Dialogue on Faith and Democracy

Daniel Fincke over at Camels With Hammers just recently put up a new dialogue, this time talking about the relatiionship between faith and democracy, specifically about whether religious people should vote for laws or in some way “create” laws based on their religious beliefs. I’ve addressed some of his other dialogues in the past in dialogue form and so on reading this one figured it would be a good time to break out of my blogging slumber and write a response.

Jaime: But in a secular society, laws shouldn’t be made based on religious beliefs. Once the laws are based on religious beliefs then everyone in the governed region essentially is being forced to obey the laws of that religion (or those religions) that hold those idiosyncratic views.

Robin: So, if I want to vote for laws that take care of the poor because my faith tells me that it is just to take care of the poor, I’m not allowed because then I’m imposing my religion on people? “Sorry poor people, no food for you, I wouldn’t want to impose my religion on you!” That doesn’t make any sense.

Jaime: No, that’s not what I am talking about. There are secular arguments you can make for taking care of the poor. There’s no need to make a religious argument when you can make one that is not so narrow and does not only appeal to people who belong to your faith. It’s a secular society, make arguments that include everyone in your appeal.

Stoic: This seems to — or at least risks — conflating two very different contentions. When you talk about laws not being based on religious beliefs, it sounds a lot like you commenting on the reasons that, say, people vote for or institute them, which you and others have indeed talked about in the past. That’s why Robin is focusing on why they would vote for a law to take care of the poor. When you reply to that, you talk about making arguments — seemingly in public — to convince others, one presumes, to support that law as well. The two positions are distinct. For the first case, people in a democracy ought to and are expected to vote based on the worldview, desires, and values they themselves actually possess, and so if those reasons are religious it seems reasonable at first glance that they should indeed be able to vote based on those values. We would not expect them to vote based on reasons or reasoning that they don’t accept or agree with. As for the second case, we surely would expect people, when trying to convince others, to appeal to reasons that they, in fact, find convincing, whether religious or otherwise. After all, how can you expect to convince people to, say, support taking care of the poor if you appeal to reasons they find convincing? This, then, means appealing to what the majority actually value … religiously motivated or no.

So, in both cases, if people are religious and hold religious values, they ought to use those values to determine what they vote for and, if trying to convince religious people to vote as they do, what arguments they use to support those laws publically.

Jaime: You’re not implying that I’m trying to outlaw religion, are you? Because that’s outrageous. I would never want that. I am saying that you can have your religion without basing laws on it. A secular society, in fact, protects minority religions as much as the irreligious. Were you part of a religious minority would you want adherents of the majority religion stripping you of your rights through legislation?

Stoic: Here you hint at a general problem with democracy: can the majority create excessive impositions on the minority just by being the majority? However, you’ve also answered it: we introduce the concept of “rights” to create boundaries where the majority can impose so far and no further. Freedom of religion is a protected right, and so the majority cannot unduly impose on the freedom to practice one’s religion just because that religion is in the minority, which would extend to not having a religion at all (it is a religious stance even if it isn’t a religion per se). Now, where those boundaries get drawn isn’t particularly easy to decide, but I would argue that in a democracy in order to avoid it becoming a tyrrany of the minority we should lean towards accepting the will of the majority unless we have a clear imposition on a clear and defined right.

With the concept of rights and with institutions whose job it is to determine when the will of the majority is trumped by minority rights, we don’t need to limit how people decide what to vote for or how they try to convince others what to vote for.

Jaime: The rights of minorities are not “obvious” to all faiths. The right to religious conscience is a hard won right and its importance was learned through centuries of pointless religious wars. There could be (and, really, there are) people of faith who believe that a state imposed religion would save more souls and so is inherently justified. Should they vote that way? Or is their “faith-informed conscience” one we should oppose?

Robin: Well, I think those people are wrong. I don’t think faith that is coerced can be true faith.

Jaime: But that’s not the question, the question is can you tell them they’re not allowed to vote on such premises?

Stoic: We don’t. We look at the laws proposed and determine if they, in fact, create a society where we have a state imposed religion, or infringe too much on their religious freedom. In short, we do the rights analysis of each specific law and see if it violates a right of a minority. As an example, if most people don’t want to have to work on a Sunday because of their religious beliefs, and they institute a law making it so that stores, say, have to close on a Sunday to facilitate that — for example, to avoid religious people having to choose between working and making money or following their religion — that probably isn’t too great an imposition on those who are not religious and so could, in my opinion, survive a rights check. However, insisting that worship services can only be held on a Sunday certainly would be. This isn’t something that you can settle globally, but is instead something that must be settled case-by-case.

Jaime: No, your position that people should vote based on their faith is a slipperly slope that creates more theocrats who want to impose their religion through their law. If we made it an unthinkable proposition that one consult one’s religions when forming laws then we would be less likely to have people who go to that extreme.

