Which ideas belong in the public sphere?

How to deal with ideas inconsistent with our ownAn extremist Christian might gain comfort from the idea that life is a gift from God, but then use the same idea to justify the murder of a medical doctor performing abortions. An extremist Muslim might find acceptance and brotherhood in submission to the will of Allah, but then strap a bomb to his or her body, in the belief that it is pleasing to God.

Putting aside the implications of possible psychological pathologies, the difficulty in such cases arises from the lack of an obvious point of reference against which to judge the benefits and harms associated with particular ideas, and what they are used to justify.

As the lives of religious martyrs and secular heroes demonstrate, seemingly obvious criteria such as physical harm and loss of life are often inadequate. These are times thought to serve the greater good, however this be defined.

In the case of religious ideas this difficulty is compounded by the horizon of possible benefits and harms extending beyond the empirical concerns of this life, and this world.

Modern secular democracies have attempted to circumvent this difficulty by organising themselves in accordance with the Enlightenment idea of the separation of church and state.

Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Kant and Hume argued that the 'light of reason' should replace the authority of the Bible, and that a willingness to think for ourselves should supplant a passive acceptance of tradition.

The price paid for the religious tolerance that spread throughout Europe in the post-Enlightenment period was the confinement of religious ideas to the private sphere of faith and conscience, while the public sphere of politics, economics and education was to be guided by ideas that could be rationally justified or substantiated on empirical grounds.

The secular heirs to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the rational control of the public sphere may have the benefit of an intellectual ethic that requires all claims to be rationally tested, but the 'this worldly' focus of these claims is restrictive in its own way.

In seeking to organise the public sphere in accordance with ideas that can be justified empirically, modern secular societies have relied upon a broadly utilitarian approach to seeking the "greatest good for the greatest number".

Exactly how this should be understood and calculated remains a matter of debate, however the underlying aspiration is that the best interests of individuals and communities should be understood in terms of the benefits and harms that accrue in ways that are effectively quantifiable.

This approach has led to substantial increases in the standard of health, education and housing for large sections of the population of wealthy Western democracies.

In the face of indicators such as these, the promise of further progress, and the slide in support for the mainsteam Churches in the West that have evolved to fit comfortably within the post-Enlightenment model of the privatisation of religion, we must ask why the uncritical attitude towards religious ideas that characterise religious fundamentalism has garnered so much support?.

One of the most commonly cited answers is that in a world in which the old certainties have slipped away, people are looking for simple answers to complex problems.

But why this growth in uncritical and often irrational religious fundamentalist movements, when a host of secular options would do just as well?

When this question is addressed in the broader context of the West’s growing fascination with often poorly understood Eastern spiritual traditions which do not sit easily within the secular frame, it is reasonable to suggest that the 'this-worldly' focus of the secular approach might be blind to the needs of people for a different kind of engagement with that 'something more' that transcends our empirical concerns.

The typical response in secular circles to religious fundamentalism and non-mainstream spiritual paths is a kind of disdainful dismissal that fails to recognise that these may well have something legitimate to offer.

The arrogance of the secular response leads one to suspect the presence of a secular fundamentalism too-wedded to its own ideas to be willing to consider such possibilities.

How to deal with ideas inconsistent with our ownAnd in the face of unacceptably high rates of drug addiction, suicide and mental illness, escalating environmental degradation, security concerns and increasing disparity in levels of wealth, this is a hubris we could well do without.

Certainly the post-Enlightenment commitment to the rational testing of claims is important if we are to avoid the excesses that follow from uncritically held ideas.

But we might also have to accept that the demystification of ourselves and the world that has accompanied the secular approach may be too restrictive.

One possible compromise is to sanction a greater range of ideas in the public sphere. This approach might ensure that the ideas we test remain guides rather than dictates. Thus, the unfortunate consequences of individuals and groups unable or unwilling to think outside their own concerns could be forestalled.

In situations where ideas are held uncritically, not only secularists, but all reasonable individuals have a right to be concerned.



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