Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hallowed Secularism and Democracy

8/30/2007--Recently, Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia and one of the new atheists, wrote the lead New York Times Magazine article. The article was called The Politics of God and it was more or less a summary of Lilla’s new book, The Stillborn God. The basic idea is that the Western separation of church and state protects us from killing each other over differing visions of ultimate salvation, which any religiously based political system, even one that is liberal and rational, will eventually lead to. Lilla calls the mixing of church and state political theology. The “Stillborn God” of the title is the failure of the rational God of the Nineteenth century to inspire religious life or to restrain religious religiously-motivated violence. Non-Western people, primarily Muslims, are not lucky enough to enjoy this separation of religion from political life. And we ourselves are always in danger, as I guess this book illustrates, of losing our way and returning religion to political life.

The point here is to see how truncated political life must become in order to avoid religion. Here is Lilla’s conclusion, describing politics. I quote it at some length so the reader does not think this a straw man attack. Lilla has just concluded that religious societies, unlike people in the West, will have to find theological sources from which to achieve political peace:

"We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good."

Lilla’s description of our politics is just plain wrong. Consider any of our serious political questions and ask whether they fit into Lilla’s conception of political life. What about abortion? You might say that is a matter of fundamental liberty. Fine, but you still must decide between abortion and infanticide, which is not a matter of fundamental liberty. Infanticide, according to Lilla’s categories, would be a matter of harming another human being. You can make the distinction between legal abortion and illegal infanticide only by deciding at what point a person joins the political community: at conception, for example, or at birth. Or, you can decide that the mother gets to choose, but still, you must decide when she loses her choice. You can’t get away from the question of who is a human being. This fundamental question is why the issue of slavery could not ultimately be avoided or compromised. No separation of church and state could avoid that question. It was a question of ultimate values.

How about the question of whether there should be redistribution of income through progressive taxation? To decide that you have to decide whether it is good for people to live in a society of extreme divisions between the rich and the poor. You also have to decide whether the property a person earns belongs to that person in a fundamental way. Is property something a person holds or something that defines a person?

How about the question of whether prostitution should be legal? Or heroin? Here we must decide whether uses of freedom that degrade the human personality should be permitted.

Or, in perhaps the most extreme example, how about the decision that it would be better to use atomic weapons that might destroy all or most human life, than to allow the Soviet Union to take over the world? That decision involved a commitment by American society that there are some things worth dying for.

Ultimately that is what politics is about—deep conceptions of the good. Efforts of liberal thought to imagine a state neutral about the good life have always failed and always will fail. It is true that any conception of the good life that is worth dying for can lead to conflict and violence. In fact, conceptions of the good life worth dying for probably will lead to violence and usually have led to violence. That unfortunately is the nature of political life, and as Lilla says about religious societies, we better find the resources not to kill each other.

The only way to achieve the political peace that Lilla is aiming at is to abandon political life altogether and to live simply as individuals, surrendering to whatever dominant forces control this society. That can be done in America with ease. One simply works, shops and goes to sporting events. But that is not democracy.

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