Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Religion, enlightenment, and toleration

A little over two weeks ago, I posted a comment about Timothy Shortell, then the likely chairman of the Brooklyn College Department of Sociology. He has, you may have heard, withdrawn from consideration, though not without making some noise.

Here’s a portion of the insubstantial rant that caught people’s attention in the first place:

Faith, like superstition, prevents moral action. Those who fail to understand how the world works—who, in place of an understanding of the interaction between self and milieu, see only the saved and the damned, demons and angels, miracles and curses—will be incapable of informed choice. They will be unable to take responsibility for their actions because they lack intellectual and emotional maturity.

On a personal level, religiosity is merely annoying—like bad taste. This immaturity represents a significant social problem, however, because religious adherents fail to recognize their limitations. So, in the name of their faith, these moral retards are running around pointing fingers and doing real harm to others. One only has to read the newspaper to see the results of their handiwork. They discriminate, exclude and belittle. They make a virtue of closed-mindedness and virulent ignorance. They are an ugly, violent lot.

What is striking about Shortell is his own "faith" in what he calls "scientific rationality," best exemplified

I have been attacked recently in the New York newspapers because of an essay I wrote criticizing religion. I suggested humanity would be better off without it. (This puts me in the company of such esteemed social theorists as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Guy Debord -- company I will gladly keep.) It is true, I used some unkind language. Such is the nature of political rhetoric. Many people took offense. It is terribly sad to realize that so many people believe that others don’t have the right to say anything that they find offensive.

We aesthetes -- we who have taken the time to think carefully and with an independent mind about such things -- believe just the opposite. Let the public sphere be a cacophony of voices from every conceivable point of view. And let there be debate; may the strongest argument win the day. It is worth noting that none of the angry letters I received from believers contained any kind of persuasive argument. There were only expressions of outrage and fundamentalist pronouncements. None of the faithful even tried to dispute my main assertion, that religion is harmful to humanity.

This is, I think, what makes the faithful nervous. Faith, after all, is by definition not rational -- that is, it is belief in the absence of verification. (Since some believers who might be reading this have trouble with vocabulary, I provide a dictionary definition of faith.) So, if every assertion is subject to question, the faithful will have to admit that they hold their beliefs without rational basis. If the public sphere were to promote the free contest of ideas, religious belief would wither under the scrutiny of scientific rationality. As with nationalism, faith is secured by appeals to emotion, not critical thinking.

This is not profound stuff, not penetrating as social analysis and quite unsophisticated and quaintly old-fashioned (in a kind of 19th century British way) in its naive faith in the efficacy of the marketplace of ideas (if only, of course, if it were permitted to function as it ought). It’s no accident that the tag-line on his personal website is a quotation from Bertrand Russell. Shortell is a latter-day Tom Paine, an apostle of the "age of reason," who says he is "proud to be among a group of intellectuals who have argued for a free, secular society, including Voltaire, Marx, Freud, Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain, Richard Dawkins, and many others," and who remains "convinced that humanity would be better off without religion."

Katha Pollitt takes the occasion of Shortell’s withdrawal to worry about academic freedom:

Besides, so what if Shortell’s essay is offensive? Brooklyn College is a public, secular institution, not a Bible college. The Sun claimed Shortell’s disdain for religion would cloud his judgment of job candidates, but there was never any evidence that this would be the case. No student ever complained about his teaching; his colleagues trusted him enough to elect him to the post; the student work posted on his website is apolitical and bland. Predictions of bias, absent any evidence, are just a backhanded way of attacking his beliefs. You might as well say no Southern Baptist should be chair, since someone who believes that women should be subject to their husbands, homosexuality is evil and Jews are doomed to hell won’t be fair to female, gay or Jewish job candidates. Or no Orthodox Jew or Muslim should be chair because religious restrictions on contact with the opposite sex would privilege some job candidates over others.

I find this line of argument particularly interesting, for it echoes a claim Shortell makes about himself and contradicts one liberal opponents of President Bush’s judicial nominees have frequently made. Here’s Shortell’s argument:

In my professional scholarship, I study political rhetoric. I understand the kinds of speech forms that can be used when one is making a political argument. Indeed, I enjoy the variety of speech forms that are used in political debate. So when I write, not as a scholar but as a political actor, I understand the norms that govern such expressions. I know that the manifesto is a recognized and acceptable form of political speech.

