Secularization and Moral Hope
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Eamonn Callan


This paper raises a number of penetrating questions. To what extent are shared moral hopes possible when some people subscribe to a secularized interpretation of morality, while others conceive of morality in religious ways? How can a common morality be discovered or constructed within conditions of enduring religious pluralism? Callan contends that we must find some other basis for social cooperation than personal belief or unbelief. He argues for a show of respect for others by offering them our true and best reasons for acting as we do, since we all want respect for our views. Callan affirms and stresses the need for an open ethical dialogue across the differences that divide us and pleads that for our children’s sake, if not for God’s sake, that we should keep our hopes up.

The thought that moral endeavour may be futile in an evil or morally indifferent world is a familiar state of mind to many people. Perhaps that despairing thought, rather than naked egoism, motivates much of the passivity that apparently decent people express in the face of great evil, thereby forfeiting their title to real decency. Yet I suggest that hope does not cease to be a virtue even when the theological context that traditionally supported its status is denied. Like charity, hope endures in ethical life for those of us who cannot endorse its religious associations and who must find an interpretation of its requirements that consorts with our unbelief. For if people think, as I do, that there is no God or transcendent meaning to human life, we still have to acknowledge that our moral practices may be undone by despair. Moral practices can only be sustained in our lives by the hope that wrongs will be righted, evil defeated by good, even if these outcomes are seen as uncertain contingencies rather than the will of an all-powerful and all-loving divinity.

My question is this: To what extent are shared moral hopes possible when some people, like me, subscribe to a secularized interpretation of morality, while others conceive morality in ways that are permeated with religious concepts and aspirations? This is a slight variation on a question that has been central to modern moral and political philosophy-viz., the question of how a common morality may be discovered or constructed within conditions of enduring religious pluralism. But I think my variation is of some interest because, in asking us to focus on the possibility of shared moral hopes, we address the ways a common morality might revolve around a certain affective concord and not merely, for example, a body of common rules or rights that we could all accept, more or less grudgingly.


We often underestimate the difficulty of finding shared moral hopes in the midst of religious diversity. One cause of that error is a tendency to interpret all religious faith in a way that gives it an exclusively personal meaning. Suppose we think of faith as a "ground project" in the sense that Bernard Williams has made familiar (e.g., Williams 1973). A ground project is an undertaking that someone, from a first-person singular perspective, embraces as a fundamental source of meaning in his or her life. A ground project might be the perfection of an artistic talent or the rearing of a family. To see something merely as my ground-project, however, is not to say that others have reasons to share in my undertaking. A reason for action that is decisive from a first-person singular perspective has no necessary force at all from a first person plural perspective. What I have reason to do resists any direct translation into what we have reason to do. The fact that I feel compelled to perfect a particular talent does not mean that I believe anyone else has reason to act as I do, even someone who is similarly talented.

If the full significance of religious faith could be neatly compressed into the category of ground projects, then the problem of developing shared moral hopes in a context of religious diversity would be more tractable than it is. The development of common hopes among people who differ only with respect to their particular ground projects should be a manageable undertaking, given a fair degree of mutual goodwill and a moderate level of collective resources. After all, each group or individual could agree that reasons for action that are internal to their respective ground projects have no authority over those who identify with different projects. Therefore, constructing a common social order that functions as an impartial arena for the different projects which people might pursue without harming others, seems a feasible task that all might enjoin in roughly compatible ways.

Perhaps many who now regard themselves as religious believers think of their religion as nothing more than a ground project, or even as a shallower interest or avocation that gives a little metaphysical colour to the dullness of contemporary life. I have no wish to disparage this kind of faith; I merely want to stress the obvious point that it is not the only kind. In contrast, many religious believers, and not just the stereotyped fundamentalists, think of their faith as entailing reasons for action that are authoritative for all human beings, irrespective of ground projects or anything else that might differentiate one life from another. To them, faith is more than a ground project, it has universal relevance to the question of how human beings should live.

The difficulty of reconciling the moral hopes of those who have religious faith with those who do not becomes more daunting when the faithful give a universalistic reading to what they believe. The religious believer of this sort must regard me, for example, as someone who is blind to an ethical truth that is as urgently relevant to me as it is to her. Because she sees the difference between us as having this immense ethical weight, she must want, so far as she cares about my well-being, to help me to overcome my blindness, and, so far as she cares about others, she must hope that I do not share my error with them. Since I cannot accept these religiously grounded ethical judgements, my relationship to the religious believer must in some way accommodate the fact of acute disagreement.

