I’ve so far not commented on the debate regarding Dr Rowan Williams’ remarks on sharia law — it’s a debate that’s caused more heat than light, expecially in the popular press which has wilfully misrepresented Williams’ remarks. But I will pass on this tidbit from Quaequam blog:
The point which much of the media has ignored is that Williams has argued for a system of exceptionalism whereby we atheists (or, as he put it in his speech on Thursday, sterile positivists) must abide by the rule of law while anyone of faith can negotiate whatever opt-outs they wish. At the same time, of course, he insists that the Church should be established and retain its existing seats in the House of Lords. Gay marriage, and even same-sex registered partnerships, is apparently a threat that undermines the institution of marriage, yet we should at least be open-minded about the idea of Muslim polygamy. People of faith can say what they like about atheists, but atheists should be locked up for slagging off the religious. In short, he believes absolutely in equal rights with the modest proviso that the religious are more equal than the rest of us.
This I think gets to the nub of what Williams is arguing for. It’s obvious what the attraction of such a point of view is to a religious leader such as Williams; it is also obvious to any fair-minded person what’s wrong with it. Why should any belief system be priviledged over any other? The only reason is that some beliefs are correct, or at least more correct than other beliefs. For example consider:
Belief A: Strawberries are good to eat.
Belief B: Broken glass is good to eat.
It happens that one of these beliefs is more true than the other one. How do we know? By observing reality. Now there’s a special way of observing reality that consists of considering procedures which if carried out will give a different result based on with belief is true, and then carrying out those procedures. This way is called experimentation and it’s how science works.
Sometimes its impossible to do experiments — for example it would be unethical to force people to smoke cigarettes to see if doing so harmed their health — but what you can do is observe the health of smokers and non-smokers and use statistical techniques to infer a correlation. Correlation isn’t causation (of course) but it does strongly hint that something is going on.
Now consider another belief:
Belief C: The world was created with apparent age by my pet cat last Tuesday.
There are no experiments that can tell whether Belief C is true or false. Thus it is said to be unfalsifiable. This has two implications: first, we don’t know whether it is true or not, and secondly we don’t (or shouldn’t) care anyway, because all observable phenomena behave exactly the same regardless of whether it is true or false.
Society (and the state) should respect and priviledge those beliefs that have been shown by observation or experiment to be true — or at least that have the evidence in their favour (beliefs such as Belief A). So for example,it’s reasonable for the state to say smoking is bad for people and therefore to tax it highly and restrict its sale.
Regarding beliefs that are wrong or unfalsifiable (such as Belief B and Belief C), these should not be respected or priviledged in any way. In fact, it’s best for society to actively ridicule such beliefs, in order to reduce the number of people who believe them.