Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Three Debates

I've been reading through AC Grayling's The God Argument recently. One of the things the book stresses is that there are actually three debates instead of one going on between atheists and theists. It's a point well worth making, especially as those issues can become muddled in the process of any discussion. They are:
  • Epistemological - theism vs atheism
  • Political - theocracy vs secularism
  • Ethical - religious vs humanism
The discussions can sometimes overlap, but it's a good thing in general to try to separate out the discussions. One can be a believer, while still supporting secularism in politics, or see merit in adhering to a religious ethical system while still being an atheist. It's also important to note that the justifications of the political / ethical debates are often grounded in epistemological claims. However, I'd question what value there is in arguing over the role of religion in politics by getting into the justification for biblical literalism (for example).

The debates also have sub-debates, such as science vs creationism in the case of the epistemological, or what role religious voices have under a separation of church and state. Even when it comes to ethical considerations, there's a strong overlap between humanism and any religious ethic, which would allow for debates on particular issues.

It's for that reason that I think that there's a lot of things would agree on if the debate wasn't so holistic and adversarial. I think that's why I get so disappointed when discussion is framed in terms of worldviews; it's a tactic that needlessly polarises, as well as obfuscating issues that don't demand it. Secular and ethical discussions aren't helped by getting people entrenched in their existing worldviews, which is perhaps why the move is so appealing (see: wedge strategy). But is unnecessarily divisive, and since there is so much that we already do agree on, I don't see the point of trying this strategy. The three debates are all interesting and important in certain respects, but become problematic when carelessly mixed.

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