Though a regular churchgoer and on most days a religious believer, I subscribe to the secularist principle that church and state ought to be kept separate. I don’t want government dictating religious belief and practice to people of faith, and I oppose using civil law and public policy to enforce religious teaching.
Up until, well, a few days ago, I firmly held that we believers who would see our religion-informed beliefs enshrined in law have a responsibility to argue for those beliefs in terms that can appeal to those who share our religious faith, those who espouse a different faith, and those with no religious faith at all. In other words, our basis for a law or policy shouldn’t be divine disclosure specifically or religious belief in general, but rather principles accessible to universal reason.
I regret to say that I no longer hold this.
If postmodernism has taught us anything, it’s that the foundations of reason differ from person to person because people—being situated in time and place, language and culture—reason from different starting points, with differing presuppositions, and in different directions. Rational thought begins not from perceived indubitable universal axioms, but largely from first principles accepted as matters of belief. I must believe in order to understand. Credo ut intelligam, Descartes!
These differences are not absolute, obviously. Public reason is made possible in part by there being a community of believers who share certain assumptions. For example, many of us hold to beliefs that people ought as a rule to be free, that society ought to be ordered toward justice, that human life has special value, and that all human beings possess equal dignity. We vote based on these beliefs of ours, and we expect legislators and policy-makers to share these foundational assumptions and to act according to them. We don’t show any hesitation to impose these beliefs on others.
So why is it acceptable to impose these beliefs, which aren’t necessarily religious, but not okay to impose beliefs that allegedly originate from the say-so of God?
A modernist answer is that what I here call beliefs are actually truths accessible to reason because they’re self-evident, able to be intuited, or made apparent through rational inquiry. I don’t buy this theoretically, and in practice it’s irrelevant. Ask a politician why you shouldn’t go around killing and feasting on your neighbors, and chances are you’ll get a profession of faith along the lines of what the young John Conner said to the Terminator: “You just can’t; trust me on this.” Nobody waits until they’ve found Descartes’ cogito or Kant’s categorical imperative or some other original rational foundation before they debate and exercise power in the political sphere. So even if you can philosophize to first principles, no one does this as a prerequisite for political participation. Secularism may succeed at separating church and state, but there’s no divorcing reason and belief. These latter two are bound insolubly.
So the question remains: what’s so problematic about appealing to divine disclosure?
The problem, I submit, is this: “God says so” doesn’t start a discussion; it ends it. There’s not much to say to “God said so!” other than “Oh no he didn’t!” or “There is no God.” Nevertheless, what God is said to have said can be assessed and judged on grounds other than the professed event of revelation. Religious belief about morality includes more than divine command ethics. See the natural law tradition, for instance.
At this stage, I fail to see why religious beliefs are any less legitimate than “secular” beliefs as a basis for action in the political sphere. Some people’s experiences suggest to them that human life has value and that it ought to be respected, and they form a belief accordingly. Some religions teach that human life is sacred and therefore worthy of respect. These teachings call for belief, and the faithful follow suit. The origin of a belief—whether experience, religious teaching, or something else—doesn’t seem to dictate believability, which depends more on 1) the belief itself and 2) the context in which the belief is professed. Credibility is relative. Belief in human equality, for example, won’t play well in a misogynistic or racist society. The likelihood that a belief is true depends greatly on where one is situated and what other beliefs one holds.
Where does this put me? Can I still accurately call myself a secularist? If by this label we mean one who supports formal church and state separation, then yes; but if we mean one who desires law and public policy to be based in reason alone, then no. Pure reason, free of any foundational beliefs, is a pipe dream. I see no sense in wanting those who write, interpret, and enforce laws to put their beliefs aside when doing their jobs. I’d prefer they be open about what they really believe and why so I can judge and respond to them according to my beliefs and reasons.