How might the adherents of secular conceptions of ethics respond at this point? One possibility is to adopt what I shall call the hard secularist response. On this view, religious premises are indeed relevant to matters of moral and political choice. But because all such premises are false or unreasonable, their relevance is a source of error and confusion. Therefore, shared moral hopes with religious believers could be negligible at best. Another, more emollient response may be forthcoming, which constitutes a soft secularist option. This is the option I want to defend. The soft secularist says: "I cannot accept your faith. But my judgement is no less fallible than yours. For all I know, your faith may be true, and it doubtless has a profound bearing on how people should live. But it cannot answer the question of how we should live together in circumstances of religious disagreement. So long as we cannot reach agreement, we must find some other basis for social cooperation than either your religious belief or my unbelief."

I want to defend soft secularism. But I also recognize that it is vulnerable to some notable objections. These objections express the worry that despite its emollient rhetorical packaging, soft secularism is really as repugnant to authentic faith as is hard secularism. For soft secularism may seem to require religious believers to conduct themselves inside politico-moral deliberation, that is, deliberation on basic terms of social co-operation, as if they had no faith in the universalistic sense. If that were true, soft secularism would impose a conception of political participation upon many religious believers that does violence to their self-understanding. After all, believers cannot coherently maintain that their faith is merely a ground project from a political perspective but something more than that when they turn away from politics and enter other roles and social settings. That is simply to oscillate between contradictory beliefs about the meaning of their faith. In short, if soft secularism requires that we interpret religious creeds only as ground projects from the standpoint of political deliberation, it seems to offer the religious believer two repellent options: either adopt a reading of your faith that consistently repudiates all universalistic pretensions or settle for a schizophrenic religious identity that incoherently accepts universalism in private life while rejecting it in public discourse. I call this the dilemma of soft secularism.

I shall argue that a certain variety of soft secularism is reconcilable with religious conviction of a universalistic kind. Yet the reconciliation I have in mind is tense and fragile, and so the prospect of common moral hopes that I affirm is necessarily precarious.


An argument for soft secularism is offered by Thomas Nagel (1991). According to Nagel, argument regarding the state's proper coercive role in our lives is rightly governed by a common standpoint of justification. Nagel suggests that the moral authority of that standpoint can be seen in light of a particular reading of the second formulation of Kant's Categorical Imperative. That formulation tells us to treat humanity never merely as a means but always as an end: "On one reading of this principle, it implies that if you force someone to serve an end that he cannot be given adequate reason to share, you are treating him as a mere means-even if the end is his own good, as you see it, but he doesn't" (Nagel 1991. p 159). Nagel suggests that religiously grounded laws and political policies are not the sort of end others can be given adequate reason to share. But he would say that this point is compatible with religious belief of a universalistic kind because the believer can coherently accept both the repressive character of religiously justified laws and policies, given the favoured reading of the Categorical Imperative, and the fact that some religious beliefs that might inspire repression should be embraced by all, given that there is one true faith. The dilemma of soft secularism is avoided, or so it would appear, because the common standpoint of justification that Nagel commends does not require anyone to believe that religious faith is just one ground project among others; all it demands is that reasons of universalistic force that are derived from faith be treated as irrelevant to the narrow purposes of politico-moral dialogue.

Notice that you might accept Nagel's reading of the Categorical Imperative as morally compelling but deny his claim that its application rules out any appeal to religious considerations. That is to say, you could go along with the idea that we are guilty of treating someone merely as a means to our own ends, however laudable our ends might be, when we force that person to serve an end that is good for her but which we cannot give her adequate reason to share. You could even agree that such conduct is never morally defensible. At the same time, you might insist that religious reasons are sometimes adequate reasons to share in the relevant sense. I take it that this is the kind of view that liberal Christians like Thomas Perry and Stephen Carter or secular philosophers like Jeremy Waldron have in mind when they reject soft secularism (Perry 1991; Carter 1993; Waldron 1993). They are not saying that if religiously devout citizens can play power politics effectively and ruthlessly enough to force their views on others, then so much the worse for benighted infidels. Their point is rather that arguments supporting the exercise of coercion might sometimes draw on religious premises without violating the principle of respect of persons. So the difficulty, as I understand it, does not have to do with Nagel's plausible reading of the Categorical Imperative. I think - or at least I hope - we can agree on that. The difficulty rather has to do with how we are to construe his idea of reasons that are adequate to share with others for the purpose of justifying political coercion.

