Belief inseparable from experience

By Justin Doran

There are two things you ought not discuss at a dinner party: politics and religion. After all, it is unreasonable to expect dinner guests to have the correct opinion on matters of life and death. Of course, it could also be that in the company of friends we would prefer to discuss things that unite us, rather than divide us. And it’s not like the chicken marsala is going to be a religious experience, or the corn will change our mind about farm subsidies.

The question seems to be one of appropriateness. Divisive subjects deter from the purpose of a dinner, which is to eat, drink and be merry. The same taboo persists into public discourse. But what is the purpose of public discourse? Within the realm of politics it is to flesh out a problem, and its potential solutions, so that we may improve our society. Democracy, in some sense, is a perpetual discussion with your neighbors.

However, because religious justification is considered “personal,” it must be cooked into something palatable for everyone. Without a doubt, to justify a policy by claiming that your particular deity demands it will sound silly to anyone who thinks you’re just making your deity up. Which, in the United States, is always going to be the majority of the population.

Instead, we require that you invent an elaborate justification based on verifiable facts and sound philosophy; your “thou shalts” must become “research shows.” It is inappropriate to season your reasoning with personal explanations, even when those are undoubtedly the most important. To some extent this seems like a good restriction to place on a political discussion. It encourages considering the effects policy will have on others, and discourages imposing personal beliefs. On the other hand, it is frighteningly dishonest.

Humans are very talented at wanting something then justifying it. Remember when you got dumped last semester? Let’s just say that wasn’t the real reason.

By discouraging politicians and other public figures from explaining their most intimate beliefs, we are discouraging them from honesty. In the best of all possible worlds, we wouldn’t have to question a politician’s motives. In the real world, however, we should take all the information we can get.

Consider what a public, secular justification actually means. It is a proposal for how best to fulfill the material needs of citizens. However, it cannot exceed this lest it enter into the realm of personal belief. You can build a church so you can go be a Christian, but you can’t do it to glorify God. But for many, many people the purpose of life is more than satisfying material needs.

It breaks down to the fact that we feel uncomfortable discussing other people’s personal beliefs. However, we don’t feel uncomfortable using personal experience as justification, like becoming pro-life after hearing a geneticist giggle maniacally while wringing his hands. But is there any difference between personal experience and personal belief? Just that it’s a taboo.