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Using God-Talk in a Secular Society: Time for a New Conversation on Public Issues?

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AbstractThe role that religious language should play in the ‘public square’ has long been a matter of debate. As Rawls, Rorty, Audi and others have long argued, albeit with subtle variations, discussion on public issues must be truly ‘public’ and therefore employ vocabulary, principles and reasoning which are intelligible to any reasonable person and based on public canons of validity. But does this argument do justice to religious voices? Can the growing number of such voices clamouring for the right to be heard continue to be ignored? Does excluding conviction-based language from public debate lessen the quality of that debate and the potential to find effective solutions to policy challenges? Drawing upon recent work by Jonathan Chaplin, Rowan Williams, Roger Trigg and Michael Sandel, this article examines the current state of scholarship on the question of language in public discourse, and concludes that the case for ‘confessional candour’ to be accepted in such discourse is overwhelming and could have a positive effect on policy outcomes. A prerequisite to this, however—at least within the context of New Zealand—will be a fresh debate about the meaning and scope of the term ‘secularism’.

1. FN0*) This article began as one of the University of Otago’s ‘Winter Lecture’ series and was delivered in Wellington and Auckland on 15 and 16 September 2010. I am grateful for comments received to an earlier draft which was read at the 2nd Triennial Global Network for Public Theology Consultation in Canberra earlier that month, and for advice from my colleague at Otago, Associate Professor Greg Dawes.
2. FN11) NZ Human Rights Commission, ‘The Right to Freedom of Religion and Belief—Te tika kia watea ki te whai whakapono, ki te whai haahi—Draft for Discussion’, <> [accessed 16 July 2010].
3. FN22) Ibid.
4. FN33) Timothy Fitzgerald, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). And see more recently Markus Dressler and Arvind-Pal S. Mandair, eds, Secularism and Religion-Making (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
5. FN44) Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass. and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
6. FN55) Ibid., p. 1.
7. FN66) Ibid., p. 2.
8. FN77) Ibid., p. 1.
9. FN88) Ibid., p. 2.
10. FN99) Ibid., p. 3.
11. FN1010) Ibid.
12. FN1111) Ibid., pp. 16–18.
13. FN1212) Ibid., p. 531.
14. FN1313) Ibid., p. 192.
15. FN1414) Jonathan Chaplin, Talking God: The Legitimacy of Religious Public Reasoning (London: Theos, 2008), pp. 20–1.
16. FN1515) Rowan Williams, ‘Secularism, Faith and Freedom’, in Graham Ward and Michael Hoelzl, eds, The New Visibility of Religion: Studies in Religion and Cultural Hermeneutics (London and New York: Continuum, 2008), pp. 45–57 at p. 45.
17. FN1616) Ibid.
18. FN1717) Ibid., p. 46.
19. FN1818) Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 171.
20. FN1919) Ibid.
21. FN2020) See Roger Trigg, Religion in Public Life: Must Faith be Privatized? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 196–7.
22. FN2121) For Rawls, see in particular the works cited here; for Audi see his debate with Wolterstorff in R. Audi and N. Wolterstorff, Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate (Lanham and London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997) and Esther McIntosh, ‘Philosophers, Politicians and Archbishops: Religious Reasons in the Public Sphere’, International Journal of Public Theology, 2:4 (2008), 465–83, which suggests a resolution to the debate may be found in the work of John Macmurray.
23. FN2222) Jonathan Chaplin, ‘Beyond Liberal Restraint: Defending Religious-Based Arguments in Law and Public Policy’, University of British Columbia Law Review, 33:3 (2000), 617–46 at 627.
24. FN2323) John Rawls, ‘The Idea of Public Reason Revisited’, in J. Rawls, Collected Papers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 573–615 at p. 576.
25. FN2424) Note that for Rawls, arguments based on a body of ‘comprehensive doctrine’ may emanate from a secular source as well as a religious one.
26. FN2525) John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 218.
27. FN2626) Esther McIntosh, ‘Philosophers, Politicians and Archbishops’, 477; cf. Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), pp. 248–9.
28. FN2727) Williams, ‘Secularism, Faith and Freedom’, p. 47.
29. FN2828) Ibid, pp. 47–8.
30. FN2929) Rawls, Political Liberalism, pp. xx and xxvii.
31. FN3030) Sandel, Justice, p. 251.
32. FN3131) Ibid., pp. 252–3.
33. FN3232) Williams, ‘Secularism, Faith and Freedom’, p. 46.
34. FN3333) Ibid.
35. FN3434) Ibid., p. 48.
36. FN3535) Ibid.
37. FN3636) Ibid.
38. FN3737) Ibid., p. 49.
39. FN3838) Fitzgerald, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity, p. 58.
40. FN3939) Barack Obama, ‘Call to Renewal’, Keynote Address, Washington (28 June 2006), <> [accessed 9 April 2009]; cf. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2006), p. 215.
41. FN4040) Chaplin, Talking God, pp. 22–3.
42. FN4141) Ibid., p. 26.
43. FN4242) Ibid.
44. FN4343) Ibid., p. 25.
45. FN4444) Ibid., p. 30.
46. FN4545) Jonathan Derbyshire and James Macintyre, ‘There is a Universal Human Nature’, New Statesman (19 July 2010), 32.
47. FN4646) John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (New York: Penguin, 2009), p. 373.
48. FN4747) Chaplin, Talking God, p. 50.
49. FN4848) José Casanova, ‘Public Religions Revisited’, in Hent de Vries, ed., Religions: Beyond a Concept (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp. 101–119 at p. 101.
50. FN4949) Micklethwait and Wooldridge, God Is Back, pp. 137 and 194–5.
51. FN5050) Chaplin, Talking God, p. 36.
52. FN5151) Trigg, Religion in Public Life, p. 206.
53. FN5252) Ibid.
54. FN5353) Joseph Ratzinger and Jürgen Habermas, Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), pp. 51–2.
55. FN5454) Chaplin, Talking God, p. 38.
56. FN5555) Trigg, Religion in Public Life, pp. 197, 199.
57. FN5656) Chaplin, Talking God, p. 51.
58. FN5757) Williams, ‘Secularism, Faith and Freedom’, p. 46.
59. FN5858) Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (1867), chapter IV.
60. FN5959) Jim Wallis, ‘The Power of Hope: A Sign of Transformation’, Sojourners Magazine (September–October 1994); Jim Wallis, The Soul of Politics (New York: The New Press, 1994).

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