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Friday, 3 August 2007

Religion and Public Life: A Response to Russell Brown and Paul Litterick

Paul Litterick was recently interviewed by Russell Brown on Public Address. The topic predictably is his criticism of conservative Christian groups whom Russell appears to have no time for. Here I will make to criticisms of this broadcast, first one of Russell Brown and the second of Litterick.

Turning first to Russell Brown; Brown mentioned in detail the New Zealand Association of Rationalist Humanist's (NZARH) exposure of Bruce Logan’s plagiarism, elaborated how this damaged Maxim’s credibility and meant they had little media respectability as a result. It was also stressed on the show that this incident showed that they were a bogus think tank.

However, Brown seemed almost silent about NZARH’s own apparent deception that both Litterick and I have discussed. Yet it is clear from what Brown does say that he does know about it but he omits to mention it - even in contexts where it is relevant.

For example, Brown mentions that there was an interesting story about Littericks falling out with NZARH but will not go into the details and he queried why Litterick even made the issues of the falling out public but he never ventures to state what they were.

There seems to me to be a clear double standard here. NZARH make media comment about religion and public issues, so do Maxim. If Logan’s deception is newsworthy and calls into question Maxim’s media credibility then why is this not equally true of NZARH?

Moreover, if Brown feels it is acceptable to make Logan’s alleged plagiarism public, which he does on his show, why then does he query the appropriateness of bringing up NZARH’s actions on air? Is privacy something that applies only to secularists perhaps?

Turning now to Litterick; Litterick states he has no issue with private faith but is opposed to religious values guiding public policy. This is because he is concerned that the views of one group of society (those with a religious faith) are being used to restrict the freedoms of everyone else in society, many of who do not accept the religious beliefs in question and may in fact openly reject them.

Now this is a common line of argument. However, despite its pervasiveness, this argument is erroneous. In the literature on Religion and Public Life Christian Philosophers like Nicholas Wolterstorff, Christopher Eblerle and Philip Quinn have published cogent rebuttals of it. Here I can summarise the issues.

The main problem with this criticism of using religious beliefs to guide public policy is that exactly the same thing can be said about secular, non-theological beliefs. Beliefs that Litterick and Brown hold to and would advocate public policy changes on the basis of. Phillip Quinn articulates this point,
... if the fact that religious reasons can not be shared by all in a religiously
pluralistic society suffices to warrant any exclusion of religious reasons for
advocating or supporting restrictive laws or policies, then much else ought in
fairness also be excluded on the same grounds.[1]

Quinn notes correctly that secular moral theories such as Utilitarianism or Kantianism, Intuitionism, Socialism, Libertarianism, can all be reasonably rejected in a philosophically-pluralistic society.

Indeed, it would seem that the appeal to any comprehensive ethical theory,
including all known secular ethical theories, should be disallowed on the
grounds that every such theory can be reasonably rejected by some citizens in a
pluralistic democracy. And if justification of restrictive laws or policies can
be conducted only in terms of moral considerations no citizen of a pluralistic
democracy can reasonably reject, then in a pluralistic democracy such as ours
very few restrictive laws or policies would be morally justified, a conclusion
that would, I suspect, be welcome only to anarchists.[2]
Quinn is substantially correct here. There is special pleading going on whereby theological beliefs are rejected on certain grounds while secular ones are not, even though the same grounds and reasons should lead to their rejection as well. If it’s unjust to restrict a person's freedom on the basis of beliefs held by only some members of the community and which are rejected by others then all laws are unjust.

It could be added that such arguments are frequently incoherent. After all, such beliefs propose a moral viewpoint that many reject, the view that theological beliefs are not to be appealed to in public. Given that many reject this view, some people think that they should be appealed to in public, it should not be appealed to in public debate about policy. Moreover, since this position is generally defended by appeals to normative principles about freedom or pluralism or conceptions of equality that many reject, many of the arguments for this conclusion should not be utilised in public debate either.

Perhaps, however, I am being uncharitable here, perhaps what Litterick means to assert is not that the religious beliefs can be reasonably rejected by some people - that would, as I note above, lead to anarchism - rather, his point is that a majority of people reject them. This too, however, is problematic.

Implicit in this argument is the claim that a necessary condition for any principle to be utilised in public debate is that the majority accepts it as true. However, this is subject to numerous counter-examples. Consider a culture where the majority believes that a husband has the right to beat his wife. Would an advocate of majoritarianism contend that in such a society criticism by a feminist minority of this practice and the advocacy of norms forbidding spousal abuse is an unacceptable imposition of a narrow, feminist perspective in a pluralistic society? Would it be true that in such a society public policy could not be based on the moral principle that it is wrong for a man to beat his wife?

