Elliott from Where I Sit thinks I don't know what the flock I'm talking about when it comes to religion in the public square. Now, you have to like a guy who makes reference in his blog to the 1978 film The Warriors which is either a piece of genius or so awful that it seems like one.
Actually, its not clear that Elliott and I completely disagree since he says that he has "no objection to including religion in any discussion about morality." I was concerned largely with those who do object and, if you don't think that's a widespread view, look at all those who have criticized Bush for God-talk. For examples, look here and here.
But I still want to respond to Elliott's suggestion that we can still have a pretty good conversation about moral values without resort to people's religious presuppositions.
Elliot says: "By linking morality intrinsically to religion you beg the question, which religion? Would the morals of a Mormen be the same as a Mayan? And if not, which are “correct?” I say: I suspect that the Mormon and Mayan might disagree on some things (human sacrifice immediately comes to mind), although the example is a bit misleading. On the ground - at least in the US - there is fairly broad agreement on Judeo-Christian foundational principles (which are shared by many other religious traditions), i.e., all people are created equal; persons should not be used as ends; life is sacred, etc. We may then reason (see below) from these principles to radically different conclusions, but we actually agree more than we know on where to start.
Elliott says: "It frees an atheist or an agnositc to believe that no code of morality applies to him or her." I say: I can't see why. I was careful to say that not all moral values must be rooted in religion (although what people often regard as their purely secular values often owe far more to religion that they realize)and the atheist and agnostics are free to make their case.
Elliott says: "It ultimately reduces all moral imperatives to “because God said so.” To turn Rick’s words around on him, that seems like pretty thin intellectual gruel to me." I say: Ah no, its actually the thickest of gruel because it is based in ultimate things. But here Elliott echoes the arguments of philosophers like Rawls and Rorty who say religion is a "conversation-stopper" because it is inaccessible to those who do not share its presuppositions. But this is, as the eggheads say, an epistemologically controversial position.
There are at least two responses. First, all reasoning begins with something that it is a first-order principle, i.e., a starting assumption. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was no friend of religion, called them his "can't- help- its." He thought they were completely arbitrary. He was wrong, but the point is that you generally have to find some starting points. Second, it is not at all clear that all religious reasoning starts from some principle that can only be accepted on faith. A lot of people have come to argue that we can, in fact, determine whether propositions based on faith correlate strongly or weakly with what our experience tells us.