Why religious arguments do not belong in public debate

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by Neil Godfrey

Philosophers and political theorists holding a wide variety of philosophical views use the terms ‘public reason’ and ‘public justification’ to describe a broad framework for a discussion in which everyone in a community can take part. Supporters of the idea of public justification see democratic politics not so much as a battle for power, settled by elections, but rather as a kind of public conversation about issues of common concern, with a decision-procedure for reaching temporary closure on these issues when the time for action has come. When we take ­part in this conversation, we seek to justify our views to others, and in so doing we should acknowledge the fact of political and religious pluralism. We should show that we recognise that we live in a community with a diversity of political and religious I views. Hence we should offer reasons that can appeal to all, not only to other members of our own community of belief. Otherwise there can be no public conversation that embraces the entire society; we are implicitly dividing society into separate communities that do not seek to persuade each other. That is a recipe for increasing antagonism and mutual hostility between separate groups, divided along lines of belief. From Northern Ireland to Sudan, in Nigeria and in India, we have many examples of such societies, and the destructive conflicts to which they give rise, from past history and from our own times. Debates within a broad framework of public reason are one way to cross the divisions that separate these communities of belief.

Extract from Peter Singer’s The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush (pp. 122-123)

By arguing for a point of view (e.g. for or against capital punishment, abortion, war, welfare, gay marriage, teaching creationism in schools etc) it is necessary for civil society to function democratically that arguments be presented in terms that everyone can appreciate. That does not mean everyone will agree, but disagreements will be within a shared framework of reason and argument. We need to be able to understand what moves others, and accept that as a reason of some kind, even if we are not ourselves fully convinced by it.

Arguments that are presented as the commandments of God are removed from public discourse simply because they fail to appreciate the rights and status of all within our community. Statistics, logic, facts, science are the tools of arguments that are presented within the framework of public reasons and justifications.

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Neil Godfrey

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