Friday, October 19, 2012

Secularism is Neutral, So Come Over and Join Our Side! (Oh Wait . . .)

Massimo Pigliucci is a philosopher at the City University of New York and runs a blog called "Rationally Speaking."  Just today, Prof. Pigliucci published an article on his blog by Michael De Dora, who is the director of the Center for Inquiry's Office of Public Policy and its representative to the United Nations.  The article is titled "Arguing pluralism instead of Church-State."  I am going to reproduce the article here in chunks and add responses inline in red ink (much as I did with the Proposition 8 court case a few posts back, but this is shorter).  This is legal, as the article is able to be reproduced under the standard Creative Commons license.  (Otherwise I wouldn't do it!)  Thanks to Mr. De Dora and Prof. Pigliucci for allowing this!

The article presents an argument (along the lines of the thinking of John Rawls) for a secular civil government, arguing that such a government is neutral and is the best kind of government we could have given our pluralistic society.

OK, here we go:

Arguing pluralism instead of Church-State

by Michael De Dora

When Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan were asked about how their religious beliefs influence their views on abortion during last week’s debate, Americans were given more than just the chance to hear two vice presidential candidates discuss their faith and how it relates to a controversial political issue. They were given the chance to observe the candidates address a much broader subject: the relationship between religion and politics.

As could be expected, the two candidates outlined two very different approaches to this relationship. In order to discuss the broader points, let’s first take a look at what Biden and Ryan said.

Ryan’s answer:

I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life.

Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course. But it’s also because of reason and science.

You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born, for our seven-week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. A little baby was in the shape of a bean. And to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child Liza, “Bean.” Now I believe that life begins at conception.

That’s why — those are the reasons why I’m pro-life. Now I understand this is a difficult issue, and I respect people who don’t agree with me on this, but the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

So if life begins at conception, why does Ryan want to allow exceptions for rape and incest?  Is it OK to kill innocent people without due process of law so long as their existence is sufficiently irritating or inconvenient to someone else?

Biden’s answer:

... with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a — what we call a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.

But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the — the congressman. I — I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that — women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor. In my view and the Supreme Court, I’m not going to interfere with that.

Ryan's response:

All I’m saying is, if you believe that life begins at conception, that, therefore, doesn’t change the definition of life. That’s a principle. The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

(You can find a full transcript here).

According to Ryan, there is no way (or no reason to try) to separate one’s beliefs regarding the veracity of religious claims from one’s approach to specific policies. For example, if you believe an embryo is a person made in the image of God, and deserving of certain rights, that will undoubtedly influence your approach to abortion. But, according to Biden, there is a way to separate these two. In his view, an elected official must realize that not everyone he or she represents practices his or her religion, and therefore should not have to live according to its dogmas. I think they each make an important point. Allow me to explain.

Ryan’s point cannot be easily dismissed. When Ryan says that he does not see “how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith,” he is stating what counts as a fact for many people. Ryan — like many devoutly religious people — honestly and ardently believes that embryos are people, and that abortion is murder. Though I consider that position incoherent and unsupportable, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a person to believe that, yet sit idly by while thousands of abortions are happening every year. That is simply how belief works: once you accept some proposition as true, you are bound to act on it.

Yay!  I always experience a sensation of great joy in those rare moments when advocates of secularism get this patently obvious point.  Most of them never do, no matter how many times you try to patiently explain it to them.  If you really believe something, you will act according to your beliefs.  Sounds simple and obvious, right?  If secularists could generally grasp this basic point, so many worthless conversations would never happen.  So kudos to Michael De Dora!  (See here for more on this.)

As for Biden, I have a hard time believing that he truly agrees with the Catholic Church on abortion, at least as fervently as Ryan. Me too. But that’s not necessarily what matters here. Biden has a compelling point in regard to making laws in a pluralistic society. While he readily admits that he has religious beliefs, he also realizes that public policy influences the lives of millions of different Americans. As such, he thinks public policy should not be based on his (or anyone’s) religious beliefs, which require a personal leap of faith, but on reasons that are accessible by all Americans.

And here we begin to see the typical Agnostic/Atheist bias creep in.  It is true that laws affect many people, and we have to take everyone's interests into account when proposing laws.  But laws must always reflect some worldview beliefs and imply a rejection of others, because different worldview beliefs lead often to different values and thus different laws.  De Dora seems to suffer under the all-too-common secularist mindset that believes that, somehow, the Agnostic/Atheist worldview beliefs that underlie secularism are neutral, even though they contradict the beliefs of others.

Perhaps it would be valuable here to remind ourselves of what "neutral" means.  "You keep using that word.  I don't think it means what you think it means."  Here is what Merriam-Webster thinks it means:

Definition of NEUTRAL

1: not engaged on either side; specifically : not aligned with a political or ideological grouping neutral nation>

2: of or relating to a neutral state or power <neutral territory>

3a : not decided or pronounced as to characteristics : indifferent

Agnosticism/Atheism contradicts biblical Christianity; therefore Agnosticism/Atheism is not neutral with regard to biblical Christianity.  Secularism contradicts biblical theocracy; therefore secularism is not neutral with regard to biblical theocracy.

Note that De Dora thinks that reasons based on religious beliefs depend upon "a personal leap of faith" and are therefore not "reasons that are accessible by all Americans."  Translation:  Religious beliefs cannot be shown to be true by objective evidence, but are only believed on the basis of subjective speculations/wishes/feelings, etc., and therefore it would be unreasonable to expect all Americans to believe them; and therefore reasons based on them are not objectively reasonable when imposed on all Americans.  Great Agnostic/Atheist thinking!  Once again, we see that it is this kind of worldview (and not the Christian worldview) that is at the base of arguments for a secular civil government.

You’ve probably noticed that Biden’s position does not employ the separation of church and state argument; he uses the pluralistic society argument. I suspect some secularists found Biden’s answer incomplete, but I think the pluralistic society argument could actually be more effective at convincing religious believers to adopt secular policies than a purely church-state argument (though I would note that pluralism is indirectly an argument in favor of church-state separation).

To be clear, I interpret the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as mandating government neutrality on religion. Which is impossible, but De Dora, like most secularists, doesn't see it because he thinks his own worldview beliefs and values are neutral while those of others (like Christians) are not.  Again, "neutral" means "not engaged on either side" or "not taking sides," but clearly De Dora is engaged on one side of a debate over worldviews and the ethical implications that flow from them.  What he really means by "government neutrality on religion" is "government endorsement of my beliefs and values over the beliefs and values of those who think differently" (like me). Government should not favor religion over non-religion, non-religion over religion, or one religion over another. But secularism is a favoring of "non-religion" (that is, Atheism/Agnosticism) over religion by advocating the endorsement of an Agnostic approach over a religious one in law. But there is nothing in the Constitution that states that religious lawmakers are required to leave their consciences at home when they arrive at their respective statehouses. In my view, secularists should realize this, and consider directly rebutting arguments for religiously based laws when they come to the surface, instead of asking politicians to dismiss them as personal or as outright absurd (even if they are). These beliefs are clearly influencing our political system, and should be exposed to critical reasoning.

Now this makes sense!  But it contradicts what De Dora just said before (and what he is going to say later).  If I am a lawmaker and I am not required to leave my conscience at home, then I am going to try to make laws, as much as I legally can, on the basis of beliefs and values that make sense according to my Christian worldview.  My Christian worldview tells me to look to God's law as providing the principles for civil law, and thus I advocate a Christian theocracy.  But when I do this, De Dora and his fellow secularists are going to turn around and tell me to stop on the grounds that I am violating what is fair and equitable by trying to impose my beliefs and values on everyone else!  So can I bring my conscience into lawmaking or not?  Ultimately, De Dora is going to say "not."  That is, although he acknowledges the silliness of telling people to leave their convictions at home when doing public work, he is still part of the group of people who continue to tell people to do just that.

