A Godless Public Square?

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A Godless Public Square: Do “private” religious beliefs have a place in public life?

On Wednesday the 3rd of August 2011 I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion on religion in the public square, tackling the issue from the standpoint of theology, philosophy and law. Joining me will be my good friends Matthew Flannagan (theology) and Madeleine Flannagan (law).

The kind of questions that we’ll be exploring will include:

Is it ever right for Christians to impose their ‘private’ religious beliefs onto others?
Is it really religiously neutral to insist the public realm be secular?
How does the idea that religion should be private mesh with freedom of religion and expression laws?

The evening will be held at the University of Auckland. It’s free to the public, and although all three speakers will be bringing their own areas of expertise to bear on the issues, this is not an academic lecture, and it will be aimed at a broad audience. For more details (including the precise location on campus), check out the Facebook page for this event, which  is HERE (at the time of writing, this page was still private, but will be public soon).

If you’ll be in the Auckland area on the 3rd of August, mark this event on your calendar. I hope to meet you there, and spread the word!

Glenn Peoples

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{ 25 comments… add one }
  • Jon Smith July 7, 2011, 1:47 am

    Hi Glenn,

    OK, this isn’t on the topic, but I just wanted to draw your attention to something. Firstly, I’ll just mention that I am an evangelical who embraced annihilationism after reading the 2000 debate book between Edward Fudge and Robert Peterson. I thought your podcast series on the topic was excellent and it has further strengthened my confidence that annihilationism is the teaching of the Bible. So, many thanks.

    It’s pretty clear that you are frustrated (as I am) with traditionalist misrepresentations of annihilationism and shoddy exegesis. Sorry, I’m about to frustrate you some more. I have just listened to William Lane Craig’s latest Reasonable Faith podcast, “Rob Bell and Hell”. There is a brief discussion of annihilationism at 24 mins in. Firstly, Craig says that he thinks annihilationism is “a non-starter” because he thinks its not the doctrine of the New Testament and is “exegetically unfounded”. However, he then goes on to reveal that he doesn’t know what annihilationists actually believe. He thinks of annihilationism as being the thesis that for the unsaved dead “the lights are out when you die” – that they cease to exist at death, rather than being raised again to face judgement and destruction, with a destruction that might be pretty terrible. For this reason, he suggests, it doesn’t adequately fit with God’s justice.

    Aaaargh! How can Craig not know what it is that annihilationists actually believe?

  • Michael July 7, 2011, 4:51 am

    Looks like an excellent event, Glenn.
    Kudos to you guys for actually speaking out about religion being excluded from the public square instead of just silently fuming or protesting from the sidelines. Your work is greatly appreciated.

  • Paul Baird July 7, 2011, 9:46 am

    Will this be available for download ?

    I’m quite interested in the arguments you guys are going to put forward. Will you be focusing on Western Liberal Democracies only or more widely and if so how would you address Iran and Saudi Arabia ?

    Would you accept that one faith should dominate even in a multi-cultural nation or would you advocate a multi-faith approach to politics if that reflected the religious make up of the nation ?

    What detriment do you think France and the USA suffer for their separation of church and state ?

    What advantage do you think the UK has for not having such a separation ?

    Thanks.

  • Richard P July 7, 2011, 10:58 am

    This event will be so biased towards one perspective that it won’t even be worth turning up to. How about some balance for once in your life, Glenno?

  • Richard P July 7, 2011, 12:24 pm

    Why did you not have a seminar at the AAP conference? It was in Dunedin and it was about philosophy so I am at a loss as to why you did not present anything. The Australian philosopher Russell Blackford (http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/) presented the topic freedom of religion and the secular state and you think that you are so much better than these pro-secular people yet you did not have anything at the conference. Could you please explain your ways?

  • Glenn July 7, 2011, 5:46 pm

    Richard, I have asked you in the past to simply call me Glenn. I think your continued use of “Glenno” shows that you’re just trolling. I didn’t even read the rest of your comment – or your second one. I think you need to show more manners when enjoying other people’s property.

  • Jake July 8, 2011, 9:58 am

    Hi Glenn,

    First time commenter. I love what you’re doing here.

    Despite his disrespectful manner, I think Richard poses a good question. Do you expect the panel to pretty much agree on the issue? Have you invited somebody who may have a different perspective?

  • Roy July 8, 2011, 2:49 pm

    Jon

    I heard the podcast too and was similarly disappointed with his treatment of annihilationsim (having adopted the view through Glenn’s podcasts) … I’m planning to submit a ‘question of the week’ to WLC and think you should too.