So the crucial question would appear to be this: under what conditions is coercion morally corrupted by the failure to supply reasons that the person who is coerced cannot share? One very simple answer is that a reason which another "cannot share" is one that cannot be inferred from what the other already believe. Since religious pluralism means that we do not already believe the same things about religion, the kind of shared grounds that promote mutual respect cannot be drawn from the unshared religious creeds of our society. But this may be too simple. William Galston, for example, argues that respectful reason-giving need not begin from common premises, but rather, that we show others respect when we offer them what we take to be our "true and best reasons" for acting as we do. For example, Galston gives the example that when we arrest, try, and convict criminals, we show respect for their moral personality by offering the reasons embedded in the law. The convicted criminal may reject each and every one of these reasons, and he or she may suffer from a sociopathic disconnection from all other human beings and from society at large. But we do not explain our actions to the criminal on the basis of his or her own beliefs. Indeed, to do so would be insulting and manipulative. Rather we show respect by treating the criminal as we would anyone else, as someone capable of acting in accordance with a sound understanding of justice and of being motivated by a sense of justice (Galston 1991, p. 109).

If this is right, it offers a consoling thought to the religious believer who advances religious arguments in politico-moral dialogue since those arguments might sometimes succeed in influencing the exercise of political power in a particular direction, notwithstanding the vehement dissent of some who reject the arguments. The consoling thought is that even in these fractious conditions, political coercion may still express respect for those who reject its supporting grounds once they are offered what believers take to be their "true and best reasons" for acting as they do. The consoling thought is a bit premature. Suppose we agree with Galston that the sociopathic criminal is treated with respect in the situation as described. We still have a case where respect is given but its recipient is blind to its character as respect. Sociopaths perforce see the coercion to which they are subject as the arbitrary will of another. In an important sense, they remain beyond the pale of the moral community: they cannot offer the respect that is only possible for those who acknowledge the force of their true and best reasons, nor can they see as respect the attitude shown to them when they are compelled to comply with those reasons. But I think the great majority of religious believers in a liberal democracy such as Canada would find it disturbing, to put it mildly, to think of their compatriots who cannot accept religiously grounded political argument as beyond the pale of the moral community in a comparable manner. We entertain a shared hope that the terms of political cooperation might be fixed in a way that we could together see to be justified, despite deep religious and related moral differences. We want not just respectful reason-giving, in Galston's sense, when it comes to determining the proper exercise of political power; we want a mutuality of respect which is precluded in the kind of circumstances that Galston describes, that is, with the sociopath.

Galston's argument raises a very real difficulty for those who would conceive mutually respectful cooperation as constrained by the need to argue in political dialogue from shared premises. Suppose I live in a society where I am painfully aware of an enormous chasm between what Galston calls "our true and best reasons" to live in a certain way and whatever shared premises might currently be available as a basis for cooperation with others. There might be some such premises of moral consequence - we need not imagine a social contract with sociopaths - but these shared premises seem thin and paltry in comparison with my sense of how people should conduct themselves when all are alive to the force of the "true and best reasons" for acting in one way rather than another. On the one hand, I might sincerely seek a common standpoint of justification because I want reciprocal respect and not just the unilateral respect that might be shown to the sociopath; on the other hand, what is discernible from that common standpoint might seem downright impoverished. The search for shared premises pushes us toward the lowest common denominator of moral commitment, and the more diverse the society is, the lower the common denominator will necessarily become. Furthermore, so far as I adhere to the shared standpoint, of justification against the pull of the true and best reasons as I see them, my commitment to these reasons might be insidiously eroded, or at least I might be fearful that this will happen. The dilemma of soft secularism, or at least something very like it, seems to emerge here again because the severity of the contrast between the thinness of the values that are supposed to constrain my conduct qua citizen and the depth and richness of my ethical life, all things considered, threatens the very coherence of my moral identity.

