We don’t do God

In a dialogue with the late Christopher Hitchens, John Haldane outlines why he thinks religion is crucial as a foundational political principle in societies made up of diverse cultures, religions, etc. Very roughly his position is (1) that the governing of such a society must be built around certain core notions like the respect for others’ rights or the pursuit of their well-being, and (2) that religion gives us the best (indeed, he thinks the only) grounds for motivating such respect or such a pursuit.

Backing up slightly it would be helpful to give some account of what we mean by “religion” and therefore, by contrast, “secularism.” The way I’ve come to understand it — and the way I think Haldane understands it too — is as follows: religion involves adding an extra layer to a worldview that admits of some form of transcendent reality, such that we can act justly or unjustly toward this reality. Religious living, then, is acting justly towards this reality. I deliberately phrase this in general terms because not all religions think this reality is one, or personal, or omniscient, or eternal, or any of the other attributes of the God of classical theism. Nevertheless they all have some notion of just activity toward this reality, even if perhaps they wouldn’t phrase it in exactly those terms. Secularism, by contrast, denies either (a) that there is a reality transcendent of us or (b) that we can act justly or unjustly toward it. For the purposes of living, then, the secularist has no interest in such a reality, even if they intellectually accept that it exists.

With this in hand, return to points (1) and (2) I mentioned above. I won’t say much regarding (1), but I appreciate that Haldane draws attention to the fact that “neutral” governance is an unachievable pipe dream. The point has been made in various ways before, but essentially it boils down to the fact that any governing system is committed (implicitly or explicitly) to a conception of the good that guides the decisions and trade-offs they make in governing.

With regards to (2) Haldane’s proposal for a religious grounding is that humans are created as image-bearers of God, and so our respect of other’s or our pursuit for their well-being would flow from our honouring God as part of our proper religious activity toward him. To phrase this in somewhat Thomistic terms, our respect for others is a participation in our respect for God. Of course, while this proposal doesn’t require the religion of a theistic sort, it does require a transcendent reality of which we can coherently be called image-bearers of as well as that justice toward this reality involve some form of honour. So while this proposal is certainly broader than the Abrahamic religions, it doesn’t extend to all religions.

At this point two clarifications can be made. First, contrary to what Hitchens assumes, Haldane’s proposal is not inconsistent with evolution, since the notion of creation he’s interested in is much broader than some seven-day account of creation. While it doesn’t even seem essential to Haldane’s proposal that we be created (since the key is that we’re image-bearers), even if we assume it is the creation could equally have occurred through evolution. This is an unfortunately common conflation found in the New Atheists, and is completely besides the point.

Second, and more importantly, Haldane is not proposing some form of divine command theory as his grounds. This point actually comes up explicitly in the discussion itself, but I thought it worth bringing attention to. His point is not that we respect each other our of duty imposed upon us by a God found in the revelation of a specific religion. Rather it is that grounding the motivation for following principles we can all agree to — such as the golden rule, or the respect of inviolable rights — requires a religious basis, and probably something like the particular basis he proposes.

Given these clarifications, what are we to make of Haldane’s position? The structure of the discussion unfortunately did not enable him to develop it to any great length or nuance, but we can comment on the gist of it that he managed to outline. As I’ve said already, I think point (1) is spot on. Regarding point (2), however, I’m inclined to think that it’s possible to develop an account of common goods that enables us to give the secular grounds of which Haldane is so skeptical. I’ve discussed this in one form or another on this blog for nearly two years, now that I look back. So to some extent I disagree with Haldane, but this disagreement is not as severe as might first appear, as can be seen in three points.

First, while I think such a secular grounds can be given, these ground are built on top of the nuanced Aristotelian teleological account of the good which Aquinas ably showed entails the existence of a supreme intelligence.[1] The grounds are secular in that they can be understood apart from religious considerations, even if they entail religious conclusions.[2]

Second, it must be admitted that the secular account doesn’t preclude the religious account given by Haldane. The two act together, enriching each other in ways sometimes inaccessible to the other. For instance, there is an existential impact of seeing all humans as images of a beloved Father that is out of reach for a purely secular account.

Third, while I think secular grounds can be given I have no illusions about how difficult such grounds would be to comprehend, let alone actually motivate someone to follow through on them. The difficulty of giving such an account has been a recurring theme since the time of Plato.[3] And once we have developed an account of goods and virtues, the particular kind commonness relevant to the project, powers and how they extend to common powers, the relation of common to private goods, rational duties, authority, justice, and so on, it’s difficult to be struck by anything other than the complexity and abstractness of it all, even if it appears to us satisfactory as a piece of systematic philosophy. And realistically, how many people will have the interest or capability to inform themselves of such an account? A further existential point is that such a dry account is far less motivating than the affection and honour found in the religious life. Overall then, I think a secular ground can be given, but that it is far too distant and disconnected from everyday life for it to be socially valuable. Haldane’s religious proposal is much better suited to this job.

In closing I want to clarify that neither the discussion between Hitchens and Haldane nor this post, are meant as an argument for religion. Rather, they’re discussions about the social value of religion in a diverse society.


  1. I am referring, of course, to Aquinas’s Fifth Way. Perhaps one of the clearest expositions of this is Edward Feser’s Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’s Fifth Way in Nova et Vetera Vol. 11, No. 3. See also Haldane’s own defense in his contribution to Atheism and Theism.
  2. This is not unlike what is true of many arguments for God’s existence, which run from things like change, existence, contingency, grades of perfection, and so on.
  3. As Rob Koons and Matthew O’Brien say in their article on poltical animals, “In attending to social nature, the ethically minded metaphysician must avoid both the Scylla of atomistic individualism and the Charybdis of organic collectivism. The attempt to navigate successfully the narrow strait between them has been a recurring theme in Western metaphysics, from the time of Plato to the present.”

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