As we can expect, Greg asked a fantastically thought-provoking question in his post the other day: “How can we take equally seriously [as reason and experience] the role of religion itself as a formative anthropological influence” in forming a basis of moral consensus in a liberal society? What we’re after here seems to be both a deep sense of religious freedom as well as the commitment to human dignity that pushes us to actually respect that freedom. Greg recounted Peter Berger’s argument for experience as a basis for a shared sense of human dignity, using the “primal experience” of Huck Finn’s conscience. He also quoted Hadley Arkes’ article that, in part, came out in favor of reason and natural law even (at least sometimes) over religion, as a basis for protecting human dignity.
Presumably we want all three of these factors – reason, experience, and religion – to play a role in defending human dignity. Each of these three factors can and, I think, should help us in our effort to figure out how we know that “every human individual has a claim to moral significance”, which Greg aptly described as the sine qua non of modern liberal society.
But here’s what I’m wondering. Can it be said that of these three, only reason can really aspire to the status of “universal”? Here I’m sympathetic to Hadley, because religion – just religion qua religion – is no longer something that can be assumed. Berger’s candidate, experience, does give rise to some universality; at some level, we do just all know that certain behaviors are cruel or wrong and just shouldn’t be done. But the shared ground there seems to be coincidental, rather than essential. That is, it’s good that Huck Finn’s experience of conscience won the day in keeping him from turning in a slave, but “primal experience” seems simply not that operationalizable when we’re talking about public issues instead of recounting individual tales.
But this brings us back to Greg’s question: how can we use religion itself as a basis for knowing that we have the rights that we believe we do have? I think – and Greg will, I hope, correct me if I’m wrong – that another way of asking the question is, what does religion add to the picture over and above what reason and experience get us?And here, I simply don’t know what to do about pluralism, because the answer, it seems to me, will be very different coming from the Qur’an than from the Bhagavad Gita. (Et al., not just religious texts but religious traditions.)
Can, then, religion actually serve “as a formative anthropological influence” for articulating a basis of moral consensus in a pluralistic society, if that society is (as I think we are, by defending religious freedom) attempting to preserve the right to freedom that entails that very pluralism? Or are we restricted to reason and experience?