This is chapter one in a forthcoming book of mine entitled A Tale of Two Ethical Systems (I think).
Modern American culture is obsessed with the concepts of diversity and equality. The U.S. is a pluralistic nation. We are a country full of people who hold vastly different worldviews, and we like it that way. We celebrate the diversity of worldviews in our society. We think that this is one of the greatest things about America. We also pride ourselves on being a nation of equality, where all people are treated equally and no one is discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, social status, culture, sexual orientation, etc.
Our obsession with diversity and equality has led us to be obsessed also with the concept of neutrality. Most current American thought holds that in order to treat everyone in this country equally, the civil government and public institutions must be neutral between all the various religious and non-religious claims made by our citizens. Avoiding discrimination against Christians, Muslims, atheists, Jews, Buddhists, etc., involves being neutral between the truth claims of these groups, refusing to take sides or to promote or oppose anyone’s beliefs.
Current popular interpretations of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provide a clear example of this public ideal of neutrality. The First Amendment says that “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.” The important part for our purposes is, of course, the first part, the prohibition on making laws about establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. There have been many debates, and there are still today many debates, about exactly what this means, what it meant, and what it should mean for us. I am not interested here in getting into all of that. For my purposes, it is enough to note that the current dominant interpretation of the First Amendment in legal thinking today (as represented by the Supreme Court) is that it forbids the nation (and the states, following official interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment) from adopting any official religious viewpoint or from taking sides in any religious disputes. In other words, it requires neutrality towards all religious claims, so far as public institutions are concerned (which would include the federal government, state governments, public educational institutions, etc.). A classic example of this interpretation of the First Amendment is the well-known “Lemon test,” derived from the Supreme Court’s decision in Lemon V. Kurtzman. The Lemon test is designed as a way to evaluate whether a policy is in violation of the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state. There are three qualifications in this test which all public policies must meet if they are to be considered legal under the First Amendment: 1. They “must have a secular [that is, non-religious] legislative purpose.” 2. Their “principle or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.” 3. They must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”1 The Lemon test, along with other similar ideas of how to gauge the legality of various public policies, is centered on the core idea that the government of the United States should be neutral with regard to religion. It should be neutral between all religions, and it should be neutral between religion and non-religion (such as agnosticism, atheism, secular humanism, etc.).
This concept of neutrality is held by many to apply not only to the public sphere, but also to personal morality and ethics. For example, a textbook for ethics classes authored by Judith Boss, Analyzing Moral Issues, says this about the relationship between particular religious views and ethical evaluations:
Most theologians and philosophers maintain that morality exists independently of religion--that religious ethics is not fundamentally different from philosophical ethics. Although a moral code is incorporated into the doctrine of most religions, moral issues can be discussed without appealing to religion. When people who are religious use the terms right and wrong, they generally mean the same thing as someone who is not religious. Religious differences tend to fall away in most serious discussion of moral issues, such as slavery and abortion, not because religion isn’t important to the participants but because the moral disputes can be discussed and even resolved without bringing religion into the equation.2Boss adds a very interesting footnote at the end of this paragraph:
An exception here is fundamentalist religion, such as fundamentalist Christianity or Islam, in which the Bible and the Koran are interpreted literally and are regarded as the final word on certain moral issues such as drinking and homosexuality.3This is a highly significant qualification. I will come back to it later.
One of the most important (some would say the most important) political philosophers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is John Rawls. In his book Political Liberalism, Rawls, following the dominant ideal of neutrality in public affairs, sought to work out some practical principles for the making of laws and public policies that would help reach that ideal. Rawls held a version of the social contract theory of governmental authority, which we will look at in more detail in chapter six when we get into political ethics. In short, the social contract theory holds that governmental authority is only legitimate if based on the “consent of the governed.” It would be unjust for anyone to try to tell me what to do unless I consent to his authority and laws willingly. Rawls was particularly interested in how this “consent of the governed” can be maintained in a pluralistic society, where there are many different worldviews. People holding different worldviews have different beliefs, different priorities, different values, different goals, etc. How can people of many different worldviews be united in one society under one set of laws without violating the principle of the consent of the governed?
