Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Religion, values and democracy

Arthur made a thoughtful response in the now quite long comment stream on In defence of the Lord's Prayer in the Australian Parliament.

I wrote:

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.

Arthur responded:

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.

9 comments:

AV said...

Thanks for the response, Jim.

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.

I'm not sure that "suffer" is an appropriate term, given that--for most Christians at least--the ability to practice their religion is not contingent upon their religion holding a privileged position in Australian society and law.

(Also, arguably, religious neutrality is enshrined in the Constitution, so the "erosion" was there from the outset.)

"Rational" simply means based on logic, on objective thought.

This projects a much bigger discussion, but it's more than just "logic." Briefly, evidence is a crucial factor also.

Basically what I'm advocating is that public policies should be justified on rational and secular grounds--i.e. evidence and reason, as opposed to dogma--because these are available to all regardless of their religious persuasion or lack thereof. (You might call it the "Obama doctrine", based on an important speech he gave on this topic in 2006.)

tikno said...

Some of conflict also happened from the ego of majority against minority. On the other hand, the minority felt inequitable.

I agree that belief cannot to be forced to others. That is a vertical line between human and God. Human may preparing the horizontal line for how to makes a better living between them.

I think the key is that whatever you want to do, think that there is a borderline for not disturb the others right.

Great post!
A thought-provoking post for togetherness.

rummuser said...

"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?"

You have hit the nail on its head. Why should equality of treatment exclude the majority? Let all involved be given exactly the same treatment. That is all the argument.

Jim Belshaw said...

Tikno, I like your distinction between the horizontal and the vertical.

Arthur and Ramana, there is a distinction between law and custom, and between introducing something and altering something.

To illustrate. Our public school system was non-denominational from its inception. It was not non-religious. Periods were set aside for religious instuction for those who wished (or whose parents' wished) to partake. This instruction was provided by external people. However, public schools did do things like nativity scenes at Christmas time since this was reflective of a major national celebration.

A few years ago, we got to the absurd position that things like nativity scenes were out, yet it was still acceptable for particular schools to celebrate Ramadan on the grounds of cultural sensitivity. This bred resentment.

One answer would be to remove all religious elements from schools on the grounds of secular education. This would certainly accommodate those who believe that religion is superstition and are opposed to any form of religious presence.

That's fine, but it cannot easily be done: schools actually have to accommodate different religious views because they directly affect school operations. Oddly, some of the big Christian private schools do best at this in that, while Christian, they explicitly accommodate people from different faiths from food to recognition of special celebrations.

I see no answer. It seems to me that in a truly tolerant pluralist society, our public school system should accomodate and recognise different belief systems. This does not mean pandering to particular views, creationism comes to mind, in the curriculum.

AV said...

Arthur and Ramana, there is a distinction between law and custom, and between introducing something and altering something.

I'm not entirely sure which part of my comment you are addressing, but the appeal to custom doesn't really wash with me. Argument from tradition fallacy and all that.

A few years ago, we got to the absurd position that things like nativity scenes were out, yet it was still acceptable for particular schools to celebrate Ramadan on the grounds of cultural sensitivity. This bred resentment.

One answer would be to remove all religious elements from schools on the grounds of secular education. This would certainly accommodate those who believe that religion is superstition and are opposed to any form of religious presence.

That's fine, but it cannot easily be done: schools actually have to accommodate different religious views because they directly affect school operations.


OK, I'm going to have to rescue you from blundering into strawman territory here. The issue that secularists such as myself tend to have with religion in schools is not so much the mere mention of religion as it is religious proselytism or indoctrination . . . such as one might once have received in a religious instruction class.

Setting aside periods of class time for religious instruction in public schools--even if participation in such classes is optional (for parents, that is)--is a violation of the separation of church and state, since it involves the use of taxpayer dollars to fund religious proselytism.

On the other hand, there is a difference between religious indoctrination and education about religion. Secularists would have no problem with comparative religious studies on the state school syllabus--indeed, Militant Fundamentalist Atheists (TM) such as Daniel Dennett have actually advocated compulsory education about the world's religions.

The belief that children should be educated about the world's religions is entirely consonant with the belief that religion is superstition. There is simply no contradiction there.

And in that context, there is nothing wrong with a Nativity play or a Seder meal or a Diwali festival or a Ramadan celebration--provided that the purpose of the activity is to teach students "This is what these people believe," and not "This is what you should believe."

rummuser said...

Jim, for all the secularism that I can profess, I cannot but understand the backlash that is building up through misguided minority appeasement. This does not bode well for the so called secular democracies like your country and mine.

Jim Belshaw said...

Arthur, and this is a comment on my reactions to your comment as compared to the substance of your comment, I find that this discussion is beginning to toughen my reactions and not in ways I necessarily want to see.

While we agree on some things, it seems to me that you have a far more purist position than I do.

As an example, I am not opposed to allowing for periods of religious instruction in public schools on the old style if that is what parents want. On the other hand, I thought that Mr Howard's concepts of chaplains was highly uncertain.

For my own sake, I think that we should probably drop this conversation at the moment. I need to think about the issues rather than trying to argue a line.

Ramana, in a sense you comment cuts to the heart of the problems I face in my discussions with Artur. I actually have a lot of faith in the future of secular democracies, but if and only if we can operate with a degree of tolerance.

In my thinking, I keep coming back to the Woolgoolga example. Here at a time when the White Australia policy was in force, the majority community assisted the new Sikh minority community to build a temple.

I think that one of the difficulties that I am now struggling with is with the phrase "secular society" itself. But that's another story.

AV said...

Arthur, and this is a comment on my reactions to your comment as compared to the substance of your comment, I find that this discussion is beginning to toughen my reactions and not in ways I necessarily want to see.

While we agree on some things, it seems to me that you have a far more purist position than I do.


Fair enough, Jim. Though the exchange seemed pretty cordial to me.

Jim Belshaw said...

Please don't misunderstand me, Arthur. The exchange was indeed cordial. That's the way I phrased it as I did, in terms of my own reactions.