Monday, July 2, 2012

Examining some arguments for religious freedom by Kenan Malik in the New Humanist

The New Humanist magazine over in the UK has recently published an article by Kenan Malik on religious freedom that I wanted to think through and make some comments on.

Here is the article: http://newhumanist.org.uk/2822/moral-compass-a-guide-to-religious-freedom.  It is divided up into a number of individual points, and so I will respond using the same numbering so that my comments can be matched to the article.

1.  I think I agree with this.  The category of "religious freedom" is really unnecessary.  All we need is to consider the rights and values the society ought to protect, and then protect them.  "Religion" in a general sense does not need special protection.  The true religion ought to be protected by law, but this is another matter.

2.  This also is a good point.  Atheists and agnostics often lack what I am coming to call a sense of "empathy," by which in this case I mean an ability to understand another person's point of view where the other person's view is significantly different.  Specifically, atheists and agnostics seem to have trouble understanding the points of view of people who hold to various religious perspectives.  This manifests itself in the constant tendency for secularists to tell religious people to please stop pushing their views in public policy but rather to keep them in private life where they belong.  Of course religious people aren't going to do this, because they believe their beliefs to be true and therefore relevant to all areas of life.  To be fair, I should add that I often see the same failure of empathy in religious people.  It seems to be a generally common human trait.

3.  Very true.  Locke's account assumed a Christian perspective, and that colored his concerns, his categories, and his language.  This is one reason why modern secularists who don't share Locke's Christian view have trouble thinking of a reason why "religious freedom" should be a separate category from just regular "freedom of conscience" or "freedom of thought."

In connection with this, it is interesting to note that since Locke was basing his ideas of what the government should be and do on a Christian foundation, he was really not a secularist in the modern sense but a theocrat.  I would define a "secularist" as someone who believes that the civil government should be agnostic towards religious claims.  So, in practice, a secularist would never advocate that the civil government should do anything because the Bible says so, considered as the Word of God; he would instead advocate that the civil government ignore the Bible.  I define a "theocrat" to mean a person who believes that the civil government is ultimately under the authority of God and must follow his will.

I would also add that I think Locke was wrong in his view of what God wants the civil government to do.  Contrary to Locke, God wants the civil government to take care not just for the physical good of its citizens, but also for the spiritual good of the people and for the public honor of God.  But I won't attempt to make a case for that right now.

4. Spinoza's view was that the civil government should allow all people to think and speak as they please, and should only restrain outward actions.  With regard to freedom of thought, I agree.  The civil government cannot control thought; it is beyond its jurisdiction.  It would be futile to make laws against thinking certain things.  However, I don't see why the same would hold of freedom of speech.  Speech is an outward action.  If it is publicly observable, it can be subject to civil jurisdiction just like other outward actions.

Spinoza may be thinking here that people who hold different views cannot be forced to change their opinions by means of civil demands or force.  They will continue to act on their own views no matter what laws are in place against them.

Is this true?  I think it is partly true.  It is no doubt true that the civil government will never be able to squelch all contrary opinions or even all actions based on such opinions.  And the making and enforcing of laws cannot directly change any man's perspective.

However, the civil government can be a strong force of persuasion to get people to change their minds or see things a certain way.  Augustine remarked that making the heresy of Donatism against the law had (to his surprise) the effect of actually getting many Donatists to think more clearly about what they were doing and advocating, and caused many of them to quite willingly and honestly change their minds and embrace the orthodox opinion.  I'm sure that some simply went along with the flow to avoid punishment, but I see no reason to think (contrary to Augustine's sense, who was there) they all did.  Think of a teenager who shoplifts from a store.  Being caught and arrested for this might very well get him to see more clearly the seriousness of his actions and genuinely and honestly and rationally come to see things differently and thus attain different values.  Today, people advocate all kinds of irrational things without really thinking much about them.  Many feel no reason to think more deeply, as there seem to be no consequences for being wrong (at least that they can detect with their short-range vision).  Making certain irrational and harmful ideas against the law, or rather making actions based on them or the public advocacy of them against the law, could have the effect of causing many to see their errors more clearly and learn to reason more carefully.

