Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Movsesian on "Religion's Social Goods"

Over at First Things, Prof. Mark Movsesian has a post called "Religion's Social Goods," which is a response to the "growing number of legal scholars [who] question whether a justification exists for protecting religion as its own category."  Mark offers, as an argument (that can and should appeal to nonbelievers) for treating religion-as-such as "special", the following:

 Here’s one such argument. Religion, especially communal religion, provides important benefits for everyone in the liberal state—even the non-religious. Religion encourages people to associate with and feel responsible for others, to engage with them in common endeavors. Religion promotes altruism and neighborliness, and mitigates social isolation. Religion counteracts the tendencies to apathy and self-centeredness that liberalism seems inevitably to create.

In my view, what Mark says here about "religion" is, generally speaking, true and it provides, in many cases, a reason for accommodating, supporting, and respecting the practice of "religion."  At the same time (as Mark acknowledges), "religion" does not always do these things and other forms of commitment and association can provide these goods (sometimes, even if we think not as often) as "religious" ones.  So, from the perspective of those who are asking "is religion special?", it might seem that Mark has provided a reason not so much for treating "religion" as special as for treating commitments and associations and activities as special if, when, and to the extent that they provide these "important benefits."  And, increasingly (as Mark notes), many think the harms that "religion" is said (accurately or not) to cause weigh pretty heavily against the benefits that it (often, even generally) provides.

I agree that religious (and other) associations often provide these benefits.  I also think, though, that the justifiability (and, in our legal order, the requirement) of treating "religion" as "special" probably has more to do with (i) certain things that I take to be true about human persons and human dignity, (ii) the limits on (legitimate) political authority, and (iii) the story of the West.


Garnett, Rick | Permalink