The work required to love one’s neighbor as oneself, whether political foe or ally, is real, worth it, and not something we can opt out of, and intentionality neither to exaggerate differences nor to be minimally charitable isn’t privileging being nice or likeable over being salt and light. It is simply what a modicum of decency and civility, not to mention any realistic prospect for productive discourse, ineliminably requires. It’s not always easy to know what love looks like, but we can know it doesn’t it doesn’t look like hate.Read More
Hare wishes to discuss Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. The key is that Haidt defends the view we saw in Arnhart that evolution has given us a “groupish” attachment, one that is designed to make groups more effective at competing with other groups. Haidt goes on immediately to ask: “But is that really such a bad thing overall, given how shallow our care for strangers is in the first place? Might the world be a better place if we could greatly increase the care people get within their existing groups and nations while slightly decreasing the care they get from strangers in other groups and nations?”
His conclusion is that it would be nice to believe that we humans were designed to love everyone unconditionally. But rather unlikely from an evolutionary perspective. Parochial love—love within groups—amplified by similarity, a sense of shared fate, and the suppression of free riders may be the most we can accomplish. Religion is, he thinks, the crucial social practice that enables group formation. But should we really expect religion to turn people into unconditional altruists, ready to help strangers under any circumstances? Whatever Christ said about the Good Samaritan who helped an injured Jew, if religion is a group-level adaptation, then it should produce parochial altruism.
Our genes, on his view, under the prompting of religion give us parochial altruism, but not disinterested benevolence, or the kind of care that the Good Samaritan gave to the injured Jew. What is strikingly absent in Haidt’s account, however, is any exploration of the universalizing tendency of some religion. Religion is treated throughout as a “hive switch,” a group-level adaptation that gives us cohesion within the group together with competition against those outside it. But one theme of Hare’s book has been that we can find within the Abrahamic faiths not only tribal loyalty but divine commands that tell us to love or show mercy to the enemy and stranger and give us resources for doing so. The three arguments from the first chapter reveal an internal structure to this form of religion. If we are going to talk about the contribution of religion to morality, we need to take these features into account.
In 2001 Haidt published an influential article called “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” In it he argued it was a mistake to follow the lead of Lawrence Kohlberg (and behind him, Kant, and behind Kant, Plato) in valorizing reason as the source of moral judgment. Rather, to use a different metaphor that’s central in The Righteous Mind, we should think of emotion as the elephant and reason as a rider who is controlled by the elephant. The contrast is with Plato in the Phaedrus (246a), who thinks of reason as the charioteer, controlling the two horses of ambition and passion. On Haidt’s picture there is nothing controlling emotion except other emotions.
He doesn’t contrast emotions with cognition he thinks emotions are in fact “filled with cognition,” and he moves to saying that the contrast is between two forms of cognition, which he now calls “intuition” and “reasoning.” But this is still confusing, because intuition has often been thought of as a kind of reasoning. Aristotle, for example, distinguished between nous (intuitive reason) and dianoia (discursive reason). One takes time, the other doesn’t, but both are rational. Haidt has misunderstood Plato here, thinking Plato’s telling us in the Republic that “passions are and ought only to be the servants of reason, to reverse Hume’s formulation,” so that philosophers are kings. But Plato does not say that philosophers are kings, or that passions are the servants of reason, but that they should be. Much of the Republic is a description of states or cities in which there is no rule by reason. The fact that we are actually ruled often by something non-rational does not show that Hume is right and Plato is wrong.
Haidt is also wrong about Kant. Hume’s victory over Kant is repeatedly trumpeted. But what is the operative picture of Kant here? He was “rather low on empathizing,” though not as low as Bentham, who probably had Asperger’s syndrome. And what’s the evidence for this? Haidt suggests that Kant provided an abstract rule, the Categorical Imperative, which is based in logic, and in particular in the law of non-contradiction. But Haidt does not seem to know the formula of the end-in-itself. According to this formulation of the Categorical Imperative, we have to share as far as possible the ends of all those we affect by our actions, and we have to make those ends our own ends. This requires us, Kant says, to sympathize. Haidt is trading in caricature.
Haidt’s view is that we should not think of God as giving us a command to universal morality, because there is no rational moral compass that could receive such a command, and no “inner scientist” trying to find the truth about how to live. Haidt has three kinds of evidence for the hypothesis that the intuitive dog wags the rational tail. The evidence comes from what he calls “dumbfounding” and “post hoc fabrication,” from psychopathy, and from the bias towards the self that is pervasive in moral justification.
To obtain the first kind of evidence Haidt tells his subjects stories that involve what he calls “harmless taboo violations,” and that he contrasts with “harm-based” stories like the one Kohlberg used to tell his subjects about Hans stealing a drug to save his wife. Here’s an example of a “harmless taboo violation”: a lab worker, a vegetarian, eats some human flesh (from a cadaver that was to be burned). Subjects presented with this vignette experienced a predictable flash of disgust. Only 13% said that what the person did was all right. But when asked to say what was wrong with what she did, the subjects seemed at a loss. Haidt says they seemed to flail around, throwing out reason after reason, and rarely changing their minds when it was shown their latest reason wasn’t relevant. People were making a moral judgment immediately and emotionally. Reasoning was merely the servant of the passions, and when the servant failed to find any good arguments, the master did not change his mind.
But even without an altogether clearly articulated vision of the good, we can still have such a vision that can shape the lives we try to lead. Suppose that what used to be pervasive in society was a justification of the prohibition of cannibalism or incest in terms of divine command: that these were against the order that God had established. But suppose this kind of justification has become less socially prevalent. We would expect people to become less articulate in their discursive reasoning. Dumbfounding may well be culturally relative, so that cultures that stress what Haidt calls “the ethic of divinity” are not dumbfounded by just the same stories. But from this cultural relativity it wouldn’t follow that the intuitions of people in those cultures were not tracking something actually bad, or that they didn’t have a conscience or rational moral compass whose job it is to do this tracking.
The data are important, because they show that we are less good at explicit discursive reasoning than we tend to think we are. But the data do not establish the conclusion that Haidt wants, namely, that the “rider’s job is to serve the elephant, not to act as a moral compass.” Again, we have here the slip between the descriptive and the normative.
