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Faith and democracy

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This is in response to an article by Dr Jonathan Chaplin in the Guardian ‘Face to faith’ feature Saturday 5 December 2009. Dr Chaplin is the director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge.

According to Chaplin,

Democratic debate should take in as many faith-based and moral views as possible.

This doesn’t seem too controversial. In a democracy it doesn’t particularly matter where the views come from. What matters more is how sound they are, in comparison to other conflicting views.

But that apparently innocuous expression ‘faith-based’ could mean at least two different things. It could mean that the view derives from faith – eg the sort of view a Christian might have or a Muslim might have, because of their respective faith. Or it could mean the view itself depends for its content and/or its supporting arguments on the particular faith it comes from. Which is a very different matter.

Dr Chaplin begins with the claim:

Many secular humanists argue as if faith-based ideas should play no role in democratic discourse, religion should be privatised and the public square secularised. They make three main points. None of them stand up.

Professor AC Grayling

Professor AC Grayling

(The link is to an earlier ‘Face to faith’ article by AC Grayling.)

The first of the three ‘misconceived’ secularist points is the fear that

faith-based discourse will cause religious views to be legally imposed on secular citizens.

Such a fear may or may not be well-founded. The example Chaplin gives to counter it is of a debate between one ‘secular’ position and another:

If some future government builds a third runway at Heathrow I will experience having been imposed on by a secularist moral viewpoint I profoundly reject – an irrational faith in endless economic growth held in defiance of scientific findings about climate change. That wouldn’t make me want to exclude that secularist viewpoint from political debate, only argue more strongly against it.

This reassurance unfortunately only works in the context of the innocuous reading of ‘faith-based’. It is hoped that in a debate like this there will eventually come a point where the arguments on both sides will be presented either in terms of apples or of pears, but not apples on one side and pears on the other. So for example the question about the third runway at Heathrow should be decided on whether it is in the best interests of (say) the UK, or of Europe, or the world, or future generations in the UK, Europe or the world. This would clearly presuppose another debate as to whose interests are paramount, but that debate would have to happen if we are to know if we’re talking about apples or pears.

If the apples or pears debate is suppressed, then that could mean the view of one side is imposed on the other, because the conditions for a fair debate do not obtain.

So in the case of a ‘faith-based’ view versus a ‘secular’ view, in the innocuous sense of ‘faith-based’ this would just mean the view just happened to come from a context of faith. Its rationale would not be intrinsically faith-based, so there would be nothing to stop the ‘faith-based’ view and the ‘secular’ view being translated into either apple terms or pear terms, so their merits could be fairly assessed and judged.

But on the other interpretation of ‘faith-based’ this translation is by definition ruled out. If the rationale for the ‘faith-based’ view cannot be translated into the same terms as its ‘secular’ opponent then there is no context for fair debate. If the ‘faith-based’ view then won the day its opponents could rightly claim the decision was imposed.

In theory the same could apply the other way round. If the ‘secular’ view prevailed because the ‘faith-based’ view could not be translated into the terms appropriate for a fair debate, then in theory the proponents of the ‘faith-based’ view could claim the ‘secular’ view has been imposed. But only in theory – or rather in a theocracy. The argument does not hold water in a secular democracy, which is what the UK is.

The second secularist objection is that

faith-based arguments are unintelligible or inaccessible to most citizens, whereas secularist moral arguments can be embraced by everyone.

Chaplin counters this with:

But given that polls suggest over 70% of British people hold to some kind of religious faith, it seems quite likely that most will be able to make some sense of political arguments appealing to faith.

I cannot decide if this argument is disingenuous or just complacent. I am prepared to accept that a poll has happened which has returned a result like this. But in a 1991 UK poll (see Touched by an angel #8), only 24% agreed to the statement ‘I know God exists and I have no doubts about it’. There are also many religious faiths. Can we assume every Christian will understand every political argument appealing to Islamic principles, and vice versa? And so on for every religion and every variant of every religion. It is a bold enough claim to assume that the 70% who said they had ‘some kind of religious faith’ would also agree that the idea of a political argument appealing to faith made sense. It’s even bolder to claim that all 70% would understand every argument of that type.

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu

We then get – and remember this is from the director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge:

When Desmond Tutu called for the abolition of apartheid legislation because every human being is “made in the image of God”, I don’t recall secularists scratching their head in puzzlement.

This is such a cheap point. The idea of humans being literally made in the image of God is actually very obscure and baffling for a non-believer. (See for example Human Dignity Derived from Christian Teaching.) In a different context ‘secularists’ very probably would scratch their heads. But metaphorically the statement is fairly anodyne. In the context of the struggle against apartheid and of Desmond Tutu’s own unique contribution to that struggle, why would anyone care whether he meant what he said literally or metaphorically? Why would anyone waste time thinking about it, considering that imago dei was only one of countless reasons why apartheid had to go?

Chaplin’s point would only start gaining value if the sole rationale behind the struggle against apartheid had been that all humans were literally made by God in the image of God. That was not the case. And it would have to have been literally because you cannot derive legislation or political policy from a metaphor.

Now we get to Chaplin’s third secularist objection – ‘the weakest’ – which is

that religious faith is just irrational and so can never be the basis of democratic reasoning. The objection comes in cruder positivist forms, such as “belief in God is like belief in invisible unicorns”: if you can’t experience it through the evidence of the five senses, it doesn’t exist.