    If he’s getting enough questions it might motivate him to have another look and hopefully if he buys in (and admits it), then it might be a good turning point for other Christians … okay, I know that’s pie in the sky, best-case thinking. Worst case would be WLC becomes stubborn in his current views … but that won’t change anything too much in practical terms.

  • Glenn July 8, 2011, 7:19 pm

    This is the first time I have had to do this at my blog: Richard’s follow up comments clearly violate my blog policy. All commenters assert that their comments conform to this policy, so Richard was falsely representing his comments. I have put Richard’s comments into moderation, so that each of his comments will need to be individually approved, and this will only happen if the comment conforms with my blog policy.

  • Glenn July 8, 2011, 7:21 pm

    Jake, yes I do expect the panel to have more or less a shared view on this.

    I also don’t think it’s a problem. Sometimes when I do public speaking it’s just me – which clearly presents only one view. Not every presentation has a debate format, and this event is basically a chance for people to hear “the other side” from the one that seems to be the norm in the literature on political liberalism (in the proper sense of that word, e.g. John Rawls, Gerald Gaus, Stephen Macedo et al).

  • Paul Baird July 9, 2011, 3:02 am

    @ Glenn – will it be available for download ?

  • Glenn July 9, 2011, 11:38 am

    Not sure Paul, but I would assume so.

  • Paul Baird July 10, 2011, 8:44 pm

    @Glenn – thanks, that’ll do for me.

  • Basil Wellington July 11, 2011, 3:45 pm

    Dr Peoples,

    Two things:

    1) Have you read ‘Secret Faith in the Public Square’, by Jonathan Malesic? I think it could serve as a good foil in preparing for your presentation.

    2) I saw the picture you used in this post, depicting God, in the movie ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ starring Nichols Cage.

    Anywhoo.

    ~BW

  • The Atheist Missionary July 15, 2011, 2:51 am

    This is a fascinating issue and I look forward to downloading the audio.

    Obviously, the panelists are in support of Christian ideals pervading the public square (of course, many would argue that they already have). If Christian beliefs are to be applied to Rawlsian public reason in arriving at public policy for western democratic nations, I look forward to hearing whether the panelists agree that Muslim beliefs should be applied in the same way to public policy in Muslim countries and, if not, why.

  • Glenn July 15, 2011, 10:48 pm

    TAM, the primary issue is not whether Christian beliefs or Muslim beliefs are good candidates for the basis of public decision making. Turn the issue the other way around. The question is whether or not a belief have a religious basis is, alone, a sufficient reason to bar it from the public square.

    I suppose I could ask why, if you accept some non religious beliefs pervading the public square, you don’t accept all non-religious beliefs doing this, and “if not, why not,” but it seems to be a strange question. There’s no reason why my view that having a religious basis does not bar a belief from public should open the floodgates, as though a belief has to be acceptable just because it’s religious.

  • The Atheist Missionary July 16, 2011, 2:06 pm

    Tthe question is whether or not a belief [sic] have a religious basis is, alone, a sufficient reason to bar it from the public square”.

    I didn’t do a doctoral thesis in this area but my understanding is that Rawls would answer that question with a definitive “no”. It shouldn’t matter whether the belief is religious or comes to you in a dream, the point is whether the belief is politically reasonable – religious motivated beliefs have difficulty satisfying this onus because of their intolerance for opposing views.

    This quote from Rawls’ The Idea of Public Reason Revisited The University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Summer, 1997), pp. 765-807 sums it up well: “The idea of the politically reasonable is sufficient unto itself for the purposes of public reason when basic political questions are at stake. Of course, fundamentalist religious doctrines and autocratic and dictatorial rulers will reject the ideas of public reason and deliberative democracy. They will say that democracy leads to a culture contrary to their religion, or denies the values that only autocratic or dictatorial rule can secure. They assert that the religiously true, or the philosophically true, overrides the politically reasonable. We simply say that such a doctrine is politically unreasonable. Within political liberalism nothing more need be said.”

  • Glenn July 16, 2011, 2:16 pm

    Right, TAM, Rawls appears to just assume – as though nobody will have any problem with it, that if your only reasons for supporting a policy (or something like a policy) are religious, then that all by itself shows that the policy (not belief) isn’t politically reasonable.

    I don’t think I have good reasons to accept this – or even just plausible reasons. Rawls’s reaction just assumes that there are no good reasons for anyone else to accept your religious beliefs and thereby gain a justification for the policy.

    I can safely ignore your quote about the rejection of democracy – since people can reject democracy for all sorts of reasons, religious and otherwise, and I do not reject democracy.