I shall not belabour the obvious point that this kind of ambivalence about the ideal of a common standpoint of politico-moral justification might be familiar to some religious believers in the conditions of contemporary diversity, and the obvious point does make it hard to see how that common standpoint could be a source of potent and shared moral hopes. But another, less obvious point needs to be made here. A politics circumscribed by our lowest common denominator of moral commitment may be as unappealing to those whose conception of morality is thoroughly secularized as it is to the religious believer, and it may be unappealing for closely similar reasons.

Let me explain. I suggest that the moral authority of a shared standpoint of justification depends substantially on whatever reason we have to trust the cultural processes which yield whatever common ground constitutes that shared standpoint. Imagine a society in which the following is true. There are few institutions that encourage serious thought about the good life or the good society. The most culturally dominant institutions - such as television and the other mass media - feed a seemingly implacable light-mindedness. So far as they project what might be construed as an image of the good life, that image exalts material prosperity and competitive success, values that are so deeply ingrained as to make any serious challenge seem ridiculous in most cultural settings. At the same time, rapidly changing economic conditions erode established communities and traditional ways of life and exacerbate social inequalities. In our imagined society, this tendency is viewed with some disquiet, especially because these trends are associated with escalating levels of violence and lawlessness. The considered view of most people, to the modest extent that they consider anything, is that these unfortunate social developments are to be endured. The only exception they identify is the escalating tendency to violence and lawlessness, which they wish to eradicate by finding better and harsher ways to visit the violence of the state on those who would prefer to act violently on a freelance basis, so to speak.

What has happened to religious practice in this society? In some quarters, traditions of corporate worship have drastically declined, and people who live outside those traditions are apt to view religion as so much crazy superstition. Yet much of the decaying moral fabric of the society is the product of its once dominant religious faith, and in so far as the society still contains tendencies that pull against its light-mindedness - for example, ideals of justice, charity and familial responsibility - these are supported by its fading inheritance of faith. Now suppose, in these rather grim circumstances, we are invited, in the name of the Categorical Imperative, to determine the use of political power strictly on the basis of premises we can now share. We might be forgiven for responding to that invitation with something less than enthusiasm. Our lack of enthusiasm might be explained not by the fact that we are intent on harnessing the state to the sectarian project of imposing the one true faith but simply because the society we share with others is so ethically decadent. This is brought out by the fact that the decadence of the society I have described is recognized by people who do not share the faith of its embattled religious believers. In fact, my bleak description of an ethically impoverished culture is how, in my more despairing moods, I am inclined to see contemporary western societies, notwithstanding my obdurate atheism. I shall assume for the moment that how I see things in my most socially despairing moods is how things really are since that creates the worst case scenario for the defence of soft secularism. If soft secularism can be plausibly defended in that case, it can be successfully defended in any case. But I forewarn the reader that I shall come back to challenge that assumption a bit later.

The general point I have been trying to make is this. The moral authority of a shared standpoint of justification which might require us, for example, to prescind from our religious differences is not independent of the ethical vitality or decadence of the background culture that supports a particular shared standpoint of justification. Where the premises we can share at a given moment in our history have been determined by cultural processes that militate against serious ethical reflection, the moral authority of any shared standpoint of justification will be precarious. This point can be sharpened if we reflect on the Kantian foundations of Nagel's argument. The idea of respect for persons, which is expressed in the Categorical Imperative, is unintelligible in abstraction from the capabilities that distinguish persons from other beings. To show others respect is to honour the dignity they possess as bearers of those capabilities. Therefore, Nagel is surely right that respect requires a certain accommodation to the viewpoint of the other when her judgement results from the free exercise of her rational capabilities, even when we deeply disagree with the judgement she actually makes. But what are we to say when cultural processes deeply thwart the development and exercise of the distinctively rational capabilities of human beings? Under this condition, it is not clear that the content of a common standpoint we might affirm together has anything like comparable moral authority. Reasons that are adequate to share with others for the purpose of justifying political coercion are the fruit of serious and informed critical reflection, and where that condition is patently not satisfied, the very legitimacy of political authority is in grave doubt.


