Thursday, June 07, 2007

Religious debate: one of many influences

Over at Lib Dem Voice, debate has been forthright about whether Scotland's Catholic leader was right to threaten to exclude politicians who disagree with that church's position on abortion. Setting aside that issue itself, I don't see a problem with a church leader being outspoken (as I have explained at Lib Dem Voice). We need more public debate not less, provided all views get a hearing.

One contributor commented: "...religious freaks who think your moral duty to do X, as a committed member of a religion, means you also have a duty to coerce other people to do X."

That sounds like what political freaks do, except we call it "party policy" not "moral duty"!

I was going to say that the main difference between religion and politics is that the consequences that are (alleged) to follow from not going along with religious beliefs are usually worse. (But then I am reminded that death for many was the ACTUAL consequence of not going with along some political ideologies in the recent past.)

In the realm of public policy, is it tenable to say that faith/belief should play no role? Is faith not just one of many prejudices that we all bring to any matter under debate? Sometimes they are prejudices written down in books over 1000 years ago; sometimes we get them from our parents or friends. Are one set more important than the other?

Take global warming. And I don't mean the debate about whether humans are making a difference or not. I mean the bigger issue: the view that global warming matters. Is it a FACT that it matters or just one of belief, albeit a belief shared by most? It only really matters if one is bothered about future generations. Is it a matter of religious faith that I believe I have a responsibility to them? Or because my parents taught me to care about others? If I had no children, would it matter less to me?

I agree with Andy's hope that one day choice of religion will be as relevant as choice of football team. They both have symbols, chants, and a belief (usually irrational!) in the supremacy of their team. But we all know that football is not a matter of life and death: it is much more important than that!

Is the only difference between religious belief and political principle the length of time since the ideas were first articulated? Or perhaps the difference is the number of people who subscribe to them? Or perhaps it is the degree to which a position is supported by evidence? Or is it about what I will do to you if you disagree with me? Is there a spectrum that goes: religion then political principle then science? Do they overlap at the edges?

I guess I end at that fundamental liberal principle: you can believe whatever you like provided you respect my right to disagree. I hold that view whether your beliefs are written in an ancient book or because your mate in the pub convinced you. The problem, of course, comes when YOUR belief leads you to action with which I disagree. Do I have a right to stop you? And that's where society / democracy / politics comes in to decide.

I could go on (e.g. Why are some public policy issues matters of conscience and some not? Are faith schools damaging to the cohesion of society?) but I would be here all night.


At 07 June, 2007 22:51, Blogger Laurence Boyce said...

Football is not a matter of life and death: it is much more important than that!

I think that might just be the key to the problem. Meant as a joke in the footballing context, it is decidedly less funny in the religious domain. For that is exactly what religions fundamentally believe: that this life is but a trivial prelude to an infinitely more important life to come. That is why religious leaders can act with such high-handed arrogance; and if the afterlife were a reality, they might be entirely right to do so. If we really are going to wind up in Hell for all eternity for tolerating abortion, then I’d be all in favour of anything to prevent abortions from taking place. But I happen to believe that the afterlife is merely a risible human construction which religions shamefully use to further their respective kingdoms which are very much of this world, not the next.

That is why the influence of religion can be so poisonous in the political sphere, because religions pay allegiance to a higher calling which will in principle trump the democratic process. The reason, in my view, why so many people are complacent about the role of religion in society is that the majority cannot really accept that people actually believe in the doctrines of their faith. This is why, when some jihadist lets of a bomb for example, that people come forward to explain it away as being fundamentally a manifestation of social, political, or economic issues. Well that may be part of the problem for sure, but we have to try to comprehend the fact that the terrorist really really believes that the virgins are waiting for him in paradise or whatever.

So no, I think there is a very big difference between religious prejudice and all the other baggage which we carry around with us. Through reason and dialogue we have some hope of settling our differences, but once we start invoking divine revelation and authority, then we’re literally off in the land of the fairies.


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