Monday, January 30, 2006

The Flock I Don't !

Elliott from Where I Sit thinks I don't know what the flock I'm talking about when it comes to religion in the public square. Now, you have to like a guy who makes reference in his blog to the 1978 film The Warriors which is either a piece of genius or so awful that it seems like one.

Actually, its not clear that Elliott and I completely disagree since he says that he has "no objection to including religion in any discussion about morality." I was concerned largely with those who do object and, if you don't think that's a widespread view, look at all those who have criticized Bush for God-talk. For examples, look here and here.

But I still want to respond to Elliott's suggestion that we can still have a pretty good conversation about moral values without resort to people's religious presuppositions.

Elliot says: "By linking morality intrinsically to religion you beg the question, which religion? Would the morals of a Mormen be the same as a Mayan? And if not, which are “correct?” I say: I suspect that the Mormon and Mayan might disagree on some things (human sacrifice immediately comes to mind), although the example is a bit misleading. On the ground - at least in the US - there is fairly broad agreement on Judeo-Christian foundational principles (which are shared by many other religious traditions), i.e., all people are created equal; persons should not be used as ends; life is sacred, etc. We may then reason (see below) from these principles to radically different conclusions, but we actually agree more than we know on where to start.

Elliott says: "It frees an atheist or an agnositc to believe that no code of morality applies to him or her." I say: I can't see why. I was careful to say that not all moral values must be rooted in religion (although what people often regard as their purely secular values often owe far more to religion that they realize)and the atheist and agnostics are free to make their case.

Elliott says: "It ultimately reduces all moral imperatives to “because God said so.” To turn Rick’s words around on him, that seems like pretty thin intellectual gruel to me." I say: Ah no, its actually the thickest of gruel because it is based in ultimate things. But here Elliott echoes the arguments of philosophers like Rawls and Rorty who say religion is a "conversation-stopper" because it is inaccessible to those who do not share its presuppositions. But this is, as the eggheads say, an epistemologically controversial position.

There are at least two responses. First, all reasoning begins with something that it is a first-order principle, i.e., a starting assumption. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was no friend of religion, called them his "can't- help- its." He thought they were completely arbitrary. He was wrong, but the point is that you generally have to find some starting points. Second, it is not at all clear that all religious reasoning starts from some principle that can only be accepted on faith. A lot of people have come to argue that we can, in fact, determine whether propositions based on faith correlate strongly or weakly with what our experience tells us.

Flock, yeah!


Dad29 said...

Regardless of "religion," there is an inborn consciousness of natural law (we religious types call it "conscience.")

Your interlocutor Elliott will eventually admit that it exists (or he would have raped/stolen/murdered his way to fame by now...)

Once he goes there, you've got him.

Rick Esenberg said...

I just get back from a class where we began to discuss the implications of Schleirmachian theology for the Establishment Clause, and D-29 comes up with this quite insightful gem. I suspect he's not meaning quite the same thing, but the serendipidy is striking. Far out.

Anonymous said...

Help me out here. (It's late and I'm not thinking as clearly as I might normally.)

It seems like we both agree that you CAN have a discussion about morality that doesn't HAVE to be rooted in religion.

You, however, think it creates a richer conversation if you include religion.

While I think it actually reduces the conversation to a Sunday Schoolish conclusion of "because God says."

Is that an accurate (if oversimplified) depiction of our stances?

Anonymous said...

Oh, and you're right, I don't think that religion has to be excluded from either the public square or discussions about morality.

(In fact, I'm not sure how you could have a discussion about Western morality, culture, or law without at least acknowledging the Bible.)

But I do contend you can reconstruct almost all of the Judeo-Christian moral code using a precept like the Golden Rule without resorting to faith to justify it.

Dad29 said...

Elliott, the GR is a good start. Eventually, however, all morality is religious. We don't have to be contentious about it--but that's the bottom line.

Rick: Catholicism is wonderful because a Catholic seeks synthesis without compromise of the core.

Rick Esenberg said...


That's about right. The problem, though, in saying you can just formulate the Golden Rule or someother ultimate value is that you have justify the value. You don't like "God said so." Fair enough, but you are going to have come up with some other source of the Golden Rule that is going to appear to be just as much of a fiat to those who don't share it.

Here's Exhibit A in the eficacy of God Talk: the civl rights movement. King didn't call for diversity or construct a utilitarian argument against segregation. Quoting the prophet Amos, he called for "justice [to]roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream."

He spoke to the nation in the language of a religion tradition that it knew it was supposed to share and segregation could not withstand that scrutinty. For more, read this.

Dad29 said...

ummmnhhh..Schliermacher. Wasn't he the guy who proposed reducing the objectivity of Revelation to "religious feeling"?

A tour de force on various modern-project types and other deviants from Luther forward is the book "Christ and Reason," (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1990) by Fr. George Rutler. Worth any price you have to pay for it.