When is Religion Unreasonable?

The fact of reasonable pluralism makes the unreasonable very nervous. Sometimes it makes them irrational and rude. See the video below:

When religious people act like Operation Save America does in the video above, they are being unreasonable. They are demanding that the institutions of the nation-state only acknowledge and advocate their narrow religious worldview.

Notice how testy the founder of Operation Save America gets when pushed even mildly about his claims.

Luckily, these zealots are a small, though obnoxious, minority.

This incident took place in 2007. It is not news. However, it offers us an interesting case to consider when contemplating the the philosophical and sociological aspects of religion and the public sphere.

For John Rawls, a religion is unreasonable not because of the merits of its truth claims. As a matter of political philosophy, metaphysical and transcendental claims can expressed in the public sphere but whether the are logical or truthful claim is not of great interest. Instead, a religion is unreasonable when it demands that the state advocates and recognizes only its religion. In this case, Operation Save America is clearly unreasonable.

Operation Save America also has a deranged and completely inaccurate view of the American founding. They really should read Michael Austin. To the extent that they attempted to make a public reason claim by appealing the shared American founding, they also gave us an example of how public reason arguments can still be complete crap.

“Public reason arguments can be good or bad just like other arguments,” John Rawls said. Indeed, they can sometimes be very very bad. However, by seeking to block another voice from the public sphere Operation Save America showed they are completely unreasonable.

I think it is worth noting, that the none of the members of the United States Senate objected to a Hindu prayer being offered by a Hindu chaplain. Congress, as a body, is a group of people the almost universally claims to be religious with plenty of religious conservatives on both sides of the isle. They are not shy when it comes to grandstanding about religion. Yet, they did not object to a Hindu offering a prayer in the U.S. Senate Chamber.

Some have pointed to this case in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling about prayer is city council and town council meetings. However, I do not think this shows that non-Christians are unwelcome in the American public sphere. The public institution, through the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had invited Rajan Zed to offer the invocation. The only objection came from zealots.

The presence of such zealots is also an outgrowth of reasonable pluralism, as much as it is a response to it. We have to put up with them, but we do not have to let them define us.

For me, this is where interfaith dialogue and activism comes into play. Rather than letting the zealots get to us, we should invite Hindus and others to pray before civic organizations that we are involved with. Invite those of different faiths to present and share at your church book club.

Operation Save America and the Westboro Baptist Church are desperate because they are losing. Do not let them win by giving into cynicism. Instead, work for a more inclusive and pluralistic society by being more inclusive and loving in your family and in the organizations and local governments where you can have the greatest impact.

NOTE: Take a listen to my podcast with Hindu blogger Ambaa.


4 replies »

  1. Thanks Chris. Probably, unsurprising to you, I was not particularly pleased with the Court’s recent ruling… I’ve gone to numerous functions on military property where religion is invoked – usually Christian. Most of them are open-hearted and don’t bother me; some feel exclusive and do. One of the benefits of being a member of a minority faith – even in fairly tolerant Montgomery County – is the awareness that others don’t share your doctrine and should still be respected. Like you, I think the Zealots are pretty small – I hoped the case this week would reach people who would generally be sensible – but to whom it just hadn’t occurred that they were being exclusionary to their neighbors.

    • I think my experience growing up in Montgomery County (Wheaton and then Olney) has impacted me quite a bit. Our high school had religious pluralism. I now realize that many people do not have that background. I was not surprised by the court ruling since it seemed to be consistent with precedent. I do hope that those in the position of making decisions about such things (those that schedule such meetings) are reflective and thoughtful about how they approaching it.

      • I hope they’re reflective too. That said, lawsuits pop up because people often aren’t reflective.

        On a trip to Wyoming, people looked at me like I had two heads when I answered the “which church do you go to on Sunday” question, because they’d never me anyone who wasn’t Christian and it hadn’t occurred to them that I might be Jewish. Or that someone wouldn’t go to church every week. Or that you might have religion and not want to talk about it in front of people.

        It’s some generalization, but the people who want more prayer in the public square usually aren’t thinking about other peoples’ prayers. And why I get reflexively nervous about it. Of course, there’s also my own cultural bias in play, because I (like many Jews) was raised to see our observance as something that should not be demonstrated.

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