    But I think Rawls – or at least many political liberals of a Rawlsian bent – by saying that I shouldn’t support a policy solely for religious reasons because that policy is not politically reasonable,are also assuming – again, without any clear arguments or reasons – that nobody else in society could have any reasons for accepting my proposed policy. Of course, if they could, then whether they are reasons that I share or not, the policy quite clearly is politically reasonable in political terms.

    So this line of reply strikes me as either simply biased or false. This is to say nothing of whether or not Rawls’s general requirements for political reasonableness are good ones.

  • The Atheist Missionary July 16, 2011, 2:39 pm

    I don’t read Rawls as rejecting religious views, only absolutist/intolerant religious views.

    The other point is whether a purely religious view should be granted a voice in the public square. By “purely religious”, I mean (for example) the suggestion that mixed fabrics should be outlawed because a holy book says so. My view is that in order for a religious view to be afforded entry to the public square, the holder of that belief must be able to justify it to others for pblc reasons aside from its inclusion in a holy book. I think that onus can be met for the suggestion that abortion should be prohibited but not with respect to mixed fabrics.

  • Glenn July 16, 2011, 2:57 pm

    TAM: “I don’t read Rawls as rejecting religious views, only absolutist/intolerant religious views.”

    OK, well earlier when I raised the question of whether a policy should be advanced if your only reasons are religious (not “intolerant” or anything like that), you said, based on your reading of Rawls, “no.”

    So do you take issue with the two considerations I raised above – which, if successful, do address the new consideration you raise now?

  • The Atheist Missionary July 16, 2011, 3:09 pm

    I think you misunderstood me. Rawls “no” was in response to the question of whether beliefs should be barred due to their religious nature.

    You wrote: But I think Rawls – or at least many political liberals of a Rawlsian bent – by saying that I shouldn’t support a policy solely for religious reasons because that policy is not politically reasonable,are also assuming – again, without any clear arguments or reasons – that nobody else in society could have any reasons for accepting my proposed policy. Of course, if they could, then whether they are reasons that I share or not, the policy quite clearly is politically reasonable in political terms I don’t take issue with this.

    Again, I’m really looking forward to the audio portion of this discussion. I am interested to know where you, Matt and Madeleine would draw the line on which Christian views could/should be imposed and which should not.

  • The Atheist Missionary July 16, 2011, 3:15 pm

    Glenn, I am strongly supportive of equal rights for homosexuals but I would head to the trenches to support your right to advance whatever public reason case you could advance against that, regardless of whether your position is motivated by the Bible or not.

    Would you defend my right to burn an effigy of Jesus in the public square?

  • Glenn July 16, 2011, 7:10 pm

    TAM: “I think you misunderstood me. Rawls “no” was in response to the question of whether beliefs should be barred due to their religious nature.”

    Ah – OK, my bad.

    It need to be said again though, that the Rawlsian concern is not with beliefs but policies. It is the policies that have or lack justification. Of course in a different sense beliefs can be justified, but that is not what Rawls is concerned with.

    Two more things:

    There’s no special line to divide Christian beliefs up into those that can legitimately serve as a motivation for my advocacy of a public policy and those that cannot. Whatever lines exist, I would think, simply divide beliefs up into those that are acceptable as motivations for public policy advocacy and those that aren’t. There wouldn’t (or I think, shouldn’t) be special rules for religious beliefs.

    Secondly, in regard to your question about burning an effigy of Jesus – it would be an unusual policy that applied only to the burning of effigies of Jesus. The policy would need to be broader: something about burning symbols/images/effigies or policies about causing offence or policies about inciting riots or something like that. So I would need to know about precisely the kind of policy you’re talking about.

    G

  • drj July 18, 2011, 2:00 pm

    This should be a short-short panel.

    Beliefs with a religious basis should be allowed in the public square, because it is simply impossible for society, gov’t, etc, to reliably differentiate, outlaw or restrict those beliefs, without restricting all belief in an unacceptable manner.

    If we could restrict religious beliefs without creating unacceptably restrictive and tyrannical speech laws, sure… lets do it. But we can’t.

    Most of us atheists would hope to eventually capture enough public opinion to push religious beliefs out of the public square by popular opinion (nor law), to take a seat next to the tarot card readers, and the psychics, and the like – but we actually have to fight that fight with the tools that won’t make it easy so for tyranny.

  • The Atheist Missionary July 26, 2011, 3:33 pm

    I’m not sure if Glenn has read this article by philosopher Floris van den Berg or not: How To get Rid of Religion: An Inconvenient Liberal Paradox

    Perhaps this might liven up your discussion on August 3rd!

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