Rawls 3: Religion in Public Life

Last week, I looked at Rawls’s view of religion in public life. As indicated, Rawls is often charged by Christians with an antipathy to religion in public life. On the other hand, he firmly believes in the right of private conscience and belief for what he calls ‘sects,” which hold views contrary to the secular state he envisions and defends. Unfortunately, his way of protecting religious freedom is problematic. This is an area in which I find myself at odds with Rawls’s views. As a result, it has been challenging to be completely fair-minded about his critique. It is crucial to set Rawls within his historical context and appreciate his work to sustain a free society, despite any disagreements on his fundamental presuppositions. I hope this week to give an in-depth analysis of his opinions and set out what I think is a better view. As mentioned last week, I hope to be competent to set out why I believe there is a better way forward than the proposal Rawls makes.

Rawls’s View of Religious Freedom

Unlike more radical thinkers, Rawls was not opposed to the notion of religious freedom, which he regarded as a rational choice that would be made by persons in the “original position:”

Now it seems that equal liberty of conscience is the only principle that persons in the original position can acknowledge. They cannot take chances with their liberty by permitting, the dominant, religious or moral doctrine to persecute or suppress others if it wishes. [1]

Rawls assumes that all human beings, once they leave the original position will have differing moral, philosophical, and religious views, which views will have to be coordinated by the state in some way to prevent conflict. The first principle of this coordination is the apparent notion that dominant ideas cannot force themselves on minority views. Since human history is filled with attempts by religious and other groups to force their opinions upon others, this particular notion seems reasonable. I believe that were Rawls still alive; he would agree that humanist and anti-religious groups should face the same restraints.

It should be noted that there is an unexpressed assumption in this assertion: matters of morality, philosophy, and religion are “merely personal.” They do not have an ontological foundation in reality. Since this idea sits at the center of the notion of public reason to which we will next turn, it is essential to understand that many people do not believe that morals, religion, or political truth are “merely personal.” Many people believe that their personal moral and political views are, in fact, matters of public truth. Not all of these people are religious zealots or fundamentalist adherence to a particular religious belief.

I suggest that a better defense of freedom of religion requires that we accept that those seeking moral, philosophical, and religious truth seek the truth—that is, they seek to understand the true nature of reality. [2] This is true of religious and non-religious people. The fact that we disagree on the truth requires that we allow the views of all concerned to be protected not as a condition for a functional society (though it is that) but also because it is a prerequisite for the search for Truth, Justice, Goodness, and Beauty in the first place. Christians should be especially zealous in this regard because we believe that God is Truth and Love and that God’s love requires that people be free in the search in love for truth and justice and other ideals, ideals which cannot be effectively forced upon people in the first place.

Rawls, Public Reason, Religion and Politics

As mentioned, Rawls’s underlying notion is that justice is fundamentally a form of fairness. According to Rawls, “justice as fairness” is characterized as follows:

  1. Each person should have the same and indefeasible claim to an adequate scheme of equal fundamental liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of rights for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities, to be justified, must meet two conditions: (a) any inequalities must be expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and; and (b) such inequalities must be attached to offices and positions open to all members of society. [3]

Liberty of conscience is a principle of fairness inherent in the notion of “equal basic liberties,” that is, freedom of religion, morality, and philosophies of life are inherent in the idea of fundamental liberties. According to Rawls, it is a “fixed point” in his theory of justice as fairness. [4] In order, however, for persons of divergent moral, religious, and philosophical views to coordinate their efforts in public life, public discourse must be conducted so that the fundamental liberties granted are not infringed upon. [5]

As to public discourse, it is a requirement of a liberal society that such discourse be conducted on the basis that all reasonable citizens would grant as acceptable. [6] Here we can see a pitfall for religious people in public life: Rawls is not willing to give Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or other groups to argue as to matters of public debate on purely religious grounds. Put simply, Christians and News may not give as a reason for laws against murder their acceptance of the Decalogue and its statement, “Thou shalt not kill.” This is not a form of reasoning secular people accept as normative and, therefore, must be excluded from public debate.

One can respond to Rawls’s views in several ways. Initially, his idea that public debate should be only secular is an innovation with limited support in human history. In almost every culture, religious views have shaped political institutions and laws. This is especially true today in the Middle East among Muslims and Jews alike.

More to the point is the observation that, by establishing such a principle, Rawls has secretly snuck in another principle: that modern secular humanistic philosophy is valid as a matter of public fact and is not subject to question. I would argue that such a principle violates the idea that all those seeking moral, philosophical, and religious truth are seeking the truth—that is, they are seeking to understand the true nature of reality. That common search can be conducted by religious and secular people, who neither have a prior claim on what should count as reasonable in public discourse. By establishing this limitation on religion in public life, Rawls has not prevented discrimination. He has created it.