The idea of a shared standpoint of justification, such as Nagel espouses, that sets aside some of our deepest disagreements, is alluring precisely because we want reciprocal respect, and that will not be forthcoming so long as we insist on the unique authority of all our true and best reasons for acting as we do. Yet if this drives us toward a sparse and barren common ground, it may seem as if its collective affirmation can express neither respect for our own personhood nor for those who fail to see how sparse and barren that common ground really is. This is where the arguments of Perry, Carter or Waldron begin to seem attractive. By re-introducing religious argument into the public square we can put politics back in touch with its deepest and most fertile ethical sources, and we can invite religious believers and nonbelievers alike to enter politico-moral dialogue with their complete ethical identities engaged, rather than compelling them to work from the harshly abridged versions that soft secularism would require.

Yet I think Perry, Carter and Waldron are mistaken. I doubt that reintroducing God, or other distinctively religious concepts, to the political arena is the best or even an acceptable way to address the ethical inadequacy of the background culture. The moral authority of a shared standpoint of justification may well depend on the ethical richness of the background culture of politico-moral dialogue. Yet for those of us who aspire to live with our fellow citizens on a basis of mutual respect, the task we face in circumstances where that background culture is increasingly impoverished is directed toward its enrichment, and the blunt instrument of religiously inspired coercive law seems a very poor instrument for achieving that aim.

Consider Waldron's eloquent but misleading response to John Rawls's claim that the justification of political proposals, at least when matters of basic justice and constitutional essentials are at stake, must proceed by appealing to shared premises and accepted modes of reasoning:

I mean to draw attention to an experience we all have had at one time or another, of having argued with someone whose world view was quite at odds with our own, and of having come away thinking, "I'm sure he's wrong, and I can't follow much of it, but, still, it makes you think . . ." The prospect of losing that sort of effect in public discourse is frankly, frightening - terrifying, even, if we are to imagine it being replaced by a form of "deliberation" that, in the name of "fairness" or "reasonableness" (or worse still, balance) consists of blind appeals to harmless nostrums that are accepted without question on all sides. That is to imagine open-ended public debate reduced to the formal trivia of American television networks (Waldron 1993, pp. 841-842).

To some extent Waldron is right. The vigour of our own ethical identities depends in part on dialogical encounters in which we can engage imaginatively with religious and metaphysical views very different from our own. The prospect of never having that experience is as terrifying to me as it is to him, and part of what seems wrong with our public culture is that we create such little opportunity for that kind of encounter.

Rawls does not seem sensitive enough to Waldon’s point. But notice that the implicit happy ending to the encounter Waldron describes - the interlocutors going their separate ways, each half baffled and half exalted by the strangeness of the other - depends on certain assumptions about what will not happen next. We are invited to think that they can indeed go their separate ways without penalty, and that political power will not be used to impose one set of contested religious or metaphysical views at the expense of another. The implicit happy ending disappears once we imagine that what is at stake between them is political victory or defeat rather than reciprocal edification.

So in another way, Rawls is right and Waldron wrong. We may indeed need an open-ended, unrestrained public discourse about the good life and the good society; but we also need a more circumscribed and disciplined kind of deliberation that will respect the limits of reasonable disagreement when questions of political coercion are at stake. Indeed, the moral authority of the second kind of deliberation - my politico-moral dialogue - is parasitic on the vitality of the open-ended, unrestrained kind of ethical discourse because it is only to the extent that we have thought deeply together about the nature of the good life and the good society that we can expect to find a common standpoint of justification that deserves our allegiance. Unless our common standpoint of justification grows out of that deeper kind of thought it remains vulnerable to the doubt that it is no more than the trite common ground that the wise and the foolish, the vicious and the virtuous, can all agree on.

I have stressed the need for an open ethical dialogue across the differences that divide us, a dialogue not driven by the pressing question of how political power should be exercised here and now, and religious argument, given its ethical fecundity, will properly loom large in that context. I should stress that there is nothing notably original in my claims on behalf of such dialogue. The need is acknowledged, for example, in what Jeffrey Stout and Kenneth Strike have said elsewhere about the importance of the hermeneutical enrichment of our diverse ethical languages (e.g., Stout 1988, pp. 218-219; Strike 1993, p. 234); and it is acknowledged as well in Robert Audi's observations about the heuristic role of religious and other kinds of non-political ethical discourse in deepening our political morality (Audi 1993, p. 686). My modest extension of their proposals has been to make a Kantian argument, derived from an ideal of mutual respect that affirms our powers of reasoned reflection, in support of the thesis that any shared standpoint of justification we might construct together has moral authority in politics only to the degree that it draws upon an ethically rich and reflective background culture.

