September 2012‎ > ‎

3 - Q&A: Religious Language in the Public Sphere

Simone Chambers and Ron Kuipers sit down with Perspective to discuss issues of the use of religious language, religious views and religious ideas in society
Perspective: Simone, you recently presented your paper “Universally Accessible Language” at the American Political Science Association annual meeting in Seattle. I'd like to ask you about its reception, particularly if you noted a higher prominence of religious language in political dialogue in the U.S. compared with Canada?
Simone: I did actually. One of the things I argued was that we shouldn’t just have a blanket exclusion of religion from the public sphere. There are many different ways people introduce religion, religious arguments and religious speech into the public sphere and political debate, so we should have a more fine-grained assessment of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

In the American context, people were resistant to that, mostly because I was talking to an audience of political scientists who tend to be centre-left. When they think of religion in the public sphere, they associate it entirely with conservatism, extremism and fundamentalism. They almost always think it’s a bad influence and we should be finding ways of excluding it. The examples brought up were always very extreme ones of people who would be saying really hateful things and couching them in religious terms.

In Canada, people are less nervous about religion in the public sphere because it doesn’t enter as much. We already have regulation against hate speech – so we have ways of excluding things that are unacceptable – and it’s just not as present. There’s a different reaction among Americans, particularly American academics, to religious speech, and it’s more polarised. People are either really for it or really against it. In Canada, people tend to say, ‘Well, it’s not really a problem, so let’s not worry about it.’

“All human beings have their deepest views about
meaning of life – what makes life good and rich, what’s
desirable and what they care about most deeply.”

Perspective: Ron and Simone, behind most speech there exists assumptions that are casually, or more often unconsciously, presumed to be universally held, and which therefore go unchallenged. While we exclude religious arguments on the ground they aren’t universally held or accessible, is there not a case to be made for their non-exclusion on the basis that at least with religious arguments the places where we cease challenging assumptions are apparent and openly acknowledged?
Ron: I know what you’re driving at by saying it’s like a “religious view” in the sense that it’s treated as a fact requiring no examination or anything. That’s usually a secularist view of someone who holds a religious point of view – that they hold their religious views and beliefs uncritically. Even if they’re critical about a lot of them there is – at the core, at the foundation – something taken on faith. And whether it flies in the face of evidence or not, it’s just kind of uncritically accepted, and everything is built up on that irrational foundation or non-rational foundation. That’s the view of religion I’d like to contest.

But what I think you’re getting at, and this is something I do agree with, is I that the tacit acceptance of unexamined foundation beliefs doesn’t occur only in religion or religious views. All human beings have their deepest views about the meaning of life – what makes life good and rich, what’s desirable and what they care about most deeply. They usually don’t have a rational justification for them. They’re couched in the terms of what the secularist philosopher Richard Rorty calls a “final vocabulary.” Once you’ve expressed your deepest motivations or aspirations you’ve gone as far as language can take you, and then you do have a certain sort of faith-like acceptance of that orientation.

That doesn’t just characterise a religious view, but also most of what John Rawls would call “comprehensive conceptions of the good.” There are a lot of different phrases to name what we’re talking about here. Recognition of this commonality can be a basis for levelling the playing field. We need no longer accept the idea that religion has this quality to it but a secularistic or scientistic view doesn’t. We can say we’re all on the same plane. Epistemologically, you level the playing field and then you can start talking.
Simone: Well, I agree and disagree. I do agree as a psychological or even an empirical fact that most people haven’t really thought through the foundations of their beliefs and values.  This is true for both religious and secular views. But I don’t think this is an epistemological fact. Even though most people don’t really think through them, there’s an epistemological difference between basing something fundamentally on a religious claim and on a non-religious claim. It’s an epistemological position, not really a political position.