Rawls’s answer to that question is that laws and public policies should be based only on principles that all citizens can reasonably be expected to endorse, and not on principles that only some of the citizens could reasonably be expected to endorse. Rawls put it this way:
Our exercise of political power is fully proper only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens as free and equal may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to their common human reason.4If laws and policies are based only on principles that everyone could endorse, then consent of the governed will be preserved and governmental authority will be legitimate.
What this amounts to in practice is that citizens should leave the peculiar aspects of their worldviews out of decisions relating to public policies and laws and base those decisions instead only on things that everyone could hold in common, no matter his particular worldview. This practice will ensure that public laws and policies will be neutral between all the citizens rather than favoring the particular beliefs of any group. Leif Wenar, in his article on John Rawls in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, provides an example of this practice of accepting or excluding principles based on whether or not they are public rather than simply a part of one person’s or group’s worldview:
To take a straightforward example: a Supreme Court justice deciding on a gay marriage law would violate public reason were she to base her opinion on God's forbidding gay sex in the book of Leviticus, or on a presentiment that upholding such a law would hasten the end of days. Not all members of society can reasonably be expected to accept Leviticus as stating an authoritative set of political values, nor can a religious premonition be a common standard for evaluating public policy. These values and standards are not public.5If the Book of Leviticus and premonitions about the end of the world are examples of ideas that are impermissible to use in crafting public laws and policies because one cannot expect everyone to endorse them, what are some examples of ideas and standards that are public--that is, that can be endorsed by all people? This list would include standards that “rely on common sense, on facts generally known, and on the conclusions of science that are well established and not controversial.”6 The existence of the universe, the existence of human beings and basic human desires, the existence of China, basic facts known to science, and other such facts, would be included in the list of public ideas and standards. In short, basic facts about the natural world that are objectively generally knowable and known would qualify as public and would thus be acceptable to include as part of the basis of public laws and policies. If we will follow these principles, Rawls says, we will achieve genuine neutrality in our laws and policies and will therefore succeed in treating all citizens as equal no matter their worldviews.
Is Rawlsian Political Philosophy Truly Neutral?
Although Rawls claimed that his political philosophy was neutral between the various worldviews in our society, in reality it is not. Rawls ended up doing precisely what his whole theory was designed to avoid--advocating basing laws and policies on particular worldview beliefs and the rejection of other people’s worldview beliefs. His theory makes important assumptions that are not shared by all worldviews. To put it succinctly, his theory assumes an agnostic worldview, and thus rejects most of the religious worldviews of world history. Rawls assumes that there are things that can be objectively known to be true by common human reason, and other things that cannot be known to be true in this way. He assumes that facts about the natural world fall into the former category, while claims about God or religion fall into the latter category. But that is nothing more nor less than the very definition of agnosticism! Christians have historically believed that it is possible to objectively know that Christianity is true and that the Bible is a divine revelation. The Bible teaches that all men are without excuse if they reject God, for God is evident to the reason of all (see, for example, Romans 1:18-23). Christians have also historically believed that Christianity can be objectively known to be true, and that those who reject it likewise have no excuse in rejecting it (once they hear of it and understand it). (See, for example, Luke 10:16.) Rawls’s theory is thus implying that traditional Christianity is dead wrong on these very important points. These points are particularly important because if Christianity cannot objectively be known to be true, then those who wish to be rational and to base their beliefs solely on the evidence will be led by reason to reject Christianity as without any warrant. Thus, Rawls’s theory makes assumptions that are directly contrary to and which undermine the entire structure of traditional Christian doctrine. These assumptions can therefore hardly be called neutral!