Stoic: But this applies to any worldview, and the alternative seems to be to force people to not vote according to the values, beliefs, and desires they actually have. And if we do that, why have democracy at all? The only benefit to democracy is that the laws are determined based on the values, beliefs and desires that people actually have. Most people certainly aren’t qualified to determine if a law is rationally justified in all of the various areas that the government impacts, simply because we don’t have the expertise. We are not experts in law, economics, science, technology, morals and so on. We are, in fact, only experts on what we believe, what we value, and what we desire. If we are going to ask people to vote based not on what they are qualified to know better than anyone else, but what they clearly do not know better than relevant experts, why get people to vote at all? That does nothing more than ask people to make really important decisions based on what they themselves would have to admit they aren’t qualified to make decisions about.

Jaime: Why can’t I also appeal to people that it’s only fair that they reason in ways fair to everyone. Lots of religious people already think this, just like atheists like I do. So why can’t I go beyond just advocating for specific representatives and laws and argue further that faith should have no place in politics?

Stoic: Because if you single out religion or faith in this case you are saying that if your values are religious, your values are not worthy to be the basis of how people vote, and should not be part of the society, while allowing any non-religious view to, in fact, impact and influence society. So, then, non-religious people can try to shape society to the values they have, but religious people can’t. And that violates freedom of religion: if someone gets their values from religion, those values must be treated like the values of everyone else, and not expunged from the public entirely. Unless, of course, you extend it to all values and argue that no one should argue based on their actual values, religious or not. But in that case, you either have a set of defined values that are acceptable, which is as bad as imposing values through religions, or it seems there is no reason to have democracy at all as you eliminate, as I said, the only reason to have people vote, which is to try to influence society to have laws that reflect what they actually value.

Jaime: So, what if I were to argue that we should abolish religion.

Robin: Good luck with that!

Jaime: No, seriously, you wouldn’t object in principle to me making arguments like that?

Stoic: You can argue that, but you could never get that into law, because freedom of religion is a protected right in most of the societies you’d be talking about, and abolishing religion violates that right. Again, all we need are rights to protect minority positions, not a strong stance that you can’t propose laws that the minority might not like.

Jaime: I’m not talking about policing thoughts! I’m not talking about making it illegal to hold or express theocratic views. I’m arguing that we should informally, morally and in our political theory, strenuously try to discourage people from thinking in a faith-based way in politics because that kind of thinking would unravel democracy itself. The day you get an overwhelming number of people who base their legal reasoning on faith is the day they all vote to impose their religion on people in thousands of ways. Perhaps they would “democratically” vote to replace their democracy with a theocracy even! That’s the supremely tragic irony of how democracies often die–the people themselves vote in the tyrant who takes away their right to vote! To protect democracy we need to protect people’s commitments to the principle of democracy itself.

Robin: How are you protecting democracy itself when you say that the majority shouldn’t rule.

Jaime: If the majority votes to strip their own right to vote then that’s the majority surrendering its right to rule! And it’s surrendering future majorities’ rights to vote, on their behalf, in a way they have no say in! There are limits to what the majority can vote for consistent with the sustained existence of democracy or its ideal realization!

Stoic: You’re right that the majority voting in a tyrant would mean that you no longer have a democracy, but is it legitimate for a democracy to vote out a democracy? This, I think, is a tough question, but I think it certainly might be reasonable to allow that. But that’s neither here nor there, as this isn’t a problem that is necessarily religious, nor is it one that is limit to “faith” thinking, limited to religious faith. This is a risk in all democracies, as soon as enough people believe that their values should be imposed on others. Humanists, if they reached a critical mass, would impose their beliefs on people in thousands of ways themselves. And on people who sharply disagree with them. And, in some sense, in a democracy this is the way it should work. The society ought to reflect the values of the majority of the people in it, or else it’s not a democracy anymore. We just need to have mechanisms to protect minorities from excessive impositions. And the best mechanism we have so far is the concept of, at least, legal rights, enshrined in a Constitution that has solid procedures for updating and changing it that still protect minorities while ensuring that it doesn’t become stale. I don’t see anything in what you propose that could or should overturn that model, and it protects from religious impositions just as it protects from impositions by other groups that might happen to form a majority.

Jaime: I know you’re some kind of Christian–would you find that scenario amenable if you weren’t? Say you were a Muslim? Would you want to live in a country where the Catholic majority made rules according to the Catholic faith? Or say you were living in a predominantly Muslim country as a Christian, how would you feel if they imposed Islamic laws on you?

Stoic: It depends on the rules and laws. That the laws reflected the dominant culture wouldn’t, or at last shouldn’t, be an issue for me, and if it was I’d have to consider emigrating if I could. If the laws violated basic rights as defined in the Constitution, then I’d protest … but that, again, is using rights to protect minorities, and I agree that any democratic society needs that.

Jaime: Don’t you see how that signals to atheists that they’re unwelcome and favors religious beliefs over irreligious ones so that people think “that’s what a good citizen does, she prays”. It’s unfair.

Stoic: If you live in a society with a dominant culture, and you don’t fit it, you are going to feel at least somewhat out of place. That’s not unfair, but is just life. And one should expect that the cultural institutions will reflect the dominant culture except when you are dealing with subcultures. That’s not unfair as well. And you set up a situation where because someone who is not part of the dominant culture might feel “unwelcome”, the dominant culture are not allowed to publically act according to the dominant culture, which means that the cultural institutions may well reflect only what the minority culture thinks acceptable or reasonable, or even worse only reflects what the minority culture wants. In the prayer case, the atheist doesn’t want any prayers, while everyone else is. Under your rule, the atheists gets what they want, and the majority does. How is that fair?

Now, again, we settle this by appealing to rights. And you may have a case saying that opening public government meetings with a prayer might signal that atheists are an outsider class, and that would violate their right to freedom of religion. But, again, that’s a case-by-case basis, and the general principle I argue for is this: the laws and cultural institutions of a society should reflect the dominant culture except where doing so would violate the rights of the minority culture(s).

Jaime: I think it’s a false choice. In the long run both things are important; that they have the right policy and that they form it for the right reasons. Sure, pragmatically, I will take people reasoning from the wrong premises to the right policies if that’s the only way in the short term to get the right policies. But in the long term, training people to have better premises and reasoning processes will yield more right conclusions. Faith-based thinking will be hit and miss much more than rational thought when it comes to coming up with good conclusions. I would, over the long haul, try to show people the rational reasons to give to the poor. In the long run, demanding that people base their policies on the kinds of evidence and reason that are accessible to everyone protects people from idiosyncratic policies that stagnate us, regress us, or are otherwise counter-productive to stability or progress. The more that policies are not based on reason and evidence is the more likely they are to become untethered from reality and be harmful. Sure, some people’s faith-given values may be coincidentally right but faith is not a reliable value-forming mechanism that consistently enough yields good answers or ones that are fair for all. Since we’re all subject to the same laws, even minorities, we need laws to be based on reasons that could appeal to all of us, even minorities. And the only laws that can be justified to all of us, at least in principle, are those proven on grounds that are accessible to everyone. Appeals to reason and evidence transcend all faith traditions and irreligiousness. Even if one disagrees with the conclusions, at least it’s not a matter of “I have to follow this law because of someone else’s religion” but a matter of “I have to follow this because I got out-argued in the fair realm of reason that is common to all of us.”

Stoic: If you want properly rational policies, you don’t want a democracy. You want a Platonic Philosopher-King. A democracy is not about producing the most provably rational policies, but about producing the policies that best reflect the desires, beliefs and values of the actual people. Think about it: if you wanted maximially rational policies, you would want to have all the decisions being made by the experts on the field and people who were fully trained to the best standards of rationality possible. But while, say, scientists and philosophers will be trained (hopefully) to annoyance in critical thinking so as to be maximally rational, the guy who works at the convenience store won’t be. And won’t have the data to make the best decision anyway. Sure, everyone should get some training in critical thinking, but they simply won’t have the time to learn it all in the intense detail required to make maximially rational decisions, and won’t be able to take the time to simply gather up all the relevant data from all the relevant experts to ensure they know all they need to know to make a proper decision. So either you create a mechanism for producing tyrants who are so trained and whose job is to do nothing more than make those sorts of decisions and hope the power doesn’t go to your head, or you ask the people to decide based on what they are experts in — their own beliefs, desires and values — and hope you can give them enough information to make reasonable if not maximally rational decisions. Democracies do the latter, which is why it won’t ever be decided on the basis of being out-argued … noting that people won’t necessarily accept that anyway if they lose a vote, even if they happen to be wrong, because they themselves don’t have the time or training or information to make sure that they understand why what they propose is wrong.

Robin: So it’s not really pure democracy you’re interested in. The majority has to vote not for their actual will on their actual personal values but according only to what the minority could “in principle” find persuasive.

Jaime: I think that’s the only way to combat majoritarianism and to come up with substantively better solutions even for the religious–whose own faiths might go wrong for being so arbitrary.

Stoic: And if the minority is irrational? What then? Them finding it persuasive in principle if they were some kind of ideally rational agent doesn’t mean that they actually will find it persuasive, nor that the majority will also find it persuasive, and it is ridiculous to ask people to vote for policies that they are not persuaded are the right ones, and might even be persuaded are the wrong ones.

Robin: Fine, but I think I’m the truer democrat.

Jaime: Well on one definition of democrat, anyway; a majoritarian one. But I don’t think the best one.

Robin: It’s the most pragmatic one and the one that allows people to express their real thoughts and will the most.

Jaime: I would rather hold out for the ideal one that protects minorities (including religious ones) and that leads to substantively more rationally defensible outcomes.

Stoic: The system we have is the best we’ve seen so far for maintaining a democracy while protecting the minority: people vote based on their own values, and rights ensure that the minorities are not unduly imposed upon. If you want more rationally defensible outcomes from a democracy, all you can do is try to make people, in general, more rational … within the limits of people who have other things to do than to scrutinize the workings of governments and learn the details of many fields to properly evaluate each law or government policy. If you want better than that, put in a Philosopher-King.

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