Yet if the shared standpoint of justification that mutual respect enjoins us to occupy derives its authority from the background culture, this opens the way to an obvious objection to soft secularism once that background is judged adversely. For it will then be strongly tempting for religious believers to think that in a less ethically thoughtless society part of the common ground we could share would be religious. One might think, for instance, that even though the citizens of no extant liberal democracy can agree that a fetus is as much a child of God as you or I, they would agree on that if our culture were not so rotten. That being so, why should political advocacy and choice not be informed by one's sense of that higher common ground, including the religious common ground, which we would affirm together under more ethically propitious conditions?

I think this objection to soft secularism is wrong because I do not believe there is any shared religious ground of moral consequence to be had under more propitious conditions. What might be possible is that a moral consensus on limiting access to abortion, say, could emerge within less ethically thoughtless descendants of our contemporary liberal democracies; what seems incredible is that the moral consensus could be the fruit of shared religious premises on which we now disagree. For our failure to achieve agreement on religious questions is not credibly assigned to the implacable light-mindedness of this or that given society. The failure has to do with what John Rawls has called the burdens of judgement: the many powerful sources of divergence in our reasoning that persist even when we exercise our common powers of thought as conscientiously as human frailty will allow (Rawls 1993, pp. 54-58).

Consider again the kind of vivifying religious disagreement that Waldron describes. Notice that it might be disagreement about the sacredness of fetal life. The force of this experience depends on the mutual recognition of the interlocutors that their failure to find much common ground is not to be glibly explained by the obstinate folly or wickedness of the other. There is humility and a certain acceptance of tragedy in this mutual recognition, an understanding that the limits of our shared capability to reason together toward consensus - and I use reason expansively here to include our abilities to understand empathically or imaginatively - are often intractably narrow. And they are especially narrow when it comes to the deepest questions about the meaning of our lives and its cosmic context. I suggest that soft secularism is the political expression of this humility and acceptance of tragedy, or at least that it can express that attitude. It says that in religious and other metaphysical matters where we cannot expect reasonable agreement we must not force upon each other anything less than such agreement because we want a politics that declares both our respect for those who reasonably disagree with us and their respect for us. Failure to reach agreement on such matters is as likely among those who are admirably high-minded - like the dialogical adversaries in Waldron's case perhaps - as it is among those who are contemptibly light-minded. So politics needs to be conducted in a way that prescinds from our religious differences even in circumstances where the moral authority of any shared standpoint of justification we might currently occupy is impaired by the ethical poverty of the background culture. That is so because we know that even if that background were immeasurably improved, irreconcilable religious differences would certainly persist.

I have made much of the point that the moral authority of a shared standpoint of justification depends critically on the ethical quality of the background culture from which it draws its substance. I also said that in my more despairing moods I am apt to think that the background culture of the politico-moral dialogue we might now conduct in liberal democracies is impoverished. But I recall enough of the religious lessons of my childhood to know that despair is a sin that subverts the virtue of hope. If I also heed what I said at the very beginning, I must acknowledge that a secularized hope remains a necessity for those of us who are permanent exiles from the religious traditions of our forbears and that the hope I need may be threatened by the self-indulgence of my more despairing moods.

In my less despairing moods I say this to myself. The common moral ground we now draw on in politico-moral dialogue is not so thin and repellent as you sometimes think. Alongside the many things that trouble or disgust you are common understandings about the dignity of all persons, human rights, ideals of civility and tolerance that are a precious cultural inheritance. Moreover, it is a cultural inheritance whose significance for how we should live together is far from being fully explored, and it might not be irrational to have high hopes for a world in which these shared values were pondered much more deeply and enacted far less fitfully than they are now. In any event, the relevant cultural inheritance is a fragile achievement, and the moral quietism to which you and others are tempted in your despairing moods threatens the development of that inheritance and its perpetuation from one generation to the next. So for your children's sake - if not for God's sake - keep your hopes up.