Rawls never acknowledged that his theory privileges the agnostic worldview. He tried explicitly to insist to the contrary that his theory does no such thing. In Political Liberalism, Rawls devotes an entire section to arguing that his theory is not agnostic, or, as he puts it, “indifferent or skeptical”:
We try, so far as we can, neither to assert nor to deny any particular comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral view, or its associated theory of truth and the status of values. Since we assume each citizen to affirm some such view, we hope to make it possible for all to accept the political conception as true or reasonable from the standpoint of their own comprehensive view, whatever it may be. Properly understood, then, a political conception of justice need be no more indifferent, say, to truth in philosophy and morals than the principle of toleration, suitably understood, need be indifferent to truth in religion. Since we seek an agreed basis of public justification in matters of justice, and since no political agreement on those disputed questions can reasonably be expected, we turn instead to the fundamental ideas we seem to share through the public political culture. From these ideas we try to work out a political conception of justice congruent with our considered convictions on due reflection. Once this is done, citizens may within their comprehensive doctrines regard the political conception of justice as true, or as reasonable, whatever their view allows.7However, despite Rawls’s assertions to the contrary, his view privileges an agnostic worldview and thus does indeed embrace a mild (but still a very crucially important) form of “skepticism.”
This commitment to an agnostic skepticism towards the possibility of knowing objective truth in religious matters can be seen in Rawls’s concept of what he calls the burdens of judgment, which he acknowledges to undergird and provide a foundation for his entire theory. Leif Wenar summarizes Rawls’s concept of the burdens of judgment:
Reasonable citizens want to live in a society in which they can cooperate with their fellow citizens on terms that are acceptable to all. They are willing to propose and abide by mutually acceptable rules, given the assurance that others will also do so; and they will honor these rules even when this means some sacrifice to their own interests. Reasonable citizens want, in short, to belong to a society where political power is legitimately used.
Each reasonable citizen has his own view about God and life, right and wrong, good and bad. Each has, that is, what Rawls calls his own comprehensive doctrine. Yet because reasonable citizens are reasonable, they are unwilling to impose their own comprehensive doctrines on others who are also willing to search for mutually agreeable rules. Though each may believe that he knows the truth, none is willing to force other reasonable citizens to live by that truth, even should he belong to a majority that has the power to enforce it.
One ground for reasonable citizens to be so tolerant, Rawls says, is that they accept a particular explanation for the diversity of worldviews in their society. Reasonable citizens accept the burdens of judgment. The deepest questions of religion, philosophy, and morality are very difficult even for conscientious people to think through, and people will answer these questions in different ways because of their own particular life experiences (their upbringing, class, occupation, and so on). Reasonable citizens understand that these deep issues are ones on which people of good will can disagree, and so will be unwilling to impose their own worldviews on those who have reached different conclusions.8
The basic idea of the burdens of judgment is that the objective evidence regarding fundamental worldview questions--such as the existence of God, which religion is the right religion, etc.--is so slim that the evidence itself cannot tell us what is true, at least with any conclusiveness. Because of this, we all believe what we believe not because the evidence clearly points us to it but because of non-rational reasons such as upbringing, background culture, class, etc. This is essentially the very idea of agnosticism. Rawls himself is clear (although less clear than he would have been, no doubt, if he had not been trying desperately to avoid the unwanted implications) on the implications of the burdens of judgment:
The evident consequence of the burdens of judgment is that reasonable persons do not all affirm the same comprehensive doctrine. Moreover, they also recognize that all persons alike, including themselves, are subject to those burdens, and so many reasonable comprehensive doctrines are affirmed, not all of which can be true (indeed none of them may be true). The doctrine any reasonable person affirms is but one reasonable doctrine among others. In affirming it, a person, of course, believes it to be true, or else reasonable, as the case may be.Although Rawls steadfastly refused to acknowledge that his theory constitutes an endorsement of the public embracing of an agnostic worldview rather than real neutrality, he did come close to noticing this from time to time:
Thus, it is not in general unreasonable to affirm any one of a number of reasonable comprehensive doctrines. We recognize that our own doctrine has, and can have, for people generally, no special claims on them beyond their own view of its merits. Others who affirm doctrines different from ours are, we grant, reasonable also, and certainly not unreasonable. Since there are many reasonable doctrines, the idea of the reasonable does not require us, or others, to believe any specific reasonable doctrine, though we may do so. When we take the step beyond recognizing the reasonableness of a doctrine and affirm our belief in it, we are not being unreasonable.9
