Argument Cop-Outs, Part 3: The Masonic Origin of ‘Never Talk Politics or Religion’
In a previous installment, titled “Argument Cop-Outs, Part 1,” I picked a few bones with “Let’s just agree to disagree.” In this post, I will register a few points concerning the practical so-called “advice” that encourages aspiring well-mannered types to forebear from discussing “politics and religion.”
For example, a quick Google search turned up the following.
“I was always raised that as an adult, there are certain things you do not discuss in public. …There are certain things that no one should discuss in public. …[D]iscussing [your political views] in public …is rude. …Everyone should just avoid the possibility of starting an argument by never speaking about [religion].”
How did this claptrap come to pass for sage advice? To get a fix on the contours of phrase’s supposed purview, let us inspect its origins.
At the website The Phrase Finder, one Larry C. Shelton asked: “Who originated the phrase ‘never discuss politics and religion’?”
By way of reply, a responder wrote: “I couldn’t find anything specific. But the rule is to not discuss politics or religion at the dinner table. ‘Emily Post and other self appointed arbiters of etiquette have long ruled that politics and religion should be scrupulously avoided at dinner…’ …’Religion is by no means a proper subject of conversation in mixed company.’ Earl of Chesterfield, letter to his godson, undated.”
In Emily Post’s Etiquette, we read: “Conversation is …[an] essential ingredient to every meal. …For the most part, avoid controversial topics such as money, politics, and religion. That’s not to say you can’t discuss the news of the day, but be careful if you are with people who are staunchly on the opposite end of any spectrum.”
Instead, the manual recommends staying with “Safe Topics.” “You can always count on pop culture - sports, sports personalities, TV music, and films.”
In other words, as Noam Chomsky once put it (albeit in another context altogether), the etiquette guide suggests sticking with topics that have "no importance for our lives."
The daughter of architect Bruce Price, Post (born Emily Price) was a late-19th/early-20th century American aristocrat and socialite. Can her “advice” be traced back further in time?
Philip Dormer Stanhope, the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, was born in 1694 and died in 1773. His statement on polite conversation, partially quoted above, does appear to express sentiments similar to those of Post.
“The three commonest topics of conversation are religion, politics, and news. All people think that they understand the two first perfectly, though they never studied either, and are therefore very apt to talk of them both dogmatically and ignorantly, consequently with warmth.
“But religion is by no means a proper subject for conversation in a mixed company. It should only be treated among a very few people of learning for mutual instruction. It is too awful [i.e., full of aw - Ed.] and respectable a subject to become a familiar one. Therefore never mingle yourself in it, any further than to express a universal toleration and indulgence to all errors in it, if conscientiously entertained; for every man has as good a right to think as he does as you have to think as you do; nay, in truth he cannot help it.
“As for politics, they are still more universally understood, and as every one thinks his private interest more or less concerned in them, nobody hesitates to pronounce decisively upon them, not even the ladies; the copiousness of whose eloquence is more to be admired upon that subject than the conclusiveness of their logic.
“It will be impossible for you to avoid engaging in these conversations, for there are hardly any others; but take care to do it very coolly and with great good-humor; and whenever you find that the company begins to be heated and noisy for the good of their country, be only a patient hearer; unless you can interpose by some agreeable badinage and restore good-humor to the company.”
Stanhope’s counsel is nearly equal parts a regurgitation of the religious toleration common by the 18th century and a Machiavellian directive aimed at helping his godson successfully “network” (to use today's lingo).
Of course, the idea of “every man [having] as good a right to think as he does as you have to think as you do” – whether in politics or religion – basically summarizes a few strands of the First Amendment.
Therefore, at best, the “never talk politics or religion” guidance is a contemporary rehashing of an Enlightenment-era plea for “toleration.” If it had merit, its origin would be irrelevant. But it appears to me to depend upon, embody or imply two mistakes.
Before I endeavor to take the titular prescription back a few notches prior to Stanhope, let me just say a word about these. Number one, the word “argument” is ambiguous. On the one hand, it designates a dispute, possibly involving commotion and yelling. On the other hand, it refers to sets of statements such that some proper subset, called the “premises,” entail the complementary subset, called the “conclusions.” Writers like poor Mrs. Batista have no familiarity with the latter and therefore resist any philosophically-weighty discussion out of fear of starting a ruckus. For such as she, I recommend associating with a higher caliber of individual.
Number two, as I have written elsewhere, “right” is also ambiguous. We might speak about moral rights, or entitlement based upon the objective Good; legal rights, or entitlement stemming from some positive law code; human rights, or entitlement rooted in essential human properties; rational rights, or doxastic-epistemic entitlement as an outgrowth of sound evidence; and so on. Although several (or even all) of these sorts arguably overlap, they are nonetheless separable and distinguishable. And we need to know which sort is in view. 
I do not wish to dispute that, for example, any given American citizen has as good a right to think as he/she does as any other citizen. Let’s say that this is because the Constitution grounds theses rights and guarantees “equal protection” and so on.
What is most relevant for the purposes of a discussion of “argument cop-outs,” is the fact that a rational entitlement and a legal entitlement are not the same thing. While (in theory) any given American citizen enjoys the same legal right to his or her beliefs as any other American citizen, any given American citizen does not necessarily have the same rational right to his or her beliefs as another person chosen at random. The reason is straightforward. Rational rights for x to believe some proposition, p, proceed from the arguments and evidence that x has for p.
