Jaime: I am tired of all these theocrats who want to base our laws on their religious beliefs.
Robin: It’s a free country; people can vote however they want and for whatever reasons they want and then majority rules. That’s how things work in a democracy. If people want to vote on their religious beliefs, then that’s their right.
Jaime: But in a secular society, laws shouldn’t be made based on religious beliefs. Once the laws are based on religious beliefs then everyone in the governed region essentially is being forced to obey the laws of that religion (or those religions) that hold those idiosyncratic views.
Robin: So, if I want to vote for laws that take care of the poor because my faith tells me that it is just to take care of the poor, I’m not allowed because then I’m imposing my religion on people? “Sorry poor people, no food for you, I wouldn’t want to impose my religion on you!” That doesn’t make any sense.
Jaime: No, that’s not what I am talking about. There are secular arguments you can make for taking care of the poor. There’s no need to make a religious argument when you can make one that is not so narrow and does not only appeal to people who belong to your faith. It’s a secular society, make arguments that include everyone in your appeal.
Robin: We may not have a national religion in our country but I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of people here understood themselves to be religious to one extent or another. And plenty of people think that it’s essential to morality and justice that they be consistent with, or even grounded in their religious beliefs. If that’s the language and set of concepts through which they think about politics, then why shouldn’t I appeal to my shared faith with them or overlaps between their faith and mine when arguing for why we should give to the poor. Maybe they will be unmoved by a purely “secular” appeal. Maybe you want a society of secular people with no religion to be found anywhere, but that’s not the way the majority of people are and they’re entitled to think the ways they think.
Jaime: You’re not implying that I’m trying to outlaw religion, are you? Because that’s outrageous. I would never want that. I am saying that you can have your religion without basing laws on it. A secular society, in fact, protects minority religions as much as the irreligious. Were you part of a religious minority would you want adherents of the majority religion stripping you of your rights through legislation?
Robin: Obviously people who belong to minority faiths need the right to practice their religions. But you can allow for that consistent with allowing people to vote their faith-informed conscience when voting for representatives or for laws.
Jaime: The rights of minorities are not “obvious” to all faiths. The right to religious conscience is a hard won right and its importance was learned through centuries of pointless religious wars. There could be (and, really, there are) people of faith who believe that a state imposed religion would save more souls and so is inherently justified. Should they vote that way? Or is their “faith-informed conscience” one we should oppose?
Robin: Well, I think those people are wrong. I don’t think faith that is coerced can be true faith.
Jaime: But that’s not the question, the question is can you tell them they’re not allowed to vote on such premises?
Robin: Well what good will that do; to order people not to vote what they really feel? Are you going to have thought police checking to make sure their reasons were acceptable to secular standards? People are going to vote their conscience no matter what. And you can’t preemptively refuse people the right to propose laws or amendments. So, I don’t understand–how are we supposed to stop people from legislating that minority religions have no rights? What I would do is argue with them based on the faith I share with them, or at least in terms of our overlapping values that are consistent across faiths. What’s your solution? Just insist that they completely flip from wanting to convert everyone to their faith through law to instead not wanting their faith to have anything at all to do with law? I would think a faith-based appeal to them that argues with them on their own values is more productive, less authoritarian, and more democratic.
Jaime: No, your position that people should vote based on their faith is a slipperly slope that creates more theocrats who want to impose their religion through their law. If we made it an unthinkable proposition that one consult one’s religions when forming laws then we would be less likely to have people who go to that extreme.
Robin: Not in the real world. In the real world, you telling people to keep their faith out of their politics is just going to create a reactionary backlash. People find it intolerable to be told that they have to leave their most cherished, core beliefs and values out of their most important decisions in life. Who are you to tell them that they should leave their God out of any part of their lives? They have religious freedom. If that’s the way they interpret their faith, that’s their business. You’re free to advocate for laws based on your values.
Jaime: Why can’t I also appeal to people that it’s only fair that they reason in ways fair to everyone. Lots of religious people already think this, just like atheists like I do. So why can’t I go beyond just advocating for specific representatives and laws and argue further that faith should have no place in politics?
Robin: I mean you can make that argument. I’m not stopping you. I just think it’s wrong.
Jaime: So, what if I were to argue that we should abolish religion.
Robin: Good luck with that!
Jaime: No, seriously, you wouldn’t object in principle to me making arguments like that?
Robin: I would think that you’re proposing a terrible idea, but it’s your right. I’m not going to tell you that the thought is forbidden or you don’t have a right to speak or think or vote that way. I will oppose your judgment but not go to the extreme of saying “no secular reasoning is allowed in politics” the way that you’re saying “no faith-based reasoning is allowed in politics”. Just because your secular reasoning could lead to a bad conclusion doesn’t mean all secular reasoning should be opposed in principle or banned from politics.
Jaime: I’m not talking about policing thoughts! I’m not talking about making it illegal to hold or express theocratic views. I’m arguing that we should informally, morally and in our political theory, strenuously try to discourage people from thinking in a faith-based way in politics because that kind of thinking would unravel democracy itself. The day you get an overwhelming number of people who base their legal reasoning on faith is the day they all vote to impose their religion on people in thousands of ways. Perhaps they would “democratically” vote to replace their democracy with a theocracy even! That’s the supremely tragic irony of how democracies often die–the people themselves vote in the tyrant who takes away their right to vote! To protect democracy we need to protect people’s commitments to the principle of democracy itself.
Robin: How are you protecting democracy itself when you say that the majority shouldn’t rule.
Jaime: If the majority votes to strip their own right to vote then that’s the majority surrendering its right to rule! And it’s surrendering future majorities’ rights to vote, on their behalf, in a way they have no say in! There are limits to what the majority can vote for consistent with the sustained existence of democracy or its ideal realization!
