Jackson Doughart
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Defending Margaret Somerville

Canadian Atheist, 25 November 2013

In discussing Margaret Somerville’s article “Judge me by my ideas, not my religion” from the Nov. 24 edition of the Globe and Mail, I suggest that we bracket her specific arguments about the Quebec Charter of Values and focus on the main thrust of her piece. Veronica Abbass has started things off here. Unlike her, I think that Somerville’s piece is of value and contains a message that should be considered by self-described secularists.

I see two main points in the piece: the problem of ad hominem arguments against religious people who present their ideas in the public square, and the problem of secularism (however defined) encroaching on the full democratic participation of religious citizens.

Ad hominem arguments

It isn’t enough to say, as Ms Abbass does, that ad hominem reasoning is defensible because “personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue,” at least without explaining exactly how such is the case with Dr Somerville. The best that Abbass does is to pick at Somerville’s claim that she is grateful for having been educated in Roman Catholic schools. I can’t speak to whether or not Australian Catholic Schools attempt to instill absolute adherence to religious doctrine, but I suspect that Somerville simply meant that the educational environment at her schools – the quality of the teachers, the available materials, the rigour of the instruction, there having been other good students at the school – was better than what she may have found if she’d been in a different school.

Somerville is right to be outraged when someone dismisses her arguments not for their substance but for her membership in the Roman Catholic Church. According to her numerous anecdotes, opponents often dismiss her not for what she says but who she is. Imagine if someone said to Dan Savage or Andrew Sullivan, “Of course you’re in favour of gay marriage – you’re gay!” as a means of rejecting their arguments. That’s essentially what happens when Somerville is dismissed as a water-carrier for Catholicism.

She is also right to identify religion as a ground of common ad-hominem argument. Let’s consider an issue that doesn’t appear to have an immediate religious connection, like taxation. If Joe Lunchbox makes a principled argument in favour of lower taxes, we would recognize the fallacy if his interlocutor said, “You’re only saying that because you’re rich.” Maybe that’s true, but we reject that response as fallacious because, as a rule, we must participate politically under the assumption that our opponents disagree with us for genuine reasons and in good faith, not to underhandedly advance their own interest – financial, ideological, or spiritual – at our expense. Why should we make an exception in the case of religious people when issues relate, even tangentially, to their beliefs? Atheists would hardly appreciate it if someone dismissed their views on analogous grounds, so we should be magnanimous enough to not exercise the same tactic toward our faithful counterparts.

Secularist encroachment on democracy

Even if she were simply an “Apologist” for religion, it’s not immediately clear why secularists should denounce Dr Somerville tout court. Secularism, as traditionally understood, does not hold that belief and membership in Catholicism is wrong; it also doesn’t hold that advancing those beliefs is wrong. What it does hold is that advancing Catholic moral beliefs as public arguments should not be advanced by mere reference to their being Catholic beliefs. In other words, if Somerville went around saying, “Abortion should be outlawed because my church says so,” that would indeed be anti-secular. But that’s not what she does. All of Somerville’s work is imbued with a public spiritedness that aims to convince those who disagree through reason, and not to merely stroke her co-thinkers by referencing shared religious views.

Ms Abbass writes,“Sommerville’s Catholic/religious bias is blatantly obvious throughout her article. She argues against same-sex marriage by ‘arguing for the importance of children’s biological ties to their parents.’” How exactly is this evidence of blatant religious bias, especially when Somerville advances her argument through reason, not adherence to scripture? Otherwise, “religious bias” is simply constituted by things that religious people happen to believe, when it should clearly mean believing in and advancing ideas on the sole account of faith. (Also, it is wrong to denounce Catholic moral teaching as being faith-based. Catholic moral doctrine is based on natural law, which is a form of reasoning – not scriptural regurgitation – that gives significant weight to teleology. One can disagree with the method, but one can’t just write it off as “blind faith” either.)

Abbass also accuses Somerville of “compil[ing] her own, dishonest definition of secularism as:

a belief form and ideology, much like a religion, a principal edict of which is the active exclusion of religion, religious people or religious views and values from having any influence or role in the public square, in particular, any input into social or public policy, or law."

This attack, which denounces but does not analyze, misinterprets and misrepresents Somerville’s article.(Dishonest? Why is it dishonest?) On my reading, Somerville was attempting to delineate secularism (a democratic good), as she understands it, from how it has been misunderstood and corrupted by many self-described secularists. My evidence is that Somerville uses the word secularism approvingly in the following sentence: “This liberty right [to espouse one’s opinion, religious or not, in public] is the correct understanding of the nature of a secular state and respecting it is at its heart.” Now this gets confusing because Somerville also uses the words secularism, secular, and secularist to describe what she opposes – namely, the belief that any idea influenced by religion or even held by religious people is off limits in public debate.

Saying that secularism is just another religious value system along with, say, Judeo-Christianity and Islam is not an illustration that I would have used if I were making Somerville’s point. But we should take care to understand what she means. There are indeed two very distinct conceptions of secularism out there, which are distinguished by their scope. The narrower, conservative, secularism that is shared by Somerville and many other religious thinkers is effectively a democratic stance on matters of religion. It holds that government should not be institutionally bound by the edicts and hierarchies of religions, that the state should not espouse a preference in favour of certain religious groups over others, and that the plural character of contemporary society requires that people appeal to reasoning beyond their faith as a means ofadvancing ideas in public.

The broader, more liberal, secularism that Somerville opposes promotes all of the narrow tenets but also adds three contentious ones:

1) That secularism should actively pursue and advance the decline of religious belief and influence, using academic, activist, legal, and political means to do so. Falling rates of churchgoing, for example, is seen by today’s secularists as categorically good.

2) That secularism includes not only a narrow philosophy about the relationship of religion to government, but also includes support for all of the things that secularists usually believe, especially when religious people tend to disagree (e.g., global-warming activism, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, abortion-on-demand).

3) That there is a monopoly on political wisdom held not by the fruits of transparent and objective reasoning, but also by the anti-religious affiliation of the people doing the reasoning. In other words, religious people can never be right because it is the totality of their religion that is wrong, not merely the irrationally-presented promotion of ideas emanating from their faith.

The collective effect of these liberal-secularist principles is a feeling of ever-expanding licence in the atheist/secularist/“freethought” community to flatly ignore what religious people say; except, of course, to find more excuses for ignoring and rejecting their contributions to public discourse. This essentially amounts to condoning the quiet disenfranchisement of even those religious people who, like Dr Somerville, are committed both to advancing their beliefs and to using reason as the sole means of promoting them. It’s akin to drowning out people’s voices by plugging one’s ears and shouting until they give up.

And when they do give up, we call it “progress”.

I don’t think that’s very democratic, and certainly not very “tolerant”, as so many secularists describe themselves. In the interest of restoring a more open-minded ethos to the project of secularism, we would do well to heed Dr Somerville’s insights.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com