Haidt uses the example of psychopathy to argue there’s no rational will or conscience whose job it is to act as moral compass. But how could this conclusion be established from the data of psychopathy? Even if there’s a genetic base for it, nothing follow about whether people without this condition have a faculty of reason that can guide them in more than strategic planning. Haidt has reduced reason to what Aristotle calls “cleverness,” which works out the means to any end presented. Aristotle says both practically wise and villainous people are called clever. But the evidence of our failures of practical wisdom does not show that we do not have the faculties that would make such wisdom possible, only that we do not exercise them reliably.
The third kind of evidence Haidt uses is from the bias towards the self that is pervasive in moral justification. He tries to show that reason is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth. What his data show, however, is something else, something he says in the very next sentence: People care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality. There’s a key difference between these claims. The second is perfectly consistent with, and indeed supports, the Kantian view that we start off under the propensity to evil that overrides the equally innate but essential human predisposition to good. But the first denies this view, because it denies Kant’s account of the predisposition, which is that we are the sorts of creature who respond with a certain kind of feeling. Inside we often act more like a lawyer justifying ourselves than a scientist seeking the truth. Likewise when brain scans are performed on partisans when they hear about hypocrisy among their favored candidates. “The data came out strongly supporting Hume,” with emotional and intuitive processes running the show and only putting in a call to reasoning when its services are needed to justify a desired conclusion.
But, Hare responds, the fact that we pay attention to and delight disproportionately in thinking about what suits our own inclinations does not show that when we do so we are thinking properly, or that our reason is doing its “job.” Rather, it shows that we are not doing our job as rational animals at all well.
Hare concludes this subsection by saying a divine command theorist should take cognizance of the evidence of all three types (dumbfounding and psychopathy and bias), and should be chastened by it because of what it shows about our lack of intellectual virtue and some people’s lack of conscience altogether. But this should not make her abandon her theory. What she holds possible and what she holds obligatory depend on her theological premises, and what she thinks in particular about the three arguments presented in the first chapter. Evidence about our various forms of cognitive failure does not show that we do not have the ability to screen our initial inputs given the available assistance, or that universal morality is not an appropriate screen. If this is right, then this evidence does not show us that “parochial altruism is the most we can accomplish.”
A Twilight Musing
As on every July 4, we heard a lot earlier this week about “freedom,” which in the context of the holiday refers to the political freedom gained by the American colonies breaking away from an oppressive British government. The justification for that action was eloquently and nobly expreessed by a Declaration of Independence. However, “freedom” is often used more for its emotive content than its precise definition. It frequently embodies a self-congratulatory attitude, as in identifying the U. S. as one of the nations of “the Free World.” The term also commonly refers to the rights of individuals to do as they wish, being under no legal restrictions in making their choices, as in the popular catch-phrase, “a woman’s right to choose,” referring to abortion. However, as the founders of our republic understood, the exercise of freedom requites a foundation of moral law.
The Bible has a great many references to freedom, but they are not primarily (and sometimes not at all) concerned with political or civil freedoms. In fact, the concepts they convey are often counterintuitive to human reason, for, particularly in the New Testament, they are presenting the paradox of people who are apparently politically or personally free being in bondage, while the freedom that God wants to give His people is spoken of as slavery. In fact, our fallen human condition means that we are enslaved in our natural state, and that our only deliverance from that bondage is to become slaves to Christ:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Rom 6:17-22)
This is worlds away from the idea of “freedom” as something we have a right to. Jesus made this distinction clear when he imparted His radical truth to the Jewish leaders:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." They answered him, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, 'You will become free'?" Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Freedom, Jesus tells them, is not something they can claim as a part of their “rights” as Israelites, children of Abraham. Rather, it is something granted by the Son of God, completely His to give or withhold. As Paul says, the only thing we fallen humans can claim as our “right” is death, whereas “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
It’s appropriate to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of our “free” country, with its constitutionally defined Bill of Rights. But no amount of political or personal freedom in the society of mankind can bring us the freedom that we most need, the God-defined and grace-granted freedom “from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). Let us principally rejoice in that which makes us “free indeed.”
A Twilight Musing
We have a politician on the national scene who consistently speaks in superlatives, a practice which leads to some skepticism about when the superlative is really applicable to the thing he’s talking about—sort of the “boy who cried ‘Wolf!’ principle. We all have some temptation to exaggerate in order to enhance people’s perception of our talents and accomplishments, but we always run the risk of being caught out by doing so. The only being who can legitimately speak in, or be spoken of, in superlatives is God, and that occurs frequently in Scripture. Take Eph. 1:17-22 as an example, in which Paul prays for the Ephesians,
that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.
Note that the greatness of God’s power toward believers is “immeasurable”; that Christ has been seated “far above all rule and authority” and “above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come,” that is, for all eternity, without end.
A little later in the epistle, Paul prays again that the disciples in Ephesus will be “rooted and grounded in love, [and] may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17b-19). Paul is not one to speak in moderate terms when he refers to what God has done and is doing for those in Christ; he wants all of his readers to “comprehend . . . the breadth, and length and height and depth” of “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” But that understanding is not to be achieved by human effort, but by the superlative “power that is at work in us,” which is able “to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” The fountainhead of such an immeasurable outpouring of God’s Spirit is the atoning death of Jesus, an unfathomably extravagant gift of the Father, an unbelievably radical act of obedience by the Son. As Paul says in Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (8:31b-32).
In the Apostle’s description of his own response to such extravagant love we see the challenge for all of us to be similarly committed, without restraint or reservation: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). In another place he describes being fully possessed by the Spirit of Christ, keeping nothing of his former self, so that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Jesus Himself expected an extravagant commitment from those who proposed to follow Him, calling His inner twelve to leave their occupations to become fishers of men, bidding a rich man to sell all he had and give to the poor, and challenging people to put the kingdom of God ahead of all other earthly ties.
I will conclude with a poem that depicts a contrast between moderate, conventional responses to Christ and a radical, all-giving act of love. In the scriptural account on which the poem is based, Jesus draws a symbolic parallel between her action and Jesus’ own pouring out of Himself on the cross: “She has done a beautiful thing to me . . . . She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (Mark 14:6, 8). We should remember her when we’re tempted to be merely moderate Christians.
The Broken Jar
The ointment with abandon
Runs down His cheek,
Sweetly joining tears of love
Set flowing by her extravagance.
