Why Democratic Discourse?

March 9, 2010

In pondering what to write in my first essay here, the response from those who have merely heard the name of my blog -- Democratic Discourse -- prompted me to start with an explanation of why I’m here and what I intend to do. So, consider the following somewhat of a thesis statement for this blog. I apologize in advance for the length of this essay, but considering it will help frame almost every post going forward, it seemed necessary for me to explain myself as fully as possible.

Before going any further, as always, terms need defining. This is the problem with most debates about God: what exactly do people mean when they use the word God? Too often we don’t ask, few offer definitions, and we end up in debates in which the goalposts are never put in place.

Regarding democracy, while open to revision, for our purposes here, let us begin with something like this: a form of political governance that secures basic natural rights of citizens within a society and allows them to collectively and openly work toward their goals both socially and through government. As for discourse, let us start with something even more basic: written, spoken, or symbolic communication between two or more parties. Moreover, my focus will be mostly on morality: the beliefs people hold and actions they take that augment the happiness and suffering of others, to formulate what they deem a good society. Democratic discourse, then, would be a way in which citizens in a democracy can openly discuss, and approve or disapprove of, the moral beliefs and actions of others in manner that does not deny basic natural rights, or exclude anyone from the conversation, but collectively tries to move us all forward.

At least one more term needs defining: religion. In the context of this blog, I will refer mostly to Abrahamic theism, so that the two terms will be largely interchangeable. While I understand some disagree with the attachment of the word religion to theism, I will parse this out at a later date.

The main reason I joined Free Thinking is that I see problems with how most modern Americans view the relationship between politics, morality, religion, and belief, and I think we urgently need conversation on the matter. Most, if not all of the people I have met during my time at CFI have problems with the Christian right -- the roughly 25 percent of Americans who work from a perceived mandate with God to infuse religious morality into political and social life. But my concerns rest mostly with everyone else: the large middle chunk of religious moderates, the soft secular liberals, and the more radical atheists (to be sure, categorizing this landscape is not easy as I’ve made it out to be, but we need to move on).

Consider the “typical liberal” position that Barack Obama opines in “Audacity of Hope,” which goes something like this: we live in a pluralistic society and thus, we can’t force our religious beliefs on others who might disagree. So when a lawmaker supports legislation for religious reasons, a liberal colleague doesn’t respond to the claim itself, but instead argues the lawmaker shouldn’t mention religion at all. After all, we live in a democracy, not a theocracy. Instead of having a real debate, moderates and liberals fall back on such arguments as: “we must leave our religious beliefs at home” (a problem with our conception of privacy and belief); “we must uphold the separation of church and state” (a problem with our conception of what democracy allows); or “I might disagree, but to each his own,” (the problem of moral relativism).

There are serious problems with these approaches. First, the position that religious belief should be left and home and not be forced on others is an idealistic one that skirts the fact that religious belief currently does very heavily influence our daily lives, and will do so as long as it exists in at least its current, widely held format. Moreover, it is simply impossible for any of us to leave our moral beliefs at home, religious or secular. This is just how belief works: if you truly believe in some moral statement, you cannot separate it from your worldview, and it will influence if not guide the way you interact with the world. When someone is asked to stop proclaiming their core beliefs, what instead happens is that the beliefs sneakily slip under the radar of critique, yet continue bring their force. We may desire more secular reasons from others -- and through critique encourage them to make their reasons more acceptable to all citizens -- but we cannot force people to give them to us in deference to their real beliefs. In some sense, we should not desire anything different. If we want to get to the bottom of any issue, we should want complete honesty from everyone about their reasons, whether we or not we like the truth.

Second, the strict definitional separation between civil and political discourse -- between the public square of citizens and the public square of lawmakers -- is extremely blurred in my view. While lawmakers, unlike citizens, are sworn to serve the secular Constitution, they also must serve their own conscience. Given how belief works, we cannot expect religious lawmakers to become secularists when they enter the halls of power. We indeed live in a democracy, not a theocracy, but while our foundational documents prevent government from preferring one religion to another, religion to atheism, or vice versa, they do not -- and cannot -- prevent citizens from voting, and lawmakers from believing and acting, as they will.

However, thirdly, pluralism or secularism does not logically lead to moral relativism, in which all worldviews are equal. It is not undemocratic to admit of better and worse morality or moral beliefs. This is not an argument for black-and-white view of morality. Belief is better seen on either a sliding scale, proportionate to the evidence and claim; morality is better seen, as Sam Harris puts it, as a chess match, in which even if we have the facts, we still have to use our pieces in the correct manner, and hope for the best. But the point is that unfounded moral and ethical beliefs should receive critique similar to that for unfounded scientific or historical beliefs. One might even make the case that that moral beliefs, in forming the core of a person’s being, should actually receive an even more critical look. So while one can believe and act with a free conscience, they are not free from scrutiny.

The radical atheist approach doesn’t seem to work, either. While I think the newly touted “fundamentalist atheist” label is for the most part an invented farce, the fact remains that many atheists also define their entire lives around unbelief and critique of theism. Yet this simplifies the issues we face, as theism is not the problem, and atheism is not the answer. As Massimo Pigliucci has noted , the problem we generally face as a society is uncritical adherence to ideology, a problem that spans more than just religion, but politics and more. While I am no friend of theistic beliefs, and one could argue dogma and faith are found -- and kindled -- more in religious circles than anywhere else, focusing too heavily on theism not only puts all other problems in the back seat, but serves to divide us, and hinder progress. Moreover, atheism – merely the lack of theistic convictions (about God, Jesus, Muhammad) – is a rather empty cup. What we need is a secular society based on science, reason, free inquiry, and humanist values.

We are far from such a society, but it doesn’t seem that the way to get there is by avoiding conversation on certain issues, denying the role religion plays in public life, or entering the fray but lambasting religion at every turn as if there were nothing else worth discussing. So we must find another way forward. What we need are new rules of approach and conversation on the confluence of our politics, moral beliefs, and discourse.

My proposition is this: We need to see moral beliefs as public. We need open, maximal discussion on all issues, focusing -- for the sake of the greater society -- on the veracity of claims in reference to reason and science and human experience, not utility or revelation. People should be free to believe and act, but should not expect toleration of their beliefs. We need discourse that respects the rights of the people, but does not necessarily respect their beliefs. These beliefs also need to be open to reasonably objective standards of secular critique. We can think we're right without being dogmatic. We also need to see our public and political discourse not as secular inherently, but secular in theory. We cannot expect religious believers to become secular at the snap of our fingers, just as we cannot expect secularists to become religious. Lastly, we also need a broader view of secularism. Instead of seeing secularism as a response to religion, as a promotion of atheism, we need a more universal secularism that values the free conscience; open, critical, honest inquiry; and certain ideals, a collective working together toward a more reasonable, peaceful, and just society.

You may now see precisely see what “Democratic Discourse” means. Put simply, I will continually focus on how we can have positive, productive, and progressive evidence-based discussion on the moral beliefs that so influence our democracy. This is a process that serves all of us, religious, secular, or otherwise. I can only try my hardest and hope that you find something here worth your while. I am under no impression this will be easy; but then, I am under the impression that this is maybe the only way to get where we want to be.

Closing note: I would like to thank my friend Eugene Cappelluti for my blog banner.