Wednesday 15 February 2012

Religion and public policy

A survey by Ipsos MORI for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has attracted attention. It has shown that many of those in the UK who say they are Christian do not have the beliefs, views or practices that one might traditionally associate with being Christian.

Two press releases, both dated 14 February 2012, are available here:

Survey data are available here:

This raises the question of whether public policy should be significantly influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition (a vague notion, but not a hopelessly vague one).

I can only think of two grounds for giving any special role to the Judeo-Christian tradition in the formation of public policy.

The first ground would be that the relevant religions were widely believed, so that policy in tune with them would be in accordance with the wishes of the population.

The survey provides a strong reason to reject this ground. If the fact that a substantial proportion of the population claims to be Christian only indicates that a substantial proportion of the population has some belief in God, which tends to get labelled as Christian because of cultural background, then the size of that proportion will not in itself justify a claim that our society is deeply attached to a Judeo-Christian heritage, of which we should take special account in making public policy.

For example, if the people who say they are Christian do not generally subscribe to the traditional doctrines of the Church from which moral prescriptions are derived, then the size of the proportion would not count against policies that Christian churches might be expected to oppose by virtue of their doctrines (abortion, gay marriage, etc).

The second ground would be that it could be demonstrated, to the satisfaction of people at large, that there was indeed a God. This cannot be done. The purported demonstrations that have been offered over the centuries are no good at all.

It is worth noting the importance of demonstration to the satisfaction of people at large. Suppose that someone with political power was, himself or herself, entirely and sincerely convinced of the truth of some religion. That would justify his or her acting accordingly in his or her private life. We are all entitled to act on propositions that others doubt or deny, when we are the only ones affected.

But when someone's actions will affect others, and they have not individually volunteered to submit themselves to the agent's will (as many of us have not, because following each election, many will not have voted for the winning government), the agent has a responsibility to take account of the fact that others may regard his or her principles of action as mistaken. In the case of the religious politician, there would be no non-circular grounds for denying the status of epistemic peer to those who did regard the principles as mistaken. (There would be a circular ground: "Those who do not share my religion are wrong, so they should be disregarded".)

Given that, the religious politician should not be steered by his or her religion when making public policy. An analogy would be a captain who navigated a ship between submerged rocks on the basis that irregularities in waves would indicate where the rocks were. If others on the bridge told the captain that this was in their view an unsafe method, because a rock at a dangerous depth might still be too far below the surface to create any noticeable irregularities, the captain would be morally obliged to take note and use a more generally accepted method, despite outranking the others.

1 comment:

  1. I wish to make a comment on 'Religion and Public Policy' as follows:-

    If and when we look at different forms of enterprise, institutions or cultures, from the outside, then we tend to see their incongruities.
    If, and here I refer to religions, we look deeper into different world religions, whilst disregarding the sensational newspaper head-liners, such as 'Church refuses gay marriages', then we may be surprised to see that they share basic insights and principles, which can and often do provide excellent guidlines by which to live.
    When we focus on what we disagree with, in different religious cultures and traditions, and extrapolate from this, our whole view of those cultures and traditions, then our view of that which is 'other' has a narrowness of viewpoint, which in any other discipline, would be deemed shameful. This tendency, amongst those with no religious culture they belong to, believe in, or even have a deep respect for, has a habit of sowing discord, privately and/or publicly, if shared.
    The basic premisses on which the law of this land are based, have, I believe their foundations in the Judeo-Christian tradition. ... Is this a really bad thing? When people from different faith traditions, come to live in this country, respect of the law of the land is expected.
    Perhaps, instead of looking at differences, it might profit one and all, to look at commonalities between different religious and cultural traditions, and then see how these are already reflected in the law of the land, and public policy and can continue to do so.