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Replies to my correspondents, Dwight, David, Amy, Evan, and Nina, commentors on my “May Liberalism Be Hostile to Religion?” May 20, 2007

Posted by Michael Kuttnauer in Political Philosophy.

I thank each correspondent.  Here are my replies to all (Thea and Charlette having been previously responded to) in order of receipt:

Dwight: I don’t think it is “hostility toward religion” to limit religion as Liberalism tries to.  Your “religious person [who] sees herself as bound to obey a set of overriding obligations imposed on her by God” is not the target of Liberalism’s limits on religious expression.  We want to restrict not her, a citizen in the private domain of the liberal society, and possessed of speech and religion rights, but persons in their public roles in the other, the public domain.  Thus, judges and legislators are to know that their religious duties are irrelevant to the discharge of their public offices –decider of cases or lawmaker.  But the citizen you instanced is not so restrained.   She has every right to her beliefs, and to cross the police line around the comatose Terri Schiavo’s hospital room in an attempt to bring the dying woman water.  The police, on the other hand, have a duty to arrest her when she does.  But no lawmaker and no judge and no chief executive may say, “I know the Supreme Court has said that Ms. Schiavo has a right to have her husband, Michael, represent her interests, and that he has said she would not want to live like this, but my God (Bible, church) disagrees, and this overrides our normal duty to obey the law.”  It is interesting to notice the actual result in that case: the nation acquiesced in the liberal notion of constitutional supremacy and hints of support for a theocratic solution did not catch on.  That was a success story for Liberalism, I should have thought.  

 David: No one would dispute your statement that “not all [people] are reasonable.”  “Reasonable” is a technical term in liberal political philosophy, especially with the late John Rawls (see his The Law of Peoples, Harvard, 1999).  Perhaps the term mainly means “the citizen’s disposition to act reciprocally,” or to offer “fair terms of social cooperation among equals” (Rawls, 87).  So, I cannot lie to you unless I am prepared to allow you to lie to me.  If a person or group repudiates reciprocity, she/he/it is not being reasonable and forfeits its right to the liberal society’s toleration.  So, as to your “religious group’s operational procedures [of] walking onto buses with women and children with the intent of murdering them in the name of their religion,” they do indeed “forfeit their rights and freedom” as you say.  But, Liberalism entirely agrees: Their principle will fail the reciprocity test.  We don’t have to tolerate them.  But Liberalism cannot accept your willingness to deprive of their protected rights any religion “as a whole” based upon what a “small percentage of the group” believes and acts on.  The liberal idea forbids guilt by association.

Amy: Your formulation of what I called above the liberal principle of “reciprocity” is a helpful instance of the principle: Beliefs and actions that don’t infringe on anyone else’s well being or right to their own lifestyle.  Would you agree to add “if and only if” as standing between the two disjuncts?  If so,  I think you’ve captured, in your own words, the essence of the principle.

 Evan: As I’ve suggested above, the principle of killing fails the test of reciprocity, and is thus unreasonable on its face.  No liberal society need suffer it, therefore.  The “right” we have to use the coercive power of the state in suppression of such things is not one likely to be seriously contested.  Moreover, we are entitled to hope for and duty-bound to pursue suitable discourse with such people and groups in the possibility that the reasonable view could come to be their own eventually.  Meantime, we must restrain them and defend ourselves by constitutional means.