Nevertheless, in affirming a political conception of justice we may eventually have to assert at least certain aspects of our own comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrine (by no means necessarily fully comprehensive). This will happen whenever someone insists, for example, that certain questions are so fundamental that to insure their being rightly settled justified civil strife. The religious salvation of those holding a particular religion, or indeed the salvation of a whole people, may be said to depend on it. At this point we may have no alternative but to deny this, or to imply its denial and hence to maintain the kind of thing we had hoped to avoid.The fascinating thing about these passages is that Rawls acknowledges the very problem that we have been addressing--the fact that his theory endorses particular assumptions related to a particular worldview and rejects others--but doesn’t seem to notice that this is a fatal problem for his theory. He basically says, “My theory is aiming for consensus and neutrality. Of course, I guess I have to admit that there are some (really, really uncommon) viewpoints that my theory opposes, and I guess we’ll just have to say that they are wrong and we are right, which is exactly what my theory is designed to avoid; but that’s all right, because we only have to do this a little bit, just enough to achieve consensus.” Achieve consensus? How can the claim to be achieving consensus still be made when it is acknowledged that the so-called consensus rejects certain people’s views? Even a basic dictionary definition of “consensus” will tell you that you don’t have one once you’ve excluded certain people and their views. How could Rawls fail to miss this? How could he still claim to have a successful consensus-producing theory when he has just admitted that there is not a consensus?
To consider this, imagine rationalist believers who contend that these beliefs are open to and can be fully established by reason (uncommon though this view may be). In this case, the believers simply deny what we have called “the fact of reasonable pluralism.” So we say of the rationalist believers that they are mistaken in denying that fact; but we need not say that their religious beliefs are not true, since to deny that religious beliefs can be publicly and fully established by reason is not to say that they are not true. Of course, we do not believe the doctrine believers here assert, and this is shown in what we do. Even if we do not, say, hold some form of the doctrine of free religious faith that supports equal liberty of conscience, our actions nevertheless imply that we believe the concern for salvation does not require anything incompatible with that liberty. Still, we do not put forward more of our comprehensive view than we think needed or useful for the political aim of consensus.10
I think he can embrace this seeming inconsistency because he does not take seriously the views that he is excluding. He treats those excluded views (and therefore the people who hold them) as unimportant. They are so unimportant that excluding them, and thus treating them unequally, is not really a big deal and is not a serious problem for the claim of equality, neutrality, and consensus. That this is Rawls’s attitude can be seen from other passages in his writings as well. Listen to these passages from Rawls’s later work, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, and note how cavalier his dismissal of “fundamentalists” and their viewpoints is:
The idea of the politically reasonable is sufficient unto itself for the purposes of public reason when basic political questions are at stake. Of course, fundamentalist religious doctrines and autocratic and dictatorial rulers will reject the ideas of public reason and deliberative democracy. They will say that democracy leads to a culture contrary to their religion, or denies the values that only autocratic or dictatorial rule can secure. They assert that the religiously true, or the philosophically true, overrides the politically reasonable. We simply say that such a doctrine is politically unreasonable. Within political liberalism nothing more need be said.11
Those who reject constitutional democracy with its criterion of reciprocity will of course reject the very idea of public reason. For them the political relation may be that of friend or foe, to those of a particular religious or secular community or those who are not; or it may be a relentless struggle to win the world for the whole truth. Political liberalism does not engage those who think this way. The zeal to embody the whole truth in politics is incompatible with an idea of public reason that belongs with democratic citizenship.12Rawls‘s attitude is basically this: “Those fundamentalists are so ridiculous that I don’t even have to take any time to refute their views. I can just exclude them and their views from consideration and go on claiming that I have achieved a basic consensus by, in effect, pretending that those who disagree with me don’t exist.” Such an attitude as this is rather shocking for someone who claimed to be concerned with equality and neutrality and finding a consensus that all people could reasonably be expected to endorse. Rawls’s theory can achieve a consensus, but only at the cost of, in effect, excluding from the human race those who hold alternate views. Rawls simply defines all his opposition away as the class of “unreasonable people” without any argument at all. Ironically, this makes Rawls’s view, I think, farther from the goal of neutrality than many official religious establishments, such as existed in many states when the United States was founded. Those establishments acknowledged openly that they were embracing a certain worldview and rejecting others, while Rawls’s system wants to establish agnosticism as the official religion of the nation in the name of neutrality. The old religious establishments had enough respect for their opponents to be up front with them in saying that their views were being rejected, while Rawls’s system basically pretends that those who differ from the establishment don’t exist and so claims consensus by completely ignoring them. Surely treating one’s ideological opponents as if they are effectively excluded from the table of human citizens is about as gross a violation as one can imagine of the principle of treating all people (even annoying minorities) equally no matter their religious beliefs. Certainly such a philosophy is anything but neutral!
