A Good Read

US church leaders are more likely to be seen in church than British ones

Religious Voices in Public Places

Nigel Biggar and Linda Hogan (editors)

OUP, hb, £65.00

Religion is back as a major force on the world stage. Reports of the death of God proved premature. But while this may be good news for the pastors of mega churches in the US or Pentecostals in Latin America or South Korea it poses problems for political philosophers. With so many different religions, all competing to be heard, and with atheists and non-believers more militant than before, how do you allow religious arguments to be admitted into public debate without provoking bitterness and division? The culture wars in the US are a warning of what happens when different worldviews clash in the public square.

One solution to this dilemma proposed by liberal thinkers in both the US and the UK is to stipulate that only public reason be used in political debate. If believers want to argue about such issues as abortion or euthanasia they should frame their arguments in non-religious terms. In the words of Richard Rorty, religion is a ‘conversation stopper’. No one should think it possible to close a debate by quoting the bible or the Qur’an when many do not accept the authority of any sacred text.

As Nicholas Wolterstorff points out in his contribution to this collection of essays by writers from Australia, Canada, France and Ireland as well as the UK and US, lying behind this hostility to religious arguments there is very often a deep suspicion of religious belief itself which is seen as leading to intolerance and violence. In his concluding reflection, Nigel Biggar remarks on the fact that when John Rawls or Jurgen Habermas wish to warn of the threat from ‘comprehensive doctrines’ to public reason they always pick on religious belief rather than Marxism or neo-liberalism or nationalism. It could, of course, be argued that the liberalism espoused by Rawls is itself a comprehensive doctrine which he assumes everyone will simply take for granted.

But Rawls is views are much more nuanced than the summaries of his thinking that are often offered. He modified his position over the years and the contributors to this volume do not agree on their assessment of his opinions. Christopher Insole sees less of a clash between Rawls and a Christian liberalism in the Burkean tradition that some of the other writers. Linda Hogan accuses Rawls of regarding religion as incidental to a person and as assuming that there exists a self-independent of and prior to the values and interests which that person possesses. She is close to such communitarian thinkers as Michael Sandel in seeing that we are not isolated individuals but persons embedded in moral and religious traditions. To say that we should enter the public square without our beliefs is to demand that we leave part of ourselves behind.

In any case, as Biggar insists in his analysis of how the debate over euthanasia has been conducted, if we lay down that there can only be a conversation between people who are not divided by different moral convictions, it would remove one of the central purposes of having a conversation which is to come to understand what is not at present understood. How, one might go on to ask, will anyone ever be challenged by new ideas or by being exposed to a different way on seeing the world if comprehensive doctrines are banned from public debate? There is, after all, no human language which is in principle unintelligible.

As well as examining both the philosophical and theological issues, contributors look at how the question plays itself out in public life. Peter Sedgwick looks at the contributions of Bishops Robert Hardy and Richard Harries to debates in the House of Lords. Brian Stiltner and Steven Michels examine religious rhetoric in the recent US presidential debate. Although it is true that a British politician can more readily admit to being an atheist than an American, some contributors are too complacent about the establishment in England. Whatever its benefits this is an unequal arrangement that both privileges the Church of England and also probably weakens her by depriving her members of a sense of belonging to a separate organisation over against the state.

Although secular philosophers will never admit it, it is in fact difficult to justify either human rights or human equality without appealing to religious arguments. In the end the very presuppositions of political liberalism are moral values taught by religion. As Raymond Plant puts it, political structures have to grow out of what Hegel called the ‘ethical life of a society’ otherwise they will be rootless.

This is an important and but demanding collection of essays that deserves the close attention of anyone concerned about a very significant issue.

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