Beauty and prescience
Are mingled there,
While spare and cautious faces
Grimace at the waste.
They advocate the shorter way—
Slipping pennies to the poor,
And making sure the books are kept.
But Jesus wept
That one should share His sacrifice,
And break the jar to pour out all.
--Elton D. Higgs
(Jan 9, 1977)
Editor’s Note: This essay was originally posted at Christ and Pop Culture.
"Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you.”
Nearly twenty-four years later, despite my having faced and overcome many challenges since that time and finally feeling secure in God’s faithfulness and his plan for me, memory of these words can still easily unsettle me. The cold indifference with which they were spoken, how they foretold the lonely and grueling road ahead, the grievous recognition that I had cast my pearls before this swine who was content to leave them in the mud—all of these hard truths surface in this short statement.
I was twenty, living recklessly and trying desperately to make up for what my childhood had lacked—some affirmation that I was important, a little appreciation for my unique gifts and talents, even just a bit of recognition that I existed.
It’s natural to feel invisible in dysfunctional environments like the one in which I grew up.
So on the precipice of adulthood, quite unconsciously I’m sure, I was determined to get what I had been denied: self-actualization, consideration, admiration. But when you have no internal gauge for authenticity in these matters, anything bearing a superficial resemblance will do, even the paltriest of substitutes—like the attentions of my manager at the restaurant where I worked.
Although it’s difficult now for me to stand in the shoes of that fragile girl, I do remember how flattering it was to garner the interest of someone with a modicum of authority in a position of respectability. In retrospect his flirting sickens me, knowing the self-centered callousness behind it, but at the time it thrilled me to think that I might be special enough to merit his devotion, or at least what I mistook for devotion.
The ironic but simple truth is that those growing up without having their most basic emotional needs met will often debase themselves in their desperate attempts to meet them. So it was with me.
Another simple truth is that many will use their power to exploit these vulnerabilities. This dynamic has been on full display in recent weeks with the latest scandal in Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. The most visceral reactions have been directed toward the leaked audio, and I have to admit, listening to Trump’s boasts gives me vivid flashbacks to the early days of my unmarried pregnancy.
To hear a rich and famous man speak with such casual pride on the license his power gives him to have his way with women—married or not—sparks shame deep within me. Shame because I know he’s right.
My story attests to this reality. Trump’s voice on that tape brings me face to face with the fact that the crisis point of my life, even the conception of my precious son, could so heartlessly be reduced to an emotionally stunted adolescent talking point.
What has been equally troubling is the political aftermath of the Trump tape, the way it has rallied his defenders and accusers alike. His advocates try threading the needle to denounce Trump’s past while embracing his future (Supreme Court in the balance, after all); others emphasize that these were words not deeds (though that’s become a vexed question) and establish a hierarchy of depravity with Trump on the acceptable side of the line. Still more adduce the philandering of Bill Clinton and Hillary’s enabling diatribes against his accusers.
Trump’s critics ostensibly inhabit the moral high ground. They rightly call Trump out for degrading women; they recognize the hostility and abuse of power. While some detractors, such as Beth Moore, predicate their critique on Christian conviction for the dignity and worth of all people and a concern for the vulnerable, others have leveraged their criticism to score political points. Because the tape discloses repulsive statements and attitudes about women, some seize the opportunity to offer Clinton’s platform as a corrective: complete with expansion of abortion access and an unseemly and sanguine acceptance of the practice as normative.
Michelle Obama’s moving speech delivered last week powerfully embodies the attractiveness of embracing a platform like this, one that is supposed to empower women. As many have reported, in that poignant speech Obama articulates the fear countless women have that they matter only as sexual objects and declares—with justification—that Trump’s nomination by a major political party has breathed new life into those fears, even inflamed them.
I hear her words and watch her passion, and they resonate, but I can join in Obama’s refrain for only so long. Her righteous indignation rings hollow in light of the suffocating internal and external pressure I felt to abort my child—pregnant, scared, and little-more-than-child myself.
The hideous refrain, “Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you,” echoes loudly in my ears these days.
This cruel declaration invokes my longing to be known and loved, reminding me how that deepest of human needs was wielded as a weapon. It crystallizes for me the enormous power men have when abortion becomes quotidian, effectively disempowering the women it purports to protect.
“My body, my choice” ultimately entailed that the child I was carrying was fully my responsibility. In the moment of this distancing and dispassionate declaration, I knew that—with conscience intact—my son’s father intended to leave me to bear the consequences alone.
This is the hard truth of our age. A people who pride themselves on “equality for all” has accepted unchecked power as a matter of course—wrongful dominion of men over women, of women over babies. A code of law crafted to defend the defenseless, in reality sacrifices the weakest of us all. And we turn a blind eye to exploited women who refuse the moral calculation of abortion that offers escape through passing on one’s victimhood to another.
Even now, those speaking loudest about the Trump tapes seem to overlook the exploited. They excuse, forgive, and change the subject. Or they condemn, scheme, and flaunt their moral superiority. Few have acknowledged the individual lives at stake. Grievously silent have been Christian voices calling on men and women alike to reject societal and legal allowances to exert illegitimate control over another.
For someone like me, the casualty of another’s entitlement, this silence is deafening.
God is good, and in recounting my experience, I don’t mean to imply that this desolate chapter is the end of my story. I have been blessed beyond measure, and God has indeed shown in and through me his delight in making beauty from ashes. I am no longer that abandoned, desperately needy new mother unprepared for what lay ahead. I am amazed, humbled, and overwhelmed by how far God has brought me, how he redeemed this turning point by transforming me and making me wiser and stronger.
Over the past week, with the two partisan camps warring over Trump’s latest scandal, I can’t help but think of my former self, ill-equipped for the crisis she faced. She would be able to find no refuge in either faction. And I can’t help but look at my female students at the university where I teach and wonder if any of them wrestle with the same inner and outer demons I faced at their age.
It’s to and for them I speak now. I want desperately for them to know that—no matter who has failed them, no matter what they have done, no matter who speaks lies to and about them—they are loved abundantly. They are created for a purpose they will find only in their Maker; they are unique and wonderful and valuable beyond measure. Exploitation of them is an offense to the God who formed us all.
