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Your Deity Prescribes Public Policy?!...Please!

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Photo Credit: Eric MillerI think it is safe to say that on average religious faith plays a bigger role in public life in most developing countries than in the West or in places like China and Russia. In these latter societies, secular humanism appears to reign supreme. So, while the problem I am about to discuss is not dead in the West - it is certainly still a real issue in the United States of America for instance - it is a major issue in developing countries. It is the problem of basing a claim for public policy change or the resistance of policy change on the supposed commands of your favorite Deity: God, Allah, Jesus, Holy Prophet, the Lord Buddha, Lord Khrishna....and on and on the list goes. In many developing countries, this is a source of real pain and conflict. We don't need to name these countries. You have an entire basket of them to pick from. Please think about your favorite example as you read this.

This is a serious problem for the simple reason that it affects both the stability of governance systems and the possibilities of governance reform. Suppose you want to make the Government of Ruristan more accountable to its citizens, both men and women. You want rulers to give equal rights to all citizens, male and female. You might even want something far more modest: let public officials come before citizens and openly give an account of their stewardship. You want all citizens to be at the town hall meetings involved, male and female.  You are a group of citizens in Ruristan and you demand these changes. Then suppose some people in Ruristan say to you that the Deity or the Holy Prophet (loads of prophets, no one in particular intended) is against what you propose. And they say: That's it; it cannot be done.

People who come to the public sphere with such a claim use it as a trump, a discussion-ender or a veto. In a country where one religious view predominates, that kind of move kills the public sphere. You cannot have free debate and discussion of public issues, of common concerns, once you have Supreme Guardians able to declare the supposed will of the Deity and brook no opposition. Such political communities tend to be stifling and authoritarian ones. Where, on the other hand, the citizens of a country subscribe to different faiths, trying to shut down public debate on a common concern with the veto of the commands of one Deity is a slalom ride into trouble. Fights will break out, and you'd be lucky if they stayed civil. Even where citizens nominally subscribe to the same religious faith, sects exist, interpretations of scripture are as variable as minds.  What a Deity says is not always so clear. Again, a slalom ride into chaos.

The point, then, is this: you cannot have free and open public debate, you cannot have a democratic public sphere, you cannot have meaningful public deliberation on the great issues of the day without a commitment to 'the public use of reason'. The formulation is by Immanuel Kant but the underlying value - reason - is one of the great values undergirding modernity. The idea is simple. When you come to the public sphere to make a case for your cause, you must commit to the public use of argument. You must give a reason that other citizens can potentially accept. The goal always is to build a majority for your cause or issue. You cannot simply say 'This is what my Deity wants' and expect other citizens to keel over. That is not the way to agreement, let alone consensus. You must offer an argument; you must make the case. You must listen to others and counter-argue. 
 

Just think about what the great social movements have achieved in the last 100 years. The Civil Rights Movement in the US, Gay Rights movements globally, Feminism and the rights of women, now the environmental/climate change movement. Each of these started life as a minority concern. In each case, public argument was used - together with protests, demonstrations, conferences, petitions and so on- both in national public spheres and within the emerging Global Public Sphere. In each case, it was not enough to  simply say that this is what a Deity wants. For that bald claim would not have built the necessary majorities for the eventual triumphs or successes of these movements, although in each case there is still a lot to do.

The public use of reason is a value and also a much-needed skill. Nobody is saying that citizens should not have deep spiritual commitments. Of course they do and probably always will. The point is that without a commitment to public argument based on reason there is no way to get to agreement let alone consensus in any society where faiths and interpretations of even the same faith contend. Do you know any society exempt from that? The following conclusion is inescapable: reason is the dynamo of the public sphere, and the generator-in-chief of informed, considered public opinion.

So long!

Photo Credit: Eric Miller (World Bank)

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous on
This is a too simplistic view of public policy issues in developing countries. In the region where I live and work, religion is hardly an issue. Eventhough Buddhism has made people too ready to accept what life throws at them (including being poor, having no or little access to education and other important social services, and having a corrupt government), religion doesn't play a big role in worsening governance. In some Asian countries, it is the hiarchy that has for hundreds of years been built into the social structure, making people feel as if they are subjects to the king or the leader of government, rather than an active citizen of a democratic country. The rapid economic development these countries have seen over the last 10-30 years also make a lot of the poor better off than they used to be. In many of these countries, corruption has been rampant and systematic, and some people have accepted that growth and corruption go hand in hand. A lot of them are thinking that it's OK to let corrupt leaders and bureaucrats steal this much, if in the end the country still grows this much and this many people are out of poverty. Religion in these countries play a greater role in social issues (abortion laws, for example), but not governance issues.

Submitted by Sina on
Thank you for sharing your views. You do state, however, that even in the region in which you live religion leads to a willingness to accept bad governance. Is that not an issue, where underlying values - mostly shaped by religion - lead to a reluctance to demand improvements in governance? But the main point of my post was to draw attention to an important value undergirding public debate and discussion: the public use of reason. In the developing countries where I have lived and worked, this is a major issue.

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