Consider an Islamic society where the majority believe that conversion to a rival, trinitarian monotheistic religion is immoral and should be a capital offence. Not to execute converts to Judaism or Christianity in such a society would, by this reasoning, be unjust. In societies where a racial majority thinks a racial minority is sub-human, it would be unjust to grant equal human rights.

There is a further objection to this argument. Many normative positions that are currently supported by the majority or a wide section of the populace were once minority views. Over time, however, the minority has persuaded others and or converted them to its cause. If “narrow” views are to be excluded, this type of reform is not possible. A minority would never be able to propose its ideas until it was no longer a minority view. However, it cannot cease to be a minority view unless it is proposed in the first place. Consequently, this stance freezes societies in whatever popular prejudices currently exist. The reforming minority that critiques contemporary culture would be effectively silenced if we were to hold that only the views of the majority are the just ones.

So in sum: It seems to be that Russell Brown is inconsistent in his treatment of the issue and Litterick uses common but erroneous and, I think, discredited arguments to justify his secularist stance.

[1] Phillip Quinn, “Political Liberalism and their Exclusion of the Religious,” in Religion and Contemporary Liberalism, ed. Paul Weithman (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 144.

[2] Ibid.


  1. I think a lot of people actually want to dismiss the religious guidance of policy due to a separate rationale; that religious belief is not open to introspection in the same way that non-religious belief. Leaving aside issues to do with epistemology (of which there are many) the main claim I see in this kind of debate is that religious beliefs come from a divine source of which no everyone has equal access to. Non-religious beliefs are, theoretically, open to reasonable debate, which is why people in countries like New Zealand and the United Kingdom seem to prefer them. We can debate the merits of policies on abortion when they come out of a Kantian viewpoint, or a Consequentialist one. That just doesn't seem as true of divinely-inspired beliefs (this is, of course, not strictly true; the Catholic Church's view on abortion has changed a lot over time, but as a crude generalisation this is, I think, what people actually mean).

    Also, in regard to Brown not commenting on the Dr. Cooke affair. If he were interviewing Cooke then that would be a problem for the interview. As he was interviewing Litterick, who was kicked out of the Rationalists for exposing Dr. Cooke, then it would have been an interesting aside but isn't actually necessary. Paul exposed Maxim and tried to expose the Rationalists; he wasn't party to the deception. Anyway, the interview was only nine minutes long; you could argue there were a whole host of other salient issues that they didn't get time to go into.

  2. horansome

    Your right that there are other arguments for excluding theological premises from public discourse, I was addressing only the one Litterick raised. To deal with all of them would require a monograph.

    In response to the issue you raise. I simply think its false that religious beliefs are not open to reasonable debate. I’ll give you an example A year ago I completed a PhD in theology on the issue of feticide. To do this I had to examine arguments for rivial interpretations of both scripture and tradition and critique them. I had to defend a divine command conception of ethics against numerous philosophical criticisms. I had to examine arguments purporting to show belief in a divine law was irrational or unjust to appeal to in public discourse. I also had to examine and criticise various secular arguments for the permissibility of feticide, and I had to defend some of the non-moral claims ( such as the humanity of a fetus) against objections. I do not think this is an atypical example. If one has studied Philosophy of religion for example one will see theological being discussed in a rational manner all the time.

    I am inclined to think that those who make this argument really have a caricatured view of theological discussion.

    Matthew Flannagan

  3. I think the problem with accepting religious arguments is not per se that as you say they are not able to be discussed but that as you outline but do not acknowledge, religious ideas can for the religious only be discussed and criticised from within the religion or by co-religionists. Also to discuss them you have to accept a priori many of the concepts and maxims of the religious.

    For eg I found myself listening on the radio here in the UK to a discussion among xians (and iirc a jew) about the permissibility and desirability of being gay and religious and being gay and clergy. A point came up about gay sex which I thought immediately was perfectly solvable using the precepts of informed adult consent. None of the participants availed themselves of this outlet however since such a framework was outwith the scope of their discussion which was entirely within religious frames of reference.

    Since much of our present laws and in many of the most recent changes, the language of informed adult consent has been prominent. Now say in the public space such as a parliamentary select committee a discussion along these lines is being had about say foetal abortion and into that comes a religious person who says 'this is an abomination against god and as such cannot be allowed'. What are we to do?

    I respect the right of that person to hold and even to state that view, but that is as far as I think such things can go since they are not and cannot be a start of a discussion as to discuss it in any terms meaningful to the proposer would require the select committee to adopt the religious precepts underlying it.