This takes me back to my original question. Can the hopes I must keep up be hopes I can share with religiously devout fellow citizens? At one level, the question can be answered with an emphatic yes. The cherished common ground of liberal democracy that I described a moment ago is in substantial part the product of Jewish and Christian traditions, and those who continue to identify with those traditions surely can, for the most part, endorse the hopes that I must cultivate against my own despairing proclivities. I also think we have reason to be optimistic about the ways in which the inheritors of other religious traditions, such as Islam, can support and enrich that common ground (e.g., Bilgrami 1992). But I also suspect that our shared hopes are apt to be muted by a certain disappointment and mutual estrangement that is inevitable given the gravity of the difference between religious belief and unbelief.

My thoughts on this matter were crystallized by a recent essay of Nancy Sherman on what she calls the virtues of common pursuit. Sherman points out that much modern moral philosophy has been grounded in the assumption that ethics is exhausted by the question of what we owe to others and ourselves. But this obscures the fact that in addition to caring for others and ourselves, we also care about the things we do together (Sherman 1993, pp. 277-278). The virtues we need to encourage, our caring for the things we do together or what Sherman calls the virtues of common pursuit, may be rather different than the ones required by the other ethically relevant kinds of caring. It is the case that the constrained politico-moral dialogue I have defended in the name of an ideal of mutual respect is something we must do together. So too is the more exploratory and open-ended kind of dialogue across religious differences that I have championed as a necessary element in the supporting background culture of liberal democratic politics. If I am right that substantial shared moral hopes can thrive in these settings, might not the affective solidarity of shared hopes be a deep source of fulfilment for those who participate? Perhaps not.

My doubts are best approached through Sherman's revealing example of a common task that is carried out with common hopes, a high degree of coordination, reciprocal respect, as well as a strong countervailing current of mutual alienation. The example is the plight of divorced parents conscientiously sharing the task of rearing a daughter whom they both love. The well-being of the daughter is their common goal. To that they are unwaveringly loyal. All the same, they lack the dynamic valued within group interaction. They don't interact in a way that captures what is best in a group activity. They lack the spontaneity and enthusiasm of sharing in each other’s thoughts, even those that are related to their common end. There is a certain emptiness to the present moment, a resistance to let the conversation go beyond necessities. In their case, the explanation may chalk up to lost love, a lack of enthusiasm for each other that makes them stand-offish (Sherman 1993, 281).

Suppose we think of religious believers and unbelievers as analogous to these estranged but honourable parents. (The analogy will also work for religious believers whose creeds are dramatically different.) The common moral tasks we must undertake together are like the rearing of the child in Sherman's example. The common moral hopes that motivate our efforts parallel the love that the parents have for their child. For the parents, common engagement is shadowed by the sense of the lost union of a love that cannot be recovered. In my political analogy, common engagement may be diluted by the longing for a lost civic unity, grounded in agreement about the ultimate meaning of our lives, that is now irrevocably lost. The ambivalence that characterizes common engagement in these cases affects the sense in which sentiments can really be shared. The parents in Sherman's case share a love for their child only in the sense that each experiences a love whose object is identical to that of the other's love; but their love is unshared in the sense that each love cannot enliven or take delight in the love of the other. Similarly, the moral hopes we can sustain in conditions of radical religious diversity may often be shared only to the extent that they have common objects not in the sense that the very commonness of our hopes can itself nourish us.

Of course, like all useful analogies, we might push this one too far. For example, my analogy obscures the exuberant pleasure we may sometimes take in dialogue across radical religious differences. But I also think we must avoid sentimentalizing that perhaps rare pleasure we take in experiencing our differences. Religious pluralism does defeat some deep and powerful human yearnings, like the longing for a polity we would enjoy only with soul-mates rather than troublesome and barely intelligible strangers. The purpose of my analogy was to help us to acknowledge that loss. Shared hopes are often more robust and durable the more modest we keep them.



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Bilgrami, Akeel. "What Is a Muslim? Fundamental Commitment and Cultural Identity." Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 821 - 842.

Carter, Stephen. The Culture of Disbelief. How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

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Perry, Thomas. Love and Power: The Role of Religion and Morality in American Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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