The future—openness and dogmatism

What form can a dialogue between believers and non-believers take? Nietzsche, in his famous critique of Christianity, argued that all religion was a form of self-deception that leads to epistemic closure. Whereas the standard philosophical critique of religion has been, as in Hume, ‘evidential atheism’, that there is not enough evidence to justify the belief in a god, Nietzsche’s critique is based on an ‘atheism of suspicion’, which questions the possibility of truthfulness in believing, constructing belief as a self-serving lie of a subservient group. Thus, the atheism of suspicion would seem to create an impasse for any dialogue. Yet, Winifred Lamb argues that the atheism of suspicion can be used by believers to check the drift into the support for an organised religion at the expense of the truth, or the slide to idolatry rather than worship (chapter 14). Lamb argues that Nietzsche’s critique alerts believers to the easy drift to servility in prayer, prayer that is a form of bargaining with God, rather than the self-surrender that all religious traditions urge that it should be. She argues against a form of faith that she calls a form of ‘cheap grace’: the certainty that one has found the ‘truth’. Rather, against fundamentalists, and drawing on the work of theologians such as Bonhoeffer, Merton and Moltmann, she suggests that applying Nietzsche’s thought as a scalpel to one’s own beliefs is central to the religious vocation. As she concludes: ‘suspicion can provide a creative spur to religious self understanding’, taking the philosophy of religion closer to religion.

Similarly, St John argues for a reframing of religion such that the sacred is not identified with any specific set of beliefs, but as an ontological attribute of human beings (chapter 15). This conceptual step moves debates about sacrilege and blasphemy away from problems of cultural relativism towards what she describes as the universal human capacity to experience the holy. Sacrilege and blasphemy are affronts to this capacity to experience awe in the face of existence. A tolerant society is one where this capacity for awe is respected and defended.

As political theorists have pointed out before us, ‘respecting diverse beliefs’ cannot mean treating people as if their religious beliefs were of no consequence.[14] But respecting beliefs does not mean that a judgment needs to be made about the truth of those beliefs, or that the state needs to enter disputes about religious dogma. Toleration in a multicultural society needs to be understood as more than a negative liberty. If Australia and other multicultural nations are to maintain peaceful societies, the religious values held by individuals and communities must be acknowledged and negotiated as social and political ‘realities’. The sacred can literally be negotiated, as Hal Wootten argues (chapter 16). He documents how a secular state can balance the relationship between Aboriginal claims to sacred land with the economic imperatives of white Australians. At the core Wootten suggests that the very fact that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act, 1984, does not use the word sacred (rather it refers to an ‘area of particular significance to Aboriginals’) has meant that cases could be adjudicated without entering into evaluation of the beliefs of Aboriginals. Wootten also points out that the negotiation of specific claims is not much different from a myriad of choices that people make daily: it is not a special case. The case of land rights involves only a recognition that the Aboriginal group in question holds specific beliefs about that land and that we should recognise the sincerity of those beliefs and respect them. In this, the role of the state is to negotiate the sacred, and it can fulfil this role precisely because it is secular, liberal and committed to protecting cultural identity.

In Australia, the Mabo case, and more recent Native Title legislation, has meant that indigenous religions are not only recognised, but their maintenance is recognised as a human right and is a requirement for land claims. Under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act, 1984, sacred sites are protected as long as groups can show an ongoing connection to the land. As in the Hindmarsh Bridge case, an ongoing connection may be difficult to prove, and hotly contested. Yet overall, this experience provides us with a way of understanding what it might mean to respect religious beliefs and to acknowledge them as being of consequence, without having to accept them as true. In the resolution of such cases, we do not question the truth of Aboriginal beliefs about what is sacred, but acknowledge that such beliefs and values compete with other interests and values, such as public safety or economic development.