This attitude is common in modern agnostic American culture. We saw it in Judith Boss as well, whose ethics textbook I quoted from earlier. You recall that she made the statement that “Religious differences tend to fall away in most serious discussion of moral issues, such as slavery and abortion, not because religion isn’t important to the participants but because the moral disputes can be discussed and even resolved without bringing religion into the equation.” Then, in a brief footnote, she added, “An exception here is fundamentalist religion, such as fundamentalist Christianity or Islam, in which the Bible and the Koran are interpreted literally and are regarded as the final word on certain moral issues such as drinking and homosexuality.” Boss regards fundamentalist religions as so unimportant that they need not interfere with her basic claim that you can resolve moral disputes apart from religion. Sure, you can resolve most moral disputes without religion, if you only consider religious views that have basically submitted to agnosticism to tell them what they are allowed to say and not say. If you take into consideration what Boss calls “fundamentalist” religious views, however--which, by the way, constitute the majority of religious views in human history and probably on the earth today--then you will certainly not be able to resolve most serious moral controversies without reference to religion. Boss’s attitude, like Rawls's, is that “fundamentalists” are not really important people, and so we can basically ignore them and pretend they don’t exist when we talk about moral issues. At the most, all they deserve is a grudging reference in a footnote, since they have the nerve to keep existing and bothering us, messing up our neat little theories of neutrality and consensus. Again, however, this is a very ironic attitude for a culture that prides itself on concern for neutrality and equality for all people, especially minorities. Rawls’s and Boss’s attitude suggests that modern American concern for minorities often only extends to those minorities that we like, and excludes those that are different enough from us that we find them annoying and subversive of our basic beliefs and values. Those minorities we can simply label as “fundamentalists” and quietly exclude from any serious consideration at all. Neutrality and consensus is the name of the game--at least when we are dealing with our fellow agnostics and those who are mostly just like them in all pertinent respects. Let’s just have the awareness and the honesty to admit that this attitude is certainly not the same as real consensus or neutrality.
