Religion and the Public Space. A Response to George

with 2 comments

It is striking for me to realize that, although they are supposed to be the masters of human reasoning, most philosophers generally do not / cannot understand each other. Probably this is what is happening now to me and George and to our debate concerning the relation between religion and the public sphere.

Although I started this debate in Romanian, I am writing this time in English (a poor English, to be sure), not because of my audience (if there is such a thing), but because I respect George’s “larger audience” 🙂

Let me first explain the context. George considers that he has a say on the recent public debate in Romania regarding the problem whether we should keep religious icons in our public schools, or we should take them out. He thinks that we should take them out – period.

A few days ago I felt like answering George, because it seemed to me that there are some very interesting points with this debate. While recognizing that the questions George is raising (about the segregation potential of keeping Christian Orthodox icons in public schools, for example) are very important, I had a problem with the following excerpt from George’s post. The translation is mine, so probably it only approximates his words:

“I tend to think that the problem of the equilibrium between the majority’s right of taking decisions and individual rights is a tangent one here. I thus refuse to transform a situation that is related to the lack of education and obscurantism in a subject of political philosophy. The neutrality of the public space cannot be negotiated – especially when this space is extremely fragile”.

Now I had three problems with George’s ideas:

1) I do not think that religion is something related with lack of education and obscurantism, as George seems to think. From his assertion, it logically follows that every human being cannot be religious unless he or she lacks education and live in obscurantism. Conversely, there is no intelligent, educated individual who can be at the same time a religious person. So it seemed to me that, in order to refute George’s assertion, it was enough to show that there was at least one individual who was at the same time an educated and a religious person. And I think, in fact, that there are many persons in this situation. Unfortunately, in his response to my critique (that can be read here), all George is doing in order to answer my objection is offering an example of an educated, former religious person, now an atheist – Anthony Flew. But I really don’t see how George’s example is destroying my critique. George still didn’t prove that there is no educated individual who can’t be at the same time a religious person.

2) George says that he doesn’t want to transform this problem, which according to his views is related to ignorance and obscurantism, into a subject of political philosophy. I tried to show, in my critique, that the problem of neutrality of state in what concerns religious practice simple is a topical debate in political philosophy (whether we like it or not, many political philosophers discuss it at length). What is striking for me is that George, in his response to my critique, still thinks that it is not a problem of political philosophy. Well, I really recommend him to read more books in political philosophy (try Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka and others)…

And this is the response to another problem of George. He writes: “I said the scandal about icons shouldn’t be treated as a problem of political philosophy. I stick to my guns. I don’t know what parties Andrei would have in a debate. Secular and religious intellectuals? Should I remind him about the intellectual stars of the day maybe?”. Well, I cannot believe that George (who really knows logic much more than I do) is making a logical fallacy, called “the appeal to authority”. Be that as it may. Anyway, if Sandel, Taylor, Kymlicka, Raz, and Waldron are not the “intellectual starts of the day”, then maybe I AM between those ignorant persons with which George fails to communicate….

3) Concerning the neutrality of the state: George thinks that it must not be negotiated. In my critique, I tried to show that state’s dealing with religious practice (and with the presence of religion in schools) is not that neutral as it seems to be. I tried to show that, far from being an implementation of neutrality, taking religion and its symbols (icons, or Bible reading) out of public schools might well be a sort of discrimination against a social group and against a way of life. For example, if it is OK to teach the Darwinist theory in public schools, it is not clear at all why you cannot also teach the Creationist doctrine, too. Maybe teaching both doctrines is “more neutral” than just throwing religion out of school. This is not my example; in telling you this, I was / am relying on some lawsuits within the American jurisprudence, quoted from Michael Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent (the quotes from Sandel are in English, so check my post in Romanian Scoatem icoanele din scoli? (Do we take the icons out of schools?), if you are interested).

