God Does Not Make Good Policy

Today’s Guest Hoyden is regular commentor Grendel, who normally blogs about coffee over at Cafe Grendel, and who has just taken up poliblogging at new group blog Distinctly Disgruntled, where this post was originally published.

There are a number of issues of concern in this election, but one of the unspoken and almost unquestioned issues is the role of religious belief in the decision making processes of some individual politicians.

It would seem to be less of a consideration in Australia than in the United States where the issue of religion is taken much more seriously in political life, but I must confess to disquiet at the thought of any Prime Minister spending time in prayer for guidance in making public policy.

Any elected official that sees this as a good basis for decision making is a risk to the community. I know that sounds like a strong statement, and I guess it is. But imagine an elected Minister with responsibility for a key portfolio, like water supply, who does not believe that humans are causing climate change, and even if they were it would not matter because sufficient prayer will bring down the rains to break any climate change related droughts. Would their policy decisions be affected? Would they take some actions, or not take others because they sincerely believe that faith alone will provide what is required?

Recently I attended a presentation by Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the Christ Church Grammar School in Claremont, Perth. Ayaan had been invited to speak in an interview format and the School was using the event as a charity fundraiser. The presentation was fascinating, edgy and engaging and sparked a cascade of questions in my mind that challenged a lot of my own assumptions.

Standing outside at the back I could hear the presentation, and the questions, but also some of the muttered comments from those towards the rear of the audience. Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke about the need for democracies to reject calls to weaken themselves by allowing intolerant cultural and religious practices in the name of multiculturalism.

This was challenging on a number of levels. The first is that it sounds initially like a call to reject multiculturalism, and this idea resonated with some of the audience who began muttering that this justified their view that immigration from Islamic countries should be stopped.

Those people seemed to miss the delicate line that Ayaan Hirsi Ali was walking. She was not suggesting that Australia reject people, she was saying that we should reject disruptive intolerance and that some religious practices, of many religions, are intolerant and inconsistent with democracy.

As a refugee herself Ayaan well understands the value of an accepting society, but as a woman who fled cultural and religious intolerance she sees no need to tolerate intolerance or accept extremes in new arrivals into a country, in much the same way that such extremes are not tolerated in existing citizens. I thought this was fairly clear, but perhaps I was hearing a different message to others in the audience.

There was some discussion about the comparative maturity of religions, and the fact that Christianity and the societies in which it is dominant have gone through the reformation and the enlightenment which together have somewhat moderated its worst excesses. The message was not primarily that religion is bad, it was more practical than that, it was that religion as a tool for governing is bad, and that it is not a good foundation for making policy or decisions that affect the everyday lives of people.

And this gets us back to my original point, it doesn’t actually matter what your religion is, and if I had my druthers it would never be a question that needed to be raised during an election since no one would base their decisions on their beliefs, but on sound, evidence-based advice.

To my view, the appropriate question to be asked of a politician is not “Do you believe in god” but “will you allow your personal beliefs to influence decision making”.

But I suspect we would have a challenging time getting an honest response on that question too.



Categories: Politics, religion, social justice

Tags: ,

5 replies

  1. “will you allow your personal beliefs to influence decision making”

    You know, I don’t think that’s the best question either, because when you get down to it, personal beliefs SHOULD influence politicians who are elected by others who share [many of] those beliefs. If I was a politician, my personal belief that refugees deserve fair treatment and that all people deserve the right to get married, regardless of the gender of their partner, would definitely influence my decisions.
    I think the more apt question would be, “Are the personal beliefs that influence your policies informed by evidence and rational thought in a way that is relevant to modern Australia, or are they informed by the rigid and fundementalist interpretation of texts that were written thousands of years ago?”

  2. You know, whether they say it does or not, I can’t see how someone can divorce themselves from their personal beliefs and make decisions not based on them. Some of them are so ingrained we don’t even realise we’ve got ‘em.
    Vote early, vote often, and for heaven’s sake don’t vote for Tony.

  3. Good points both, the intent was to provoke and yes, we all in many ways are the product of our experiences and beliefs. I do hold the view that those seeking public office, those that will represent and make decisions on our behalf should develop, or seek to develop exceptional metacognitive skills that at least permit them to know themselves and their own biases sufficiently to set them aside when the evidence suggests that is necessary. In Tony Abbott’s case I have no confidence whatsoever that he has that capacity. He has always demonstrated that he has the strength of his convictions, and some laud that fact. I think it is an issue of concern, not praise that he would allow his personal moral values to override rationality in decision making. Rudd worried me somewhat in that respect, but was far more pragmatic.
    Julia? I have no idea how our Prime Minister comes by her views on a number of issues, like same-sex relationships. I find it quite perplexing and the best she can hope from me is a third-hand preference vote.
    I guess in essence what I would really want to know from the polies is, if they are going to let their personal beliefs influence their decisions, then I think those personal beliefs need to be fully and publically declared, otherwise we are voting for a cipher.

  4. Julia? I have no idea how our Prime Minister comes by her views on a number of issues, like same-sex relationships. I find it quite perplexing and the best she can hope from me is a third-hand preference vote.

    I think what we have here (and also in the case of Penny Wong, and no doubt many others in the Labor Party) is the case of someone who IS setting aside their own personal beliefs, to their detriment. In some ways I find that more disturbing than a True Believer who opposes things like marriage equality, because it shows that she IS capable of that meta-cognitive process and as a result, she’s decided to throw LGBTQI people under the bus. 😦

  5. I have to agree Beppie, the moment Julia uttered the comments on marriage I knew we were seeing a sacrifice at the altar of political expediency. It was not a good day for any Australian, but particularly for members of the LGBTQI communities.

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