Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A bad case for religious privilege

Stephen Law argues (hat tip):

One way in which the secular character of a society can begin to be eroded is if the religious start insisting their views are deserving of special, institutionalized forms of privilege or "respect”.

If you agree with some of these claims that religion deserves special institutionalized privilege or respect, cross out the word “religious” and write in “political” instead. Then see if you still agree.

If you reject the political versions of these claims, why suppose the religious versions should be considered differently?

Stephen considers (and rejects) a number of grounds on which religious belief might be deemed ‘special’. I agree with pretty much all he says, but I want to look further at one of his proposed reasons, as I think it approaches one significant, yet flawed, argument:

Religion often forms part of a person's identity in a way that their politics doesn't. That’s why we should institutionally privilege religious beliefs.

I think this could have been better put – largely because politics does form a key part of some people’s identities. The pro-religious privilege argument that I think this gets very close to is this:

Political beliefs are inherently public in that they relate to how we are governed, which will necessarily affect others of whatever political views or lack thereof. Religious beliefs, though, while they may well have outward-facing aspects that would relate to others, are at root a matter of private, personal faith.

We cannot privilege all political beliefs in the public sphere, as their policy implications are contradictory; to pick some for special treatment would undermine democracy. So the public sphere should be politically neutral ground as far as is possible.

Religion is different. Yes, there is proselytisation, and also there are times when religious individuals or groups make specifically political claims – but, excepting these, religious faith is a matter of personal and private concern. Certain sorts of attacks on such faith therefore cut deeper than criticism of political views, which are essentially matters for debate. Futhermore, the law should allow for religious people, individually and collectively, to live their personal lives according to their faith – this will relate, for instance, to matters of dress, education and jobs that ordinarily require actions contrary to their faith. So some specific allowances in public policy will be required.


I don’t buy this at all, but I hope I’ve given it a passable hearing.

The (main) reason I reject it relates to something else Stephen said:

very often, religious beliefs are political beliefs. … But why should the addition of a religious dimension to someone’s political beliefs mean that those particular beliefs are then deserving of a special, institutionalized form of privilege or “respect”?

All true. But what we’re looking at here isn’t a case of adding religion to politics; rather, the demand for special treatment in the public sphere is a case of adding politics to religion. It starts from the fact that religion is (at least at root) a personal matter, but then, by seeking exemptions from certain laws, funding for schools, privileged protection from criticism and the like, the personal (to coin a phrase) becomes political. Religion starts making demands on the rest of us.

So, to publicly exploit whatever ‘privileged position’ religion might claim in people’s private identities, it has to abandon that position for a public political stance. That’s why the argument is worthless.

3 comments:

anticant said...

An individual's religious beliefs, or their personal philosophy, can never be solely a purely personal and private matter, because they affect the person's whole stance towards other people and society. If I did not believe as I do, I would not behave as I do, or desire the kind of society I wish to live in [ a secular, tolerant one].

There is no such thing as 'non-political' religion. Certainly not in the case of churches or sects who claim that their faith is the only 'right' one, and that everyone else is 'wrong' or even 'damned'.

Those who believe such doctrines, or teach them to their children, deserve no legal, financial, or even moral, support by the State.

m said...

I don’t have the right to an opinion on this, but I’ll still throw in some short thoughts…as I think it is a good topic, with good posts (it's better than, "ooo, nice topic").

For the most part, I agree with Stephen (leaving room for the odd grey area).

I don’t think there should be state funding for religious schools. When truly needed/valid, legal support is typically provided- without bringing in an overload of sensibility issues.

Don said...

Of course religious views can be political as well, they form part of someone's beliefs, which will of course include the political, the philosophical, etc. This is not to say that because you are a Christian, Muslim, Jew Sikh or whatever that your political views will be the same as other Christians, Muslims, Jews or Sikhs.

I don't personally think that there should be state funding to Religious schools, in the same way I don't think the state should help fund political movements, be they ideologies or small focus groups. Of course we would be little short of naive to think these do not play some part in the political process - who after all, funds the major parties in this country? Big business, trade unions, etc, which are of course not political in least.