A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Being Tolerated

The Enlightenment promised progress through Reason. Science and Democracy would conquer Superstition and Aristocracy. The connection of Reason with science is obvious but its connection with democracy is not. Real democracy is not identical with voting; voting is merely a means not an end in itself. The essence of democracy is a system in which public policy decisions are made as a result of a free and open debate about the public good. Democracy, in this idealistic way of looking at it, requires an informed electorate whose primary goal is the good of everyone and not merely their own narrow interests. Anyone who thinks their ox has been gored needs to feel free to speak out but fundamentally democracy is an open forum in which the public reasons together about what is best for all of us. Majority rule not based on such a debate is the tyranny of the majority.

To participate in democracy as I should I must do much more than say which policies I like. I must offer reasons in support of those policies. To participate in the give and take of rational democratic debate I must be sensitive to evidence that would undermine my case. I must be bothered by harmful consequences of the policy that leave me untouched. In short one must be both public spirited and rational.

It is here that Enlightenment distrust of religion skews the picture. There are a significant number of people who think that religious belief is inherently irrational. If this were so, then religious people could only be second-class democratic citizens. Their public policy preferences would be “faith-based” and not “reason-based” and so could not be part of a rational policy debate. Facts could never cause such people to change their mind. They would be legitimately pushed to the margins. We could still allow them to vote but like children they would be unable to participate in the "reasoning together" which is the heart of democracy. In short, they are merely to be tolerated.

It is true that people on the conservative side of the Red-Blue divide often say and do things to feed this stereotype. But it is a stereotype. On average religious people are no more and no less rational than ardently secular types. The stereotype of the conservative voter is an evangelical Christian who laughs at science and evidence. The stereotype of the liberal is an arrogant snob who laughs at religion and common sense. These stereotypes feed off each other and poison the well from which we all drink.

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