    The statement that something should be because a deity wishes it cannot be a useful contribution to debate in the secular communal space. At best it will engender a rather uncomfortable silence after the chair has thanked the contributor and the committee will then carry on regardless. The more enlightened of the religious have realised this and learned to put their points rationally, using evidence.

    Here in Scotland we have our top Roman Catholics who seem incapable of making public statements in that vein but instead alienate even most of their correligionists. To what effect? they are ignored, apart from being simply reported and then handed to the satirists. A secular pluralist society can do no more.

    In Dundee

  4. I should add that the language of rights, consent, responsibility etc is open to all. It is not the sole preserve of the secularist or the atheist, religious people can use it too. Thus it functions just like other public spaces like Town Halls, public radio and the internet.

    The language of religion and the religious is not so amenable and public, not any more. It is also often inherently exclusive. Thus I do not think it unreasonable to ask that if the religious wish to be taken seriously in the public secular spaces that they learn to talk the talk as well as walk the walk.

    That is inherent in the pithy aphorism:
    If you don't pray in my house, I won't think in your church.

    Thus I do not enter churches on a Sunday and argue with the sermon. However if a religious person stands in the public street or knocks on my door then the gloves are off and it is argument they will get.

    In Dundee

  5. Peter

    Thanks for your comments.

    You say that (a) religious ideas can only be discussed or criticised from within and (b) that to do so one needs to accept the apriori of the religion in question. I don’t find either claim persuasive.

    Re (a) I don’t think this is true at all. For example Secularists can and do give important criticisms of Theological stances on abortion, Judith Jarvis Thomson’s article A Defence of Abortion is an example. As a Christian Theologian I take these seriously and if I want to maintain my position I have to try and respond to arguments like this. The same is true of almost any theological belief. You can read the literature on philosophy of religion and find numerous critiques or discussion of theological beliefs by secularists.

    Re (b) what I say above deals with it. But let me add a couple of other points. First, even if you did need to accept certain assumptions to be able to dialogue with a believer. All that is needed is you accept them for the sake of argument, and accepting a proposition for the sake of argument is amenable to any person. Any person can ask the question, if P is true does Q follow. Second, I think this is true of numerous secular beliefs as well. For example in order to dialogue with a Marxist I have to appeal to premises a Marxist accepts to persuade him. So I fail to see how religion is any different in this respect.

    Ok turning to your examples: regarding the radio show. The reason they did not appeal to informed consent is that Christians do not accept the premise that any consensual sexual activity is permissible. ( I have offered reasons for rejecting this principle on this blog btw). But notice that this cuts both ways secularists also reject premises Christians hold ( such as that God prohibits adultery for example) hence this is a two way thing. Both sides appeal to premises the other rejects. If this is reason for excluding one from public life its reason for excluding the other. I would say the same thing about your select committee example, merely stating God hates abortion is about as persuasive to a secularists as “I have a right to choose (abortion)” is to a conservative Christian.

    You seem to disagree you state

    *the language of rights, consent, responsibility etc is open to all. It is not the sole preserve of the secularist or the atheist, religious people can use it too. Thus it functions just like other public spaces like Town Halls, public radio and the internet. *

    I think this is false there are some secular philosophies which deny the existence of rights. Certain forms of Utilitarianism and Kantianism for example deny that rights exist so this language is not amenable to all. Second, even if everyone can talk about rights existing, it’s simply false that there is any consensus on which rights exist, if they do what their nature is etc. So the secular language you refer to is not in fact amenable to all rather it expresses a particular ideology which is held by some secularists.

    Finally your aphorism also cuts both ways, I do not enter rationalist house on Sunday and argue with Bill Cooke. However if a secularist stands in the public street and proposes secular ideologies, then the gloves are off and it is argument they will get.

    So I fail to see any thing in what you said which suggests that religious ideologies should be excluded from public discourse which does not also entail that secular ideologies should be rejected as well. Which is the point Quinn makes in my blog above.

  6. I think what you fail to take into account wrt arguing with religious people from without is that if the principle under discussion is held on the basis of faith by religious person no arguments that challenge that will be admissible by them. The only way I will argue assuming god exists is to show by methods such as reductio ad absurdum that doing so is meaningless.

    WRT the secular space you also seem to ignore the fact that the impetus for the creation of the secular space was not from the irreligious. It was pushed for by dissenting and Catholic believers. The language and procedures are thus fairly free of the language of religion primarily to facilitate discourse between methodists and anglicans or catholics and presbyterians. Thus your stance that the secular is in opposition to or anathema to the religious is just plain wrong.

    Non believers occupy the secular space because outside of the private it is the only one they can. If they have become the most vocal and staunch supporters of that space this does not mean they own it or started it or wish to exclude others.

