Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Query Re: Politics and the Philosophy of Religion

So, many people (but probably not Dostoyevski) mistakenly think the following:
If God does not exist then everything is permitted.

That is--roughly--they think that unless God exists moral obligations cannot be real (rational, genuinely binding). They also think that it follows from this that it is permissible--nay, manditory--to weaken the wall of separation between church and state. I'm not going to worry about the details of this philosophical position right now. What I'm interested in, rather, is a political question:

How should we fight this position?

The two most salient options seem to be these:

(a) Ignore the real issue, muddy the waters, and try to confuse 'em

(b) Be honest and take the issue on in a straight-forward way.

Be advised: although the right-wing theists are wrong on this one--God doesn't help out morality in the least--the arguments that demonstrate this are almost certainly slightly too complicated to win out in a public debate. (b) is, politically speaking, probably a losing strategy. On the other hand, if we take the (a) route, we'll be dealing with this problem forever (or close to it), and we'll constantly have to employ despicable rhetorical strategies of obfuscation (etc.).

So: be honest, go for broke, and probably lose the political debate with a clear conscience, or muddle along muddying the waters ad infinitum?

Waddaya think?


Blogger Becca said...

As an atheist, it's difficult to believe that my opinions will ever be taken seriously. Should that ever happen however, I will be devastated if I must misprepresent my opinion because that was the only way to get here. Count me in for being truthful.

9:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you argue a point when the opposition has faith to fall back on?
Maybe a combination of the two:
Option (b) will fall on deaf ears, until understanding permits the argument to be concise enough to blurt out between breaks on MSNBC.

So, use to use option (a) for the short term to "condition" (in the Rovian sense) people for their faith to ultimatly be shaken.

9:42 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

The Founders' concept of separation of church and state contemplated the establishment of a pluralism, where no specific interpretation of revelation (and it should follow, atheism) could establish a political power which experience had taught them could not survive man's tendency to co-opt and corrupt it.

But to exile the moral sense inherent in revelation from the public square? Unthinkable, whether God exists or not. It gets its place at the table simply because people believe it. This is a democracy, after all.

10:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everything is permitted ?

Depends on the quality of life you wish to encourage in the society you live in. If everyone has to distrust everyone else all of the time, we're all going to be pretty miserable.

I think enough people understand this concept either consciously or unconsciously and behave accordingly, so that society runs somewhat smoothly.

I doubt very much that most people are behaving well because they really believe there's a God Thngie out the that's gonna can them but good when they're dead, but maybe I'm way off base.

Frankly, I don't think that that many people are really absolutely 100% sure that God exists, or that the concept is particular a big part of their world. Again, I could be wrong.

11:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think ideas of truth and recognition of its rather imperfect fit into any discussion on this issue is in order. The empirical and faith-based toolboxes have plenty of goodies to offer, and life experience and historical events provide plenty of ammo when anectdotal evidence comes into play.

I choose (b). I agree with Halram. Moral certainty is something that anyone interested in discussing this issue does not (or should not) have, in which case a lively debate could follow. For the rest, well, discussions are things that they don't have, no sense trying to get things started with this issue.

Scalia does not help things out on this front with his "Constitiution as the law of God" rants from time to time. Regardless of the constitution's source, Scalia's own position on how it is to be interpreted (when convenient for him) should be a completely separate issue, and that is the issue that matters. The ultimate source of law is of no import when deciding what the law is. I think, but do not know, that Scalia would agree with this statement (even though he might try to use the old "the law is what God says it is" I don't think that would be his approach). So long as the law represents authority, it doesn't matter what the belief system is of those subject to long as they recognize they are subject to it. Of course, this is the point, that is, people who invoke this argument are only interested in subverting the "rule of law" to a higher authority who, oddly, agrees with them. In that case, let's only hope that the rule of law provides enough real consequences that those who choose that path have their faith and beliefs seriously questioned and prosecuted when they find themselves at odds with statutes and other governmental rules and regulations.

I would argue that the current system works well enough often enough that the pragmatic realities of the world make resolution of this in any definitive sense a backburner issue. Interesting, sure, but not exactly ripe for any type of public discourse that would move general public ideals in a recognizable direction.

3:56 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Wow, good comments everybody. Very interesting. Thanks.

8:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take one from column A, and one from Column B. Be honest, take the issue on in a straight forward way, and end up confusing them. Start with the observation that the proposition P -- "If God does not exist then everything is permitted" -- entails questions of ethics, metaphysics an epistimology. Then explore the proponent of P's beliefs about the nature of "permission" in the context of P. What is permission? How does one know whether certain behavior is permitted? I'd lay heavy odds that the proponent of P's responses will evidence significant confusion. Of course, this merging of choice A and choice B is as much a political loser as choice B is alone. Choice A does not sound like good politics either. The only winning move, is not to play.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Proposition P is true, with the addendum "if people decide it's OK."

Contrary to popular belief, Justice Scalia admits as much. This is why he didn't interfere in the Schiavo case, regardless of his personal opinion. Popular moral consensus (which to him equals law) wasn't there.

Our thought experiment about cannibalism indicates this---we don't allow it, but there's no rational reason we don't. But there's always tomorrow.

To address religion as a moderating force, I submit the Catholic Act of Contrition:

O my God,
I am heartily sorry for
having offended Thee,
and I detest all my sins,
because I dread the loss of heaven,
and the pains of hell;
but most of all because
they offend Thee, my God,
Who are all good and
deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve,
with the help of Thy grace,
to confess my sins,
to do penance,
and to amend my life.

In other words, it's not all about the punishment, not that it really matters for our political purposes. Just FYI.

7:19 PM  
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