If De Dora really meant what he says here, that all beliefs/values should be welcome in lawmaking on an equal basis, only to be rejected not a priori but on the basis of an examination of specific arguments, he would be an advocate for a much more intelligent conversation over the deep ethical and political divisions in this nation.  It would mean that if I were to propose a law based on biblical teaching, people would not feel they have the right to reject it merely because it is "religious," but only on the basis that it can be shown to be wrong.  But that would be to give up the claim and pretense of "neutrality" and expose Agnosticism and secularism to having to win arguments on a level playing field, which their proponents typically aren't willing to do--and De Dora is no exception.

While we cannot control the reasons people give for their beliefs, we can work to prevent religious-based reasons from entering the debate in the first place, steering political discourse towards secular reasoning. You see?  He doesn't really want people with non-Agnostic/Atheistic worldviews to be able to bring their consciences into their public work and into the debate on a level playing field.  He wants to find a way to exclude them a priori and on principle. How? I think Biden’s pluralistic society argument is instructive here.

As it happens, this argument has been detailed before by a familiar figure: President Barack Obama. As Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope, “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.”  [1] Ah, but we Christians think our beliefs/values are universal, in the sense that there is objective evidence available so that anybody can know that they are true.  In other words, we are not Agnostics. An example he uses is (oddly enough!) abortion:

If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

People cannot hear the divine voice others claim to hear, nor can they rely on others’ assertions that they have heard God’s voice. Furthermore, most people do not believe in the same holy book. In fact, even adherents to the same religious traditions often disagree over central tenets. And, of course, many people (reasonably, I might add) deny that the supernatural realm exists to begin with.

So here's the basic argument:  People don't all agree that Christianity (for example) is true, that the Bible is the Word of God, or how to interpret the Bible, and so those beliefs and the values based on them are not universal, and so we cannot make public laws based on them.

Well, it is of course quite true that not all people agree with my version of Christianity, my biblical interpretations, or my values based on these.  But it is also quite true that not all people agree with any other point of view, including the Agnostic worldview and the values based on that.  If I cannot base a law against abortion on my religious beliefs/values because those values aren't shared by all, then someone else cannot make a law in favor of abortion on the basis of the assumption that my religious beliefs/values are wrong or cannot be known to be true.

Do you see the problem here?  This argument for secularism is biased and one-sided.  I am not allowed to make a law against abortion based on my religious beliefs because to do so would be to assume that my religious beliefs are true and can be known to be true, and other people don't agree with me on these points.  But it is perfectly acceptable for another person to make a law for abortion on the basis of the assumption that my religious beliefs cannot be known to be true (Agnosticism), even though I and others disagree with that point of view.  We have two contrary positions grounded in two conflicting views of what is true and can be known to be true, but one of these positions is excluded on the basis that not everyone agrees with it while the other position is allowed even though not everyone agrees with it.  If this isn't one-sided and biased, I don't know what is!  This is not neutrality; it is the endorsement by stealth of one set of beliefs and values over others.

If there really is objective evidence available to prove that God wants the society not to tolerate abortion, then clearly what we should do is not tolerate abortion!  Going against the known will of the omnipotent, omniscient creator and ultimate moral authority of the universe would be wicked and foolish!  But if there really is not objective evidence available to prove that God wants the society not to tolerate abortion, then it is not necessarily unreasonable to ignore such an unproven claim and go ahead and tolerate abortion.  What De Dora and other secularists are suggesting is that, in the name of neutrality (!), one controversial position should be adopted and become the basis of law while the other controversial position should be rejected.

I have to ask at this point:  Why does De Dora make an argument like this?  Does he truly, really believe that his position is worldview-neutral?  Does he really believe it is a position that all sides could come together around?  Does he really not see that his position amounts to nothing other than advocating that the government adopt his worldview beliefs/values as the basis of law and reject those held by others?  If so, then, frankly, he exhibits an incredible naivete, but one shared by most of his fellow secularists.  Or does he know very well what he is doing, and this is all an attempt at deception to get his views established in law by stealth rather than by honest, straightforward argumentation (perhaps because he knows his views could never stand up to such an honest debate)?  Or is it something in between?  I don't know.  There is no way for me to tell.