And to men who might be listening in, mistreatment of women degrades you as well. To quote James Baldwin, “It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own.” You are called to something higher, to reject the pervasive cultural message that permits casual objectification and consumption of another.
A corollary with that truth is this one: good and right will prevail; evil begets evil and, left unredeemed, will never participate in good. While we live in a world fraught with sin and temptation, counterfeit satisfactions and fear will lure us to abandon God’s wisdom for our own, to rationalize our rejection of his law, and to enact justice injudiciously. Through abortion and more, our culture offers encouragement and approval for such blameworthy self-reliance. Only a resolute trust in God’s abiding faithfulness delivers us from evil, both inward and outward. Such is the way of hope.
Hope rejects voices that justify, minimize, or turn away from abuses of power. Even still, hope recognizes that abuse of power is not a zero-sum game and that such abuse, if left unchecked by grace, can quickly turn victim into perpetrator, all in the name of empowerment. Faustian bargains net no profit, no matter whose dignity is used as collateral.
Hope speaks truth about injustice, holds the wicked to account, but resists the creed that all’s fair play for the wronged. Hope, instead, knows you can entrust yourself to the one who judges justly. Through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, hope proves that it need neither compromise nor collude with corruption to effect victory.
Do not be fooled by rhetoric that claims accumulation of power is our purpose, no matter the source of those claims. Embrace instead Christ’s heart for the “least of these,” even if you find yourself in that category.
Our fallen state may be homo incurvatus in se, humanity curved in on itself, but hope releases us from bondage to self-gratification and self-centeredness. Through hope, we can and should live differently. My life and the life of my son testify to this possibility and to this hope.
Image: "Good Samaritan" by David Teniers the Younger. Wiki Commons.
A Twilight Musing
Along with many other citizens, I’m sitting here the morning after the election trying to sort out where the results leave us as a nation, and especially as Christian citizens. I’m relieved, as are many others, that the long, shabby campaign is finally over and we’re no longer bombarded by political junk mail, phone calls, attack ads, and sleazy discourse. It has been widely stated that this campaign has been more flawed and ignobly pursued than any in living memory, and many are disillusioned as to the future of our democracy.
But perhaps this is a suitable reminder for Christians that nothing in Scripture indicates we are to expect government to do more than maintain public order and curb criminal activity. According to Paul in Romans 13:1-7, The proper response of Christians to governmental authority is submission to it and obedience to its laws.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
An additional duty of Christians toward government is stated in 1 Tim 2:1-3: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made . . . for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”
Certainly submission to civil authorities, abiding by the law, and praying for political leaders are commands as applicable to us as to Christians of the first century; but it is also true that people of God who live in a democratic republic have broader opportunities to influence government than did our brothers and sisters in earlier times, and therefore we have more responsibility as citizens. However, such opportunities and responsibilities can easily tempt us to place more emphasis on our own efforts than on seeking discernment from the Lord as to how to conduct ourselves politically. In response to this or any other election campaign, we should not be elated in pride if the candidate we agree with wins, nor cast down in bitterness if our favored candidate loses. Especially in the aftermath of such a heated and vituperous campaign as we have just seen, Christians need to rededicate themselves to being models of sincere concern for public officials, whether we voted for them or not; and models of mutual respect as we deal with our social and political differences. The best testimony that Christians can give at a time like this is to be agents of healing, rather than strident voices of either self-righteousness in victory or bitterness in defeat.
Image: "election chalkboard" by Jeff Warren. CC License.
“No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought, on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one another's mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic; then only shall we have that spirit of inner tolerance without which all our outer tolerance is soulless [. . .]; then only shall we live and let live, in speculative as well as in practical things.” – William James, “The Will to Believe”
In an episode from season two of The Good Wife, the central character’s law firm has to decide whether to sue someone accused of a horrific sex crime. Evidence for a strong case eventually mounts, and it looks likely that they could win the potential suit.
But there’s a rub. The accused man is someone who has done a great deal of good in Africa. For his promotion of women’s rights and justice for the underprivileged there, he is about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He is known throughout the country for this humanitarian work, which has done much good for many people. Pursuit of the case against him could very well permanently undermine the advances gained by his efforts. At least that’s the argument put forth by the man’s wife when she pleads with the firm not to pursue the lawsuit.
The episode makes an illuminating case study in which a moral conflict arises between doing the virtuous or dutiful thing, on the one hand, and promoting the best consequences on the other. This is, of course, a well-known dilemma that often pits deontologists—those who emphasize the rightness or wrongness of the action itself—against consequentialists—those who determine the rightness or wrongness of an action based on outcomes.
Sometimes, such as in the episode described above, doing the dutiful thing would seem well-nigh certain to produce bad consequences overall, whereas other times aiming to maximize utility would call for an intrinsically unjust action. Such conflicts have been the fodder for many an amusing and engaging ethics debate in philosophy classrooms.
The strictest deontologist would suggest that avoiding horrific consequences never justifies violating a particular moral rule. No number of lives saved, for example, could validate torturing the child of a terrorist. But not every rule is nonnegotiable. We’re rather inclined to think that, in the aforementioned episode, bringing the wrongdoer to justice would be the right thing to do.
What about lying to protect Jews during the Holocaust when a German soldier comes to the door? Kant was notorious for insisting that there are no legitimate exceptions to lying, but one could question this conclusion based on Kantian principles themselves. For example, on the basis of what maxim is one considering the lying? Some maxims are universalizable, while others aren’t, so which is it?
The present point, though, is more about this question: What do we do when doing the right thing would be harmful overall? What would a teacher do, for instance, if on the eve of graduation she discovers that a senior has egregiously cheated, a senior with a full scholarship to a prestigious university? Or choose another example when doing the right thing seems unlikely to yield the best outcome.
This is a question neither for the strictest Kantian nor the strictest consequentialist. Most of us, however, fall somewhere in between, and rightly so. And so most of us will likely encounter a scenario where doing what we are convinced is right will not likely produce good results. It may even produce a bad one, or at least contribute to it. In such cases, what should one do?
This is no mere academic exercise, because many people are currently struggling with this very question in the upcoming presidential election. I’m thinking particularly of conservatives who can’t in good conscience vote for Donald Trump, but they are no less opposed to his competition. Such conservatives are finding themselves under increasing pressure to capitulate and support Trump despite their deep reservations.
