Johann Hari raises a tricky question. Writing of Brown’s “social Christianity” as the basis of his commitment to egalitarianism, he asks:
I think faith is a dangerous form of bad thinking - it is believing something, without evidence or reason to back it up….Yet at the same time, when there are so many Murdochian pressures on a British Prime Minister dragging them to the right, pressing him to fellate the rich, isn't it good to have a countervailing pressure to help the poor - even a superstitious one? If religion drives Brown's best instincts and whittles down his worst, should we still condemn it?
I say yes. It’s just incoherent to use religion to argue for
equality, into three senses.
First, religious-based arguments don’t permit the possibility of persuasion. If a Christian says: “the Biblical prophets tell us to help the poor” an opponent could reply: “the Bible has no authority, as God doesn’t exist.” And the debate stops there.
Redistributive policies then become merely a way of the Christian imposing his private beliefs onto others. Other people therefore become tools of his own will, rather than moral agents in their own standing, with beliefs of their own which we should address. This is an odd thing for an egalitarian to do.
Secondly, religiously motivated arguments assume that one party has superior access to a “truth.” This surely is a strange thing for an egalitarian to believe.
Thirdly, religious appeals undersell equality, as there are countless secular ways to argue for it; see here and the papers collected here.
I should stress here that my beef is not with religion as such. It’s about the role it should play in politics. In an egalitarian polity, in which people should be persuaded rationally of policies, religion should have no place – even if it is true. Religion might motivate political beliefs, but it shouldn’t, and needn’t, be the public justification for them.