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Religion Is Not the Problem: A Theological Reponse

31 March 2011

Charles Taylor’s article “Religion Is Not the Problem: Secularism & Democracy” in the 25 February 2011 issue of Commonweal contends with the integration of Muslim immigrants into Western societies. Taylor locates the problem involved not in Islam or Muslims, but in Western secularism and its hegemony over civic discourse. With his usual command of the history of his discipline Taylor outlines the development of secularism as a paradigm and its progress from the transfer of certain functions and competencies from the church to the state in the aftermath of the Reformation to its place today as the default Weltanschauung, to employ Taylor’s preferred term, of the modern Western world. Of particular interest is the suggestion of John Rawls that all religious persons leave behind their religious convictions and engage in public discourse in the language of reason alone. The reasoning behind this is that only the language of secular reason is universally accessible and meaningful, therefore it is the only appropriate language for debate amongst interlocutors of diverse religious and philosophical positions. The particular languages of these diverse viewpoints are meaningless to those who not hold them and it is unreasonable to expect a the conclusions of one such language to dominant those of another. This suggestion, which, as Taylor points out, Rawls would later recant, has a fair point: religious language is exclusive. The conclusions that flow naturally from the assumptions of the Christian religious language are far from natural to those who do not share those assumptions. Can fundamental assumptions with implications for society at large, such as the Dominical imperative of charity (Matthew 25.31-46), reasonably justify state policies binding on adherents to another religious or philosophical position? What, then, is the place of the Christian Weltanschauung in the public sphere and in civic discourse?

Freedom of conscience and of worship is fundamental to free society generally and liberal democracy in particular; to restrict the conscience of the citizenry is to shoot democracy in the foot, because a citizenry unable to think for themselves in any respect are equally unable to participate in the democratic process. At the very least, therefore, individuals must be free to practise Christianity. Since, by its nature, Christianity, like most religions, cannot be practised entirely in private but requires public worship spaces, clerics, etcetera, such public institutions  and persons must also be allowed. However the allowance of private practice of religion by a worshiping community is a far cry from encouraging that community to bring its religiously derived values to bear in civil discourse. But Christianity is more than personal prayer and Sunday worship: it entails certain values which bear directly upon how Christians live in the world. It is precisely because of these values that Christianity must, at least from its own perspective, be engaged in civil and political discourse and it is these very values that make Christianity such a valuable contributor to that discourse.

Though originating in an intrinsically exclusive language Christian social and political values are far from inimical to the values of secular society; indeed, they are, as Taylor points out, the very source of those values, and of ‘secularism’ itself. Christianity’s fundamental social values include social justice (as expressed through the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Micah), care for creation, the inherent values and dignity of every human life as the only part of God’s creation which bear the divine image and likeness, and peace (the examples are too many to name but Matthew 5.3-12 is a good start). Though the Christian church and community has done a far from exemplary job of en-fleshing these values historically that does not alter their centrality to the Gospel nor the fact that it is incumbent upon Christians, both as individuals and as communities, to live them out. A central part of doing is to bring these values to bear in civil discourse.

When most people imagine such participation what likely comes to mind is Christian opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. The contribution of Christian values to other areas of civic discourse is oft overlooked. The very languages of human rights and human dignity, prized values of the secular sphere, owe much to Christian theological thought. The concept of ‘human rights’ as we understand it today developed out of Christian natural law discourse. Post-Reformation thinkers like Francisco de Vittoria and Francisco Suarez sought to codify a theory of humanity which granted rights to the indigenous peoples of the New World. Operating out of the Roman Catholic interdiction against slavery and Thomistic conceptions of the Imago Dei these Jesuit thinkers asserted that the colonial powers of Catholic Europe were not right in enslaving the indigenous peoples they discovered in North and South America. Under then-current European law persons who were not citizens of a recognised state had no rights and could be enslaved. The natural law theorists asserted that rights where intrinsic to human persons and that enslavement was offence to these inviolate rights held by virtue of the Imago Dei. Though this would later be expanded upon by non-Christian, or not explicitly Christian, Enlightenment thinkers the fundaments of human rights theory were laid by Spanish Dominicans and Portuguese Jesuits.

Even from these few examples it is clear that Christianity does have a positive contribution to make to civil discourse and cannot, justly, be excluded from that discourse. The key is that the contributions of Christianity, or, more precisely, of Christians, whether as private individuals or as members or even official spokespersons for ecclesial institutions, mustn’t be given any greater or lesser import than that given to any other such contribution. Individuals Christians ought to participate in civil discourse on the very level as every other citizen. Institutions ought to be afforded respect but the authority of their pronouncements is matter for their members and followers. Citizens participate in a democracy as individuals, not as members of institutions, and ultimately it is the will of the citizenry, not institutions claiming, validly or not, to speak in the name of or on behalf of portions of it.

The question is raised once again of the exclusive language of the Christian Weltanshauung. Can Christian individuals and institutions participate effectively in civil discourse on the level described above if the language(s) they employ is/are inaccessible to non-Christians? “Effectively” is the operative word, since what is at issue is not whether it is permissible or proper but whether others ought to be expected to listen and give consideration to conclusions derived from a language which is inaccessible to them. The only reasonable answer is the affirmative.  To do otherwise would be treating Christianity and Christians unjustly because Christianity is a religion. This is a question, ultimately of philosophy of religion.

Every Weltanshauung carries with it a positions regarding others. Conflicting world views may be viewed as threats, as competitors, as partners in dialogue, as utter nonsense, etcetera. Religious world views, generally understood as qualitatively different from non-religious ones, are usually understood distinctly. The philosophy of religion of contemporary Western secularism is moving increasingly toward regarding religion as an entirely private matter which ought not be brought into the public sphere. Though the reasons for this position are many the result is the same: that religion is unjustly regarded as inappropriate to public discourse. However this view fails to take into account that non-religious world views are equally exclusive and based upon equally insupportable assumptions. Though these non-religious world views generally do not include expansive cosmological meta-narratives, liturgical practices, or soteriologies these are not the aspects of religions which are brought to bear in public discourse. What they do share with religion is ethical principles and ethics is the realm of most civic discourse. Why ought the ethical principles of say, Kantianism, be given priority over those of Presbyterianism? There is no adequate justification for prioritising Kantianism over Presbyterianism; each employs a language inaccessible to the other and each makes ethical assertions based upon what are ultimately unsupported assumptions. Each Weltanshauung ought to be given equal space and equal consideration in the consensus-building process.

So, where does this leave us on the place of Islam in the West? Islam, like Christianity, has a great deal to contribute to the public discourse. Islam has, since its foundation, been deeply concerned with social justice. Founded in a society where communitarian values long-held were now paid only lip-service and where personal profit was the dominant social ideal (pre-Islamic Mecca was remarkably socially similar to the contemporary Western world) Islam strongly emphasises the value of the entire community and the duty of those with means to those without. One of the Pillars of Islam, the obligatory religious practices incumbent upon all Muslims, is zakkat, or alms-giving, a regular and non-dramatic gift to the poor. Zakkat is in sharp contrast to the pre-Islamic practice whereby giving to the less fortunate was a grand show intended to advance personal honour. In an age when charities are forced to send ‘thank you gifts’ to donours and pull at the heart strings of potential donours with the pornography of human suffering and promises of gifts of t-shirts and mugs to be prominently displayed at home zakkat is a value Western society would do well to learn. The concern with social justice is integral to Islam, indeed, in the Qur’an justice is given as a primary reason why the revelations of the prophet Muhammad were given [1], and plumbing the depths of the Qur’anic social justice tradition is well beyond the scope of this essay.

The valid contributions which Muslims and Islamic institutions and communities have to make to civic discourse ought to be listened to and given weight for the same reasons that Christianity’s ought to be. When Islam is allowed to make its particular contributions to Western society the West will truly be the better for it. Islam’s emphasis on the value of the community, its strong social justice tradition, its respect for other faith traditions, [2] all stand to contribute to public discourse and ultimately to the social makeup of secular Western democracies. It would be the West’s disgrace if these benefits were lost because they were offered by a religious tradition.

Notes and Bibliography

Original article by Charles Taylor: Taylor, Charles, “Religion Is Not the Problem: Secularism and Democracy,” Commonweal: A Review of Religion, Politics & Culture (25 February 2011), 17-21.

[1] Qur’an 57.25 (Surat al-Hadid)

[2] Qur’an 109.1-6 (Surat al-Kafirun)

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