Popular arguments along these lines come from evangelical leaders like Eric Metaxas who sees Trump as “the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion.” While Metaxas says that Christians “must” vote for Trump, Robert Jeffress does him one better, attributing to pride rather than conscientious principle the motivation for any Christian withholding support for Trump. And here, too, Jeffress points to the probable outcome of such abstention: “I think it would be a shame for people to allow Hillary Clinton four or eight years in the White House.”
Such arguments leave many conservatives who cannot support Trump genuinely perplexed as to what to do. Despite their conviction, do they have an obligation to vote for the one they, or others, consider the lesser of two evils?
To be clear, we’re not taking a position on whether they’re right about Trump’s (or HRC’s) candidacy, but simply pointing out that this sort of dilemma is a real one for many. We would, though, like to offer these specific voters some perspective on this situation.
Radical consequentialism might sanction a vote for one of these two nominees, but we submit that such voters should not support either candidate. The often-repeated refrain, that a non-vote for one candidate is positive support for the other, should hold no water for such individuals. If someone thinks that voting for either candidate is impossible to do in good conscience, we submit that they should refrain from voting, or should vote for a third candidate they can support. The right course of action in such a case, without consideration for the electoral outcome, is to withhold support for either Trump or Clinton.
Both voting for a third candidate and abstaining from voting altogether are potentially legitimate, available alternatives. On occasion we are genuinely forced to choose the lesser of two evils, when, for example, no third option is available. But that is not the case in this year’s election. This is no either/or situation, without remainder. The remaining options provide a way to preserve the courage of one’s convictions and resist the pressure to outsource one’s conscience. The worst case scenario would entail refraining from voting altogether.
To reiterate, this analysis is predicated on the assumption that the prospective voter thinks that voting for either leading candidate would be wrong for them. They should, to our thinking, follow their conscience, and either refrain from voting or vote for a third candidate. Admittedly, doing so may result in, or at least contribute to, a bad outcome. But allowing that consideration to, well, trump would represent a tacit acceptance of an objectionably consequentialist approach to ethics.
Someone might say that it’s not the bad consequence per se that they wish to avoid, but the deontological values that would have to be sacrificed in that case. Their aversion to contributing to such an outcome, then, is more than consequentialist. That’s fine, but if they think that those values are enough to warrant voting for, say, Trump, then they are not the focus of this analysis. However, those who think it would be wrong to vote for either should vote for neither.
One more brief consideration is germane to people of faith in particular. Usually when we do work in moral apologetics, we start with clear cases of moral right and wrong, good or evil, and invite our interlocutors to locate our shared moral ground. From there we can search for what best explains such obvious moral truths. But there’s another way to do moral apologetics using dilemma cases such as the type we’ve been discussing.
Suppose we’re confronted with some really horrible choice between two evils. Either the choice is forced, or it’s not. If it’s a forced choice, the action in question may well produce bad consequences, but still may be obligatory, in which case it ought to be done despite the (at least temporally) bad outcome. That’s a case where choosing the less bad option is permissible. If the choice is not forced, but there’s a viable third alternative, then that option ought to be chosen, despite that it, too, may not contribute to a good overall outcome, or even might contribute to a bad one. We submit this election is just a case for some, and the third option is either a good third candidate or not voting at all.
But what the believer can hold onto in either contingency is faith in a good God who will ensure ultimate good ends and the embrace of justice and peace even when we, owing to our finitude and limitations, are unable to contribute to or effect them on our own. Producing the best outcomes isn’t always our responsibility, but we can rest assured it is Someone’s.
Author’s note to readers: This paper was written for a panel presentation, “Finding the Theistic Foundations of Morality,” at the 2014 American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. Because my presentation is the last of the panel—allowing me to elide a number technical issues and nuances already covered and, instead, to focus on ending the panel on a provocative note—I have opted to write in a manner more punchy and less technical than normal.
In this paper, I argue that naturalists cannot defensibly affirm as objectively good or superior any social or political desiderata. They also cannot defensibly condemn any social or political harms as objectively bad or inferior. In addition, I contend that practically living out naturalism may be classicist and corrosive, especially with respect to the vulnerable members of society.
Before turning to the body of the paper, a few definitions are in order. While naturalism isn’t the easiest view to define, I think it is safe to distinguish between ‘narrow naturalism’ and ‘broad naturalism.’ Narrow naturalism holds that (a) nature is all that exists and (b) nature itself is whatever will be disclosed by the ideal natural sciences, especially physics. Broad naturalism also holds that nature is all that exists but that nature itself is whatever will be disclosed by the natural and human sciences—not just physics but psychology, sociology, and the like as well. It thus affirms the emergent reality of consciousness, intentionality, valuing, and so on.
Having established some basic definitions, I now turn to the body of the paper. I’ll first focus on the ontological resources of naturalism. Since my colleagues have already done the heavy lifting, I’ll limit myself to a summary of some main ideas from my point of view. While there are a variety of ways to think about the matter, one way is to observe that, on narrow naturalism, nature itself is typically regarded as amoral because there are no ‘goodness’ or ‘rightness’ particles or forces (or groups of particles or forces). There are no ‘oughtness’ particles or forces (or groups) either. There are just brute particles and forces—fermions and bosons—describable by physics. As one narrow naturalist puts it, “In a world where physics fixes all the facts, it’s hard to see how there could be room for moral facts.” As such, there are no objective moral facts (or ‘moral values,’ as I will call them). That is, there are no real, intrinsic, mind-independent moral values—about fairness, justice, equality, etc.—which are irreducible to, or not identical with, physical facts.
Broad naturalism, on the other hand, affirms the emergent reality of values, including moral values like fairness, justice, social stability, and the like. As such, humans’ subjective experience of good, moral, and right values are not reducible to, or identical with, say, the complex biochemical and structural features of the human brain. On typical formulations of this view, the human mind is something qualitatively different than the human brain. The human mind emerges from the complexity of the brain; one emergent complexity is the ability to form, maintain, communicate, and apply values. However, on this view such values are not ontologically independent of the human brain. In a real sense, their existence depends upon the existence of a physical brain. If human brains ceased to exist, so would moral values. Thus, on this view moral values are not objective—that is, they do not exist independently of human brains and minds. While subjective experiences of valuing are real enough, objective moral values themselves are not. I might be passionate about a state that protects civil liberties, but the value of liberty is itself no more real than the tooth fairy.
In light of this result, it follows that naturalists cannot defensibly affirm any political state or political philosophy as objectively good (or superior), nor can they defensibly condemn any political state or political philosophy as objectively bad (or inferior). For example, naturalists cannot reject Hitler’s Third Reich as objectively wrong and affirm representative democracy as objectively superior. Recall that according to narrow naturalism, there are only physical particles and forces, all of which are amoral. So, one elaborate arrangement of fermions and bosons—say, a social and political system organized according to Nazi principles—is no more or less moral than another array of fermions and bosons, including one arranged according to the principles of democracy. These two (collective) states of affairs are distinguished exhaustively and exclusively by the spatio-temporal differences of their constituent particles and forces. Neither is ‘good’ and neither is ‘bad.’ Neither is ‘morally better’ nor ‘morally worse.’ Fermions and bosons just are.
In the case of broad naturalism, on the other hand, persons may value representative democracy more than Nazism. Nonetheless, democracy is no more objectively good than Nazism. On broad naturalism, it’s true that people’s experience of valuing democracy is qualitatively different than the corresponding subvenient physicality of their brains. But without any mind-independent status to morality, their experience of valuing democracy is no more objectively correct than someone else’s experience of valuing Nazism. Even if every person past, present, and future valued democracy over tyranny, this valuing would not count one iota toward the objective moral superiority of democracy over tyranny. Quite simply, there are no objective values. Accordingly, broad naturalists, like narrow naturalists, cannot affirm a ‘good’ political order as objectively superior to a brutal order.
The implications of this result are troubling. For example, naturalists who lean towards political conservatism, such as political scientist Larry Arnhart, have no real basis to affirm universal human desires—for things like friendship and justice—as the objectively correct basis for social and political order. So, too, naturalists who favor a Rawlsian approach have no real basis to affirm the objectivity of the “principle of equal liberty” or “the principle of difference” nor the legitimacy of the veil of ignorance or the original position. The same is true about negative judgments: Rawlsians have no grounds to attack conservatives, and vice versa. Something similar can be said for any naturalist who wishes to affirm the objective correctness (or objective wrongness) of the core normative principles of Locke’s Second Treatise or Hobbes’ Leviathan or Rousseau’s Social Contract or even James Carville’s It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! Thus, from the right to the left, naturalism decimates the objective moral status, positive or negative, of any political system or philosophy.
This result holds not just at a macro-level of political states or philosophies, but also at the micro-level of particular social and moral causes. Narrow and broad naturalists cannot affirm that women have reproductive rights, the rich ought to pay higher taxes, gays and lesbians have the right to marry, and that climate change ought to be countered. Likewise, naturalists cannot condemn rapacious capitalism, marriage inequality, pro-life legislative coercion, systemic racism, and so on. Naturalist Alex Rosenberg drives this point home: “We have to acknowledge…that many questions we want the ‘right’ answers to just don’t have any. These are questions about the morality of stem-cell research or abortion or affirmative action or gay marriage or our obligations to future generations.” We may want answers but, as Rosenberg concludes flatly, “There are none.” In the end, none of a naturalist’s favored positions are objectively correct or superior to their opposites. And no views are objectively bad or inferior, either. All that’s left standing are either particles and forces or subjective experiences.
Of course a critic might point out that broad naturalists, at least, can still affirm, say, democracy over fascism as a matter preference. As long as this is true, they can live out meaningful, good lives supportive of democratic principles even if they have no objective basis to regard democracy as (in fact) superior.
By way of reply, it is true that any naturalist can live a certain lifestyle that most of us would regard as good and virtuous, say, one supportive of democracy. But so can a person who thinks he’s an eggplant but that all eggplants have special abilities as well as moral obligations to support representative government. Nearly anyone can live a good life in the limited sense of consistently acting in ‘good’ ways. But that’s not the issue.
The issue is whether naturalists have—on their own grounds—any ability to hold that, say, one political system is objectively better (or worse) than another, and that people ought to support the superior system. They do not have such grounds. Indeed, even a broad naturalist (who has more resources than a narrow naturalist) is in a pickle when he says he can live a good life. He can’t coherently call his life “a good life” in any objective sense. All he can really say is that he lives a certain way that he prefers, and this way happens to be preferred by a number of others. That’s it. Like turtles, it’s just preferences all the way down.
Before closing, I have two more brief notes about living out naturalism in a practical way. The first is an observation; the second, a criticism. First, it is arguable that living this worldview may be a classist luxury, by and large. That is, this lifestyle is viable only for those of privilege. Because naturalism does away with objective moral values, living this view means that one must not take traditional moral and social norms as given but rather substitute one’s own personal perspective (or the prospective of one’s self-identified group). Doing so generally includes complex assessments of social expectations (not obligatory norms), combined with personal introspection and discovery of “what I really want” (or what my group “really wants”), which are negotiated and re-negotiated with one’s friends, peers, colleagues, associates, sub-cultures, and culture. All of this requires leisure time, wealth, verbal ability, education, and the like. But those who lack wealth, education, leisure time, and so on often do not have the wherewithal to engage in such negotiations. A single mom working two jobs, taking care of two kids, slaving through housework, struggling to parent, and collapsing on the couch at night simply doesn’t have the bourgeois luxury to spend two hours over cocktails with a cadre of professional friends discussing just how to maintain her “independence” in the face of archaic social expectations. Practically living out naturalism is, by and large, a plaything of the wealthy and privileged. Again, this is not a criticism per se but an observation. It is noteworthy because some naturalists who see themselves as marginalized or as fighting established powers—“check your privilege,” they tell us—don’t seem to realize just how fortunate they are.
Second, by way of a criticism: practically living a naturalistic view may be corrosive, primarily to the vulnerable. (By ‘the vulnerable,’ I mean those in the bottom tier educationally, economically, politically, socially, professionally, and/or psychologically—individuals, say, who never finished high school, are poor, come from deeply dysfunctional families, have drug addictions, ongoing depression, or the like.) Naturalists who constantly chip away at traditional social and moral norms end up helping to erode the very moral and social capital that traditionally help the disadvantaged. For example, in part under a ‘progressive’ assault, the sacred bond of marriage has become weaker (or less valued) over time. But marriage not only helps single, poor women, it also helps children. Kids who are born out of wedlock, victims of divorce, or raised in single-parent homes are more likely to suffer from a range of difficulties than kids raised in two parent homes. In trying to fight ‘those on top,’ naturalists inadvertently harm ‘those on bottom.’
In conclusion, then, narrow and broad naturalists cannot defensibly affirm or deny the objective goodness or superiority (or the objective badness or inferiority) of any political state, political philosophy, or position on any social or moral topic. And, as I have just noted, living out this view seems to be a classicist privilege and a corrosive stance against the vulnerable. None of this is to say naturalism is false, of course, but only that it comes at a very high cost indeed. Thank you.
 I assume throughout the paper that, for a person (or persons) to defensibly affirm social or political desiderata as ‘objectively good or superior’ or to defensibly condemn social or political harms as ‘objectively bad or inferior,’ there must be actual (or real) objectively good or superior (or objectively bad or inferior) social and political desiderata (or harms). (See below for my informal definition of ‘objective.’) But for those who disagree with this assumption, I can make a similar argument easily enough—namely, that, on naturalism, there simply are no objectively good or superior social or political desiderata nor are there any objectively bad or inferior social or political harms. The end result is much the same. My fundamental claim is metaphysical (there are no objective moral values given naturalism) although for stylistic reasons, I highlight epistemological elements (naturalists cannot defensibly affirm social or political desiderata as ‘objectively good or superior,’ etc.). I trust the reader will understand my (metaphysical) meaning throughout the paper.
 In fact, Michael Rea claims that “there is no clear answer to the question of what it means to be a naturalist.” Michael Rea, “Naturalism and Material Objects,” in Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, ed. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (New York: Routledge, 2000), 110.
 Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, Naturalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2008). Cf. David Papineau, Philosophical Naturalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).
 Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (New York: Norton, 2011), 94-95.
 Or, the brains of some other physical creature of sufficient cognitive complexity.
 Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1998). Larry Arnhart & Ken Blanchard (ed.), Darwinian Conservatism, second edition (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2009).
 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Belknap Press, 2005). “The principle of equality” holds that each person is to be granted the greatest degree of liberty harmonious with a similar level of liberty for everyone. “The principle of difference” holds that practices producing inequality among individuals are acceptable only if they work to the advantage of disadvantaged people, and that positions of privilege must be open to everyone.
 Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide, 96, emphasis added.
 Undoubtedly, a number of others disagree with his preferences. All that’s left to settle the matter is force, fraud, or moving away.
 For example, Emma Green, “Wealthy Women can Afford to Reject Marriage, but Poor Women Can’t,” The Atlantic, January 15, 2014. As for children: Hyun Sik Kim, “Consequences of Parental Divorce for Child Development,” American Sociological Review, vol. 76, no. 3 (June 2011): 487-511. Toby L. Parcel, Lori Ann Campbell, and Wenxuan Zhong, “Children’s Behavior Problems in the United States and Great Britain,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 53 no. 2 (June 2012): 165-182. Toby L. Parcel, Lori Ann Campbell, and Wenxuan Zhong, “Children’s Behavior Problems in the United States and Great Britain,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 53 no. 2 (June 2012): 165-182. N. Glenn, S. Nock, and L. J. Waite, “Why marriage matters: Twenty-one conclusions from the social sciences,” American Experiment Quarterly 5 (2002): 34–44. G. E. Weisfeld, D. M. Muczenski, C. C. Weisfeld, and D. R. Omark, “Stability of Boys’ Social Success among Peers over an Eleven-year Period,” In Interpersonal Relations: Family, Peers, Friends, edited by J. A. Meacham (New York, NY: Karger, 1987). B. Defoe, Why There Are No Good Men Left (New York: Broadway Books, 2003). G. R. Weitoft, A. Hjern, B. Haglund, and M. Rosen, “Mortality, severe mortality, and injury in children living with single parents in Sweden: A population based study,” Lancet 361 (2003): 289–95. S. Rhoads, Taking sex differences seriously (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004). W. B. Wilcox, Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences. A Study from a Team of Family Scholars Chaired by W. Bradford Wilcox (New York: Institute for American Values, 2011). P. Wilcox Rountree and B. D. Warner, The State of Our Unions 2011: Marriage in America (Charlottesville, VA: The National Marriage Project, 2011). M. Parke, Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? (Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy, 2003). S. R. Aronson and A. C. Huston, “The mother-infant relationship in single, cohabiting, and married families: A case for marriage?” Journal of Family Psychology 18 (2004): 5–18. P. Fomby and A. J. Cherlin, “Family instability and child well-being,” American Sociological Review 72 (2007): 181–204. M. Gallagher and L. Waite, The Case for Marriage (New York: Random House, 2000). J. T. Cookston, “Parental supervision and family structure,” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 31 (1999): 107–27. Some of the data: “Children from divorced homes suffer academically. They experience high levels of behavioral problems. Their grades suffer, and they are less likely to graduate from high school. Kids whose parent’s divorce are substantially more likely to be incarcerated for committing a crime as a juvenile. Because the custodial parent's income drops substantially after a divorce, children in divorced homes are almost five times more likely to live in poverty than are children with married parents. Teens from divorced homes are much more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use, as well as sexual intercourse than are those from intact families…. They are also more likely to suffer child abuse. Children of divorced parents suffer more frequently from symptoms of psychological distress. And the emotional scars of divorce last into adulthood.” See Amy Desai, “How Could Divorce Affect My Kids?” available at http://www.focusonthefamily.com. See also Jann Gumbiner, “Divorce Hurts Children, Even Grown Ones,” Psychology Today, October 31, 2011. For an opposite view, see Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld, “Is Divorce Bad for Children?” Scientific American, vol. 24, no. 1. Yet even Arkowitz and Lilienfeld conceded that kids of divorce are more likely to suffer a range of difficulties than kids raised in two-parent homes. LaVar Young reports on children born out of wedlock: “Fragile families [in which parents are not marriage at the time of the child’s birth] are shown to have harsher parenting practices and fewer literacy activities, and children of such families produce lower cognitive test scores and a have a higher incidence of aggressive behavior. Furthermore, previous research demonstrates that children who live apart from one of their parents at some point in their childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age 20, and one and a half times as likely to be out of school or work by their late teens or early 20s.” LaVar Young, “Fragile Families: Most Children Born Out of Wedlock Aren't OK,” Huffington Post, June 6, 2011.
Photo: "Dachau Nazi concentration camp's main gates reading "arbeit Macht Frei" meaning "through work one will be free". Dachau, Germany" by Zoriah. CC License.
Michael Shermer’s article “Religion and Politics…and Science” attempts to present a narrative of religion becoming obsolete in the political sphere the same way he thinks it’s becoming obsolete in the scientific realm. HIs reason for thinking it’s becoming obsolete from politics may be due to his neglect of moral theory. As a consequence, his campaign misses the mark and his celebration seems premature.
Shermer sets out his thesis like this: “I argue that morals and values can be established and defended through science and reason.” Interestingly, however, this is actually not a political claim but an ontological one. Moral ontology is central to any moral theory because it addresses the question of the foundations of moral truths. Shermer claims that atheism provides an adequate basis for morality but overlooks most of the hard challenges of spelling out how.
The challenge naturalists face in providing such a foundation for ethics is formidable. Many secular ethicists remain undaunted by the challenge, though, offering a variety of naturalistic attempts at ethical foundations. An evolutionary biologist may theorize that our DNA and the evolutionary development of human beings produced such behaviors that end up facilitating some type of cooperation for survival, rewarding those with such adaptive behaviors with a higher chance of survival. This assessment of our biological origins may be correct. But even if this is right, this account of the genesis of various behaviors would not illuminate anything about moral ontology.
According to the grand naturalistic narrative, the universe came into existence several billion years ago with no explanation, then the earth formed, then life on earth. So what is there within the atheist’s story and resources that can function as an objective moral reference point to ground, explain, or otherwise make sense of value judgments? Even many atheists are gradually coming to admit that objective, authoritative moral facts would be strange entities in a purely physical world.
If atheism is true, humans are complicated arrangements of elements from the periodic table. Naturalists are hard pressed to account for our intrinsic worth if this is true. Values of any kind are hard to account for. Richard Dawkins, at least at this time, agreed. “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. . . . We are machines for propagating DNA. . . . It’s every living object’s sole reason for being.”
In this light, the paragraphs of Shermer’s recent piece that are most interesting for present purposes start when Shermer begins to argue that the principles of the Declaration of Independence “were in fact grounded in the type of scientific reasoning that Jefferson and Franklin employed in all the other sciences in which they worked.” Shermer cites the famous statement that certain truths are “self-evident” as an example. Shermer imagines that this “self-evident” reference is actually produced from scientific reasoning. He points out a quote from Walter Isaacson, who cites an edit made by Franklin. “By using the word ‘sacred,’ Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.” Shermer seems to conflate rational with scientific.
It is true that self-evident truths are not assertions of religion. Nor are they assertions of science, as Shermer suggests. There is nothing scientific about them. Scientific knowledge is an a posteriori venture while self-evident knowledge is a priori. (Robert Audi gives an empirical account of moral intuitions rooted in our feelings, but the point is that value judgments must rely on more than purely scientific claims.) Reasoning draws from both at any given time. And the sort of self-evident truths the founding fathers referenced were moral truths: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Self-evidence is how we come to know something and leaves open the question of what makes the truth in question true. Our having been made by God in His image and for His purposes provides a powerful explanation for human equality; what the ground is for Shermer’s conviction in such a self-evident truth remains in need of explanation. To say the answer is “reason” is more assertion than argument, and rather unprincipled at that.
As David Bentley Hart argues persuasively in Atheist Delusions, the idea that humans have equality—a notion that most people in the past have vociferously rejected—is historically based in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its emphasis on God’s having stamped His image on all people. And because people are His image bearers, no one is more morally valuable than any other; all of us are equal in moral worth and possess great inherent dignity, value, and worth. On the other hand, if atheism is true, what good grounds are there to believe that human beings are essentially equal? Or that they possess inherent dignity and worth? It is no coincidence that societies without such sturdy convictions are much more likely to engage in the grossest of human rights violations. So Shermer was right in this sense, only in reverse: there are indeed, ultimately, large political repercussions for a lack of strong metaphysical foundations for morality. Most atheists are better than their worldview, and nowadays most would strongly affirm their belief in essential human equality. Whether they know it or not, though, this is due to our religious heritage. Equality remains part of the air we breathe in the West, but it came from an anthropology informed by robust theism. But as Nietzsche predicted, the rejection of belief in God will likely, in time, make its presence felt, perhaps even calling into question reasons for treating others equally.
Shermer seems less interested in promoting science as in preaching scientism. Christianity, contrary to a negative stereotype some try to perpetuate, is, at least at its best, in fact interested in promoting science. A diverse range of thinkers, including Stanley Jaki, has chronicled the role the Christian worldview played in promoting a dispassionate scientific analysis of the empirical world. Most of the first scientists were Christians and theists. Newton closely studied the Bible and claimed to know that a logical God made the universe in an orderly way, thus providing the basis by which experiments could be carried out and provide predictions; in contrast, atheism and science are neither historically nor inherently linked. And there is nothing in Galileo’s writing to suggest he was not a Christian. Dennis Alexander’s book Rebuilding the Matrix provides an interesting read on this score. From the beginning, the scientific enterprise has needed the Christian worldview. Scientific thought depends upon certain assumptions about the world and Christianity. As the famous philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, Christianity made it acceptable to have “faith in the possibility of science” which came prior to the development of actual scientific theory. One obviously need not be a Christian to be a scientist, but Christian philosophy facilitated the scientific enterprise.
Part of Shermer’s recurring mistake here is eminently understandable. Atheists can apprehend moral truths as clearly as anyone, but they are mistaken when they assume that what they apprehend is explicable and articulable with the resources of their worldview. As they are not inclined to reject either commitment, they tacitly assume they are consistent, when in fact they are not—or at the least atheism fails to provide the most effective explanation of objective moral facts and humanistic ideals.
In light of the obstinacy with which Shermer pushes his point and assumes what is not in evidence in his battle against theism, one wonders whether his rejection of theism is rooted in rationality. Thomas Nagel, an atheist professor of philosophy and law at NYU, is a rare example of a transparent atheist on this point, writing, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
Shermer may be of the same mind, but without admitting it.
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