Religion, civility, and public discourse

If religious ideas are going to enter political discourse then they can’t be immune from criticism. But smart criticism is more helpful than ignorant criticism.

Andrew Koppelman makes an interesting argument, one tangentially related to my dispute with the loud, obnoxious atheists who think that all religion is stupid and that no one should pay attention to any religious idea except to scoff at it.

Koppelman argues: The norm of civility that requires me not to insult your religious beliefs can’t be maintained once people start using religious arguments in policy debates. If you say “The Bible, the inerrant Word of God, says that adultery is to be punished by stoning, therefore we should stone adulterers,” I can’t refute that without criticizing the idea that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, and if I get rude in the course of doing so that’s your lookout.

But, Koppelman says, liberal philosophers and law professors post-1980, who wanted to avoid a Fundamentalist takeover of the political process but thought it would be intolerably rude and un-multi-culti to criticise Fundamentalism directly, instead invented the “principle of public reason,” which was supposed to mean that no religious belief &#8212 not being subject to scrutiny by unbelievers &#8212 ought ever to form the basis for a political argument. (Which would have surprised the Hell out of, for example, Martin Luther King.)

But, says Koppelman, that attempt to preserve civility while protecting against theocracy got the civility part exactly backwards. Religious folks would have been much less offended by people saying “That’s not how I read that passage” or “We’re not the Twelve Tribes of Israel” or even “No, I don’t think the Bible is inerrant” than to be told, in effect, “The tradition you rely on as a source of moral guidance has no place public discourse. Speak to me in my language or STFU.”

So Koppelman proposes solving the problem the other way around. As long as someone keeps his religious beliefs private, we shouldn’t criticize his absurd superstitions any more than we would criticize his ugly, stupid children. But once religion is brought onto the political battlefield, it’s no more immune to counterattack than any other combat arm.

That seems to me right. But an effective counterattack on any particular religion-based political move is going to require a subtle and nuanced understanding of the tradition from which that move originates and to whose adherents it is designed to appeal. (For example, non-Muslims need to learn about the multiple meanings of the word “jihad” to compete effectively with the suicide bombers for the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims.)

On Koppelman’s argument, if someone says “The Bible says we should stone adulterers,” I can’t be accused of incivility if I reply “The Bible is a crock.”

But &#8212 this is my view, not necessarily Koppelman’s &#8212 I can be accused of rhetorical incompetence for saying so in a country where the Bible is still held in some reverence. I would be more effective in that argument if I actually knew something about the Bible, and could discuss it without simply sneering at it.

Who knows? In that sort of dialogue, both sides might learn something.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: