Sunday, February 28, 2010

Honest and Fair Public Square

About a week ago, Stanley Fish published "Are There Secular Reasons?" in the NYT op ed section. I read it and tweeted something to the effect that I probably couldn't have said it better, but it assumes that contemporary folks care about being philosophically consistent.

A few days later, one of my buddies on Twitter, Christof Jans pointed me to this response by a fella down under, saying it was an intelligent response, and I just got around to reading that. So enough of the prologue; here's the deal, as I see it.

Not surprisingly, I still think Fish's point stands. In fact, it seems like Mr. Blackford missed the point entirely, or if he didn't he's being disingenuous in his response. First, he starts out by trying to paint Fish as some devious rhetorician, pointing out his use of "apartheid" and "'real' in quotes" as if it's wrong for him to do so. Blackford then goes on to bandy about the ever present propaganda about how when religion is in charge, everything goes badly, tossing out the usual suspects.

He goes off on this tangent, but he still rightly identifies that it was a particular historical backdrop that John Locke and his ilk were coming out of. He also rightly identifies something that he seems to not fully understand the implications of--that deriving policy--the how we ought to live and, consequently, govern ourselves--requires humans to imbue facts and assertions with value, regardless of if those facts and assertions are presented by religion, science, or ideology.

Blackford then returns to the tired assertion that when government tries to enforce a particular religion, it always does badly, conveniently forgetting or ignoring that the greatest atrocities in history were committed under intentionally irreligious. Look back on the 20th century where we have the Nazi atrocities, the Communist atrocities, the purely political great (and small) wars, the socio-political genocides of the 90s, and so on. Compared to these, even the extremely caricatured popular misconceptions of the inquisitions, Crusades, and so-called religious wars of the early modern period pale.

Of course, I'm not going to suggest that the reality of the Crusades, the abuses of the inquisitions, or the wars that took place in the name of religion are justifiable--my point here is just that any assertion that a religiously-based government is inherently worse than a purely secular one is baldly false by any honest historical measure.

All that said, this discussion is a red herring, as far as what Fish was trying to say. His point had no hint of what Blackford puts on his lips: "He needs ... an argument as to why we now live in an era when it is wise to trust the state to decide which religion is correct, and then legislate accordingly." In other words, Blackford, in his apparent anti-religious paranoia that is common among the atheistic élite, dodges Fish's argument and instead attacks the straw man that Fish (or those who agree with him) are proposing a return to theocracy.

We're not. We're merely calling out the ignorance, the dishonesty, or the unfairness of the modern liberals who advocate that religion must be purely a private matter that has no influence in the political arena. The crux of Fish's argument is exactly what, as I said, Blackford admits to but seems not to understand the implications of--that assigning value to facts and propositions must come from a metaphysical foundation.

To say that "everyone doesn't want to die or be raped" or to rely on other "obvious" (or as the Enlightenment thinkers might say, "self-evident") values still requires imbuing those propositions with value and assenting to that value. If those truths are not founded upon some objective metaphysical foundation (e.g., natural law), all they are is wishful thinking, the current popular opinion, or, might makes right. Stripped of such metaphysical foundations, legislating and enforcing these "obvious" values is nothing more than mob rule all gussied up in the pretty clothes of our much lauded democratic republic.

And in fact, we see the realities of this mob rule coming to fruition on critically important social issues like abortion, euthanasia, and the meaning of marriage. The dogma of Progress tells us that we must believe that these changes are for the better, that these are on par with the abolition of slavery, that whatever further "liberties" we gain are inherently good. This is wishful thinking on a grand scale; any student of history knows that history ebbs and flows in terms of good times and bad times.

But I digress, my point in calling this out is not to predict our own civilization's downfall but merely to highlight that history teaches us that not all changes in our society and government should blindly be accepted as "progress," i.e., something good/to be embraced. We need to judge proposed changes to our law by something more substantial than current popular ethos/culture/opinion.

To make such judgments, we are forced to draw on substantive values that, as Fish points out, cannot come from mere scientific, secular investigation or discourse. The truth is, as Blackford does admit, that we do draw on such values with or without recourse to religion. The difference between, say, me, a Catholic, and a contemporary materialist/empiricist/secularist/average Westerner is that I can be philosophically consistent in drawing on these metaphysical foundations while they, as Fish and the author he reviews point out, have to smuggle these values in and try by appeal to the bogeymen of the Enlightenment period and to popular sentiment to assert them as self evident or "obvious."

Now I might agree that, in general, the values of life, liberty, and equality are good values (because I derive them both from natural law and my religion, though not unqualifiedly), even if they are smuggling them in, and if we left it at that, we'd be fine. The objection motivating this critique is not to suggest that we should abandon the secular, pluralistic state or these smuggled values. The objection lies in what Fish calls out through his flowery language--that the secularists need to, first, ensure they're aware they are smuggling, second, that they be honest about it, and third, that they be fair and equitable as a result, realizing that the values they smuggle in are inherently no more or less valuable in a truly secular, pluralistic state than the values explicitly founded in religion.

The fact that my values may be religiously informed does not inherently make them less valuable than values others derive from whatever basis they use to inform their values, and in fact, we're suggesting that whether they want to admit it or not, their values are also ultimately, truly derived from some metaphysical source--we're just being honest about ours.

To put it another way, we are all appealing to certain metaphysical foundation based on our personal beliefs, regardless of if they are overtly religious or based on these implicit metaphysical foundations that secularists "smuggle" in. The consequences of such honesty and fairness is that those who advocate the "naked" public square, who advocate that religion be a purely private matter and be banished from public debate, cannot tenably advocate that--if they are being honest and fair.

A pluralist, free society doesn't mean a society that is free of religion but one in which all religions and non-religious ideologies can freely advocate their values. Otherwise, we end up in a situation no different from a state religion, where a particular ideology is established and others, solely because they are religiously informed, are outlawed. This is precisely the situation that our forefathers fled from. This is freedom from religion, not freedom of religion. It is not honest; it is not fair; it is not free.