01.16.17 | Religion's Role in a Democracy

Our next Member Monday(1/13) discussion topic may test the club’s safe-space boundary i.e. what is the proper place of religion in a functioning democratic society. 

James Chappel sets up the matter in his very readable article, “Holy Wars: Secularism and the Invention of Religion” from the Boston Review (link: http://bostonreview.net/books-ideas/james-chappel-secularism-religion). The piece synthesizes four recent books in such a way that it avoids pedantry and abstractions as it frames the issue(s).

At its heart is the question: How can people live together in a democracy if they have fundamental, irreconcilable beliefs about the nature of the universe? Think in terms of the impulse to limit/ban/vet Muslim immigration to view the matter at the wholesale level. Think in terms of Kim Davis (the Kentucky county clerk who refused, on grounds of violating her Christian faith, to issue a marriage license to a gay couple) to see it at the retail level. Per one of the cited philosophers, what a conversation-stopper: if someone claims to be acting for religious reasons, what is there to say?

One of our very early book discussion subjects addressed that point with the 7/24/85 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her fifteen-month-old daughter, Erica (“Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer, intro attached below as a Pdf). No mystery here, the perpetrators were fully identified. But did someone say murder? Actually it was, ahem, a “revelatory removal.”

May we at least question our kid-gloves treatment of religion with some honest analysis. Religion so often appears to be simply an imposed form of authority, whether benevolent or malevolent, that invokes some sort of transcendent deity. So it was in the Lafferty defense (which failed). So it would seem to be manifest daily on a billion prayer rugs.

The philosophical debate rests on what’s referred to as relativism and whether such relativism is a precondition for a functioning democracy. Simply stated, relativism states that any “truth” (religious, philosophical, ideological, or otherwise) is true only in the context of, or relative to, a particular belief system i.e there is no such thing as truth as an absolute. 

In a functioning democracy, then, Kim Davis was not entitled to impose her own religious beliefs as a reason to deny the marriage license. One’s right to enter the public sphere precludes the notion one’s own perception of the truth is the only valid one.

So, then, to one question posed in the article, what should we expect from religion in a secular society? The Founding Fathers seemed resolute that America, despite its Christian heritage, would have no government religion. As such, the secular state does not seek to eradicate religion but rather seeks to create a religiously plural society in which everyone’s religious rights can be respected.

But how does that work in practice? Does it mean upending someone’s belief system as a condition to carry out a state function? That would suggest a private/public double consciousness. Another question posed, why is it that so many (noble, secular) projects have foundered on the rocky shores of religious extremism?

One possible answer is religion has become an object of social control, an instrument for upheaval (or to quell such). Possible corollary -- man is inherently a tribal animal and religion is one means to achieve that.

Steve SmithComment