Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Religion’s Place in the Public Square

Margaret Somerville as the guest of Warrane College’s lecturer of 2011

Attempts to bar religious views from public debate about key social issues would be counterproductive, making it more difficult to reach agreement on ethical and moral standards, according to internationally recognised ethicist Professor Margaret Somerville AM FRSC.

Professor Somerville presented this view in this year’s Warrane Lecture which attracted a large crowd of people to the College on Wednesday, July 20.

Speaking in the College’s main common room, Professor Somerville criticised “fundamentalist neo-atheists’’, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Michel Onfray, and Sam Harris, for their extreme views.

“Like all fundamentalists,” she said, “the neo-atheists, first, want to impose their views on everyone else. One of the most egregious current examples, which is an extension and putting into practice of their ‘religion has no place in the public square’ approach, is that physicians have no right to respect for their freedom of conscience and their ethical and moral values.

“The neo-atheists would like to reduce religion to nothing more than a personal fantasy or superstition. But that’s not realistic. It’s an impossible dream on their part. At best it will fail, at worst it will do serious harm – it will exacerbate the acrimony of the values conflicts and make it more likely, not less likely, that religion will become a focus of serious conflict.

“Also, because culture and religion are linked, even within democratic multicultural pluralistic Western societies it will increase the number and intensity of the current values clashes and may contribute to culture wars.”

Professor Somerville, whose lecture was titled “Should religion be evicted from the public square?”, is Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Founding Director of the Centre of Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal.

During her lecture, Professor Somerville argued that:

  • To exclude religious voices from the public square is anti-democratic, just as excluding secular voices would be. Both have a right to be heard.
  • Religious voices have a valid and important role in decision making about social-ethical-legal values, the most important of which is to bring collective moral memory to bear on those decisions and, in doing so, to help to keep them in a moral context.
  • Values conflicts cannot be solved by excluding religious voices from the public square. On the contrary, doing so is likely to exacerbate those conflicts.
  • We need to extend the scope of our analyses of contemporary social-ethical-values issues beyond an intense present to consider the needs and rights of future generations and what is required to hold our most important values in trust for them.

Professor Somerville said that attempts to bar religion and religious believers from public debate goes against the very core of democratic principles.

“At its best, the genius of democracy is that it functions by allowing us to live peacefully together despite our differences, by enabling us to find where we can agree and to hold in creative tension, rather than destructive tension, the issues we disagree about,” she said.

“To privilege secularism, as its advocates argue should be done, is to contravene the liberty and equality principles of democracy and to prevent democracy functioning as it should – in short it’s profoundly anti-democratic.”

She listed a range of issues that would be affected if the influence of religion were to be denied in public debate, including euthanasia, abortion, “designer babies”, cloning, human embryo stem cell research, same-sex marriage, the creation of embryos from same-sex adults, proposals for “manimals” (embryos with both human and animal genes), capital punishment, business ethics and so on.

“These issues involve some of our most important individual and collective social-ethical-legal values,” she said. “That is true, in part, because many of these issues are connected with respect for life, and with birth or death, the two events around which we have always formed our most important individual and collective values…

“Searching for a ‘shared ethics’ – is crucial in pluralistic, multicultural, multi-religious, secular, post-modern, democratic societies to find what we have in common ethically so that we can experience ourselves as belonging to the same moral community.

“As those experiences accumulate we will be more able to find common ground than we can in any other way. But to do that will require the presence of goodwill and the absence of hostility towards religion in the public square.”

Professor Somerville said that one way of trying to cross some of our current divides would be to see whether we can find some “ethical universals” that are common to all people whether or not they are religious.

There were ethical universals, she argued, that have been so widely shared over such a long period of time across so many different cultures that they can be taken as characteristics of being human.

She argued that this approach was being thwarted by the “new atheism”, which she described as “a kind of religion”.

She said it would not be surprising that humans experience an inner space that needs to be filled and if not filled by religion in its traditional mode then it will need to be filled by something else that can function in a similar manner.

“I suggest that atheism is one example of what religious studies scholars Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson have called ‘secular religions’ , and atheists’ passion about it could show that we have a need for some form of powerful belief (or disbelief) in order to find meaning in life.

“Values surveys have found that a longing for transcendence is a rapidly escalating phenomenon in our intensely individualistic Western societies.

“It’s indisputably true that humanism and atheism function as secular religions binding their adherents through common belief and ideology. They are expressed as secularism, which, more and more, has become ‘aggressive secularism’.

“Environmentalism is at least a secondary religion for more and more people – but even that has its disbelievers and critics! In short, we are witnessing the emergence of a very large number and range of secular religions.

“None of these “isms” is harmful in itself, but they are harmful to finding a shared ethics when they are promoted- as Dawkins does with scientism – to deny any space for spirituality and traditional religion in the public square and replace those with secularism, the most encompassing secular religion that functions as a basket holding all the others.

“In other words, I am arguing that it’s a mistake to accept that secularism is neutral, as its advocates claim – it’s not. It too is a belief system used to bind people together. And if, despite being a belief system, secularism is not excluded from the public square, then religious voices should not be excluded on that basis.

“The mistake is in taking a disjunctive (either secularism or religion) approach to a situation that requires a conjunctive (both this and that, secularism and religion) approach. We need all voices to be heard in the democratic public square.”

Professor Somerville said that in secular societies, there is rightly a separation of Church and State. But the question is: what does respecting that separation require?

“Separation of Church and State means the state, and its laws and public and social policy, are not based directly on religious beliefs and laws as, e.g., in Islamic societies such as Iran.

“The doctrine is meant to protect the state from being controlled or wrongfully interfered with by a religion or religions, and to protect religions, within their valid sphere of operation, from state interference or control.

“For instance, the Chinese government’s interference in the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops in the country contravenes the doctrine of separation of church and state. The doctrine of separation of church and state can be viewed as having division of powers or demarcation of jurisdictions functions.”

However, she said those wanting to exclude religion from the public square have created confusion about “freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion”:

“Freedom of religion – the state does not impose a religion on its citizens – there is no state religion. Freedom for religion – the state does not restrict the free practice of religion by its citizens. Freedom from religion – the state excludes religion and religious voices from the public square, in particular, in relation to law and public policy making.

“The first two freedoms are valid expressions of the doctrine of the separation of church and state. The third is not.

“This mistaken interpretation of the doctrine of “separation of church and state” has been promoted by secularists in order to win a victory for.

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]