Religions Are Slow to Improve

Religious and faith-based views on politics may occasionally contribute to improved social order and moral progress, as Kevin Vallier suggests, and thus it would seem an overlapping consensus on different approaches would be in order. After all, the world is big enough to allow room for all views to be heard, and so it came to pass that the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…

Unfortunately such diversity and openness is not in the DNA of religion. As I write in The Moral Arc: “The rules that were dreamt up and enshrined by the various religions over the millennia did not have as their goal the expansion of the moral sphere. Including other sentient beings within the circle of moral concern was not on their radar. Moses did not come down from the mountain with a detailed list of the ways in which the Israelites could make life better for the Moabites, the Edomites, the Midianites, or for any other tribe of people that happened not to be them.” Change in religious beliefs and practices, when it happens at all, is slow and cumbersome, and it is almost always in response to the church or its leaders facing outside political or cultural forces, as in the abolition of slavery for Christianity and the abandonment of polygamy for Mormonism.

To the extent that religions and religious adherents are tolerant of dissenting views and open to diverse opinions, it is primarily the result of them being pulled up by the secular forces of science and reason, which do have in their genetic makeup the principles of disputation and debate, empiricism and experimentation, and the understanding that human cognition is flawed and subject to self-serving biases and so must be subjected to constant checks and balances. This was what the Founding Fathers understood and established in the U.S. Constitution with its many checks and balances on power. As James Madison noted in Federalist 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” It is what Edmund Burke was thinking when he reflected on the French Revolution: “The restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.”

Christianity went through the Enlightenment and came out the other end civilized and tolerant, eventually leaving behind such barbarities as the slave trade and the insanity of the witch hunts. Islam has yet to experience an Enlightenment, leaving many of its adherents to embrace the letter if not the spirit of Sharia Law with its illiberal beliefs in the inferiority of women, the inhumanness of infidels and nonbelievers, and the belief that God’s laws (as interpreted by them, of course) trump human laws.

Finally, unlike science, religion has no systematic process and no empirical method to employ to determine the verisimilitude of its claims and beliefs, much less to determine right and wrong. To the extent that religions got it “right” (as judged by today’s enlightened standards), they did so as a result of haphazard trial and error, reinterpreting holy scripture to fit current standards. Recent debates about what is “really” in the Quran are a case in point. It doesn’t matter what the words “really” mean, because they are all made up anyway - just as in the now-accepted understanding that the Bible was written by Iron Age peoples and not by the creator of the universe. What matters is what believers believe is in their holy books because that is what they act on, and actions are what matter in the realm of politics.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Philosopher Kevin Vallier of Bowling Green State University suggests that libertarians need to think more carefully about the complicated territory between church and state. A propertarian approach will not suffice, he argues, and yet neither the left nor the right offers genuinely liberal solutions to the problems of religion in public life. Vallier recommends a set of principles that are at once anti-establishmentarian — there will be no official church — and yet “constructive,” in that it welcomes religious interests and even religious arguments on questions of public policy.

Response Essays

  • Patrick J. Deneen argues that the boundaries of political discourse have moved leftward. As a result, so-called religious conservatives now stand in the place that classical liberals formerly occupied: All that they want is a simple religious liberty, with an acknowledgement of the Judeo-Christian character of the morals needed to sustain such liberty. Today’s so-called classical liberals have forgotten their own heritage, and they stand ready to align with secular progressives. Deneen charges that these progressives have as their object nothing less than the criminalization of Christian belief and expression. Those who value small government should therefore side with Christian conservatives.

  • Maggie Garrett takes some issue with the classification system outlined in Kevin Vallier’s lead essay; she does not recognize herself, for one, in Vallier’s portrait of secular progressives. She denies that she stands for secular establishmentarianism in particular, and she would not discount the opinions of people of faith. Yet to count as a valid reason in public policy, she believes that more is required than bare divine revelation; justifications must be given that carry the power to convince others. She would refuse the granting of religious exemptions to otherwise secular institutions, like businesses, that would deny services to same-sex couples or marriages. She defends the contraception mandate along similar lines.

  • Michael Shermer argues that science is producing better government, and that religion hasn’t been a help to it. In a liberal democracy, citizens can experiment with how they want to be governed. They can compare ideas and try out new ones. The American experiment, as it is often called, has been a success in many different ways. Meanwhile, expressions of religion in the public sphere are increasingly “obsolete.” This fact should be recognized; religion should retreat from public life just as it has from scientific inquiry, and for the same reasons.