John Rawls Meets Sayyid Qutb
Another article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, this one on “Religion and Political Theory” by Chris Eberle and Terence Cuneo, does a good job of pointing out the lack of real neutrality in Rawlsian-type viewpoints (which they call the “standard view” because of its current dominance in American political thinking) by imagining how the Rawlsian arguments would work with someone like Sayyid Qutb, an Islamic intellectual from the mid-twentieth century. They suggest formulating the standard view to say that “A coercive law is justified to an agent only if he is reasonable and has sufficient reasons from his own perspective to support it.” As we have seen, this is a good formulation of a Rawsian-type perspective. But they go on to say that critics of the standard view can argue that this concept doesn’t work as a means of establishing neutrality and consensus:
Now consider a coercive law that protects fundamental liberal commitments, such as the right to exercise religious freedom. Is this law justified to each citizen of a liberal democracy? Liberal critics answer: no. For there appear to be reasonable citizens who have no good reason from their own perspective to affirm it. Consider, for example, a figure such as the Islamic intellectual Sayyid Qutb. While in prison, Qutb wrote an intelligent, informed, and morally serious commentary on the Koran in which he laid the ills of modern society at the feet of Christianity and liberal democracy. The only way to extricate ourselves from the problems spawned by liberal democracy, Qutb argued, is to implement shariah or Islamic legal code, which implies that the state should not protect a robust right to religious freedom. In short, Qutb articulates what is, from his point of view, a compelling theological rationale against any law that authorizes the state to protect a robust right to religious freedom. If respect for persons requires that each coercive law be justified to those reasonable persons subject to that law, and if a person such as Qutb were a citizen of a liberal democracy, then the argument from respect implies that laws that protect the right to religious freedom are morally illegitimate, as they lack moral justification—at least for agents such as Qutb. And for a defender of the standard view, this is certainly an unwelcome result.13Eberle and Cuneo go on to suggest that proponents of the standard view might respond (and have responded) to this criticism by reformulating their position to say that “A coercive law is justified to an agent only if were he reasonable and adequately informed, then he would have a sufficient reason from his own perspective to support it.” But this formulation has problems as well:
Were we to ask Qutb whether he would have reasons to support laws that protect a robust right to religious freedom if he were adequately informed and reasonable, surely he would say: no. Moreover, he would claim that his compatriots would reject the liberal protection of such a right if they were adequately informed about the divine authorship of the Quran and the proper rules of its interpretation. While Qutb's say-so doesn't settle the issue of who would believe what in improved conditions, liberal critics maintain that his response indicates just how complicated the issue under consideration is. Among other things, to establish that Qutb is wrong it seems that one would have to deny the truth of various theological claims on which Qutb relies when he determines that he would reject the right to religious freedom were he adequately informed and reasonable. That would require advocates of the standard view to take a stand on contested religious issues. However, liberal critics point out that defenders of the standard view have been wary of explicitly denying the truth of religious claims, especially those found within the major theistic religions.14Once again, we can see that the neutrality of Rawlsian-type theories is a sham neutrality and a sham consensus. It is only neutral and a consensus if it is kept confined within the circle of people who wouldn’t disagree with it and ignores other people, viewing them as practically non-existent. Once those other people and their alternate viewpoints are taken seriously and given a place at the table, the façade of neutrality and consensus comes crashing down, and all we are left with is a bald appeal for an establishment of something like agnosticism as the official religion of the nation, no different in principle from Sayyid Qutb’s call for an Islamic establishment--except that Qutb admitted what he was doing while the Rawlsians, either through dishonesty or naiveté, don’t.
Secularism Is Not Neutrality
The basic point here is that the call for a secular government that avoids taking a stand on religious claims and pretends to be neutral on such matters is really not neutral at all, but is an establishment of a particular viewpoint--agnosticism--as the official worldview of the nation. Steven D. Smith, the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, commented on this strategy to represent a secular, non-religious viewpoint as neutral in his 1995 book Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom. His insight is penetrating and witty and worth quoting:
Although deeply entrenched in modern legal discourse, this equation of secularism and neutrality is also curious. One need not suppose any implacable, across-the-board enmity between the religious and the secular to appreciate that in many contexts and on many issues some widely held religious values and beliefs are directly at odds with secular values and beliefs. Religion and secularism are not invariably foes, but sometimes they are antagonistic; and even in more peaceful settings they are, often enough, mutually suspicious competitors. Hence, the recurring pronouncement that the schools must be neutral and therefore entirely secular is much like an announcement, made by the president of the company: “In hiring employees this company will be strictly nonpartisan, and therefore we will hire only Republicans.” What is puzzling is that a host of judges and legal scholars can take such professions of neutrality seriously.15Some proponents of a secular government suggest that secularism is neutral because it is the common denominator that all people share. All people, the argument goes, agree on the existence of the natural world and the things in it. We disagree about the existence and nature of the supernatural world and the things in it. So the neutral approach is to base law on what we all agree on and leave out what is controversial between us. It sounds plausible, but Smith detects the fallacy in it:
In more familiar contexts, we would immediately spot the common denominator strategy as fraudulent. Suppose Dad and daughter are discussing what to have for dinner. Daughter proposes: “Let’s just have dessert.” Dad suggests that it would be better to have a full meal, with salad, mean, fruit, vegetables, and then dessert. Daughter responds: “Obviously, Dad, we have some disagreements. But there is one thing we agree on; we both want dessert. Clearly, the appropriate solution--the “neutral” solution--is to accept what we agree on. So serve up the dessert.” Dad is not likely to be taken in by this ploy. The supposed agreement is spurious because Dad wants dessert if and only if it is preceded by other, more nutritious food.16Smith’s point is that if we are comparing two views such as Christianity and agnosticism or secularism, it is true that there are things that both groups agree on, but it is not true that those things that are not agreed on are unimportant. Whether God exists and the Bible is a divine revelation are crucial issues that will greatly affect one’s life. What we do on the basis of facts derived from the natural world and not from anything else will be very different from what we will do based on facts derived from the natural world plus facts derived from revelation from God in the Bible. To exclude God and the Bible and to focus only on the natural world is not to have common ground between agnosticism/secularism and Christianity; it is to reject Christianity for the agnostic worldview.
