A Basic Tension

The discussion continues. Norm Geras continued it with a post yesterday.

Twice during recent years I tried to engage people I know well, and whom I also like and respect, in a discussion about religion – this with a view, not to challenging their beliefs, but to trying to see if my own assumptions about the way in which they held them were even half-way right. Both conversations ran, pretty well immediately, into the ground…I don’t report this as proving that all conversations between the religious and the irreligious must go the same way. I hope not, in fact. My own reason for embarking on these two conversations was to explore what levels of mutual understanding are possible across the boundary that divides religious belief from atheism. But that is my limited, and so far unsuccessful, experience.

No, not all conversations between the religious and the irreligious must go the same way, as people have been pointing out in our comments. But at least in my experience and observation they often do, and I think it’s a reasonable inference to think that a great many potential conversations of that type simply never happen because the parties involved know or expect that they would go that way. That’s one way the taboo on such discussions works – it makes people reluctant to get into them in the first place, as well as limiting what they’re willing to say once the discussion begins. Because the subject is somehow ‘special’ and an exception, because it’s seen as not like talking about politics or other sets of ideas, because there is a circle around it, because it is sacred or holy or sacrosanct, it is also Forbidden. Not formally, not legally, not officially, but de facto. The internal censor warns us not to hurt people’s feelings or make them feel foolish or threaten beliefs that comfort them, so to a considerable extent we don’t. We remain silent on the subject.

This might be all right in some senses, or in some settings. But in other senses and settings it’s not all right at all. For one thing, there is a massive tension between this polite silence and forebearance and the part religion expects to play in public life. Religion wants a voice, religion bristles when anyone suggests that the public sphere ought to be secular rather than religious or sectarian, religion arrogates to itself the right to pronounce on public issues. But if religion is going to do that, surely it’s a problem that religion itself can’t be discussed on the same terms as other ideas can? Surely this automatic, deeply-entrenched, habitual politeness and tact and abstention from criticism, is somewhat dangerous? Religion can issue moral pronouncements, but secularism can’t ask how it knows what it claims to know? Does that work? I don’t think so.

I was thinking about all this earlier today, and writing a few notes for this N&C, and then I read a section of The Flight From Science and Reason that makes exactly the same point. First in the editorial introduction to the section (page 491):

…the studied obsequiousness toward all religious truth claims, no matter how extreme…this attitude reigns in the media and is unchallenged by those – including liberal religionists and intellectuals – who should know better.

And then in Paul Kurtz’ article ‘Two Sources of Unreason in Democratic Society: the Paranormal and Religion’ (page 500):

In present-day America it is usually considered to be in bad taste to question the claims of religion…Clearly, liberty of thought and conscience and the right to profess and to practice one’s religion is not at issue; what is at issue is the reticence to criticize religion in the public square or to subject its basic premises to scrutiny…This posture is especially questionable given the constant effort by militant religionists to apply their doctrines in the political process, thus seeking to impose their views on others.

That seems to me to be incontrovertible. If religion is going to play a part in public life – and it obviously is – it can’t at the same time demand or expect immunity for its basic assumptions, and the rest of us really ought to learn to steel ourselves and challenge those assumptions, or at least inquire into them.

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