But take now another example. As we all know, the secular state’s economic activities are build upon Christianity’s religious practice. In other words, we all work from Monday to Friday or Saturday, and we all rest on Sunday. The problem is that there are some religions which claim that their followers should rest or pray in another day – for example, Muslims have to pray a lot on Friday. Now, what we are supposed to do with a Muslim teacher? According to the idea of state’s neutrality, we are supposed to do nothing. This is because the state is considered to be neutral to the religious practice, so it is not interested in this problem. But the state is organizing its economic activity according to Christian religious week, not to Islamic religious week. So state’s neutrality is not… that neutral! What I wanted to say with all these is that neutrality is not something fixed. Sometimes state’s practices are neutral only to the surface. And because the meaning of neutrality is not fixed, it is and it must be negotiated, as long as we think that liberalism and democracy still mean something.

Instead of discussing these problems, George says that it is not the time to talk about them. Because “the public space in Romania is fragile”, he thinks that „before debating subtle issues of negotiated neutrality of the state, we should make sure we still have something as a public space in which issues can be discussed”. Two things I have to say here. First, George seems to make a step backwards and seems to accept that neutrality can be negotiated, after all. That is a progress. But second, he thinks that now is not the time to do this in Romania. George cannot understand that creating a public space is the same thing with negotiating a common accepted neutrality. You cannot just throw away different religions, cultures, and so on, and say that, after throwing away all these, now we have a public space. This is a theoretical, as well as a practical impossibility. The terms of neutrality are negotiated every day – and this is what creates public space. We cannot just create first the public space, and talk about neutrality only afterwards.

(Just a small comment about the public space in Romania: I am not that pessimistic about this problem as George is. I really don’t think that the public space in Romania is a “ruin”, and this debate, its mere possibility and occurrence, shows that the situation is getting better and better. I know that being pessimistic is a good rhetorical figure, which makes you very popular, but I do think that being realistic – or at least neutral? 🙂 – is a better thing to do)

Besides these topics, in his response to my critique George is making some further points. I try to respond now:

1) I accused George as being arrogant (well, I didn’t actually used this word, so this is his personal interpretation), in the sense that he believes that his truth is the only truth. In his answer, he complains that he cannot see “why it’s arrogant to hold some things to be true. E.g. that there is no anthropomorphic God”. And he goes on: “I struggle to communicate with people that have such beliefs and sometimes I fail – that was my point”. Well, the answer to George’s first question is simple, and it can be found in his last remark: nothing is wrong in holding some things to be true. What is wrong is to hold that your truths are “the only ones in town”. I think this is why George sometimes fails to communicate with religious people. In fact, George’s strategy of communication is identical with the religious individual’s strategy of communication: both of them hold some things to be true. But both of them are also emotionally related to their truths, both of them are fundamentalists, and none of them is ready to accept that he could be wrong, or at least ready to bracket for a while his truth. George is accusing religious people of having the same problem he has: the incapacity of being self-ironical. Irony means here accepting that you might be wrong, or at least the capacity of bracketing – or even laughing at – your truths. At least for a while…

George is saying: „Andrei thinks I’m wrong to associate religion on the one hand, and obscurantism and ignorance on the other. Well, I’m not so sure that the association is illegitimate”. Well, I am pretty sure this is not a good way to begin a conversation with a (religious) opponent. Yes, is arrogant. Yes, believing even from the start that your opponent is ignorant only because he holds some specific views is not respecting him. And the conversation cannot be possible.

2) Take another idea: “Religion as form of life and what not? Sure, it’s your time and your money, go play. But don’t think you have the right to put that in public schools on tax money. Not only that it is against the law, but this silent move – with all its hypocritical justifications – can only have [morally] dubious effects”. As I have already explained, I don’t see why you can teach the Darwinist doctrine in school, but you cannot teach the Creationist doctrine. I think teaching both of them is the real neutrality we are looking for. Of course, no child should be compelled to learn the creationist doctrine. Here George has a good point. This is why I think that, where applicable, the state should sustain religious schools (Muslim, Christian and other religious schools), with public funds (at the end of the day, religious parents pay taxes for education, too). In this way, every parent can decide to what kind of school he sends his child. I think this is the real state’s neutrality: not excluding some world views from schools, but incorporating them. And I don’t see why this should necessary mean segregation.

