Friday, June 01, 2007

Religious motives in politics

Johann Hari wonders:

when there are so many Murdochian pressures on a British Prime Minister dragging them to the right, pressing him to fellate the rich, isn't it good to have a counterveiling pressure to help the poor - even a superstitious one? If religion drives Brown's best instincts and whittles down his worst, should we still condemn it?
Hmmm. Perhaps the more important question is - can we have this benign, pro-poor element of some of Jesus' teaching, without all the other abhorrent lessons his religion brings?

Chris Dillow is sceptical:

First, religious-based arguments don’t permit the possibility of persuasion. If a Christian says: “the Biblical prophets tell us to help the poor” an opponent could reply: “the Bible has no authority, as God doesn’t exist.” And the debate stops there.
Redistributive policies then become merely a way of the Christian imposing his private beliefs onto others.

While I’m as firmly an atheist as Chris (and Johann), I don’t agree. True, religiously based arguments aren’t going to carry weight with people not of that religion. But they will work on people who are of that religion, who will nonetheless have a range of political views. Look at the USA, where in recent years Christians have used religious arguments for intervention in Darfur, increasing development aid, fighting climate change, intervention in Iraq, restricting abortion rights, weakening science education… it’s a mixed bag.

But religion has persuasive power and, given that it won’t be disappearing any time soon, I don’t see why progressive atheists should eschew alliances with those who support progressive policies on religious grounds.

As for whether this is “the Christian imposing his private beliefs onto others”, you could equally say that a left-wing atheist would like to impose his private beliefs onto others by voting for redistributive policies. Fortunately, in a liberal democracy, we all (ideally) have equal impositional powers. We’d all like the world to be the way we’d like it to be. Persuade. Organise. Compromise. That’s politics.

Chris continues:

Secondly, religiously motivated arguments assume that one party has superior access to a “truth.” This surely is a strange thing for an egalitarian to believe.
Thirdly, religious appeals undersell equality, as there are countless secular ways to argue for it

I don’t agree with the second point, either: it’s not inegalitarian to say that knowledge is meritocratic. Some people just are better informed about some, or many, things.

On his third point, though, I quite agree (in fact, I think religious appeals undersell not just equality but morality in general, by subordinating it to a god). But if the aim is to persuade, then you have to push the buttons that work. Certainly, exclusively overtly religious campaigns won’t get you very far in the UK, at least). But it’s quite a jump to then conclude that it’s not good to ally with people who are motivated to share your policies on religious grounds, and who may be able to reach people that you cannot.

Chris adds:
In an egalitarian polity, in which people should be persuaded rationally of policies, religion should have no place – even if it is true. Religion might motivate political beliefs, but it shouldn’t, and needn’t, be the public justification for them.

Needn’t, certainly. Shouldn’t, ideally. But in a liberal democractic polity, people should be free to air their views and their reasons for holding those views – whether religious or not.

The trouble, though, comes when a group presents a religiously motivated policy not primarily to succeed in making that policy more popular so that it will be implemented, but with the aim of boosting a group identity. ‘Ra-worshippers for lower VAT’ might well try to get people to vote for VAT cuts. But they might also use the issue to establish their status as a politically important section of society – and in doing so, society may fragment that little bit more. And then it will be that little bit harder to have open, rational policy debates.

And then, of course, ‘Ra-worshippers for child labour’ might carry more clout next time round. If a religion is a mixed bag, then strengthening the people holding it may not turn out well.

(See also Norm Geras’s and Jonathan Derbyshire’s responses to Chris.)

1 comment:

DC Homeowners said...

I do not think there is anything at all wrong with affirming one's faith as the inspiration for a given policy. The Declaration of Independence's phrase "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" would be deemed unconstitutional by the modern 9th Court of Appeals. There is no reason to keep religious thought out of political thinking. There is a reason we have no separation of religion and state in America.