Robin: Okay, so what if we agree that our morality and political theory should oppose any current democratic majority removing future majorities’ rights. I could concede that consistent with upholding the principle of democracy itself. But I am still hard pressed to see why the majority can’t vote in other ways that express their real will where that will is faith-informed. If 80% of a country is, say, Catholic, why shouldn’t they live by laws informed by their Catholic values if that’s their democratic will?
Jaime: Well, not all Catholics agree with the Church on every issue for one thing!
Robin: Great, then those Catholics don’t have to vote with the Church’s positions on those issues. Heck, even where they do agree with the Church morally, they’d be free to nonetheless think secular reasoning like yours should predominate legally and politically if that’s what their conscience tells them. I’m not proposing theocracy. I’m just proposing people voting their will, faith-informed or faith-averse. I’m not saying any religion should make the laws. If the religion can persuade the people to make laws consistent with it, then good for the religion! But the people would still make the laws. Why do you want to protect the people from their own faith-informed wills? How is that truly democratic? It sounds like in your ideal the overwhelming majority could be Catholics all making laws for themselves that expressed non-Catholic values instead of their own Catholic values. I fail to see how that’s self-rule. You seem to want some ideal secular rule that religious people subject themselves to against their own actual beliefs and values. That seems like you have a definite theory of what’s best for everyone and that’s what you want to impose, rather than trust democracy.
Robin: I recognize when I’m in a foreign country that their values are different than mine and I accept that. When you’re in someone else’s house, you accommodate their feelings, their traditions, and values a little. If I’m in a Muslim country I wouldn’t expect them to drop everything and rearrange their whole society so that it maximally accommodates me as a Christian. I wouldn’t get into a snit if there were mandated accommodations for Muslim prayer that all businesses had to make five times a day. I wouldn’t mind if the restaurants were all closed during the day during Ramadan or if it were harder to find pork or beer in the stores. If I wanted a country that catered to me as a Christian, I’d stick to Christian countries. And if I went to an overwhelmingly atheist country, I wouldn’t be offended that legislative meetings don’t start with prayers. But while living in a predominantly religious country, I don’t see the problem if the majority votes that they’d like to start a legislative session with prayer.
Jaime: Don’t you see how that signals to atheists that they’re unwelcome and favors religious beliefs over irreligious ones so that people think “that’s what a good citizen does, she prays”. It’s unfair.
Robin: Look, that’s not going to change until a majority of the people aren’t religious. If you don’t want prayers to start meetings, convince people not to be religious.
Jaime: Why can’t I just convince them to keep their religion out of government while not quibbling with their private faith?
Robin: Sure, try to persuade them of that. But don’t get angry if they decide the reason they should adopt your secular commitment to an absolute separation of church and state is because of how they interpret their faith. What’s more important to you? That people never think about their faith when relating to politics or that their conclusions–even their conclusion that they should be secularists!–are the ones you think are for the best? You care about having a robust safety net for the poor. Say you had someone who was adamantly in favor of helping the poor on religious grounds but believed there was no secular basis for doing so. Let’s say they told you that if they really ignored their faith, they would slash funding for the poor and take care of themselves.
Jaime: You don’t need to have faith to care about the poor.
Robin: Maybe you don’t, but this hypothetical person does. Should they ignore their faith and neglect the poor or would you rather they reasoned things in a faith-based way if it actually helps the poor.
Jaime: I think it’s a false choice. In the long run both things are important; that they have the right policy and that they form it for the right reasons. Sure, pragmatically, I will take people reasoning from the wrong premises to the right policies if that’s the only way in the short term to get the right policies. But in the long term, training people to have better premises and reasoning processes will yield more right conclusions. Faith-based thinking will be hit and miss much more than rational thought when it comes to coming up with good conclusions. I would, over the long haul, try to show people the rational reasons to give to the poor. In the long run, demanding that people base their policies on the kinds of evidence and reason that are accessible to everyone protects people from idiosyncratic policies that stagnate us, regress us, or are otherwise counter-productive to stability or progress. The more that policies are not based on reason and evidence is the more likely they are to become untethered from reality and be harmful. Sure, some people’s faith-given values may be coincidentally right but faith is not a reliable value-forming mechanism that consistently enough yields good answers or ones that are fair for all. Since we’re all subject to the same laws, even minorities, we need laws to be based on reasons that could appeal to all of us, even minorities. And the only laws that can be justified to all of us, at least in principle, are those proven on grounds that are accessible to everyone. Appeals to reason and evidence transcend all faith traditions and irreligiousness. Even if one disagrees with the conclusions, at least it’s not a matter of “I have to follow this law because of someone else’s religion” but a matter of “I have to follow this because I got out-argued in the fair realm of reason that is common to all of us.”
Robin: So it’s not really pure democracy you’re interested in. The majority has to vote not for their actual will on their actual personal values but according only to what the minority could “in principle” find persuasive.
Jaime: I think that’s the only way to combat majoritarianism and to come up with substantively better solutions even for the religious–whose own faiths might go wrong for being so arbitrary.
Robin: Fine, but I think I’m the truer democrat.
Jaime: Well on one definition of democrat, anyway; a majoritarian one. But I don’t think the best one.
Robin: It’s the most pragmatic one and the one that allows people to express their real thoughts and will the most.
Jaime: I would rather hold out for the ideal one that protects minorities (including religious ones) and that leads to substantively more rationally defensible outcomes.
For a real debate between a religious believer and me about a specific public policy issue and its ramifications for secularism and religious freedom see my three part debate with Mary the Catholic Graduate Student about contraception mandates:
For more of my thoughts on political philosophy, I recommend the posts below and for more dialogues on contentious matters, see the tab atop the page for Dialogues.