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Tony Coady on Religion in the Political Sphere: Part 3 – Religious Positives for Liberal Democracies

In debates about the virtues of religion, it is often difficult for scholars to agree on which interpretation of a particular religion’s mandates and precepts is an accurate one.  Do the world’s major religions promote civil discourse, tolerance, and mutual respect, or are do the truth claims embedded in their ideologies promote argument, vitriol, and in the worst cases, untold violence?

The former, argues Professor Tony Coady in his final Leverhulme lecture on November 29th, entitled “Religious Positives for Liberal Democracies.” (Full podcast)  In his lecture, Coady briefly recaps the arguments from his first two lectures, harshly criticizing the notion that “public” or “secular” reasoning is somehow neutral, and vociferously rebutting the notion that religion and religious people are inherently prone to violence.   While in his first two lectures, Coady focused his attention on the theoretical and philosophical questions which undergird debates about the role of religious reasoning in the public square, in his final lecture, he examines the ways in which religion (using Christianity as an example) upholds liberal virtues that are fundamental to flourishing democratic debate and deliberative democracy.

The first part of Coady’s lecture is animated by the broad concept of tolerance, defined by Coady as not simply permitting another’s argument to be made, but actively demonstrating respect for others’ beliefs.  Tolerance, he argues, is vital to robust democratic debate and is a virtue he claims is supported and perhaps even mandated by Christian teachings.  Bemoaning the precipitous decline of civil discourse in our most hotly contested social and political debates, Coady advocates for a world of mutual respect – one where disagreements proceed but a distinction can be made between respect for another’s argument and respect for the other him/herself.  He buttresses his case by invoking Christianity’s focus on valuing both love and peace.  Drawing on the work of St. Augustine in his glowing descriptions of peace in the city of God, Coady says that tolerance and humility (not self-deceipt a la Hume) and an active recognition of our own mental limitations is critical to the creation of a society in which civil discourse can prosper.

Coady also asserts that religion can encourage the “ideal of conscientious engagement,” maintaining that involvement in religious communities is consonant with a life of greater civil involvement.  He contends that religion is imbued with a “solidarity of interest” that can serve to inculcate attitudes and virtues congruent with liberal democratic dialogue.  Finally, Coady explores the question of compromise, highlighting the fact that compromise is valuable as it creates a locus for moral growth and mutual respect.  He reminds us that compromise need not entail a sacrificing of core values, but can involve an active recognition in the value of another’s argument.

I think it is important to note that Coady’s analysis assumes that religious people value these virtues (tolerance, mutual respect, conscientious engagement) as central to living a religious life.  History, of course, is replete with examples to the contrary.  But I think Coady is right to concentrate not just on the often artificial distinction between religious and secular reasoning, but also on the other ways in which religion can enhance public discourse.  Notably, Coady’s final lecture takes a step away from (yet in concert with) the arguments of his first two in emphasizing the role that religion can play in the public square, not just from the perspective of reasoning but (perhaps even more importantly?) also from the perspective of disposition.  The mindset and attitude we take in the course of civic debate is as important, he argues, as the particular arguments we cite along the way.   Ultimately, Coady concludes in marshaling a range of arguments to suggest that the ways in which religion can contribute positively to public reasoning are manifold.

A recording of Coady’s final lecture can be found here.

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