AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Richard Rorty has suggested that religion is a conversation-stopper. (1) Jeffrey Stout has questioned this claim, gently chiding Rorty for his animus toward increasing assertiveness on the part of religiously committed individuals in their address of public issues. (2) Stout concludes that "conversation is the very thing that is not stopped when religious premises are introduced in a political argument." (3) He is convinced that Rorty is overly sensitive on this matter and believes, with Nicholas Wolterstorff and others, that religious people in a pluralistic democracy have not only the right but also the responsibility to share their convictions and the reasoning that leads to their opinions on vital moral and social issues. Stout quotes Wolterstorff as follows:
It belongs to the religious convictions of a good many religious people in our society that they ought to base their decisions concerning fundamental issues of justice on their religious convictions. They do not view as an option whether or not to do so. It is their conviction that they ought to strive for wholeness, integrity, integration in their lives: that they ought to allow the Word of God, the teachings of the Torah, the command and example of Jesus, or whatever, to shape their existence as a whole, including, then, their social and political existence. Their religion is not, for them, about something other than their social and political existence; it is also about their social and political existence. Accordingly, to require of them that they not base their decisions and discussions concerning political issues on their religion is to infringe, inequitably, on the free exercise of their religion. (4)
In what follows, I revisit Stout's question, "is religion a conversation-stopper?" and explain why he believes that Rorty is inappropriately skeptical regarding the role of religion in public life. I then show why Rorty is in fact correct to be skeptical about bringing religious views into discussions of significant public issues. (5) Stout, along with Wolterstorff and others, is overly optimistic, and his critique of Rorty reveals his undue optimism. I explain why current perspectives on religion justify q skepticism about bringing it into public discourse. I also suggest a different perspective on religions that might enable the sort of optimism Stout embraces. The change of perspective I suggest involves taking our religious views not as justified or warranted by documents, sources, traditions, and revelations but rather as embedded in or deriving from those documents, sources, traditions, and revelations. The latter way of understanding our religious views opens them to intellectual strategies of genealogy, or to explanatory strategies that contextualize them within particular traditions of culture and history. I conclude this essay with two relevant points. The first is that neither justifying nor explaining the sources of one's religious views, the strategies roughly of justifying religious beliefs and providing genealogies of them--tools for "deconstructing" them as some would have it--can claim proper priority in our religious lives. Explaining the sources of our commitments is as trenchantly definitive of those commitments as is providing dialectical justification for them. (William James discerns and exploits this fact about our religious views throughout his work. (6) My second concluding point is that Stout departs significantly, in ways that adversely affect his views, from the constructive intellectual stances of the classical pragmatists, among whom I include primarily William James and John Dewey; Rorty, although many dislike his views on religion, is a better representative of classical pragmatism than is Stout.
* Stout's Optimism; Rorty's Realism
In 2004, following Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court's ruling in the Goodridge case, the issue of gay marriage became a significant public issue. (7) Gay marriage then joined public debates over welfare assistance, abortion, euthanasia, and the environment as an issue of the sort politicians rush to exploit. Public debate was then graced by such utterances as "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." (8)
The question over which Rorty and Stout disagree is whether or not public discussion of the issue of gay marriage should sequester from public view religious grounds for opinions on the issue. According to Stout, those whose religious perspectives ground their opinion on this issue have three alternatives: They may remain silent; they may offer justifying arguments based strictly on principles that they share with their policy opponents; or they may "express their actual (religious) reasons for supporting the policy they favor while also engaging in immanent criticism of their opponents' views." (9) Only the third of these possibilities, says Stout, allows religious people to engage fully and openly in public debate about the issues that separate them from their opponents. Rorty's policy, according to Stout, would itself be a conversation stopper, for it would require those with religious reasons for their views on controversial issues to remain silent in the public contexts in which policies are debated and decided. (l0) But Stout is optimistic:
One can always back up a few paces, and begin again, now with a broader conversational objective. It is precisely when we find ourselves in an impasse of this kind that it becomes most advisable for citizens representing various points of views to express their objectives of understanding one another's perspectives, learning from one another through open-minded listening, and subjecting each other's premises to fair-minded immanent criticism. (11)
A problem with Stout's third alternative is that, as a matter of fact, engaging in "immanent criticism" of their opponents' views does not usually occur to those who appeal to religious ideas to support their public policy positions. Such people are usually content with recourse to the final authority of such palliatives as "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." Such conversation-stopping recourse leads Rorty to reject the inclusion of religion in public policy debate. In the face of such recognizable conversation-stopping strategies, how might one follow Stout's recommendation that one "back up a few paces, and begin again, now with a broader conversational objective?" Might one suggest that perhaps Adam and Eve were not literally human individuals, but only characters in one of many diverse creation stories? Might one suggest that conditions in twenty-first century America are very different from the conditions that prevailed when that creation story was written? Might one suggest that there are genetic causes for sexual preferences that were unknown before late in the twentieth century? From the opposite perspective, might one suggest that the disease of democratic liberalism has eroded the traditional ideals of Christian morality? Or perhaps that liberal individualism has undermined natural community-based constraints on unnatural behavior? How might one "back up a few paces" and begin another conversation with broader, yet still relevant, objectives? (12)
The problem these questions uncover is that of justification by recourse to authority, a strategy typical of debates that take place when religion comes into the public marketplace of ideas. For those with specific religious convictions regarding issues of public consequence, such as the issue of gay marriage, justification by recourse to religious authorities--privileged texts or persons--is the norm. For those with more "liberal" perspectives on issues of public consequence, justification by recourse to the cultural authority of science is a frequent norm. Questions such as suggested in the previous paragraph are designed to break down a particular recourse to authority. Any effort to undermine religious individuals' recourse to authority, an effort to "back up a few paces, and begin again, now with a broader conversational objective," is an effort to question the legitimacy of such recourse. Likewise, any effort to undermine more liberal individuals' recourse to the authority of science is an effort to break the hold of such recourse.
Rorty is concerned that …