Modern political debate rarely takes place with proper regard for the fundamental principles which inform both sides of the argument. Without a proper understanding of these formative principles, debates have an ‘open’ feel, where debaters often speak past each other rather than to each other. At the Tory it is our goal to engage topics at their first and formative principles, such that intellectual discourse gets at the meat of the claim that each participant wishes to put forward.
However, I see a modern tendency to quarantine arguments about the world whose first principles are religious. I think I understand these sentiments – there are many religious persuasions, and even if there were not, it is often the case that two people of similar religious persuasions may make completely dissimilar arguments with regards to any topic. Finally, the premise for many religious arguments is the belief in the religion itself, and if a religion is unintelligible to a debater, the arguments from that religion will be unintelligible and perhaps unassailable except at the level of belief. And so a religious argument might be met with a response, “I understand that your religion is important to you, but to make an argument in the public sphere you ought to go away for a while, ground your arguments in a more secular foundation, and return.”
I am not so sure that this response is a fair one. For many religious people, faith is so integral to one’s person, that it is impossible to imagine what it would look like to divorce faith from one’s arguments. One could attempt to repackage a religious argument in secular terms. Somehow, though, this repackaging seems dishonest – old wine in new skins, if you will. And when the drink is tasted, its contents cannot be disguised.
If this is the case, then asking a people of faith to divorce their arguments from their faith is a strange request. It would be akin to me asking someone to go away, divorce her political opinions from the fact that she was a woman and come back to the table. These facts about a person are integral to the person’s worldview, and cannot be divorced from most lines of thought, or inquiry. For many, the same is true of religion.
I trust that what I am arguing here will not be confused with an argument that the political behaviors of the religious right in the last twenty or so years are defensible. I am not proposing that any one faith blindly associate itself with a political orientation; neither am I suggesting that it is all right for a political party to co-opt members of any faith. What I’m suggesting here is for the allowance of ecumenical discussion in the public sphere: for practitioners of any religion to feel safe arguing in the public sphere, “As a member of faith X…”
How then might we appreciate religious arguments? On one hand, they can’t be automatic trump cards. It is clear that if someone were to say “well, I believe that murder is all right; that’s just how I’ve been raised” their opinions would not be rendered indisputable just as a consequence of their roots. On the other hand, religious arguments can’t just be dismissed by virtue of their ‘religiousness.’ Perhaps we might begin to see religious claims in a similar light to any other claim: that if a person begins any line of reasoning from a premise, we challenge the argument respectfully on and off of that premise.
Indeed, this is exactly how we already treat non-religious arguments which are grounded in first principles with which we disagree. It is the case that religious belief requires certain assumptions. Though secularists pretend towards moral neutrality, non-religious moral beliefs often require assumptions as well – that it is morally good to alleviate suffering, or that one ought not to issue unprovoked harm, or that one should act in the best interest of yourself and your community. Just because these assumptions seem uncontroversial does not itself make them without basic assumption. The task is to discern precisely which assumptions are properly intelligible in the public sphere. In other words, I suggest that religious arguments be given equal status to secular ones.
I do not suppose that this is a simple or trivial task. But it does seem that if the liberal politic in which we live celebrates plurality, it ought not do so at the expense non-secularity. Otherwise, it loses those very principles which informed its founding.
Toni Alimi ’13