Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Religious Values in the Public Square

The values of a democratic society determine many of its actions. These values are shaped by public discourse. I have found an online article which describes this process very accurately and encourage everyone to read it. 

Religious Values in the Public Square

Here is one excerpt:
"Our public interaction reveals much about who we are as a people, what values we uphold and what kind of society we want to live in. The discourse that emerges from that interaction continually defines what we consider morally acceptable, how we treat others, and how in turn we expect to be treated."

Modern democratic societies generally have a broad public discourse as their ideal, inviting contributions from different ethnic, ideological and religious groups. Yet in many democratic societies religious groups have been marginalized. Despite the fact that many of these have legitimate competence and experience in areas like community building, solving ethical problems and organizing volunteer work, their viewpoints have often been ridiculed, considered obsolete, or deliberately ignored. Some religious communities have as a result become radicalized (as is the case with many Muslim extremists), others have become increasingly isolated from society around them and its development. None of these two options are healthy for a democracy. The result of the first is that citizens of a society turn against it violently because they no longer identify themselves as a part of that society. The result of the second (for religious groups) is an experience of society which resembles that of totalitarianism; the development of society is in the hands of another group of people and the governed have no voice to participate in determining the outcome. 

To quote from the article:
"The issue of religious participation in the public square is essentially a debate about the first principles of civic life: the coexistence between competing human interests, the self-determination of religious communities, the autonomy of individual conscience and the accommodation of diverse beliefs and opinions in public debate. The way we respond to these challenges establishes the parameters of civic interactions and sets the boundaries of our collective and individual identities."

When groups and voices are marginalized or denied access to the public discourse, society as a whole loses. Many examples in the past show how people from these communities have effectively questioned and changed the flow of current public discourse, and as a result societies have improved. Prominent examples include Ghandi, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Reverend Martin Luther King. These are almost universally seen as heroes. They identified conditions, tendencies or movements in their society which were contrary to their deepest beliefs, and they reacted against those with intelligence and power. They identified their passion with their religious zeal. How much poorer would the world be today if these voices had been forever silenced or denied access to the public debate because of their religious origin and motivation?

On the other hand, religious communities and individuals lose when they withdraw themselves from the public discourse. As isolated as they may become, eventually decisions will be made which affect them. Without actively participating in public discourse they often become defined by people who may be ignorant of or even antagonistic towards their views.

A democratic society is ruled by the people, and that includes both secular and religious individuals and organizations. A narrow public discourse leads to a narrow-minded society. Jurgen Habermas, one of the most prominent modern thinkers, wrote, "Among the modern societies, only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human.”