Additionally, there is a temporary widening in Audi’s definition of “religion.” Earlier in his book he was extremely careful to define religion as something entailing things like belief in God, prayer to God, rituals and a moral code delivered by God together with the trappings of an institution, Audi now widens the definition sufficiently to sweep any problematic “secular” cases of polarisation under the carpet of religion so that they become, not counter evidence against his claim, but rather evidence for his claim that religious views polarise – since these ideologies must really be religious (after all, they polarise don’t they?). The tactic is symptomatic of a circular argument.
As problematic as I think these lines of reasoning in both Hitchens and Audi are, they are still helpful, even if not in the manner intended. As Cavanaugh pointed out in the case of Hitchens and I have said elsewhere in the case of Audi and others, they make the whole concern over the sharp difference between the negative social and political impacts of religious beliefs as opposed to secular beliefs. In fact they point the way to seeing that perhaps the very distinction is somewhat meaningless. If religion is the search for transcendence and ultimate meaning, then the distinction is almost certainly meaningless, for there is just no easy way to bracket off “religions” as they are understood in the post-enlightenment world using this criteria without letting numerous other outlooks (perhaps even all worldviews) into the category of religion as well (human rights movements, political outlooks and even everyday commitments like materialism/consumerism find their way in to the extent that people really occupy these ways of life and thought). Put another way, there’s no fair way of isolating and indicting a thing called “religion” in all this.
In a twist (albeit a predictable one), the most strident voices for a godless society seem to be stirring up more by way of divisiveness than the very people they seem set on silencing (along with those who are heaping abuse, death threats, accusations of being mentally unwell and the like on Chick-Fil-A at the moment, or threatening to run them out of town). But more importantly, I don’t see that there’s any clear or helpful way of carving up our landscape of commitments in society in any way that puts religious beliefs on an island of their own. We’ve all got these things – beliefs, commitments, values, ideologies, and sometimes mini-communities or organisations centred on them. They play a certain role in our lives, informing the way we evaluate, with whom we associate, what we prize above all, etc, and when people who typically get dubbed “religious” are so dubbed, it is only because they are doing these things too – except they do not prize what “we” do. Indeed the very word religio was originally used in precisely this way, meaning “obligation,” rather than a specifically God-oriented obligation. It might be objected that if we broaden the idea of religion out in this way and everyone is religious, then really nobody is. Perhaps this is so, but it is not an objection. It is just to say that we all use our “religious” faculties, even if the way those faculties busy themselves differs from one person to the next. As Ron Nash stated it bluntly (and obviously using terms in a much looser way than most do for the sake of making a point), “Since every human being has something about which he is ultimately concerned, it follows that every human being has a God.” ((Ronald Nash, “The Myth of a Value-Free Education,” Religion and Liberty 1:4 (1991), reproduced on the internet at http://www.acton.org/publicat/randl/article.php?id=18, accessed 30th September 2002.))
So I would want to say that the introduction of the claim that “religion” is uniquely divisive and polarising is every bit as divisive and polarising as religion. I take the claim that marriage should now be understood to include a union of two men or two women to be polarising, precisely because it is so, well, religious in the board sense. It invokes a view, explicitly or implicitly, on the purpose of marriage, on what is actually good for people (satisfaction of their most strongly felt desire, or something else?), on what it is just to commit others to endorsing (understanding that the government in a democratic nation like New Zealand speaks for all citizens when certifying a union) and so on. These are points of view – like so many others that ostensibly non-believing people hold, that occupy the space of the religious in the minds and lives of those who hold them. These claims really are divisive, as is their denial, no doubt. But I do not want to prohibit those who hold these values and beliefs from pursuing their agenda for that reason (if I want them to stop pursuing their agenda, it should simply be because I think their agenda is wrong-headed or their guiding beliefs are mistaken). We’re all in this together, I’m afraid, and trying to tar the religious as people uniquely unqualified to take part in this debate is to foster the very sort of battleground mentality that you want to avoid. That polarisation is avoidable is doubtful, granted. But we don’t avoid it by pretending to do the opposite.
- North Korea Executes Christians
- William Cavanaugh lecture series: Challenging the Myths of a Secular Age
- The Liberal Theocracy?
- Conference: Religion in the Public Square
- Religion, morality and politics do mix, say (some) Harvard Students