Posts Tagged ‘public policy’

On Keeping Religion Private

May 1, 2011

In chapter 1 of _The Reason for God_, Keller discusses three proposed methods of solving the problems brought about by the exclusivity of religions: outlawing religion, condemning religion, and keeping religion private. He argues that the last of these is impossible. In particular, he argues that it is impossible to discard one’s deepest convictions about purpose and values when discussing public policy. I agree with that; the only way to keep religion private would be to exclude religious people altogether from discussions of public policy.

Keller also argues that there is no universal foundation for secular claims about morality. He cites two examples: whether or not to eliminate safety nets for the poor, and how easy or hard divorce should be. I’m not surprised that secularists have deep disagreements on issues such as these, and I have no reason to argue that they don’t. But it doesn’t follow that any of the traditional religions, including Christianity, is therefore a reasonable default position.

In the first paragraph I mentioned the possibility of excluding all religious people from public policy discussions. Of course, by Keller’s broad definition of religion, everyone would be excluded from such discussions. So perhaps the right word in this context is not religion, but dogma. In common usage, a dogma is a firmly asserted principle that generally isn’t subject to revision, even in the light of evidence and reason. Dogmatism is often equated with stubbornness. Each of the major religions has some set of dogmas, but secularists can also be dogmatic. So perhaps dogma itself, in all its forms, needs to be excluded from public policy discussions.

As an aside, I think that both individualism and socialism can be held dogmatically. As always, evidence is important. So in the case of divorce laws, which Keller touched on, we must consider the overwhelming evidence that divorce is harmful to children, and let that inform our laws, rather than any firm stance on individualism or socialism.

Likewise, if the evidence shows us that the Bible is not the Word of God, then we must not dogmatically insist on deferring to the Bible in matters of public policy. True, we don’t yet have a universally accepted standard of secular morality to use in place of the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that there is no objective truth about morality. While we try to figure out that truth, we can still do our best to base our policies on evidence and reason.

In the end, for anyone who views religious faith as a problem, attempts to keep religion private are only dealing with the symptoms, not the root problem. Of the three proposals Keller discussed for dealing with the problem of religious exclusivity, I suspect the only one that will work is some version of number 2, condemning religion. But it seems to me that the antidote to religious exclusivity is not pluralism or relativism; it’s reason, with a healthy dose of caution and humility.