What would happen if we had a biblical theocracy where biblical law was enforced?  Many secularists argue that it would fall apart due to the revolt of people who will refuse to be suppressed by the rules from advocating their own views contrary to the official views of the society.  Of course, there are ways of obtaining such a society that would no doubt lead to just that.  For example, if we tried by force of arms to capture Washington D.C. tomorrow.  But what if we follow biblical instructions and convert the society by means of persuasion (through the power of the grace and providence of God)?  Will such a society be unstable, as the secularists think?  I don't see why it would.  It seems to me that people who simply cannot tolerate it will leave, and most of those who stay will get used to it, even if they don't fully agree with it, just as many in the US today are used to obeying various laws that they might not theoretically see the point of.  I think that having an entire society and civil structure that supports Christian values would tend to have the effect of causing people in the society to see more clearly the importance of the sorts of beliefs and values the society advocates.  It would cause clearer thinking (I am, of course, assuming that Christianity is true), and would lead people to more easily see the foolishness of anti-Christian ideas and values.  I think that people mainly feel it would be oppressive because they cannot imagine what it would be like.  They are used to a certain culture and have trouble imagining themselves as a part of one that has significant differences.

We don't feel oppressed by the laws of a secular society because we are used to them.  When I take a walk down the street, I don't often think about all the things I am not allowed by law to do.  I cannot take my clothes off as I walk down the sidewalk.  I can't throw rocks at people.  I can't enter the houses of strangers uninvited to enjoy a cool glass of lemonade stolen out of their refrigerators.  I cannot set fire to the grocery story.  I cannot cut down trees in public parks.  I have to cross streets at crosswalks (OK, this one is not that well enforced).  I can't stand on the corner and shout profanities at everyone who walks by.  I can't taunt police officers.  I can't eat a candy bar and throw the wrapper on the ground.  And so on.  And yet I don't feel oppressed, because I am used to these sorts of restrictions.  I wouldn't feel all that oppressed even if I came to have strong ideological disagreements with some of them.

In short, I think the common secular objection that people can't be forced to do things they don't want to do, and therefore we can't have a biblical theocracy, is very superficial and not well grounded in the realities of human psychology and sociology.

6. As I said earlier, I think this point is quite right.  Freedom of religion is not a special category, but merely a form of 'freedom to do good things that aren't wicked and harmful."

Malik says this:  "Questions of freedom and tolerance are no longer about how the dominant religious establishment should respond to dissenting religious views, but about the degree to which society should tolerate, and the law permit, speech and activity that might be offensive, hateful, harmful to individuals or undermine national security."  I would say that these two things are not really fundamentally different.  It is just that our "dominant religious establishment" has changed.  In Locke's day, the dominant establishment in England was some form of Protestant Christianity.  In the US today, it is Agnosticism--the idea that no objective knowledge can be had on matters beyond the natural world.  Both Locke's society and our society, and all societies, have some fundamental worldview on the basis of which laws and policies are made, and they tolerate those things that seem tolerable from their worldviews and they don't tolerate things that seem intolerable.  Different worldviews have different beliefs and values and thus their lists of tolerable vs. intolerable things are often somewhat different, but they are all pursuing the same kinds of goals in lawmaking.  To put this slightly differently, all societies have certain values that they believe they ought to protect, and for all of them the end of toleration comes when those values are threatened.  What those values are is determined by the fundamental worldview of the society, and thus societies with different worldviews often have different lists of values.

7. This point reveals the naivete that often clouds secular thinking.  Malik basically says that we should be allowed to express and act on whatever beliefs we have insofar as we don't incite or cause physical harm to others or transgress an "individual’s rights in the public sphere."  The first question is, Where did Malik get this list of values that determine what should be tolerated and what should not?  What is the basis of it?  What worldview beliefs are behind Malik's list?  There is no such thing as a worldview-neutral list of values for society to protect, because worldviews disagree about these things.  In a biblical society, the society would be concerned not just for the physical safety and rights of other human beings, but also for the spiritual good of citizens and the public honor of God.  In Christianity, God is seen as a being of supreme value, and thus it is considered a great sin to blaspheme or disrespect him, or to give the worship due to him to other infinitely lesser beings.  This underlying value system makes sense of why blasphemy and the public promotion of false worldviews is outlawed in biblical law and given a harsh penalty.  Biblical law views human societies as responsible to jealously guard God's public honor.  And since Christianity views turning away from God not only as a great wickedness but also as a cause of great harm to people who engage in it, a biblical society will punish those who endanger their own and others' lives and souls by drawing them away into false religions.