Nina: You raise one of the most difficult questions about the moral theory of liberalism as per Kant and Rawls.  How, indeed, can tolerance quarrel with intolerance other than calling it unreasonable?  I tried to deal with that during my 2005 Occasional Lecture Series talk at Mesa as you’ll recall — but I didn’t do a good job of it.  There are people who would  assert, “Prevail over whomever you have to power to.”  Liberalism condemns that as unreasonable.  Perhaps what liberals like Kant and Rawls mean by the term is that, because the above imperative cannot be reciprocated, because it is unfair, there is something about the human reason that finds it impossible.  Not logically impossible.  Impossible to will while still being what we are: a being that has the natural inclination to want to cooperate fairly, and a capacity for the suppression of self interest for a principle.  If one hasn’t felt the pull of that, there is a sense in which he or she is not fully a person.  (Don’t we sometimes institutionalize such a being?)  There are limits, as Kant tried to show, to our understanding.  And, as the suggestive fragments of the pre-Socratics sometimes hinted at.  Thus Heraclitus: “The sun will not overstep his measures; if he does, the Erinyes, the handmaids of justice, will find him out.”  Perhaps what Kant meant is like that: The reason is limited in the principles it can agree to.  The principle urging dominance based only on power is beyond the limit.  If there is anything to this in a way that isn’t question-begging, it may help explain an important element in the liberal idea.  



1. Dwight Furrow - May 22, 2007


From your response to my comment, I’m not clear on who is affected by the limits a liberal society ought to place on religious expression. In your original post you claim that “placeholders in civil society” have an independent duty to formulate policy on constitutional rather than religious principles.

In your reply to my comment you seem to be suggesting that legislators and judges must view their religion as irrelevent to carrying out their public duties.

“Placeholders in civil society” and “judges and legislators” are not co-extensive groups so I’m not sure who is constrained by liberal principles.

In either case, it seems to me to be an extraordinarily burdensome demand to require of either “placeholders in civil society” or “legislators and judges” that they view religion as irrelevent to public policy, if they hold the view that they must obey a set of overriding obligations mandated by God.

How can anyone be expected to check their morality at the door when entering the public arena and still have the intellectual and emotional resources to make decisions?

Of course, merely requiring that religious folks uphold the constitution is no constraint at all. I take it that much of the radical right see the constitution as sanctioned by God and that religious principles ought to be used to interpret the constitution. However, if you want to preclude religious principles from playing any interpretive role in the constitutional jurisprudence, it seems to me this is again extraordinarily coercive and harmful to religious folks.

The Schiavo case wan’t an example of religious conservatives making an end run around the constitution. The issues they raised were taken up in court or were taken up as matters of legislation in a constitutional manner. They simply lost on the merits.

The public responded negatively to these attempts by the religious right to interfere in Schiavo, not because their claims were motivated by religion, but because they were bullshit–they were making claims that were incompatible with the facts in the case.

If religiously sanctioned policies are bad policies they should be rejected, not because they are religious but because they are bad policies. Denying religious folks a seat at the table is a prescription for intolerance.

When judges and legislators make decisions based on narrow, sectarian religous grounds, they undermine the trust and the moral authority of the institutions they have taken an oath to uphold.
The problem is not that the decisions are grounded in religion but that they are narrow, sectarian, and thus don’t represent the interests of the public.

2. Abdul - May 24, 2007

Dwight –

I agree with your stance. Taking into account that all liberals(whether atheists or believers), practice a religion, since the existance of God can neither be proved or disproved based on the fact that we don’t have empirical evidence to prove his existance or non-existance. Then people who choose to disbelieve in God practice a form of religion as well. It takes a leap of faith to claim that God does not exist, considering that there’s no proof to support that claim. And, what is religion except faith in something that can’t be verified or embraced by everyone.

Most Atheists don’t realize that their disbelief in God shapes their political views in the same way that belief in God shapes the views of religious people. The legislators of the secular government of Turkey made their decision to ban women from wearing headscarfs in public to sharply contrast the Islamic belief that women should wear headscarfs. What practical value would such a prohibition have? Was not the original intent to create a more free society? Their action to prohibit all women from wearing headscarfs in public is just repulsive as the Taliban forcing all women in their country to wear headscarfs. A liberal society should enable people to embrace any beliefs and to carry out any action as long as they are not harming others. Liberal legislators should not make laws with the intent of restricting the rights of people who believe in God.

3. Keshto Arya - August 30, 2012

When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and
now each time a comment is added I get three emails with the same comment.

Is there any way you can remove people from that service?
Appreciate it!

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