On “religious claims”

Common wisdom holds that there is a special class of claims known as “religious claims.” These claims are characterized by an inability to be rigorously proven or disproven. While people are free to embrace such claims in the privacy of their own homes, their fundamentally non-rational (or supra-rational) nature renders them unfit for inclusion in the realm of public debate. In the public sphere, this common wisdom teaches us, we must limit ourselves to debatable, disprovable claims.

Such an attitude does not necessarily imply any disrespect or disdain for religious claims. While some reject them as completely unacceptable, others profoundly respect such claims insofar as they edify and enrich the lives of those who hold them or insofar as they produce moral results that can be publicly agreed to be desirable and admirable.

Nothing could be more familiar than this class of “religious claims.” Strangely, however, there seems to be no way of distinguishing between religious or non-religious claims from the content of the claim itself. Aristotle makes claims about something like a monotheistic God, and we do not construe his claim as religious. Aquinas makes the exact same argument, and it does seem to be religious. A statement like “Christ is risen” seems to be a purely religious claim, and yet one can imagine a historian concluding that the only way to explain the behavior of early Christians is to assume that they deeply believed Christ had somehow risen from the dead and that the most probable way to account for this belief is that something of the kind did in fact happen, even if we can’t understand how. Indeed, many Christians insist that their claims about Christ’s resurrection should be understood in just such a historical way!

Hence I conclude that the decision as to what constitutes a “religious claim” is ultimately a political decision as to what is in-bounds and what is out-of-bounds for a determinate sphere of discourse. The final arbiter of this distinction, insofar as it enforces its material consequences in the distribution of resources and privileges, is the state. This means that paradoxically, it is the secular state that produces “religious claims” as religious in the relevant sense. They may produce such claims as a way of justifying the granting of particular privileges or legal exemptions, or they may produce such claims as a way of disqualifying someone’s demands as inappropriate and illegitimate — but in either case, it is the state that is producing the distinction.

This is strange, insofar as one of the supposedly distinctive qualities of “religious claims” is that they are tied to determinate institutions that are designated as “religious.” Indeed, in American jurisprudence, membership in a recognized (or at least recognizable) religious institution or group is a necessary condition of demanding special privileges related to religion — there is no religion of one. Yet if we view the state as the arbiter of the secular and the religious, then we could say that secular claims, as well, depend on adherence to a determinate institution, namely, the state.

In this view, the state is structurally similar to a church, albeit an especially capacious and permissive church that tolerates and even encourages the existence of certain smaller churches. Or from another perspective, we might view the secular state in its relationship to “religious” groups as similar to the relationship between Islamic rulers and non-Islamic groups — some of which are granted special privileges (if they conform to certain core doctrines such as monotheism) and some of which are penalized (if they are polytheistic).

In the case of the secular state, the official qualification is tolerance, namely, a willingness to live alongside other religious groups without resorting to violence — and above all, to submit to the rule of the secular state as the guarantor of this milieu of mutual tolerance. For many secular thinkers, this qualification does not apply to Islam insofar as Islam seems to them to presuppose the right of Muslims to rule over others. This exclusion is of course ironic given that Islamic rule was one of the clearest pre-modern examples of a conditionally pluralistic religious regime such as we see in secularism.

But I think there may be something deeper than mere irony at work here. Perhaps secularists are right to see Islam as a special problem, insofar as the confrontation between secularism and Islam is fundamentally a confrontation over whether the distinction at the root of secularism — that between “religious claims” and “secular claims” — is an “exportable,” universal basis for political order or whether it is, on the contrary, a solution to problems particular to the early-modern Christian milieu that we should not expect to work in other areas with different historical legacies.

It should be clear that I take the latter view. This does not mean, of course, that I prefer “religious rule” in the West, nor that I “support” ISIS (whatever that is supposed to actually mean), nor that I want to move to Iran, etc. Like many people, I am most comfortable in the religious milieu to which I am accustomed — namely, under the church of secularism. In the American context, I doubt that a better or more stable solution to the “religion problem” is likely to arise in the foreseeable future, even though our current regime has many negative effects on individual liberty (for children raised in religious settings) and public discourse. And indeed, I think that it is precisely the artificial distinction on which secularism relies that produces certain religious groups as oppositional to secularism and thus as “oppressive,” “totalitarian,” etc. Often this is unintentional “blowback,” but there are surely times when such convenient enemies are actively cultivated through propaganda and demonization. Every church needs its heretics and infidels, after all.

2 thoughts on “On “religious claims”

  1. A confused thought on the essentially (post?-)Christian nature of secularism: it’s interesting that over the past few years what is clearly resistance to the requirement of toleration, eg. anti-gay and anti-abortion activism, has recently been presented and argued for precisely in terms of secular tolerance. The recently-passed “right to discriminate against gay people” laws in Kansas and Arizona are both phrased in terms of protection of the religious freedom of those who believe homosexuality is a sin, and likewise the Hobby Lobby case was set up as religious freedom vs. being forced to provide abortions.So toleration seems to sublate itself by being forced to tolerate intolerance.
    Also interesting is that both the laws and the Hobby Lobby decision refer to “sincerely held religious beliefs”, which suggests that state institutions could be called upon to determine whether or not someone’s beliefs are sincere when they decide whether or not they can be exempted from providing coverage of morning-after pills, etc.I have a feeling that there’s a connection between the requirement for sincerity and the essentially private nature of “religious beliefs”, though I’m not sure exactly what it is.

  2. Plenty of case law articulates the boundaries of the category “religious belief” and the threshold measure “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Arguments can be made to show how our courts’ upholding that threshold serves people well even while it can be used in ways that don’t please everyone. A few minutes research shows how important that measure has been for protecting people from state actions in the past. Adam is right that (under the U.S. Constitution) the state, which we make the final arbiter of our rights, decides what is religious and what is not. Examples: https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/know_your_rights_–__religion_november_2012_0.pdf But I think you’ll see quickly that what you are looking at in these cases is generally ad hoc solutions to resolve practical problems of basic fairness under the needs of the administrability of the state rather than any kind of clear assertion of an idea.

    Quite apart from the relations, both real and imagined, between Islam and the rest of world’s civilizations, the Islamic world is still working out its relationship to the traditional conception of the Umma under the current reality of local monarchies and separate nation states. The fact is that since the 1920s, much of the Muslim world has operated under a hybrid of secular, locally made, constitutional, statutory and administrative law and traditional Muslim law edited to dovetail with the secular order. The fact that Muslim law becomes the state’s servant as “”Islamic Law” is the anchor that is likely to draw Islam into the secular fold over time. It’s also the fulcrum of a lot of the internal division to be found in the Muslim world. Western imperialism had a large hand in introducing a secular element to the administration of Muslim states, but the story of modern Islamic law can’t be reduced to that at all. I don’t have much hope that constitutional arrangements in the Muslim world will approach the level of pluralism that the West currently achieves any time soon, but there is reason to think that the needs of the modern administrative state will eventually overwhelm extreme ideologies in that part of the world just as they are likely to continue doing in our part of the world. It may also be that a doctrine of religious liberty has to be inherited, so that for the Muslim world, some kind of secular translation of traditional religious pluralism toward monotheistic faiths is the best one hopes for. Still, current international law requires a broader model of religious freedom than that, and states have generally though imperfectly shown themselves over time to gravitate toward the norms of international law.

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