What does the pluralistic society argument mean for religious lawmakers? It doesn’t mean that they cannot hold or even speak about their religious beliefs in political debates. The fact that we live in a highly religious open democracy means that such reasons are bound to appear often. A person’s religious views naturally influence his or her views in politics, and we cannot bar these from entering the discourse. But politicians should also hold to certain practices regarding how to best make public policy. Since laws influence millions of different people who have different values, they cannot be defended by mere reference to a holy book or faith. Public policy must be based on natural world reasons that everyone can grasp and understand. Believe in religion if you like, but also believe that “I can’t make other people live according to my religion; I need to base laws on values that apply to everyone.”

Translation:  "I need to base laws on the practical assumption that Agnosticism is true rather than Christianity or other religions."  In other words, what De Dora is saying is that I need to stop acting as if I have knowledge that Christianity is true and that the evidence for this is available to all when I make laws, even though I actually think that Christianity is true and that the evidence for this is available to all.  I am to put my Christian perspective aside and instead act as if I think that there is insufficient objective evidence available to prove to all that Christianity is true, even though I think this Agnostic view happens to be false.

Note that the issue for De Dora is not simply that Christianity is controversial, although he makes it sound like that is his concern.  I have a nagging suspicion that De Dora is in favor of mandating the teaching of evolution and only evolution in public schools, even though he is fully aware that lots of people don't agree with it.  No, the real argument here is not simply that Christianity is controversial (for it is equally the case that his Agnostic approach is controversial, but that doesn't stop him from advocating that we all adopt it whether we agree or not), but that there is insufficient objective evidence to prove it true to the reason of all (if all would be reasonable and follow the evidence where it leads).  People don't all agree that evolution is true (I know I'm stating that in a rather simplistic way, but it is enough for now), but De Dora doesn't care about that because there is enough objective evidence available that he thinks everyone ought to believe that evolution is true.  But De Dora is greatly concerned that not everyone agrees with Christianity, because he sees dissent in this area as a reasonable dissent, as an Agnostic/Atheist would (and a biblical Christian wouldn't--see Romans 1:18-25, Luke 10:1-16, etc.).  So, again, his entire argument for secularism here is based on the assumption that Agnosticism/Atheism is true and that therefore everyone ought to live like it is true, including when they make controversial laws for all, while the Christian point of view is invalid (because what it claims actually has no support in the evidence) and that therefore it is perfectly fine to ignore it and it certainly should not be imposed on people in law.

At the least, this approach pushes religiously devout lawmakers to consider how they can defend their views on clearer grounds that is, grounds that Agnostics/Atheists would find reasonable and acceptable to all of their constituents. At its best, it will help foster a more reasonable according to Agnostic/Atheist standards public policy.

For Rep. Ryan, this means that it is not enough to simply tell the story of your wife’s childbirth and of the nicknaming of a seven-week-old embryo. If you think beans deserve equal or even more moral and legal consideration than women, you need a better argument than “I looked at an ultrasound and nicknamed what I saw; you should too.”

If you want to restrict abortion, you need to answer questions such as: what does it really mean to say that life begins at conception? Why do you think embryos are persons worthy of moral consideration and legal protection? Why shouldn’t a woman have the right to largely control her body and make reproductive decisions with her doctor? If you can’t answer these questions without reference to some religious principle that is, if you can't answer these questions looking at things as an Atheist/Agnostic would, you should think deeply about whether you are fit for public office. In other words, only Atheists/Agnostics and those who act like them are fit for public office.  All in the name of religious neutrality, of course!  : )

Here is a different point of view, and one presented not by stealth in the name of neutrality but straightforwardly and openly, ready to debate opposing views in the battlefield of fair and honest argumentation.


Note: a shorter version of this article first appeared on The Moral Perspective.

[1] Editorial Note: this is essentially John Rawls’ argument, as articulated in his A Theory of Justice.

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