The Private Faith Fallacy

I heard a trailer for a TV program recently asking the question “Should we be worried when people in power who have religious beliefs allow those beliefs to affect their decisions?” What a ridiculous question. A person who does not allow their beliefs to affect their decision making is behaving irrationally. Of course their are some decisions on which your religious beliefs have little or no bearing (“what colour socks shall I wear today?”). But wherever ethics are involved, your beliefs provide the underlying moral framework that enables you to make decisions based on what is “the right thing to do”.

The idea that somehow people with a religious faith should somehow be able to leave it at home when they step out of the door each day is becoming more and more prevalent. The other day, a French polititian announced on the radio that religion is just for “the private part of our lives” and other people shouldn’t need to know what we believe. This was his main justification for the current ban on Muslim headscarves in French schools.

It seems to me highly arrogant that atheists should think that their own voice is the only one that can legitmately be heard in the public square. It is presented almost as the “default” view, or the lowest common denominator, when it patently is neither. The notion of a church – state divide is now being pressed to mean a complete silence from the church on all matters to do with politics.

To require people to deny their own epistemic base in favour of one they do not believe in is asking them to commit intellectual suicide. Of course, we will all have to learn how to debate with people who have a different worldview to our own. We may also need to develop arguments that rest on common ground between those worldviews, or that can be made sense of even by those who do not share our faith. But to simply pretend that God does not exist when we are in public, is to deny a fundamental part of our own identity. If we truly want to live in harmony in a multi-cultural society, this means giving people the freedom to express their opinions, not forcing them to hide them. Only this will lead to respectful disagreement, rather than bigoted misunderstanding of one anothers points of view.

Ironically, the very people most eager to shut up religious voices they disagree with are those who repudiate censorship in all other forms. They insist that film-makers should be free to show whatever sexually explicit or violent material they wish, and allow audiences to “make up their own minds”. Similarly, homosexuals are encouraged to “be themselves”, and be “proud of who they are” – no more hiding in the closet, but accepted into mainstream society. Yet this generosity is not extended to Christians and people of other faiths, who are being pushed back into their closets and asked to pretend to be irreligious just in case they offend the atheists. Maybe homophobia is on its way out, but fidephobia is certainly on its way in.

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