I do agree that for 99 per cent of our debates, we don’t get to that final buck-stopping foundation, and religious statements can be investigated, criticised and argued just the way secular statements can.  Religious statements and secular statements are more analogous than people think. But I also want to add that even though most people don’t question their beliefs all the way down, and it’s not possible for us to make all the background assumptions transparent at any one time, I do believe that everything is up for grabs so to speak. It’s not really credible to think there are views that are, in principle, unquestionable.
Ron: I agree with all of that, so I would have to qualify my answer in that direction. I shouldn’t have said that everybody, in principle, has something unexamined that’s impossible to be examined. I agree with the claim that anything, in principle, can be examined, though not everything all at once. That’s really a sound, philosophical position, because psychologically you just can’t be that sceptical about what you’re standing on. A beneficial feature of modernity is that we’ve become more critical and we do explore more and don’t accept things simply on “blind faith.” As Charles Taylor suggests, there are positive aspects to what he calls our “age of authenticity,” a time when more and more of us feel compelled to put things through a personal, critical grid and see how they sit with us. We do that a lot more than previous Western societies have done.

It’s this self-critical process that a lot of these political philosophers value, through which implicit, unacknowledged, or tacit assumptions are made explicit and available for discussion – again, not everything all at once. So I agree that this process happens all the time. For me, it’s important for religious people to think about this possibility, because I’m always trying to advance or promote what I call “critical faith,” which is a faith that’s able to undertake this effort as part of its orientation.

“We have a religious pluralism that includes not just the
Abrahamic traditions but also Buddhists, native Americans,
native Canadians and all sorts of different kinds of things.”

Perspective: Despite the rejection of welcoming religious language into the public sphere, we see religious ideas from many sources leaking into dialogue between people, in public, around the table – native spiritual ideas, words like “karma,” and so on. There seems to be a public will to include such speech despite our presumed secularism.
Simone: If you look at the big picture, secularism arose out of a particular historical context, which was the Wars of Religion in Europe. Liberalism comes out of the ashes of that war and religious toleration is the foundation or rock of liberalism, so the push for secularism was tied to how politically destructive were these religious arguments. But now we live in a different world.

It was true in the 16th and 17th centuries that there was a certain type of religious pluralism represented by the growing versions of Protestantism on the one hand and the Catholic Church on the other. But now we have a religious pluralism that’s much broader, which includes not just the Abrahamic traditions but also Buddhists, native Americans, native Canadians and all sorts of different kinds of things. Within the West these contemporary religious traditions are less tied to political power than the clashing religions of the 16th and 17th centuries. We still have to deal with religious pluralism and the danger of majority religions, without realising it, imposing their views on minorities. We have to navigate religious pluralism and be a little vigilant about the way religion enters the public sphere, but we don’t have to be so worried that it’s going to lead to religious wars in western democracies, so we don’t need the same secularist watchdogs on what we do. But I do think there’s room for the potential for conflict around religious differences and religious pluralism – look at Switzerland banning minarets. These are cultural/religious questions of accommodation and freedom of religion. They’re still there, and they’re tied to the language we use.
Ron: We might not have to worry about a religious war, but we definitely have to worry about polarisation, and violence that can emerge from that. One of the other things you’re noticing, though, is something Taylor tries to describe in A Secular Age. There he tells a completely different narrative of secularisation than the one many Westerners have become accustomed to. In a broad way, he agrees that from 1500 to 2000 Western civilisation moved from a period in which not believing in God wasn’t an option or even thinkable to a point where, even if you are a religious fundamentalist, you recognise that this is in part a choice and that there are several other spiritual options out there. So instead of seeing a decline in religion and spirituality over this period, Taylor sees people’s spiritual lives become less corporate and more individualised, and as a result there is a proliferation rather than a narrowing of livable spiritual options. In the context of our age of authenticity, then, you find more people experimenting with this plurality of religious options, and that is why you notice the different religious terms and insights you mention now finding their way into public discourse.

The one thing Taylor insists on is that this is just the way it is. This proliferation of spiritual options along with the popular emergence of the value of authenticity are not developments simply to be lamented or praised; rather we have to realise this is where we are. And if religious culture, even traditional and ancient religious culture, wants to speak into this situation, it has to talk to people where they’re at. To reach people, you have to speak a “subtler language”; you can’t just talk down and impose some kind of dogma and say, ‘Believe this or else,’ because you’ll never reach people that way.
Simone Chambers is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto.
Ron Kuipers is Associate Professor of Philosophy of Religion at ICS.