The Official Religion of the United States: Agnosticism
We have seen that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is typically considered today by authoritative bodies such as the Supreme Court to require an official public and governmental policy of neutrality on religious matters. But we have seen that such a policy of neutrality is really not neutral at all, but rather the endorsement of a particular religious/worldview viewpoint: agnosticism. To act as if we can have knowledge of the natural world and things in it, while acting as if we have no knowledge available to us from the supernatural realm, is effectively to act as if the supernatural realm does not exist or at least that no knowledge is available to us about it, which is precisely the agnostic point of view as opposed to the point of view of religions such as Christianity or Islam, which do claim that knowledge--much crucial knowledge--is available to us about and from the supernatural realm. Therefore, the embracing of this kind of neutrality by the government of the United States is in reality the establishment of agnosticism as the official religion of the nation.
Before we move on from this point, let me illustrate this claimed-neutrality-but really-agnosticism position as it plays out in public, government education, particularly in science classes as they deal with the subject of evolution. Public education, as an official arm of the U.S. government, illustrates what the nation’s so-called neutrality looks like in practice.
Let’s take a look at the website Understanding Evolution, which is a joint project of the University of California Museum of Paleontology and the National Center for Science Education. The website is funded with public money and represents a public or governmental perspective on the subject of science and evolution. In the article on the website entitled, “The Nature of Science,” we run across this description of what belongs in science and what does not:
Science seeks to explain the natural world and its explanations are tested using evidence from the natural world. Birds and lizards are known to exist in nature and therefore fall within the scope of science. Elves and gnomes are great fun to read about and even to enjoy as statues in our gardens, but they do not dwell in the natural world. That means they are not appropriate for scientific study. The basis of any scientific understanding is information gleaned from observations of nature.Of course, the writers of this article are not concerned with people bringing elves and gnomes into science classes. “Elves and gnomes” is a phrase meant to stand in for “supernatural or religious beliefs.” Notice the clear agnostic (even atheistic) attitude expressed by this article. It puts belief in God and other religious beliefs into the category of elves, gnomes, dreams, apparitions, and hallucinations, which may “seem real” but which cannot be observed by the senses. The article equates “observation of the senses” with “evidence” in general and so dismisses all supernatural claims as “speculation” that has no evidential support at all. Notice that the article avoids making clear, explicit statements such as “God does not exist” or “The Bible is not a divine revelation.” This is because, as a document on a website expressing an official, governmental viewpoint, it must profess an attitude of neutrality in keeping with current interpretations of the First Amendment. But it is also obvious to anyone who is not dreadfully naïve that, as an attempt at neutrality, in the sense of truly not taking sides in any religious disputes, the article has failed miserably, for it has pretty clearly declared all supernatural beliefs to be based on evidence-less speculation and anything that cannot be observed by the senses (as naturalists would define this category) as unreal, thus contradicting the majority of religious beliefs on earth. The article illustrates, not true neutrality, but an official endorsement of agnostic naturalistic thinking, in keeping with the general implications of current understandings of the First Amendment.
