2008-05-22

Religion in Public Life — 2 bad arguments by Professor Roger Trigg

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor Trigg
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, Roger Trigg, was interviewed on ABC Radio National’s Religion Report this week (see the transcript — and the podcast if you’re quick enough — here) and 2 of his arguments in favour of keeping religious debate in the public political arena struck me as very bad.

Bad argument #1:

Addressing the controversy Prime Minister Tony Blair raised when he publicly declared that God would judge him on his decision to invade Iraq, Professor Trigg said that he thought people would like the idea that their leaders felt they were accountable to someone above them as opposed to thinking they themselves had the last say.

Why bad

The last time a political leader in England claimed he was acting in accord with the will of his God and in defiance of the public, that leader found himself on the losing side of a civil war and had his head chopped off. So much for the assumption that the public would like to think that their leaders feel they are accountable to God and not to them!

Professor Trigg completely overlooks that in a democracy it is the people who are above their leaders and who have the final say. The prime minister is accountable to those he represents. He must abide by the constitution (or political precedents) and the law; the public have the power to remove him; the public also have the power to bring him before their courts, to be investigated by judicial hearings, etc. At least in theory.

Bad argument #2

Roger Trigg’s second bad argument was that religion was the most important thing in many people’s lives to it stands to reason that it should be part of the public political discourse. Otherwise, people seethe with resentment and the result will be violent.

Why bad

The most important things in many people’s lives are the things most personal to them and which are simply not negotiable — and being the most personal (and non-negotiable) they are THEREFORE NOT deemed appropriate for public airing.

Hint about where the rest of this post is heading: society cannot exist without negotiation! Violence is evidence of inability to negotiate!

Consider other “most important things” in people’s lives: the progress and other happenings of one’s children at school; personal strains or private moments with one’s partner; personal and family health conditions; personal finances; past medical or financial records; etc etc etc . . . . it is the things that are “most important” in one’s life that are NOT appropriate for public airing.

Public discourse is for social matters, for making society work better, for giving us a more supportive and more comfortable world in which to operate. We want a society where we can attend to our most important matters in our lives without hindrance, or even with support if appropriate. That means the appropriate matters for public discussion are public matters that all hold in common and are subject to public negotiation. One’s private religious beliefs about blood transfusions or mixed marriages or anything else have no place in this arena.

For Professor Trigg to hold up the threat of violence if one’s religious beliefs are not heard publicly was also bad. Those who are prone to react anti-socially are not, I submit, responding to their being no place for their religious views in public political debates, but to their views not being enforced upon the rest of society. Such people don’t want debate, I submit. They want their own way.

By all means let those who wish to espouse their religious points of view be allowed to do so — in public of course. But that is no argument for allowing any of those personal religious beliefs to be embraced as a respectable norms within the daily social political discourse.

Why? Simply because they are not negotiable, any more than the health or well-being of one’s child is negotiable. Social discourse is about issues for public debate and negotiation to achieve the optimum polity, rules and regulations and economy, for all. Religious beliefs are not that sort of currency. They want not what is best for all, but simply all.

Many believers rightly acknowledge that they are therefore best confined within one’s own religious community. Professor Roger Trigg’s argument, I fear, is one more step back to Europe’s and North America’s seventeenth century.

  • shirhashirim
    2008-05-22 20:01:17 UTC - 20:01 | Permalink

    Bad Argument #1: Sure, leaders are accountable to the people, and they should be. On the other hand: leaders that are accountable to the people: it’s really a scary idea. Even when I find leaders should be accountable to the people, I can see why some would prefer them to also be accountbale to something a little less random.

    Bad argument #2: I disagree. ‘the progress and other happenings of one’s children at school; personal strains or private moments with one’s partner; personal and family health conditions; personal finances; past medical or financial records’ are very negotiable, even when loads of people believe they shouldn’t be (and for good reasons too!). The point is: despite everything else, they are being negotiated all the time.

    The problem with negotiation is that no participant can proscribe what can and cannot be negotiated about. Refusing to negotiate ideas simply because they are religious, or put into religious language, indicates an inability to negotiate and may indeed result in violence. I think that’s Trigg’s point.

  • 2008-05-23 06:42:03 UTC - 06:42 | Permalink

    Thanks for your thoughts, Shirhashirim. I would reply that:

    The personal matters that are being negotiated are not negotiated with the wider public — they are negotiated within one’s family, or within one’s club or group where the language and general beliefs and values to be applied are embraced by all. Not in the public domain. The difference is crucial.

    There is nothing consistent about the decisions of leaders who claim to be accountable to God, both within the U.S. and U.K. history and among other nations.

  • Steven Carr
    2008-05-23 15:20:20 UTC - 15:20 | Permalink

    Both Tony Blair and Trigg have little understanding of Christianity.

    God will not hold Christians accountable for their sins, as Christians are judged on their faith in Jesus as their Lord, and their sins are forgiven.

  • 2008-05-23 16:57:28 UTC - 16:57 | Permalink

    Or perhaps au contraire that is why Tony Blair would rather face God than the people? 😉

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