Arthur made a thoughtful response in the now quite long comment stream on In defence of the Lord's Prayer in the Australian Parliament.
He (Arthur) supports public debate, including the right of religious people to organise. However, this is constrained by the second stream, the separation of church and state. I think, and I stand to be corrected, that Arthur would argue that should religious views succeed in imposing their positions on the state, that would be wrong in principle even if they were to be in the majority or to gain majority support. That is, Arthur has a dividing line in his position.
It's a dividing line inherent, unfortunately, in the very concept of liberal democracy--the problem of how to strike a balance between democracy and protecting the interests of individuals and minorities (even religious minorities--which is what, in Australia, each Christian denomination is) from the tyranny of the majority.
It's true that I don't believe religious doctrines qua religious doctrines should be enshrined in law. Nobody should be forced to observe religious laws. I oppose blasphemy laws on these grounds. I also oppose what in the United States they call "blue laws": laws designed to coerce people to observe religious moral codes. If for religious reasons you don't wish to buy or sell alcohol on a Sunday, then don't do it: the state has no business forcing you to observe the Sabbath.
However, I wouldn't describe a law that happens to be consonant with a religious doctrine, but can also be justified on rational and secular grounds, as wrong in principle.
I have brought this particular exchange up as a main post because they provide a further opportunity to explore some of the tensions inherent in a democratic system.
Like Arthur, I do not believe that religious principles as religious principles should be enshrined in law. I formed this view a long time ago in part through personal experience, in part through my study of history.
I grew up in what was, by today's standards, a secular but also religious world. I developed quite strong religious views, strong enough to make me register as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
This forced me to address the question of the conflicts that could arise when duties as citizen conflicted with religious beliefs. When was it right to break the law if the law conflicted with one's beliefs? What price was one prepared to pay?
I grew up in the Protestant tradition. One grandfather was a Primitive Methodist home missionary in New Zealand, the second a Presbyterian and Methodist lay preacher. I went to Methodist Church and Sunday School. But then my parents sent me to an Anglican boys school, with its daily chapel services.
This is not a biographical post. My point is that religion was present, but so were the differences in religion. There is actually a very substantial difference between the Protestant and Anglican traditions. Further, I found some elements conflicted with my own perceptions and my immediate family experience.
At secondary school under the old curriculum, I did far more history than is possible in today's crowded curriculum. Five full year units of modern, two of ancient in the then five years' secondary course. Then three further history units when for age reasons my parents insisted I repeat the final years.
Much of the history I did had a European focus. It is impossible to study European history without becoming aware of religious conflicts. That is the reason why I strongly support the separation of Church and State, why I believe that religious principles should not be enshrined in law. Theocratic states, whether Calvin's Geneva or today's Iran, can be very uncomfortable places.
At the same time, I also learned about the way in which those in power would use force to protect their position. This held for states and for majority groups. In all cases, a range of arguments were marshaled to provide legitimacy, of which religion was just one.
For personal reasons linked to my immediate life, I tended to take the side of minority groups.
My positions were not always consistent. I have argued that Cromwell was critical in the establishment of the supreme power of Parliament, something that I regard as critical in the development of the Westminster system. At the same time, at an emotional level I have always felt like supporting the cavaliers against the round heads. They are just so much more interesting.
Out of all this has come a second constitutional principle that I hold strongly, the need in a democratic system to avoid or at least minimise the oppression of the minority by the majority, to protect minority rights.
In an earlier discussion on this issue, Bob Q challenged me. He argued that it was up to the minority to argue their position.
At one level, that's true. Yet history shows that oppression by the majority is a normal feature, that groups and institutions will use their power to enforce their position in the face of challenge, that they will only move in the face of countervailing power.
These things are never clear cut.
In the discussion on the Lord's Prayer, Ramana pointed to the way (as he saw it) the need to accommodate Indian minorities had in fact oppressed the majority Hindu community.
I have some sympathy for this as a general point, although I cannot comment on the Indian position. After all, and notwithstanding Arthur's careful subdivision of the Christian faith in Australia into its various denominational sub-divisions, Australia's majority Christian community has been forced to suffer erosion of its previous position in the name of multiculturalism and of neutrality between religions.
Yet there is also an argument on the other side. If Australia is to survive as a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, surely we need equality of treatment even if that means disadvantaging the previous majority group?
Here we actually get into some very slippery territory indeed.
If you look at modern Australia, you will see that much of the current political debate is in fact about values and morals. We just disguise it in modern jargon. Arthur's words "rational and secular" are an example.
"Rational" simply means based on logic, on objective thought. However, while values and beliefs can be subject to and indeed supported by rational arguments, they are not themselves rational. They are what we feel and believe. The concepts "feel" and "believe" refer to emotions.
In similar vein, the word secular simply means not religious. In suggesting that discussion or policy should be based on "secular" grounds, Arthur appears to be arguing that religious views should not be taken into account. Yet this does not remove values or morals from the discussion. It simply removes a group of values, those based on religion.
This post has taken a fair bit of time, and I am running out of thought space with arguments only partially developed. To try to draw things together, I suppose that the key point that I want to make is that we need to be very careful to identify key principles in the things that we talk about.
I valued Arthur's thoughtful comment greatly because in providing a clear articulation of his position he provided a clear base on which I could respond.