So I’ll jump into this discussion we’re having on the role of religious rhetoric. Largely and overall I agree with what Leah has to say, so the point of this will be a very narrow expansion and rebuttal to some comments courtesy Jess Belding on another post. I don’t think Leah goes far enough in some places.
Specifically, I’d like to focus on this:
2. Politicians who use faith, rather than empirical facts, as a foundation for policy (cf Dubya many many times). Just one example:
I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/oct/07/iraq.usa].
Both of these are hugely inappropriate, as they explicitly cut people out of the national conversation about politics. In the first case, unbelievers are dismissed as incapable of being a part of the political process, due to supposed ethical deficits. In the second, crucial justifications for policy choices are based on evidence that is not capable of being questioned, proved, or sensed by a large slice of the voting public.
The problem here is not just that the arguments are not capable of being “questioned, proved, or sensed” by a large (10-15%) slice of the public, it’s that these arguments can’t be questioned, proved or sensed by a slightly larger cut — say, every member of the public, religious or not, minus the person making the argument. This isn’t even a matter of all the different Christian denominations in the United States, or the people of different faiths (Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, etc), but rather it’s a matter of meta-communicability.
Let me explain. The way religious understanding and the idea of revelation work, as far as I can tell, is based on the idea that these experiences are very intense and, more importantly, very individual. In fact, so individual, that it’s patently impossible for another person to understand exactly what’s being experienced. It’s very similar to the idea of qualia (“Redness”, for example) — it’s a state that appears to have some meaning to me as I experience it, but I can’t hope to communicate redness to someone else exactly as I experience it. I can describe about how it makes me feel, or describe the requisite wavelength or frequency of light that makes me see red, but as far as acting in such a way as to make someone else perceive red as I do, there’s no way to do it (at least if and until we figure out exactly how consciousness works).
So, when George Bush says that God commands him to invade Iraq, no one, not I the atheist nor a Christian of any stripe nor anyone else can hope to understand his argument because we can’t know if God talked to him in the first place or investigate the signficance of the statement. The only person who understands what George Bush means is George Bush, so in order to accept his justification, we have to trust him. Not just the standard, more scientific form of trust where we’re able to accept the evidence, mind you, but complete faith that he had a fundamental truth revealed to him. Talk about cutting people out of the process! Now certainly it’s not the case that every religious argument is of the same magnitude as the Bush one above, but it is a common trait that religious arguments, especially about policy, are logically incommunicable (I have some personal experience here; I can’t remember how many times I’d discuss religion with someone and ram into impasses again and again because of this barrier). Religious appeals are useless in the public sphere because of this — if my argument is legitimately based on religion, and doesn’t just incorporate some lip-service talking about Jesus, then there’s no hope anyone else can understand what, exactly or even to a reasonable degree of certainty, what I’m getting at because a conception of God that is largely vague to everyone else is a premise.
I have a few other thoughts about this topic, especially regarding the cultural marginalization of and discrimination against atheists, but those thoughts are better contained to comments of this and other posts.