Rawls’s View from No-Where and Justice

Underlying the faults in A Theory of Justice is Rawls’s adoption of “a Kantian view of human rationality” regarding human decision-making about political matters:

Kant held, I believe, that a person is acting autonomously when the principles of his action are chosen by him as the most adequate possible expression of his nature as a free and equal rational being. The principles he acts upon are not adopted because of his social position or natural endowments, or in view of the particular kind of society in which he lives or the specific things he happens to want. To act on such principles is to act heteronomously. Now the veil of ignorance deprives the persons in the original position of the knowledge that would enable them to choose heteronomous principles. The parties arrive at their choice together as free and equal rational persons knowing only that those circumstances obtain which give rise to the need for principles of justice. [7]

Beneath Rawls’s notion of autonomy (and its desirability) is the idea that human actors are (or should be) “autonomous,” and to act with autonomous reasonableness is to somehow act without reference to natural connections, such as social position or natural endowments. Fundamental to this way of thinking is the isolation of the human actor from precisely those attributes that constitute human beings in the first place: family, neighbors, social class, education, experience, abilities, etc. This definition of reasonableness flies in the face of reality as it is and human nature as it is. It is not a form of humanism but a form of anti-humanism.

Like Kant and other philosophers of the Enlightenment, Rawls views society as a human institution established by human actors for human purposes. It is thus a “merely human creation.” It is not “natural” in the sense of being an outgrowth of the nature of reality and human persons as a part of that reality.  In labeling this section “The View from Nowhere” to emphasize that the Kantian view of a radical division between the human actor and reality in which human actors act without connection to other actors except through artificially created rules is a “view from nowhere in this world as it was, is or ever can be.”  This is a point of view that this series of blogs seek to replace with the belief that human society is a significant evolutionary development of the unfolding universe, and human society is an outgrowth of a deep relationality and interdependence built into the world and human beings as part of that world.

There are no autonomous individuals in the sense Rawls’s theory hypothesizes. It is not even desirable that there should be such persons. Human beings are naturally relational, social beings born, raised, enculturated, and living in a web of social relationships. Rawls is not so much trying to establish a good society in which people can flourish but a secular, Enlightenment society, which he assumes must be the result of rational actors, who in the Original State and supplied with a Veil of Ignorance, must decide as a good modern, post-Enlightenment, post-Marxian Harvard professor writing in the 20th century would choose to defend modern American liberal democracy. There are better, more realistic, and more nuanced ways to achieve this than the theory that Rawls proposes.

A Constructive Postmodernist Alternative

What I call a “constructive postmodernist view” holds that human beings are psychosomatic unities emergent from but also connected to the physical, social, domestic, and other environments from which they emerge. While human beings can and do gain a bit of objectivity about the world and others, they still maintain an inevitable rootedness in the reality of which they are a part. To pretend otherwise is neither wise nor helpful. To assume that valid social institutions require such a flight into an artificially constructed “Initial State” is unwise and unnecessary. It damages our valuable participation in the emergent order of nature and the society of which we are a part.

The search for justice is a social act—an act that not only involves the living but the communicated understandings of justice which we have received from the past, good and bad, that are part of our rational inheritance from those who have gone before us in the search for a just society.  Parties do not arrive at their choice together as free and rational persons but as members of a community, not necessarily of “equally rational persons,” but of finite and different persons who respect and are in community with others.

What of religious and moral views in such a society? The answer to this question is different from Rawls’s solution. Instead of excluding such ideas from public debate, such a society gladly brings religious beliefs into the public square, subject to the proviso that they be articulated without violence but in the spirit of open participation in the quest for justice among all members of a free society. A free society must be tolerant, including secular tolerance of religious views and the moral conclusions people draw from their faith. A constructive post-modernist view does not see religious, ethical, or philosophical pluralism as an “insurmountable” element of a contemporary and democratic society.” [8]Instead, it sees a plurality of views and opinions as posing to society questions that must be answered by reasonable dialogue in the common search for truth guided by a conviction that progress can be peacefully made in the search for a just society.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] [1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice rev. Ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971-1999), 181.

[2] See, Leslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1981).

[3] Id, at 53

[4] Id, at 181.

[5] John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York, Columbia University Press, 1993).

[6] Id, at 53.

[7] A Theory of Justice, 222.

[8] See Adir Guedes Soriano, “Liberal Democracy and the Right to Religious Freedom” Paper presented at the 19th Annual International Law and Religion Symposium, 7-9 October 2012, at the J. Reuben Clark Law School on the campus of Brigham Young University–BYU, Provo, Utah – USA. https://classic.iclrs.org/content/events/26/569.pdf (downloaded May 25, 2023).