The discussion of the PETA ad has got me thinking about another question: Is it proper to use religious arguments to persuade a religious believer when you yourself do not accept the religion in question?
I first started thinking about this question after 9/11 when a host of television journalists started lecturing the world about how the terrorism was really inconsistent with Islam and how the Koran doesn’t really require this sort of thing, etc. Now on one level, I am completely sympathetic with this kind of talk. The way that Islam gets caricatured in the West as a violent, backward, terrorist ideology (see, e.g., anything coming from the mouth or pen of Samuel Huntington) really bothers me and it is dangerous. On the otherhand, the idea that Katie Couric or Dan Rather really has anything informed or intelligent to say about the proper interpretation of Islam struck me as utterly ridiculous.
My musings on this led me to think of instances in which non-believers invoke religious belief as a way of persuading religious believers. Consider, for example gay marriage activists who quote the New Testament at opponents of same sex marriage. In other parts of the world, Christians are frequently aligned with left-wing causes, and secular conservatives will quote passages about rendering unto Ceasar what is Caesar’s and getting out of politics. For that matter, consider the attempts of westerners to persuade Muslims that Islam, properly understood, is not really inconsistent with modern liberal democracy.
I find all of these arguments slightly off putting. After thinking about, here is why I believe that I have this uneasiness. There is something manipulative about using religious arguments that you do not yourself to subscribe to. Rather than invoking the truth (as you understand it), you are simply grasping at whatever will get the other person to act the way that you want them to act. It is not quite the same as lying to get someone to do something, but it seems similar.
That said, I do think that there are ways of invoking the religious beliefs of others in arguments that do not rub me the wrong way. One might try to build a working coalition that is explicitly neutral as to justifications. One might understand religious texts as expressing some “deeper” truth to which one actually does subscribe. Etc. Etc.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but feeling that most invocations of religion by non-believers are shallow, manipulative, condecending, and in some sense dishonest.
[A version of this post is also posted at Tutissima Cassis]