Just read this insightful piece by Tim Keller from his book "The Reason for God":
Another approach to the divisiveness of religion is to allow that people may privately believe their faith is the truth and may “evangelize” for their faith, but that religious beliefs should be kept out of the public sphere. Influential thinkers such as John Rawls and Robert Audi have argued that, in public political discussions, we may not argue for a moral position unless it has a secular, nonreligious grounding. Rawls is well known for insisting that what he calls “comprehensive” religious views be excluded from public discourse.[i] Recently a large array of scientists and philosophers signed “A Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism,” which called on the leaders of our government “not to permit legislation or executive action to be influenced by religious beliefs.”[ii] The signers included Peter Singer, E. O. Wilson, and Daniel C. Dennett. The philosopher Richard Rorty, for example, has argued that religious faith must remain a strictly private affair and must never be brought into discussions of public policy. To ever use an argument grounded in a religious belief is simply a “conversation stopper,” which the nonbeliever cannot engage.[iii]
To those who complain that this approach discriminates against religion, Rorty and others retort that this policy is simply pragmatic.[iv] They are not ideologically opposed to religion per se, nor are they seeking to control religious beliefs, so long as they are kept in the private sphere. However, in the public square it is divisive and time-consuming to argue constantly over religion. Religion-based positions are seen as sectarian and controversial, while secular reasoning for moral positions are seen as universal and available to all. Therefore, public discourse should be secular, never religious. Without reference to any divine revelation or confessional tradition, we should work together on the great problems of our time—such as AIDS, poverty, education, and so on. We should keep our religious views to ourselves and unite around policies that “work” best for the most people.
However, Stephen L. Carter of Yale responds that it is impossible to leave religious views behind when we do any kind of moral reasoning at all.
Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organized religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider the most vital.[v]
How can Carter make such a claim? Let’s begin by asking what religion is. Some say it is a form of belief in God. But that would not fit Zen Buddhism, which does not really believe in God at all. Some say it is belief in the supernatural. But that does not fit Hinduism, which does not believe in a supernatural realm beyond the material world, but only a spiritual reality within the empirical. What is religion then? It is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing. For example, some think that this material world is all there is, that we are here by accident and when we die we just rot, and therefore the important thing is to choose to do what makes you happy and not let others impose their beliefs on you. Notice that though this is not an explicit, “organized” religion, it contains a master narrative, an account about the meaning of life along with a recommendation for how to live based on that account of things.
Some call this a “worldview” while others call it a “narrative identity.” In either case it is a set of faith-assumptions about the nature of things. It is an implicit religion. Broadly understood, faith in some view of the world and human nature informs everyone’s life. Everyone lives and operates out of some narrative identity, whether it is thought out and reflected upon or not. All who say “You ought to do this” or “You shouldn’t do that” reason out of such an implicit moral and religious position. Pragmatists say that we should leave our deeper worldviews behind and find consensus about “what works”—but our view of what works is determined by (to use a Wendell Berry title) what we think people are for. Any picture of happy human life that “works” is necessarily informed by deep-seated beliefs about the purpose of human life.[vi] Even the most secular pragmatists come to the table with deep commitments and narrative accounts of what it means to be human.
Rorty insists that religion-based beliefs are conversation stoppers. But all of our most fundamental convictions about things are beliefs that are nearly impossible to justify to those who don’t share them. Secular concepts such as “self-realization” and “autonomy” are impossible to prove and are “conversation stoppers” just as much as appeals to the Bible.[vii]
Statements that seem to be common sense to the speakers are nonetheless often profoundly religious in nature. Imagine that Ms. A argues that all the safety nets for the poor should be removed, in the name of “survival of the fittest.” Ms. B might respond, “The poor have the right to a decent standard of living—they are human beings like the rest of us!” Ms. A could then come back with the fact that many bioethicists today think the concept of “human” is artificial and impossible to define. She might continue that there is no possibility of treating all living organisms as ends rather than means and that some always have to die that others may live. That is simply the way nature works. If Ms. B counters with a pragmatic argument, that we should help the poor simply because it makes society work better, Ms. A could come up with many similar pragmatic arguments about why letting some of the poor just die would be even more efficient. Now Ms. B would be getting angry. She would respond heatedly that starving the poor is simply unethical, but Ms. A could retort, “Who says ethics must be the same for everyone?” Ms. B would finally exclaim: “I wouldn’t want to live in a society like the one you are describing!”