Just a note: I don’t say that this is the best solution; I am only saying that it can be taken into account. So I can exercise self-irony. I hope George can do this, too…

3) George’s final words: “Take a look at the photo embedded in the ‘fara icoane’ page. Fact is, I’m not open to negotiations with these guys. Sorry to make you sad, Andrei, if that shows I’m not a liberal, so be it”. Well yes, this makes me sad. Because I really believe in communication and negotiation. Even with these guys. Otherwise you have war.
One more thing. Maybe you are wondering, together with George: “I don’t know what parties Andrei would have in a debate. Secular and religious intellectuals?” I am telling you that I don’t take sides. I think that George and religious intellectuals are both right, nevertheless at the same time they are both wrong. What do I believe? Take another look at my blog’s motto: I believe I will have another glass of wine… really!

Written by Andrei Stavilă

Noiembrie 14, 2007 la 4:04 pm

2 Răspunsuri

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  1. Andrei, I think you are right: we can’t communicate; on this issue at least. To my mind, you got most of what I said wrong. Maybe same goes for me – I sure hope so. My final word on this [final because life is short and we both have better work to do I guess]:

    1. Of course I didn’t say that every religious person is an ignorant. And of course nothing like that follows from anything I said. The case of Flew was a bit of irony, since the religious gang uses him, now that he’s senile, as a pet example.

    2. In principle, you’re right that how religious practice should be organized in a society can be a – or leads to some – problem[s] of political philosophy. The situation in Romania, I think, is so bleak in this respect, that we would have to be really blind or hypocritical to think that we can have a civilized and principled debate. I still think this is not hyperbolic pesimism.

    I referred to Romanian intellectuals of the day! Most parade their faith. Those that do not are marginal. So what kind of debate to you expect? Again, I was concerned with the Romanian case. You’re too quick to show me the library door. But thanks.

    3. You’re wrong about the relation between state neutrality on the one hand, and good science and decent education standards on the other. Theories are not politcal parties, their access to the pulic space is and should be conditioned by their being closer to truth. Creationism should not be taught in schools as a biological theory – or as any kind of science. It is no such thing. Yes, period.

    4.[?] I think you have a good point about negociation and public space. I’m not so sure that negociations constitute the public sphere, but you’re the expert, so be that as it may. Except negociation is possible, I think, only in a space defined by the mutual and often tacit acceptance of some basic principles – e.g.I won’t shut you up or kill you. If the Orthodox church is so willing to negociate its presence in the public space, how am I to understand its behavior? Forget its involvement in education and social policies of the state [no other cult has such an access]. But the status of national churhch? And the claim that clergy’s behavior during Communism is an internal, not a public, matter? Why do we need riot police to protect homosexual meetings from theology students? Because they’re eager to negociate? I could go on.

    5.[?] No, I am not in the same position as a religious person – what I support is not a matter of faith, though I need rely on some basic commitments. As most of the times, all is not equal.

    I think respect is a rare merchendise, so I treat it accrodingly. Dislike me if you must. But I do respect some religious people, at least my family and my friends [I’m no monster, trust me] – but then they are not the kind of persons that would have us be the Iran of Europe.

    And no, I don’t believe in war. There need be no war if people get a decent education. But once you brainwash them with mysticism, nationalism and the like, you can end up with wars [we DID end up fighting wars]. All your good and nicely relativistic intentions might then not matter.


    Noiembrie 14, 2007 at 5:35 pm

  2. […] swarm intelligence & Diski here we go again November 14th, 2007 Andrei has a reply for what I said. And if you really have time to kill, I wrote a comment. Anyway, I’m done with […]

    here we go again « GT’s

    Noiembrie 14, 2007 at 5:38 pm

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