Science assumes that we can learn about the natural world by gathering evidence.
through our senses and extensions of our senses. A flower or a rock can be directly observed with no special aids. But using technology, we can expand the realm of human senses to observe such invisible phenomena as electricity and magnetic fields, and objects such as bacteria and faraway galaxies. Dreams, apparitions and hallucinations, on the other hand, may seem real but they do not arise from our senses and are not even extensions of our senses. The ultimate test of any conceptual understanding exists only in real materials and observations. Evidence is the basic stuff of science. Without evidence there is only speculation.17
Neutrality Is Impossible
The reason that such attempts at neutrality as we have been examining fail so miserably is because they are trying to do something that is inherently impossible and absurd. The fact of the matter is that neutrality in ethics, whether personal ethics or social ethics, is impossible. Different worldviews are going to lead to different conclusions on fundamental ethical issues. Which ethical conclusions are the right ones will depend on which worldview is true. If Islam is true, then it is a fact that the Creator and Ultimate Moral Authority of the universe wants all people on earth to cease from eating pork (which is forbidden in Islamic Law). If you do eat pork, your actions are declaring Islam to be a false religion, because you are clearly implying that you do not believe that Islamic Law comes from God, which is the foundation of the Islamic religion, without which it collapses into nothingness. If the Bible indicates that societies should not legalize same-sex marriage, and you want to legalize it, then you are declaring the Bible not to be a true, inerrant divine revelation, and thus declaring any version of Christianity which holds that it is (which would include all historic versions of Christianity) to be false.
The fact is that different worldviews, because they adhere to fundamentally and crucially important different beliefs about what is true, are going to lead to significantly different ethical principles and conclusions. There is absolutely no way to judge between these ethical principles and conclusions, to find out which ones are right and which ones we should adopt, either personally or as a society, without deciding on the truth or falsehood of the various worldview claims that are out there. Therefore, the most important and foundational question we need to ask in order to work out for ourselves and our society principles of ethics that we should live by is this: Which worldview claims are true, and which are false? There is no shortcut. We are going to have to take the time and the effort to examine the truth claims of various worldviews, looking at the evidence and the arguments, to figure out what is true. And once we think we know what is true, we will base our ethics and our laws on that, while rejecting false beliefs. We cannot avoid this task by taking the route of agnosticism, for agnosticism is simply one particular viewpoint among many other viewpoints. If agnosticism is right, then historic, orthodox Christianity is wrong, because Christianity is grounded on the claim that we can know many things about God, his nature, and his will. There is no way for a Christian to argue for Christian ethics--that is, ethics that flow from a Christian way of viewing the world--without first arguing for Christianity. And there is no way for an agnostic to argue for agnostic ethics--that is, ethics that flow from an agnostic way of viewing the world--without first arguing for agnosticism, which will involve arguing against the truth claims of all the religions that claim knowledge of truth in religious matters. I am going to spend the rest of this book talking about two particular worldviews, agnosticism and Christianity, and the different ethical principles and conclusions that flow from these two worldviews. We will see that the only way to tell which ethical perspectives are correct and which are not is to first figure out which worldview (if either of them) is actually supported by the evidence and which we therefore should regard as actually true.
1 See http://supreme.justia.com/us/403/602/case.html (from the U.S. Supreme Court Center at Justia.com) for the entire body of Lemon V. Kurtzman.
2 Judith Boss, Analyzing Moral Issues, Third Edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 19.
3 Ibid., N-2 (in the endnotes).
4 John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 137.
5 Leif Wenar, "John Rawls", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
7 Political Liberalism, 150-151.
8 “John Rawls,” accessed on 6/29/10 at 12:40 PM.
9 Political Liberalism, 60.
10 Political Liberalism, 152-153.
11 John Rawls, The Law of Peoples, with “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 178.
12 Ibid., 132-133.
13 Chris Eberle, Terence Cuneo, "Religion and Political Theory", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
15 Steven D. Smith, Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 82.
16 Ibid., 89.
17 "The Nature of Science." Understanding Evolution. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 28 June 2010