Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Problem With Mixing Faith and Politics

Ira Chernus has an article over at AlterNet about how having faith in politics is damaging to our democracy. While I couldn't agree more with his thesis, I have to disagree with his reasoning.

When faith and politics are allowed to mix the result is disasterous. Anyone who disagrees with this statement needs look no further than the theocratic states across the sea to see violent and repressive counterexamples to his view. But what is it about this blending that is dangerous? According to Chernus, it is the certainty that comes with religious belief systems:

When religious language enters the political arena in this way, as an end in itself, it always sends the same symbolic message: Yes, Virginia (or Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina) there are absolute values, universal truths that can never change. You are not adrift in a sea of moral chaos. Elect me and you're sure to have a fixed mooring to hold you and your community fast forever.

This notion of absolute truth, Chernus tell us, is antithetical to democracy:

The essence of our system is that we, the people, get to choose our values. We don't discover them inscribed in the cosmos. So everything must be open to question, to debate, and therefore to change. In a democracy, there should be no fixed truth except that everyone has the right to offer a new view -- and to change his or her mind. It's a process whose outcome should never be predictable, a process without end. A claim to absolute truth -- any absolute truth -- stops that process.

This sort of anti-realism, embedded within the relativism that Chernus takes to be central to democracy, is the result of the postmodernist view point that has infected both the academy and, now, the general consciousness. But the postmodernist's core thesis of relativism is at best false and at worst completely meaningless gibberish. The core of our democracy is not that there is no absolute truth "written in the cosmos". If there weren't, science would be a futile enterprise, and our debates over policy would be completely pointless. If there is no truth to be found, then there is no reason for us to argue over what it is, and the search for it that is the foundation of science is nothing more than a quest for an illusion.

The core of our democracy is not relativism. Rather, it the notion that the people have the right to govern themselves. In order for this to work, however, we must be allowed to debate the proper way to govern ourselves. We must be allowed to reason together to determine the best course of governance. But inherent in the idea that there is a best course of governance is the notion that there is a fact of the matter. Either a certain policy is the best or it is not. The free market place of ideas, without which democracy would be a sham, is how we go about trying to figure out what the best policy is. The problem with bringing faith into the mix is not its claim that there are absolute truths, but rather its claim that it has access to these absolute truths without any evidence.

Public debate, the cornerstone of a free society in which the governed are also the governors, succeeds only when those who are involved defend their claims using reason and empirical data. Any faith based belief system violates this. Faith, by definition, is belief without evidence. The faithful make their claims without justification. Faith, then, does not play by the rules of the game. Rather than bringing a sound argument, or good empirical data, to the marketplace, faith brings only itself. And this is why faith is detrimental to our democracy. Rather than adding to the discourse, faith provides only a distraction - an easy way out. Faith erodes our democracy by giving people an easy way to avoid moving the discussion forward. It erodes our democracy by allowing people to make quick policy decisions without having to think about them. The problem is not that the faithful claim that there is an absolute truth; it is that by putting their faith into the sphere, they prevent us from discovering what that truth really is.

No comments: