22 November

Religion, Secular Politics and Intelligible Values

Religious experience is, for many sceptical or simply indifferent secularists, something unintelligible. The idea that there is a God who can become a man and forgive sins — even that there is such a thing as God or as sin — is for them unacceptable. Religious people must remember that this is no simple matter of obstinacy.

Moral values, considered religious, such as the sanctity of life or marriage between just one man and one woman are for many secularists equally unintelligible.

But it is rarely acknowledged that for religious people, the values held by many secularists without appeal to a transcendent moral law are likewise unintelligible. The trinity of modern values — liberty, justice and equality — is doubtless noble, but it immediately begs questions: ‘how much liberty does justice require or permit?’; ‘how are people who are very different also equal?’; ‘how do we identify justice in an unjust world?’. Moreover, they beg  more serious questions: ‘why liberty?’; ‘why justice?’; ‘why equality?’. Whence have these values emerged? How can both religious and sceptical persons adopt them (since they clearly do)?

It is unlikely that anyone today who wishes to survive in politics or public life would overtly dispute the need for liberty, justice or equality, but surely moral values ought not to be deployed without some understanding of their sources and implications since it is equally undeniable that we often arrive at different conclusions about how to act on them.

Where conflict arises each side naturally tries to undermine its opponents’ premises in order to undo the conclusion. If a Christian argues against abortion the pro-choice secularist may counter by asserting that the Christian’s position can only be based on faith and tradition, or even religious experience. The Christian’s reasons for opposing same-sex marriage or abortion are often inaccessible to non-Christians, and his arguments therefore considered inadmissible in any debate ‘on the public square’. Other members of the public cannot be expected to accept a Christian’s politico-moral conclusions since they are based on a kind of knowledge with which they are not equipped. Some even doubt that faith itself is knowledge of a kind that can be shared with, or demonstrated to, others.

Crucially, this line of reasoning misses the point that the equality and justice under which a putative pro-choice activist advances his cause are as much products of faith and tradition as the values of any Christian, Hindu, Jew or Muslim. Some might be tempted to argue, like the American Constitution, that Liberty and Equality are self-evidently good, but such a proposition can be accepted only by a kind of faith. For one who believes in a transcendent moral law and in a transcendent moral law-giver, there may seem to be no justice possible without God, no equality viable without a human nature created by God, and no liberty worth its weight without the intrinsic worth of a God-made universe. Without God these are fictions — pleasing fictions no doubt, or even fictions most people are willing to support, but fictions nonetheless. Accepting them as real and true calls for faith. For the religious believer the reality of God and that of true justice hang together. Their separation by sceptical campaigners produces confusion.

The place of faith in religious traditions is clear to all. But without faith of a kind even the most ardent secularist could not advance a single moral argument that did not simply conform to public opinion or market forces and which would then cease to be a moral argument at all. Populism and savvy financial planning are not solid foundations for moral values. Faith of a kind is necessarily present in all moral values, and this ought to be acknowledged by those of all faiths and none, for doing away with God does not mean abandoning faith altogether. Otherwise, one’s political and moral values can be no more than private preferences, and certainly not values the public as a whole can be expected to embrace.


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