You’ve probably guessed from the title where this post is heading, so in order to avoid the obvious misunderstandings I’ll reiterate my basic position on the role of religion in contemporary society: I’m an agnostic, but I fully understand the importance of religion for religious people; I believe that part of the function of human rights is to protect those people, and that another part of that function is to protect the rest of us against them; yet I don’t believe some of the overblown but unfortunately very fashionable statements about the extent of the religious threat to society; and neither do I believe that principles such as the separation of church and state imply religion should have no voice at all in democratic politics.
So, now that this is out of the way, let me try to answer the question in the title. The answer will be predictable, but perhaps also somewhat illuminating in the details.
In modern-day democracies, rulers no longer claim a divine right to rule and most of them admit that they don’t have the authority to further the cause of God on earth by violent and coercive means. They can speak and persuade, but wars against against foreign sinners and oppression of domestic heretics is not done. However, the word “most” does a lot of work here. Many democratic politicians, backed by their religious supporters, still try to shape politics and the law according to religion and try to use those earthly powers as means to make the world more religious. That’s fully consistent with the universalist claims inherent in their religious beliefs: their God isn’t just their God but the God of all humanity, and all of humanity has a duty to obey the word of God. If this obedience can be promoted through the use of politics and the law, then religious citizens have a religious duty to try. Their attempts typically follow a number of steps:
1. Demand religious freedom
They start of from the very reasonable claim that they themselves have a right to live their own lives according to their religious faith, unmolested by the state or by other citizens. The first of their religious duties is to obey the word of God themselves, and they should be allowed by the state and the law to do so. That is indeed their human right and they are entirely justified in using politics and the law to protect that right.
2. Demand religious exemptions
However, some religious people interpret this right to religious freedom in a rather loose way. For example, they see this right not merely as a means to fend off anti-religious and hostile legislation or other forms of state action intentionally interfering with their religion (or hostile private action for that matter). They see their right to religious liberty also as a right to disrespect general and non-religiously motivated legislation which they believe violates the word of God.
For example, a law imposing a military draft may be seen as illegitimate by the adherents of a pacifist religion, and a law requiring the use of crash helmets should not be forced upon the followers of a religion that demands the wearing of turbans. Hence, religious people often demand that they should be exempted from the application of certain laws – or at least their right to conscientious objection should be respected – when they view those laws as being against the word of God.
I’ve argued elsewhere that such exemptions – which take us one step further than simple religious liberty – can be justified in some cases, but that we should be careful not to undermine the rule of law.
3. Demand religious laws
Some want to go even further than that. From the point of view of a religious person, the two previous demands on politics and the law were strictly self-regarding: religious people should be allowed to live their own lives according to their own beliefs. However, as I stated above, religion is hardly ever purely self-regarding. Most religious people feel a strong urge to work for the salvation of their fellow human beings. Hence, instead of demanding personal exemptions from laws that inadvertently violate the requirements of their religion, some religious people want to abolish the laws in question and replace them with laws that better promote those requirements.
If we take the same example as above, they may want to abolish the law imposing a military draft, rather than just asking for a personal exemption. Their religion requires not just that they personally refrain from violence, but that humanity does so as well. Hence they would like to end the military altogether rather than just their personal participation in it.
Or take the more salient example of laws permitting same-sex marriages. Many religious citizens claim a right to abolish such laws. Their religion doesn’t permit what these laws permit. And even if they have received a personal exemption so that the laws don’t force them to act against their religion (same-sex marriage laws don’t force people into a same-sex marriage, nor do they force people to validate and recognize the same-sex marriages of others), laws such as these do make it possible for other people to act against the word of God. Hence, some religious people want the abolition of such laws, thereby saving people in the eyes of God. However, the implication is that people’s rights are violated by the religiously inspired removal of laws that guaranteed people’s rights. Maybe religious people want to claim that this is the price to pay for the preservation of their right to religious liberty, but I fail to see how people’s religious liberty is violated by the self-regarding actions of others. (More on the relationship between religious liberty and same-sex marriage is here).
4. Demand religious laws that violate human rights
Now, it’s perfectly OK for religious people to try to move the law in a certain direction, just as it is OK for other people to try to move the law in their preferred direction. I don’t buy the theory that says that in a diverse and tolerant modern democracy religious people should refrain from using religious reasons for legislation or the reform of legislation (sometimes called the Doctrine of Religious Restraint). Religious people are allowed to work against what they see as anti-religious laws and also to promote religiously inspired laws, on the condition that the laws we end up with have managed to convince a majority and do not violate the rights of others (see here for a detailed version of this argument).
For example, a law abolishing the draft or the military could be a religiously inspired law (although it can simultaneously be inspired by secular reasons), but it could also be acceptable when it’s clear that it doesn’t violate anyone’s human rights, e.g. assuming there is no military or terrorist threat. When there is such a threat the law could lead to rights violations and hence should be resisted. Things are clearer in the case of a religiously inspired law outlawing same-sex-marriage. Such a law should always be resisted since people have a human right to get married. The same is true for blasphemy laws and a whole range of other religiously inspired laws.
The efforts by religious people to make politics, the law and the world more religious go too far when those efforts include legislation
- that makes non-religious people or people adhering to another religion live according to the precepts of the legislator’s religion, and
- that violates the human rights of some.
Those efforts are understandable from the point of view of the religious legislators, since their religion requires them to work for the salvation of everyone, but they are not acceptable.
5. The ultimate step
So there’s an increasing intensity in the demands to make politics, the law and the world more religious: the law should not intervene with religion; then the law should be more considerate of religion and provide exemptions; then it should promote religion; and then it should promote religion even if that means violating the human rights of some. If, however, there is something blocking this increasingly intensive intervention and the law and politics do not cooperate sufficiently, some religious people will take matters into their own hands. After all, one can’t accept that the word of God is trumped by an anti-religious democratic majority or by a religious law that isn’t sufficiently respected. Direct action to make the world more religious is then required. You may then see someone attacking a Danish cartoonist for being blasphemous. Or someone else killing abortion doctors. Fortunately, very few religious people go all the way, which is the reason for the optimism I expressed at the beginning of this post.
It’s been a long and winding post, and so perhaps a summary drawing is useful:
Should we conclude from this that it’s best to keep religion as far away as possible from politics and the law? I don’t think so. As long as religious people respect human rights they can do as they please. Given the importance of religion to many of us, it’s illusory in the best case and counterproductive in the worst case to try to artificially ban religion from politics and the law.
Other posts in this series are here.