    I also note you failed to tell the select committee what it should or can do with a religious statement of the sort I outlined.

    Do you think for eg that the representations of Tamaki's church should be taken seriously by the secular authorities? if so on what basis and what should they do with them since his stated aim is nothing less than the overthrow of the secular govt and replacement of it with a theocracy.

    I would not restrict his right to make such representations, but what about it being religious means the secular state must take it into account in some way? If I make such an evidence free contribution would the committee be forced to take mine into account too? if not why not?

    In Dundee

  7. horansome wrote "Litterick ... was kicked out of the Rationalists for exposing Dr. Cooke."

    Was this the actual reason for the "kicking"? Perhaps Matt could do some more digging.

  8. Peter

    Thanks for your comments, as a first observation note that you an atheist are having a sensible civil discussion with a believer right now. You are criticising things I said I am reading them and offering responses.

    First, I think you are mistaken when you say that if a position is based on faith no arguments that challenge are admissible. It may be true that some religious believers operate with a conception of faith like this but many do not. I don’t think historically people like Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin held a view like this, nor do contemporary Christian thinkers like Alvin Plantinga hold this view. Moreover I also think it’s plausible that some unbelievers hold secular principles in a similar dogmatic way. I have come across this many times; a person has offered me an argument for the falsity of something I believe. I point out the argument has a false premise and give reasons for rejecting it. They then insult me, and claim its obvious I am wrong all sensible people know this and that’s that.

    Regarding your examples, I myself would not dismiss Tamaki simply because his views are religious nor because he may have some political agenda I disagree with. I would dismiss because his views are poorly argued, don’t stand up to scrutiny, out of accord with facts etc.

    Turning to the select committee example, I think a person who merely asserted that God hates abortion should not be take seriously because they simply assert it. In the same way a person simply asserts “women have the right to choose” should be dismissed because they merely assert it. On the other hand if the person gives a carefully crafted argument for their conclusion. Then they should be listened to and what they say considered.

    What I think is common to all this is a degree of humility and civility, both believers and non believers should both be open to the possibility that they might be mistaken and willing to listen to other people even if those people have a radically different view to their own and to consider the question whether what they say is true. It may be that upon reflecting upon the arguments given that you conclude that they are not. But that’s different from deciding in advance that anything a religious person says should be ignored, regardless of the merits of the case they give etc.

    I will make one final point; I do think you are operating with a kind of caricature of theological argument. Not all believers are like Brian Tamaki or simply dogmatically assert God dislikes this and I will never listen to any one who thinks otherwise. Some of us actually, have thought issues through a bit, are willing to dialogue, offer reasoned responses to what we believe, and even have PhDs. I don’t think the voices of a segment of the community should be dismissed out of hand because of stereotypical images that others portray of them.

  9. I should point out that, although I probably didn't make it clear enough in my assides, that I agree with you, to a certain extent, on the rationality of religious belief. It's just that I think this is the argument most of the lay public think of when they dismiss religious beliefs in public debate.

  10. Anonymous said 'horansome wrote "Litterick ... was kicked out of the Rationalists for exposing Dr. Cooke." Was this the actual reason for the "kicking"? Perhaps Matt could do some more digging.'

    I have written about this on my own blog. My employment difficulties with the NZARH began when I reported to the Council that Dr Cooke had used the journal he edited for personal gain and that he had lied to them about a serious error he made in editing. Dr Cooke attempted to have the Council punish me for attacking him. When they declined to do so, he resigned from the Council and from his position as journal editor. The Council then wrote a letter to me, warning me that my behaviour towards Dr Cooke might affect my job. They made this letter known to Dr Cooke and he withdrew his resignation because of it.

    Subsequently, my job became very much more difficult. The Council then decided that my job should be reviewed and that, although I was employed as Spokesman, I should become an Office Administrator. Much later, at the last meeting I had with the NZARH Council, the then President, Judith de Leeuwe, told my lawyer and I that this had been done because "Bill Cooke came back from the States and he wanted to be Spokesman."

    The Council also decided to evict me from the accommodation provided with my job, although they had been drafting a tenancy agreement to formalise my tenancy. This rapid change of view was instigated by Dr Cooke. The Council tried to pretend that my tenancy was purely an informal arrangement that was not covered by the law. The Tenancy Tribunal did not agree.

    By the time that the matter of Buffalo came up, I was already on my way out.

    I left the NZARH with a settlement, as much as could be given me within the rules of the NZARH Constitution.

  11. I think I should also comment on your lengthy misrepresentation of my views, which I can state more succintly: a secular society is the best means of guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of all, regardless of their differing beliefs.


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