Malik's list shows that he doesn't share important aspects of this biblical worldview.  But his list is rooted not in nothing but in some other set of worldview beliefs and values.  And yet Malik, like many secularists, just asserts his list as if it is somehow worldview-neutral and should be acceptable to all people without any need to bring to the surface and argue for the worldview assumptions that underlie it and which make it make sense.

Malik's list is also quite vague.  Causing physical harm is relatively clear, I suppose.  But what about the prohibition on doing anything that "transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere"?  Malik doesn't tell us what rights individuals in the public sphere have.  I think that is probably because he is simply assuming a standard list of rights common in modern western societies--you can't kill people for looking at you the wrong way; you can't take a person's cell phone without his consent simply because you want it; etc.  But again, how does Malik know that this common modern western list of rights is a good and correct list of rights?  He doesn't argue for this but just assumes it as if it were self-evident to all, as if his list was worldview-neutral.  But, as we've seen, it isn't.

9. Malik opposes secularists who would try to remove religion from the public sphere.  What is the "public sphere"?  This is a somewhat vague term and needs clarification.  It could be taken in two senses:  1. My views could be said to be welcome in the "public sphere" if I am simply allowed to talk about them publicly, advocate for them to people, etc.  In this case "in the public sphere" just means basically "in public."  2. My views could be said to be welcome in the "public sphere" if it is the case that I am allowed to make them the basis of public law and policy making.  In this case, "in the public sphere" means "as an acceptable basis for public laws and policies."  I doubt that Malik is talking about meaning #1, because hardly anyone in the secular world is advocating that religious people should not be able to talk about and advocate for their views in public.  He is probably talking about meaning #2.  In this case what Malik is saying is that he is opposed to secularists who say that people should not be able to use their religious beliefs as a basis for pressing for certain public laws and policies.  There are plenty of secularists who are indeed saying this--probably the majority.  Malik is part of a much smaller group of secularists who are arguing that religious views should be allowed to be a basis of laws and policies in the society if religious people can manage to get them voted in.

But how far would Malik really allow this to go?  If Muslims in America (or in Britain) managed through proselytizing or having children or some combination of both to get enough support to vote in a full-fledged Islamic government along the lines of Iran's, would this be acceptable?  What if they then changed the law so that non-Islamic views could not be voted in in order to help secure permanently the new Islamic nature of the society?  Would Malik go all the way with this and put no legal barriers against any of this happening?

Malik says that a secular space is one which treats all worldviews equally and does not disadvantage any.  Of course, this ideal is itself not worldview-neutral, as it would not be an ideal shared by everyone.  As a biblical theocrat, I don't share it.  I know atheists who don't share it either.  Since this is Malik's ideal, I assume he would be against a society embracing Islamic law, even if he would not put any legal barriers in place to stop a society from embracing Islamic law.  Once a society embraced Islamic law, it would put itself outside of Malik's ideal of a secular society--though, ironically, it would be Malik's own secular ideology that prevented legal barriers from being placed to prevent the destruction of that society; in other words, Malik's secularism has programmed into it the possibility of its own destruction.  And, of course, at any particular time, even if there are no legal barriers to different worldviews taking over, some worldview must always be in charge.  As long as Malik's secular ideal remains embraced by the people and not outvoted by others, the society at that time is embracing Malik's worldview assumptions and rejecting others', and is therefore not worldview-neutral.  Worldview neutrality is impossible, because worldviews provide conflicting beliefs and values leading to conflicting laws.  A worldview-neutral society which never discriminated for or against any worldview belief would have a set of public policies that would be incoherent and self-contradictory.  Malik's idea is simply that, in line with his own worldview assumptions, he wants a society that puts no legal barriers in place to stop his ideal society from turning into a different kind of society.

This discussion brings up an interesting question:  How democratic would a biblical theocracy be?  The Bible indicates that some kind of democratic participation of the people would be involved in such a society.  See Deuteronomy 1:9-18, which outlines the way leaders should be chosen.  There are certain qualifications that are required of leaders constitutionally, such as that they be wise, knowledgeable, and God-fearing (see Exodus 18:19-21), and then within those bounds the people are allowed to choose their leaders.  Thus far, the biblical requirements in principle are not all that different from the fundamental ideas in place in modern western democracies.