In this interchange Ms. B has tried to follow John Rawls and find universally accessible, “neutral and objective” arguments that would convince everyone that we must not starve the poor. She has failed because there are none. In the end Ms. B affirms the equality and dignity of human individuals simply because she believes it is true and right. She takes as an article of faith that people are more valuable than rocks or trees—though she can’t prove such a belief scientifically. Her public policy proposals are ultimately based on a religious stance.[viii]
This leads a legal theorist, Michael J. Perry, to conclude that it is “quixotic, in any event, to attempt to construct an airtight barrier between religiously grounded moral discourse … and [secular] discourse in public political argument.”[ix] Rorty and others argue that religious argument is too controversial, but Perry retorts in Under God? Religious Faith and Liberal Democracy that secular grounds for moral positions are no less controversial than religious grounds, and a very strong case can be made that all moral positions are at least implicitly religious. Ironically, insisting that religious reasoning be excluded from the public square is itself a controversial “sectarian” point of view.[x]
When you come out into the public square it is impossible to leave your convictions about ultimate values behind. Let’s take marriage and divorce laws as a case study. Is it possible to craft laws that we all agree “work” apart from particular worldview commitments? I don’t believe so. Your views of what is right will be based on what you think the purpose of marriage is. If you think marriage is mainly for the rearing of children to benefit the whole society, then you will make divorce very difficult. If you think the purpose of marriage is more primarily for the happiness and emotional fulfillment of the adults who enter it, you will make divorce much easier. The former view is grounded in a view of human flourishing and well-being in which the family is more important than the individual, as is seen in the moral traditions of Confucianism, Judaism, and Christianity. The latter approach is a more individualistic view of human nature based on the Enlightenment’s understanding of things. The divorce laws you think “work” will depend on prior beliefs about what it means to be happy and fully human.[xi] There is no objective, universal consensus about what that is. Although many continue to call for the exclusion of religious views from the public square, increasing numbers of thinkers, both religious and secular, are admitting that such a call is itself religious.[xii]
[i] Robert Audi, “The Separation of Church and State and the Obligations of Citizenship,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 18 (1989): 296; John Rawls, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 212–254
[iii] Richard Rorty, “Religion as a Conversation-Stopper,” Philosophy and Social Hope (Penguin, 1999), pp. 168–169
[iv] See Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (University of Minnesota Press, 1982) pp. 166–67
[v] Stephen L. Carter, The Dissent of the Governed (Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 90.
[vi] For example, Linda Hirshman makes a case against women staying out of the marketplace to raise children at home. She insists that it is wrong for women to do that even if it is their free, voluntary choice. “The family—with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks—is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women.… Women assigning it to themselves is … unjust.” (“Homeward Bound,” in The American Prospect 16, no. 12 (December 2005). Notice her argument is based on an assessment of “human flourishing” that could never be empirically proven. It is rooted in views of human dignity and society that on the surface seem secular but are certainly unproveable, controversial, and ultimately based on worldview faith-assumptions. David Brooks takes issue with Hirshman: “[She asserts] that high-paying jobs lead to more human flourishing than parenthood. Look back over your life. Which memories do you cherish more, those with your family or those at the office?” See “The Year of Domesticity,” New York Times, January 1, 2006
[vii] Gary Rosen, “Narrowing the Religion Gap?” New York Times Sunday Magazine, February 18, 2007
[viii] This interchange is adapted from C. John Sommerville, “The Exhaustion of Secularism,” The Chronicle Review (June 9, 2006)
[ix] Michael J. Perry, Under God? Religious Faith and Liberal Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 44. Nevertheless, Perry rightly argues that religiously grounded public discourse in a liberal democracy must be “deliberative,” not just “dogmatic.” That is, speakers must be willing to be criticized, to answer criticism, to deliberate and debate and seek to make one’s case as plausible to the other side as possible.
[x] See Perry’s Chapter 3: “Why Political Reliance on Religiously Grounded Morality Is Not Illegitimate in a Liberal Democracy” in Under God? above.
[xi] See John Witte, Jr., “God’s Joust, God’s Justice: An Illustration from the History of Marriage Law,” in Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought, M. McConnell, R. Cochran, A. Carmella, eds. (Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 406–425.
[xii] Stanley Fish, “Our Faith in Letting It All Hang Out,” New York Times, February 12, 2006.