On Conviction And Creed

Gary Gutting spoke with Louise Antony, a philosophy professor and atheist, about the roles that reason and religion play in public policy (NYT):

L.A.: … In the public sphere, I think reasons are extremely important. If I’m advocating a social policy that stems from some belief of mine, I need to be able to provide compelling reasons for it — reasons that I can expect a rational person to be moved by. If I refuse to give my employees insurance coverage for contraception because I think contraception is wrong, then I ought — and this is a moral ought — to be able to articulate reasons for this position. I can’t just say, “that’s my belief, and that’s that.” A sense of responsibility about one’s beliefs, a willingness to defend them if challenged, and a willingness to listen to the reasons given by others is one of the guiding ideals of civil society.

G.G.: But doesn’t a belief in God often lead people to advocate social policies? For some people, their beliefs about God lead them to oppose gay marriage or abortion. Others’ beliefs lead them to oppose conservative economic policies. On your view, then, aren’t they required to provide a rational defense of their religious belief in the public sphere? If so, doesn’t it follow that their religious belief shouldn’t be viewed as just a personal opinion that’s nobody else’s business?

L.A.: No one needs to defend their religious beliefs to me — not unless they think that those beliefs are essential to the defense of the policy they are advocating. If the only argument for a policy is that Catholic doctrine says it’s bad, why should a policy that applies to everyone reflect that particular doctrine? “Religious freedom” means that no one’s religion gets to be the boss. But usually, religious people who become politically active think that there are good moral reasons independent of religious doctrine, reasons that ought to persuade any person of conscience. I think — and many religious people agree with me — that the United States policy of drone attacks is morally wrong, because it’s wrong to kill innocent people for political ends. It’s the moral principle, not the existence of God, that they are appealing to.

G.G.: That makes it sounds like you don’t think it much matters whether we believe in God or not.

L.A.: Well, I do wonder about that. Why do theists care so much about belief in God? Disagreement over that question is really no more than a difference in philosophical opinion. Specifically, it’s just a disagreement about ontology — about what kinds of things exist. Why should a disagreement like that bear any moral significance? Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter — the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc. — and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?

Recent Dish on atheism here, here, and here.