Smithian Expansion on a Douthian Retort to Sullivanian Musings on Warrenism

Intra-Atlantic blogging to the hilt on this one.

Andrew quotes the following passage from Rick Warren’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. This is Warren speaking:

I believe in the separation of church and state, but I do not believe in the separation of politics from religion. Faith is simply a worldview. A person who says he puts his faith on the shelf when he’s making decisions is either an idiot or a liar. It’s entirely appropriate for me to ask what is [the Presidential candidates’] frame of reference.

Sullivan opines:

The entire basis for Western secular government, which rests on the capacity of people to distance absolute truth from political affairs, is based on idiocy or lies? I wonder if Warren has ever read Locke, or Hobbes, or Machiavelli or would even understand the term secularism if it knocked him square off his pedestal.

To which Douthat comments:

You know, I can pretty much guarantee that Andrew has read a lot more of Locke, Hobbes and Machiavelli than Rick Warren – and of any relevant political philosopher you care to name, for that matter. Yet oddly, the bumptious Warren seems to have a stronger grasp of what separation of church and state has actually meant in the American political tradition, both historically and philosophically, than my vastly more erudite colleague.

I think Douthat is correct in that assessment. But there’s another (deeper?) problem with Sullivan. Back to a piece of the Sullivan quote for a sec (my emphasis):

The entire basis for Western secular government, which rests on the capacity of people to distance absolute truth from political affairs

If I’m reading him correctly that means religion offers absolute truth. If that were the case then I can see Sullivan’s fear of Christianism, Islamism, or any kind of Religion-ism in public affairs. [Militant secularism (as opposed to simply secular governance) would also fit this mold and one could argue Sullivan is pushing down that road.]

But the point is that an absolute truth is poisonous to pluralist secular society because it is uncriticizable and therefore can be imposed over a pluralistic society with no recourse to defend dissenting viewpoints, whether of a different religious persuasion than the majority or of a non-religious nature as such.

I however don’t think religion offers absolute truth. Or if you prefer in a less theologically suspect way our human ability to understand revelation and its embodiment in religion (not limited to but definitely including ethics) is always flawed and imperfect. The practical result of which is more or less the same.

Sullivan is here (again if I’m understanding him correctly) assuming the same call it “metaphysical status understanding” of religion as the fundamentalists. The both assume religion offers absolute truth–and in this case specifically a certain kind of Christianity as that religion.

There are a number of problems with the notion of religion as providing absolute truth. 1)It’s excessively cognitivist (i.e. faith is a set of mental beliefs or picture representations about how things really are) 2)Whose religion is the absolute one? And how do we tell?

But if one were to not hold religion as providing absolute truth then it would seem the fears of it entering public discourse would abate, no? Assuming of course the religion in question were willing to accept the basic parameters of a secular state that does not choose sides in terms of life goals/views between religious and non-religious persons and that the religion if brought into the public sphere and deployed to justify a certain position is open to being publicly challenged and not assuming it has privileged space because of its religious background.

[Interesting in this regard that Warren said faith–not religion–is a worldview not the worldview.]

Or to broaden Douthat’s point, it’s not just in America where this tradition holds (though strongest there to be sure). I read this passage this morning (coincidentally right before reading Sullivan’s post) from atheist German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and I thought it appropriate:

It [religion in a secular society] is expected to adopt a self-reflexive critical stance towards the limits of enlightenment. The conception of tolerance of pluralistic liberal societies not only requires believers to recognize that they must reasonably reckon with the persistence of disagreement in their dealings with non-believers and members of other faith. The same recognition is also required of unbelievers in their dealings with believers in a liberal political culture…

The neutrality of state power vis a vis different worldviews, which guarantees equal individual liberties for all citizens, is incompatible with the political generalization of a secularized worldview. Secular citizens, in their role as citizens, may neither deny that religious worldviews are in principle capable of truth nor question the right of their devout fellow-citizens to couch their contributions to public discussions in religious language. A liberal political culture can even expect its secular citizens to take part in the efforts to translate relevant contributions from religious language into a publicly intelligible language.”
(italics in original, boldface mine)

–pp.112&113, Between Naturalism and Religion, Jurgen Habermas.

This is part and parcel of what Habermas (and others) calls post-secular society.

Habermas writes:

In the post-secular society, the conviction is gaining ground that the “modernization of public consciousness” affects and reflexively transforms religious and secular mentalities, though not simultaneously. Both sides can then take each other’s contributions to controversial public debates seriously for cognitive reasons as well, assuming that they share an understanding of the secularization of society as a complementary learning process. (emphasis and quotation in original).” –Habermas, p.111

In other words, Sullivan is treading dangerously close to if not outright falling into a serious “pre-post fallacy”. Namely that a post-secular understanding of the role of religious and secularist mentalities in a secular society is inherently a return to a pre-secular understanding (i.e. a return to religious theocratic rule). Now, to be fair, in the US context, the potential danger of the latter (pre-secular theocratic) is strong and should not be underestimated–at least in certain geographic regions.

But Warren’s attempt at this civility conference might be pointing towards a post-secular (complementary) process. Might not, have to see how it plays out. But I don’t think it should be prejudged nor the former (post-secular) is possible and even exists in certain pockets.

Edit I: In the other half of his post Sullivan takes aim at Warren’s views on foreign policy and there I think, Andrew’s critique is more on target.