Annual Theme 2011-2012
The theme was devised in consultation between Professors J.H.H. Weiler and Jeremy Waldron.
The Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law & Justice
RELIGION AND PUBLIC REASON
In almost all modern democracies, citizens are divided on questions of religion. Some profess no religious faith (some of these disparage religious faith, while others are puzzled or indifferent). Among those who profess belief in God, the citizens are divided among the major religions and, within each religion, there are bitter divisions among denominations and traditions.
By their own lights, the doctrines, ethics, and creedal commitments of these rival faiths have a bearing on many, if not all, of the major political issues faced in the societies in which their members live. For example, there are a variety of strongly felt religious views on topics like bioethics, crime and punishment, the culture wars, education, the environment, family structure, foreign policy, human rights, immigration, racial equality, sexuality and its regulation, social justice, war and peace, and welfare provision.
On some of these topics, the views of many of the religious groups overlap; but on others, they are quite different, and the differences seem to correspond to detailed divergence at the level of scripture, creed and doctrine. Likewise, although there is considerable overlap between the political and moral views of those who profess religious faith and those who do not, in many cases the difference between (say) the view of an atheist on a given topic and the view of a religious believer are driven by the detail of the latter’s belief; and often atheists will say that they simply do not understand the grounding or content of the religious belief that appears to be opposed to their own. Yet all the kinds of belief alluded to here are deeply felt, and treated by those who hold them as among the most important commitments that they have.
How should we regard these differences, these disparities, these allegations of incomprehension? Citizens of all faiths (or none) have to share the same political system. In a democracy, the people are committed to working out among themselves common positions on many of these matters that can stand in the name of them all as a basis of law and public policy. But how is that to be accomplished when they disagree about so much and so deeply?
In recent years, the suggestion has been heard that people of faith should refrain from participating in public debate in terms that reflect their religious commitments. Some say it is inappropriate to offer, as a contribution to public debate, a view that is unintelligible to many of one’s fellow citizens, or that carries no weight with them, or that they repudiate fundamentally in the name of some other religious conception (or secular conception) that is as deeply felt, and is—in its turn—unintelligible or uncongenial to many of those who hear it. If we are not to turn democratic politics into a Babel of mutually incomprehensible slogans and assertions, maybe we should search for a common vocabulary and a set of premises that we can converge on in political dialogue. The best known position of this kind is that of John Rawls in his discussion of “public reason” in Political Liberalism: Rawls maintains that as citizens we should be ready to explain to one another the basis of our political actions and decisions (involving our votes and our advocacy as well as more formal modes of participation) “in terms each could reasonably expect that others might endorse as consistent with their freedom and equality.”
For Rawls, this is primarily a matter of civility: it is a matter of being willing to engage with others’ views and to make one’s own view available for them to engage with. This, he thinks, cannot be done if there is no sharing of deep theological or philosophical premises. Other critics of religious involvement in politics see it as a matter of blocking any move, however modest, in the direction of theocracy. They say that the implicit assumption of those who put forward religious views in politics is that the religious grounding from which they proceed has sufficient authority to settle political questions. But if this is true of a given issue, it is presumably true of all issues (on which that religion has anything to say), and the natural tendency is the establishment of the whole policy of the state on a religious foundation. Since, according to these critics, that is an utterly unacceptable end, it is inappropriate to take any step in this direction. Finally, our brief summary of reasons for opposing religious contributions in politics would be incomplete if it did not include the straightforward repudiation of religious views as irrational superstitions; and it would be incomplete too if it did not include the view of some believers that it is wrong, on religious grounds, for them to involve themselves in this way in earthly affairs.
These grounds of opposition are certainly not accepted by all believers and they are not accepted by all liberals or by all secular citizens either. Many reject the civility and theocracy objections. They worry that the sort of self-censorship that is intimated in this critique is unfair to citizens of faith. They say it distorts structures of justification and argument; forcing people to remain silent on what they think—and what may well be—the most important dimensions of a given issue. They say it would be better if everyone were to participate as thoughtfully and sincerely as they can on matters of moral and political importance, saying what they think as clearly as they can to others.
Also, they say the complaint about mutual unintelligibility is often exaggerated. On the one hand, many secular commitments are also difficult to engage with. On the other hand, if people pay attention to one another’s views with a good faith effort at engagement, they often make much more progress towards mutual understanding (if not agreement) than is expected by those who talk of incompatible frameworks.
Finally, responding to the theocracy objection, they maintain that the objection exaggerates the extent to which religious contributions to political life are simply expressions of deference to ecclesial or scriptural authority. Often they are reasoned insights or attempts to see values and principles already current in the political community (like justice or human rights) in a different light; they represent attempts to reconceive their substance and importance in terms of arguments that, as it happens, have been worked out in communities of faith-base inquiry, even though they are not simply deliverances of authoritative religious sources. Those who defend religious contributions argue that these reconceptions of values are often a source of refreshment in secular democratic politics, and it is a mistake for a community to turn its back on them simply because of their religious provenance.
The debate is evidently an important one, and we look forward to hosting a community of scholars who approach it form a number of different angles. Among the topics which we expect to be represented in that community are the following:
- The debate about Rawls’s “political” liberalism; the grounds and details of his conception; and its relation to other concepts in his political philosophy such “overlapping consensus” and “well-ordered” and “decent” societies.
- The different uses of political rhetoric and argument. Besides the immediate task of deliberative argument and persuasion, there are also other forms of political intervention such as: bearing witness to the importance of a certain value (or to the application of a certain value); explaining one’s actions and decisions (whether or not that also has the effect of persuasion); rallying a particular community; and expressing and elaborating a vision or ideal.
- The basis of intelligibility in a multicultural and multi-faith society; the extent to which we exaggerate mutual incomprehension between adherents of different faiths or none; the difference between a resolute refusal to engage with a view and a genuine inability to make sense of it; and the broader philosophical issue of whether mutual intelligibility presupposes a shared framework of concepts and judgments (what Karl Popper called “the myth of the framework”).
- Religious arguments in various political settings: the difference, for example, between religious contributions in an open-ended policy debate in the community and religious contributions in a judicial opinion, a legislative finding, and a State of the Union address.
- The duty of civility in modern multicultural and multi-faith democracies: the ethics of political argument and engagement, and the assurances and the tolerance that we shook be willing to offer one another in the way that we contribute to political deliberation.
- The relation between this issue of religious contributions in public debate and issues about church/state separation, disestablishment, liberal neutrality, religious toleration, and general opposition to theocracy or the according of any political authority to religious leaders or organizations.
- The attitude of the religions themselves towards the issues discussed here: their view of mutual civility, church-state separation, comprehension and incomprehension; the prospect of theocracy; and so on.
- The burden of intelligibility as among different participants; the difference between the Rawlsian view that the burden is on those who hold deep religious or philosophical views to “translate” these in a way that makes them intelligible to fellow citizens and the view of Jürgen Habermas that this must be conceived as a cooperative burden, in which hearers also have a responsibility to strain to understand views that are initially unfamiliar or uncongenial.
- The difference that religious considerations might make to our arguments and values: is it just a matter of emphasis, or are there important differences of content? The difference that the “censoring out” of religious views might make to the justificatory fabric of our arguments. Or we can look at this issue the other way round: the difference that has already been made to our values and arguments by attempting to drain them of any distinctive religious content.
- The ethical presuppositions of religious contributions; the extent to which they make sense only in the context of a willing commitment to adopt the underlying belief and conception of the good life or religious path.
- The particular issues on which we might expect these debate to be important—e.g., abortion, bioethics, punishment, relief of poverty, social justice, torture, war—and the difference we might expect religious contributions to make.