Secular Liberalism Misunderstood
The ABC site, The Drum Unleashed, posted another of my missives, this time on the merits of secular liberalism, regardless of one’s spiritual (or otherwise) persuasion. And already the comments are flowing. I’ll attempt to respond to them in this post as they roll on.
First up, to those who have criticised my term “believe in atheism”, you’re right. That was a poor turn of phrase on my behalf. Should properly be “whether you believe in God or are an atheist”. Doesn’t affect my argument though. Okay, moving on.
To those who suggest that Richard Dawkins isn’t seeking to abolish the teaching of religion, rather he seeks to abolish the indoctrination of children into a particular religion – I agree that he is in favour of the teaching of comparative religion, as well as the teaching of the Bible as an historical text. However, he has made strident claims against religious teaching of the, well, religious flavour. While I oppose supernaturalism, I would suggest that any attempt to banish religious education would be problematic, as I’ll elaborate below.
Now, on to the specific comments:
Secular liberalism ultimately ends in nihilism because it gives no measuring stick on how to judge values.
It is plainly a false dichotomy to suggest you must believe in either one fundamental value (eg many flavours of monotheism) or no values (nihilism). You can also believe in many values (pluralism). And in doing so, you’re not committed to believing in all values (relativism).
Liberalism, as I’ve spun it, is quite compatible with pluralism – Berlin’s, Rawls’s or another version. It can most certainly give a measuring stick on how to judge various values, but it might find that there will be multiple values that will inevitably come into conflict from time to time. But it can also say that some values are bad.
complete agency is not possible. We are all caught up in the social powers that run our society.
Agency doesn’t need to be ‘complete’ to be agency. The implications of determinism on free will are entirely orthogonal to this meaning of agency. This kind of agency is a psychological agency – the capability to have and pursue one’s own interests. As long as you accept that, then liberalism can work. If you don’t, then presumably slavery would be just as acceptable an option for you.
How can an individual believe freely if they have been indoctrinated as a child? Wouldn’t banning religion for children promote diversity, objectivity and liberal thought?
A liberal state does have a responsibility to educate its citizens and equip them with the tools for rational thought – at the very least with the tools to comprehend liberalism and to exercise one’s agency. So religions can teach what they want (within the bounds of the liberal system – so no teaching people to go out and impinge on the interests of others), but they can’t stop the state, or anyone else, teaching rational enquiry or other values.
For example, criticism of the naturalistic theory of origins is simply not permitted in science despite the evidence. I would dearly like to list some but the moderators seem to censor that information.
There’s a big difference between facts and values. I’m suggesting the state can’t mandate a set of values to teach. But the state most certainly can mandate that reliably known facts be taught, and reliably false facts not be taught. This is why Copernican heliocentrism is taught in school, but the Ptolemaic system isn’t. This also extends to empirical claims made by religions, such as that the Earth is a smidge over 6,000 years old or that the bacterial flagellum is to complex to be a product of natural selection. Religion could still preach other things, but if it steps into the bounds of science and is proven wrong, then it needs to step back out again. That’s why creationism ought not be taught in school, except in an historical context.
Religion doesn’t tolerate and won’t tolerate any other view, but their own.
Interesting article Tim but i see a few flaws, you do not once mention the covert infiltration of religion into the machinery of state.
Indeed, but the beauty is that liberalism prevents that religion from mandating their own views on the rest of the society. And it’s even in an intolerant religion’s interest to buy in to liberalism, because liberalism prevents another intolerant religion from gaining dominance and wiping the other out. And while those intolerant religions are in stalemate, secular thinkers have an opening to convince people there is an alternative to intolerance.
Why not just believe in the truth.
There are things that can be reliably known, and as mentioned above, they can be taught by the state. But there are things that can’t reliably be known – both natural and so-called supernatural facts. At this point I’m inclined to evoke a pragmatic maxim, which says: any policy that is put in place must have a chance of actually working, and must have a minimal chance of being corrupted. If you have a policy that teaches ‘the truth’, then that policy also makes it much easier to teach false things, either through error or corruption, so it’s a bad policy.
That’s why benevolent dictators are no good. Sure, a benevolent dictator has the power to make a good decision and put it into practice – perhaps even more reliably than a democracy, which might see a good decision stifled. However, the same power that gives the benevolent dictator the ability to push through a good decision also gives them the ability to push through a bad one. And it means there is much less ability to prevent that bad decision from being made, unlike in a democracy. Likewise in liberalism – we sacrifice the ability to teach ‘the truth’ because doing so would make it far more likely that we’d be teaching anything but. That’s a brand of pragmatism that not everyone endorses, but I reckon it makes sense.