An argument was presented in last week’s issue from Maxwell Schutze attempting to show that religious believers may use their religion as a sound basis for argumentation in public discourse. For this to be so, believers ought to both understand and communicate the situating of their beliefs in the relevant historical context. Then, their beliefs should be considered justified, and others in the public domain should take their subsequent arguments seriously.
I disagree. The problem with using religious argument in the public domain is this: it will either appeal to secular reasoning or a divine being.
If it is secular reasoning that receives appeal, then there is no reason that it should be considered a religious argument at all. The Muslim and the atheist may disagree about any given secular topic, and they can productively argue about it without their beliefs about the divine being remotely relevant. So long as secular reasoning—empirical data, logical argument, etc.—is used by both parties, then it’s not a religious argument in the first place, and no talk of one’s own religious beliefs is necessary.
But if the religious believer doesn’t just appeal to secular reasoning, then they instead will, at some point down the logical chain, have to appeal to a divine being unique to their espoused religion. This will be best expressed through the example of the Catholic teaching on abortion. The traditional Catholic holds that abortion is an evil act because human life begins at conception. But, as Schutze suggests, we need to situate this in historical context.
Well, from the very beginning of Christianity, believers wanted to differentiate themselves from infanticide-practicing polytheistic cultures by claiming that abortion was morally wrong. Abortion was viewed as violence against a being that was yet to receive a soul from God—a view which indeed had biblical support (see Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you”). Then came St. Augustine, who again used biblical support to affirm the Church’s teaching on abortion. And in the 13th century AD, St. Thomas Aquinas further emphasized the evil of abortion, writing that it is a sin “against nature” to interfere with the will of God. (Textual support for all of these claims can be found at the page titled ‘Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching’ on usccb.org).
It is clear that in every claim aforementioned, the only reason presented that abortion is evil is because, in effect, God said so. From the earliest of times, abortion is wrong because it is evil to interfere with God’s plan. Or, abortion is wrong according to the Bible, which is only meaningful because it is a book inspired by God. Or, to follow Aquinas, it is evil to act contrary to that which is natural—the will of God. Situating this religious stance into its historical context only purports to show that it is true because God said so! And is that a convincing argument?
I argue, therefore, that religion should not be considered a proper justification for beliefs in public discourse. If the best that a religious believer can do, even after contextualizing, is appeal to the divine being that sits atop their belief system, then it is hopeless to think that such beliefs can scale across the public domain. This is not to say that religion has no place in our society but rather to emphasize, when trying to make public change, we must embrace secular reasoning—empirical data, logic, philosophy, literature, etc.—as the tool that can help us implement such change for the betterment of everyone.