Presumably, the leaders of the nation would be in charge of lawmaking and would have the authority to amend the nation's constitution.  But how far would this be allowed?  Would they have the power to amend the constitution so fundamentally as to turn the biblical society into a secular nation or an Islamic republic?  Obviously, this would be very unlikely even if that power theoretically existed, because the only people who would attain to that power would have had to have been committed in principle to a biblical theocracy in order to have been chosen as leaders in the first place (otherwise they would not have been God-fearing but rather opposed to God's law, which demands a biblical theocracy).  This is somewhat like the modern United States, where any officer who will function as a lawmaker in the nation must swear to uphold the US Constitution, which opposes biblical theocracy.

Currently, I think I would think of it this way:  Any part of the nation's constitution would be considered amendable, as all of it was written by humans, and nothing humans write (that is not divinely inspired) should ever in principle be beyond amendment, due to humans not being inherently infallible.  The nation's constitution should acknowledge its own ability to be amended, but it should also state that no one has the authority to amend the ultimate standard of law, God's Word.  The requirements for amending the constitution should be lenient enough to make it possible, but hard enough to make it difficult, so as to ensure a balance between amendability and security--much as is also the case in the US today.

Should the people be able to amend the Constitution directly through popular vote?  I don't know.  But as they can elect leaders, if there was enough popular support to amend the constitution, I would think it likely there would be enough to vote in people who would support amending it.  But there is more I need to think through here.  I'll leave it at this for now.

11. Similar comments to those in #7.  Malik says that "As a society we should tolerate as far as is possible the desire of people to live according to their conscience. But that toleration ends when someone acting upon his or her conscience causes harm to another without consent, or infringes another’s genuine rights."  But why is this claim correct?  And what is harm?  And what are the rights of others that should be protected?  And what about the public honor of God?  Etc.

12. "A racist pub-owner cannot bar black people from his pub, however deep-set his beliefs."  This strikes me as a strange position for Malik to take given his expressed latitude for conscience.  If a racist person owns a pub, isn't it his pub?  Why can't he allow in and keep out whomever he likes, just as I can allow in or keep out whomever I like with regard to my own house?  It seems contrary to Malik's earlier lenient position to disallow people to do what they like with their own places of business.

"There is a line, in other words, that cannot be crossed even if conscience requires one to."  Great point.  But notice how secularists tend to apply this obvious principle inconsistently.  When one of their values is at stake that they think the society ought to protect, they are quite ready to put aside claims of conscience.  But if I, as a biblical theocrat, were to claim that the society should protect the public honor of God and so outlaw public blasphemy, the secularists would come running back in with cries that I am "violating conscience!!!"  The claim that "conscience should be protected" is often simply a rhetorical tool for smuggling in one's own worldview preferences over others.  It is like a gate that is opened wide to allow one's own values but slammed shut when other values request admittance.  In short, it is a rhetorical device and rarely a substantial argument.

 14. This section is just the application of Malik's principles to the specific issues raised at the beginning of the article.  But there is still no argument for his underlying principles, no acknowledgement and defense of the underlying worldview assumptions on which they are based, just a working out of their implications.

For example, Malik says there should be no laws against blasphemy.  Well, of course there should not be, if we assume his secularist point of view.  In his mind, the public honor of God is not a value the society ought to try to protect.  But from my point of view, I see the public honor of God as of great value and thus something worth protecting in a society (besides God's explicit command to protect it), and so I am in favor of laws against blasphemy.  But Malik just assumes without argument his own set of beliefs and values on this point and does not consider views like mine.

16.  How does Malik know what sorts of exceptions should be considered reasonable and what sorts should be considered unreasonable?  If a church thinks it ought to perform civilly recognized marriages, but it thinks it ought not to marry same-sex couples, how is making them do it anyway more reasonable than making a doctor who is opposed to abortion participate in one?  It seems to me that Malik is coming to this conclusion through a subjective application of his own ideas of what matters more than any objective basis for that sense.  What if the church feels just as strongly as the doctor?  Malik just assumes they shouldn't, but based on what?

And that's it!

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