If John Doe has little to nothing by way of (good) arguments or evidence for p, and Jane Doe has (good) arguments and evidence for not-p, then Jane will have a measure of rational entitlement for her belief (in the pertinent case) that John does not have. If John manages to secure some evidence, then this justificatory imbalance might even out a bit. Otherwise it is true to say that John lacks a right - a rational right - that Jane possesses.
In terms of argument, it is a “cop-out” to make hand-waiving remarks about “everyone’s having a right to his or her opinion.” This is so because putting a legal right to believe p to work grounding a rational right to believe p, eo ipso, shows that true rational foundation for p is lacking (or at least not forthcoming).
Are we able to conclude, then, that the saying is merely a slogan promoting “toleration,” 18th-century style? Close. But there is a additional detail that is worth disclosing.
My researches suggest to me that the source is possibly masonic - specifically, issuing out of the meeting rules of the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) as composed by the Scottish clergyman James Anderson.
It is true that the rise of the UGLE and, indeed, the beginning of institutional Freemasonry, took place inside of the wider socio-cultural framework of the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, it is striking that our phrase apears nearly verbatim in Anderson’s The Constitutions of the Free-Masons (London, 1723), where we read:
“Avoid especially controversies on religion, nationality and politics.”
I advise against limiting one’s conversations to banalities in deference to this masonic dictum. For, in addition to the sentiment’s other demerits, rehearsed above, “[t]he bane of our civil institutions is to be found in Masonry…”.
 Yes, this is part 3 - to keep my numbering here in line with my previous enumeration, loc. cit. Hey, if George Lucas could make his Star Wars movies out-of-sequence, why can't I write these weblog posts that way?
 Ally Batista, “The Things You Should Never Talk About,” Elite Daily, Aug. 27, 2012, <http://elitedaily.com/life/culture/talk/>. Batista’s reasoning is a mess. In the first place, she reduces all talk about “money” down to either braggadocio or lamentation. Forget accounting, economics or fiscal policy. You’re either an “a******” (her word) or a whiner. Secondly, in terms of politics, Batista is a defeatist. To her, all politics is presumably a totally private - indeed secretive enterprise. Her reason? “Politics always begins arguments” and this is futile since, ultimately, “no one can change” your opinion. This is just misology run amok. Such self-destructive pessimism is for the rubes. After all, if taken literally, such advice would destroy political parties and, in fact, all political discourse. It’s lunacy. Her remarks about religion are not even worth my time to relate.
 Larry C. Shelton, “Never Discuss Politics and Religion,” phrases [dot] org, Jun. 8, 2010, <http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/61/messages/910.html>.
 ESC, “Re: Never Discuss Politics and Religion,” phrases [dot] org, Jun. 8, 2010, <http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/61/messages/911.html>; citing <http://lacoastpost.com/blog/>. A more accurate citation for embedded “Emily Post…” quotation is: Admin, “Climate Change Threatens Conversation – As Well as the Coast,” LACoastPost [weblog], Dec. 15, 2009, <http://lacoastpost.com/blog/?p=16797>.
 Emily Post Institute, Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th Edition, New York: HarperCollins; William Morrow, 2011, p. 60. But see Anna Post [great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post], “The Etiquette of Talking Politics,” Huffington Post, Feb. 21, 2008, updated Nov. 17, 2011, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anna-post/the-etiquette-of-talking-_b_87893.html>.
 That is, evidently, “not formal; easy in conversation.” See Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd ed., Dublin: W. G. Jones, 1768, n.p.; archived online at <https://books.google.com/books?id=bXsCAAAAQAAJ>.
 Philip Dormer Stanhope Earl of Chesterfield, The Best Letters of Lord Chesterfield: Letters to His Son and Letters to His Godson, Edward Gilpin Johnson, ed., Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1893, pp. 276-277; archived online at <https://books.google.com/books?id=LrY8AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA276>.
 “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” “First Amendment,” Cornell Univ. Law School, <https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment>.
 Matthew J. Bell, Blueprint for Opposing “‘Gay’ Marriage”, draft, Sept. 8, 2013, pp. 74-75, n. 91. Secondly, on one straightforward schema, the notion of a “right” implies that some entity (call that entity the “right giver”) grants to some other entity (call that the “right receiver”) a justifiable claim (the “right”) to something (call it the “right object”). RIGHT GIVER -------->| THE RIGHT to the RIGHT OBJECT | ----------> RIGHT RECEIVER. For instance, The Big Box Company (the right giver) grants the right to a yearly week-long vacation (object) to its employees (right receiver). Or, Our Creator grants the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to us (we the people). Or, according to Nietzsche (and others before him, e.g. Plato’s Thrasymachus, Hobbes, etc.), “Nature” grants the right of force to the strong. Or, finally, The Chinese State grants the right to life to whomever the State sees fit. The point here is that claims such as “xs have right r” …are incomplete claims. For a right-claim we want to know, minimally, who or what the right-giver is, who the right receiver is, what the right is, and what the right’s object is. Ibid.
 In reality, I would say that the rights themselves come from the “Creator,” while the Constitution merely enumerates the rights and provides for their protection. But let this pass.
 At least, this - or something like it - is true with respect to an internalist conception of justification. Externalist construals of justification will cash things out differently. I put this aside, also.
 James Anderson, The Constitutions of the Free-Masons: Containing the History, Charges, Regulations, &c. of That Most Ancient and Right-Worshipful Fraternity. For the Use of the Lodges, London: William Hunter, John Senex and John Hooke, 1723, article 6; quoted by Charles H. Lyttle, “Historical Bases of Rome’s Conflict With Freemasonry,” Church History, vol. 9, no. 1, Mar., 1940, p. 5, n. 10.