“Matters of religion are like matters of sexual preference: they are not to be discussed in public.” I came across this quote by John Searle recently while reading Edward Feser’s witty, incisive book The Last Superstition. And I have heard a similar sentiment expressed elsewhere. In one men’s magazine the author advised his readers not to talk about our religion in conversation with others and it is a rule which has become entrenched in the English-speaking nations and I suspect in Europe as well. Discussing one’s own religion or making reference to God in conversations is regarded as socially problematic, and sometimes even offensive ( although it is mysterious why some people should find it so offensive). In short, this sort of idea is fairly strongly rooted in our culture and is not only held by convinced atheists, but pretty much everyone who is not an orthodox Christian or adheres to an orthodox religion of some other kind.
When you read this quote, what is most strange is Searle’s apparent disconnect from modern society. Matters of sexual preference are constantly discussed in public. There are highly publicized parades about it. Sexual preference is shouted about in public. Movies are made in which the sexual element is explicit. And this was already the case in nineties when he wrote this quote, although, in his defense, it is much worse now than it was then. So, if religion is like sexual preference in how it should be discussed, then that means it should be constantly discussed.
But is it true? It is unclear why, if religion is a question of truth, why it should not be discussed in public. In fact, religion evokes many important philosophical questions, like the meaning of life, the content of morality and the fundamental nature of reality. Even those who do not believe in God can appreciate the thoughts it provokes. This is why many people are introduced to philosophy through thinking about the God question. That is not insignificant. But apart from this, religion as a question of truth deserves to be discussed just like any other question of truth, and given its importance in how we live our lives, it probably deserves discussion more than any other question of truth. Some petty discomfort at hearing “God” or “Jesus” spoken of with reverence is not and should not be the important factor in deciding what should and should not be discussed.
It is interesting that it is a philosopher who is saying that an important philosophical question should not be discussed in public. This sort of sentiment always only comes from either atheists or people who don’t take religion seriously ( even if they have some sort of belief in God). In other words, their disdain for God-talk in public is just a way for them to favour their own views. It is not a neutral, fair social rule they would like to portray it as being.