This is a ‘19th-century view’, according to Chaplin, which

was discredited ages ago by philosophers of science who recognised that human experience is a rich and complex phenomenon yielding reliable knowledge through many routes. There are more sophisticated versions, but all of them fail to see that faith is not an alternative to reasoning but its precondition. All chains of reasoning get going on the basis of presuppositions which cannot themselves be proved rationally.

I’m afraid ‘discredited ages ago by philosophers of science’ is just not good enough. (Is this yet another convenient misreading of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions?) We are not told who the ‘philosophers of science’ are, so it’s hard to nail this jelly to the wall.

‘[H]uman experience is a rich and complex phenomenon yielding reliable knowledge through many routes’: OK, but so what? Ergo God exists? But invisible unicorns don’t? I don’t remember coming across a philosophy of science that would support an inference like this.

Rhesus monkey

Rhesus monkey

We must be very careful with a statement like ‘faith is not an alternative to reasoning but its precondition’. It is simply not true that ‘[a]ll chains of reasoning get going on the basis of presuppositions which cannot themselves be proved rationally’. For example:

Rhesus monkeys are placental mammals.

All known placental mammals give birth to live young.

Therefore Rhesus monkeys give birth to live young.

Chaplin might have meant to say something rather different, eg that a fundamental scientific theory, like that of relativity, may start out without empirical proof, but as a mathematical model to explain certain anomalies observed against an earlier model – in this case that of Newtonian mechanics. Einstein for example could be said to have had ‘faith’ that relativity was correct, before specific evidence was discovered which confirmed its predictions. Perhaps even more pertinently, Einstein had ‘faith’ that behind the weird world of quantum mechanics was a hidden reality of objects and forces which behaved according to more traditional concepts of cause and effect. In 1982 a series of experiments performed by Alain Aspect at the University of Paris appeared to prove Einstein wrong.

In cases like this ‘faith before knowledge’ is a historical accident – the evidence (for or against) just happens to come after the prediction. As it often does with science. The key points are (a) that the evidence may well emerge eventually; and (even more importantly) we know what would count as evidence. A scientific theory may never be fully ‘proven’, but we can certainly tell what would falsify it.

The claims of religious faith are utterly different. We cannot specify what would falsify a claim that, for example, God exists.

It may well be that ‘human experience is a rich and complex phenomenon yielding reliable knowledge through many routes’, but this gets us nowhere without criteria for sifting out that ‘reliable knowledge’. We have criteria in the sciences and in historical research. What are our criteria for ‘reliable knowledge’ in the context of religion?

Chaplin’s last substantive point is that the third objection

also fails to see that secular humanism is itself a faith standpoint, resting on similarly unprovable assumptions such as the primacy of rational autonomy, the supremacy of natural scientific knowledge, or the self-creation of the cosmos.

Edith Piaf

Edith Piaf

Well, in terms of the context, which is democratic legislation and policy-making, beliefs about the ‘self-creation of the cosmos’ are neither here nor there. One secular humanist could believe the cosmos created itself from nothing. Another might believe the cosmos, like Edith Piaf’s love, has no beginning and has no end. Another might be completely defeated by cosmology. It is difficult to know how any of these positions could influence legal, political or social policy.

A secular humanist’s beliefs about the ‘supremacy of natural scientific knowledge’ are I think justified by the arguments just given. I agree this belief cannot be proven, as that would involve a vicious circle: what evidence could prove that proof by evidence is sound? But again we must come back to the democratic context. Rejecting the primacy of evidence is something we tend to associate with totalitarianism rather than democracy: Hitler’s ravings about the Reich’s ultimate victory as the Red Army destroyed Berlin; Lysenko’s fraudulent ‘alternative’ to Mendelian genetics; etc etc.

Which leaves us with ‘the primacy of rational autonomy’. I would probably agree that this is ‘unprovable’. I say this not because it is an alleged fact that happens to be unprovable, but because it is a choice which human beings can make, insofar as they are self-conscious and have free will. It is ultimately one’s practical, deliberate, willed assumption that one is responsible for one’s own decisions and one’s own behaviour.

What are the alternatives? That one hands over one’s autonomy to another person or group of people? Hardly consistent with the concept of an adult citizen of a democratic community. Or one hands over one’s autonomy to God – one declares that one’s own rational autonomy is secondary to God? But in the act of submission one is assuming autonomy – otherwise it is not a free choice. So submitting to a faith-based doctrine itself presupposes the ‘unprovable’ assumption of the ‘primacy of rational autonomy’.

In a democracy people are free, within limits, to submit themselves to any faith-based doctrine they choose, or to no faith-based doctrine at all. But that act of submission is a personal thing. It has no implications for other citizens of the democracy. It is not obvious why citizens in a democracy should be under any obligation to see a particular legal, social or political proposal in terms of any faith-based doctrine any other citizen should have chosen to submit himself or herself to.

In view of the personal, individual nature of that submission, the onus is rather on the believer not to impose the implications of his or her personal, individual choice on others who have not made that same choice.

If the nature of the submission is such that the individual can no longer see himself or herself under that obligation, then it does not seem unreasonable for the democracy to take steps to compensate for this by reducing the potential influence of faith-based views on legal, social or political policy-making.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Written by Chris Lawrence

8 December 2009 at 12:54 am

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