North Western Winds

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Mixing it up in public

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Edward Fesser, a frequent contributor at Right Reason, has a most interesting and important article at Tech Central Station entitled How to Mix Politics and Religion. Here is a taste:

Suppose… that someone did defend a view about abortion, same-sex marriage, or some other contentious matter by appealing to religious considerations. Why should this be considered unacceptable? The problem, in the view of many liberals, is that religious considerations are matters of faith, where “faith” connotes in their minds a kind of groundless commitment, a will to believe that for which there is no objective evidence. Opinions on matters of public policy, they would say, can only appropriately be arrived at via methods of argument assessable by all members of the political community, not by reference to the idiosyncratic and subjective feelings of a minority.

If religious arguments were in general really like this, then I would agree with the liberal that they ought to be kept out of the public square. But in fact this liberal depiction of religion is a ludicrous caricature, and manifests just the sort of ignorance and bigotry of which liberals frequently accuse others. Thomas Aquinas, for example, would have found it unrecognizable, committed as he was to the proposition that the foundational truths of religion could be demonstrated through reason alone. To have faith, in his view, is not to believe without evidence; it is rather to trust in the veracity of a God for whose existence one can have overwhelming evidence, and whose will can be known (at least in part) through a study of the ends and purposes inherent in nature. Indeed, the mainstream view in Western religious thought was for centuries (and still is within Catholicism and among some Protestants) that religion can and must be given a foundation in reason. This traditional view also holds that the allegedly religiously neutral premises of scientific and philosophical inquiry themselves point inescapably to the existence of a divine Author of nature and of reason.

Now, why would that be? Fesser sketches some of the most famous arguments for God with the intent of showing how doing science presupposes that we really do have rational minds and that the universe is an orderly place. My favourite example (no surprise) is what C.S. Lewis called the argument from reason:

Once science has traced its explanations down to the fundamental laws of physics, it has said all that it can possibly say, and to explain those laws themselves, one must appeal to philosophical reasoning — reasoning which will lead one to posit a cosmic designer.

One way to understand the Aquinas-style teleological argument is in terms of the idea that a purely materialistic interpretation of evolutionary theory is necessarily committed to denying that biological phenomena really have any purposes or functions at all. On a strictly materialistic view, that is to say, things have only the appearance of purpose or function, but are, in fact and literally speaking, without any purpose, function, or meaning whatsoever. Talk of “functions” and “purposes” ends up being at best a recourse to convenient fictions, a shorthand for complex but purposeless causal processes. Precisely because function and purpose, understood literally, necessarily presuppose a designing mind, such notions must be banished from a consistently materialistic interpretation of biology. And taken to its logical conclusion, this entails a denial of the very existence of mind even in human beings, since mind is inherently meaningful and purposive and materialistic causal processes are inherently meaningless and purposeless. It entails, that is, a view known among philosophers as “eliminative materialism,” so-called because it advocates eliminating the concept of mind from our scientific and philosophical vocabulary. Materialistic Darwinism, on this view, is, when properly understood, thus committed to a radically counterintuitive, and even incoherent, metaphysical picture of the world — whether or not Darwinian materialists themselves generally realize this. It follows that evolution can only coherently be understood if interpreted within a broadly theistic worldview.

Fesser then goes on to ask why some attempt to beat back religious people from full participation in public life. He admits that there will be disagreement on these issues, as there is in all areas of philosophy, and asks why this area is held to be different.

It is true, of course, that there are many philosophers who do not accept the arguments described above. So what? What that shows is that arguments for the existence of God are no different from every other argument in philosophy, including arguments for atheism, or arguments for abortion and same-sex marriage for that matter: they are controversial, matters about which intelligent people can and do disagree. Do secularists demand that those in favor of legalized abortion and same-sex marriage refrain from advocating their positions in the public square simply because their arguments are nowhere near universally accepted? Of course not, nor should they. So why do they demand that religion and politics be separated not just in the constitutional sense that no one ought to be forced to belong to a particular denomination or to accept a particular creed, but also in the stronger sense that religious considerations, however well supported by rational arguments, ought to get no hearing in the public square and have no influence on public policy? Why the constant harping on about the “separation of church and state,” but not, say, the “separation of naturalistic metaphysics and state,” the “separation of feminist theory and state,” or “the separation of Rawlsian liberalism and state

I have not done (or intended) to do Fesser full justice here and am happy to suggest everyone have a look at the full text. Fesser also has another post at TCS devoted to The Trouble with Libertarianism, which I’m linking for my libertarian friends. Are you out there Tipper?

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Written by Curt

March 30, 2005 at 5:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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