I also understand that the manifesto is not an appropriate form of speech in other contexts, such as the classroom. Just like any competent adult, I can switch roles when necessary. I know when I am playing the role of political actor and when I am playing the role of teacher. Just as I know when I am playing the role of baseball fan and when I am playing the role of mourner.

It is funny how easily people forget about context when criticizing others’ speech, even though they know all about playing multiple roles and role switching.

Shortell says he knows that different sorts of speech (and presumably behavior) are appropriate in different arenas. Advocacy is not appropriate in the classroom, just as dispassionate academic analysis is not effective in a political manifesto. "Any competent adult" can recognize what’s appropriate and what’s not in any given setting. (I wonder, parenthetically, about "moral retards." Are they "competent adults"?)

Shortell has his finger here on something important, something advocates of the appointment of judges like William Pryor have claimed on his behalf. I put it this way in my
commentary on "Justice Sunday":

It is possible for grown-ups to have theological differences and still find common moral ground, which is at the heart of what is sometimes called the pan-orthodox alliance (between Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Jews) on the traditionalist side of the culture war. And it is possible for a grown-up to hold some such theological position and recognize that it does not affect the legal or civil rights of fellow citizens or of the parties to a case which he or she is to adjudicate. That Thomas Pickering as President of the Mississippi Baptist Convention said that "Christians ought to base their decision-making on the Bible" does not mean that Thomas Pickering as a federal Appeals Court Judge will substitute the Bible for the Constitution. While this is not the time or place to enter into the complicated history of the Christian attitude toward civic obligation, this separation—rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s—certainly has a long-standing and distinguished heritage.

At the heart of life in pluralistic "liberal" society is recognizing that different kinds of speeches and arguments carry different kinds of authority and make different kinds of claims on us in different settings. I can believe that something is morally wrong, and indeed even bear witness to my belief (using any sort of argument or rhetoric I please, though obviously some sorts may be more effective than others, depending upon the setting), without necessarily believing that legal sanctions ought in every instance to support my moral judgments, no matter how strongly I hold them or how authoritative I think they are. I can be a judge, like Thomas Pickering or William Pryor, or a governor, like Mitt Romney, or a president, like George W. Bush, and differentiate between my responsibility as a public official and my responsibility as a bearer of moral and religious witness.

This ability to recognize different roles and act accordingly is something Shortell claims for himself (and I’m willing to give him the benefit of a doubt, trusting but verifying, as a great man once said), but something it seems to me he polemically denies to people of faith (except, apparently, when they are members of the religious Left and agree with him). If this capacity to distinguish between different roles and arenas (I won’t say between "public" and "private," because that strikes me as too simple) lies at the foundation of a certain sort of toleration (not just John Locke’s), then it seems to me that there are people of faith (and not just on the Left) who may be better exemplars of it than are anti-religious self-proclaimed rationalists, like Timothy Shortell.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Shortell is in the grip of a false dichotomy between "science" and "religion." In my experience "true" science simply cannot offer the rank-and-file human being the sense of transcendence and mission apparently bred into our species. When people like Shortell laud "science" they are really referring to a secular will solve all our problems, science will provide the keys to the universe, science will...fill in the blank. "True" science is a philosophy, and it is very useful, but it can’t answer ultimate questions nor does it offer guarantees of salvation.

Case in point, most of my colleagues have an abiding faith in equality as something possible and inherently desireable, and yet nothing in the natural (i.e., the empirical) world suggests that equality is either useful or possible. Indeed, empirically equality just doesn’t exist and inequality (true diversity) is quite useful in terms of evolution and "progress." So why the faith and indeed obsession with equality? Because it is the secular faith that replaces the old religions...a form of utopianism around which these rationalists’ lives revolve.

In my view, Shortell is one of these secular religionists. What he doesn’t understand is that his belief system is also rooted in irrationality, and that his beliefs are every bit as fragile and vulnerable to rational discourse. But, as he notes, "true believers" never see themselves as others see them.

An observation regarding Shortell’s beloved atheism:

QUOTATION: Agnosticism is a perfectly respectable and tenable philosophical position; it is not dogmatic and makes no pronouncements about the ultimate truths of the universe. It remains open to evidence and persuasion; lacking faith, it nevertheless does not deride faith. Atheism, on the other hand, is as unyielding and dogmatic about religious belief as true believers are about heathens. It tries to use reason to demolish a structure that is not built upon reason.
ATTRIBUTION: Sydney J. Harris (1917–1986), British-born U.S. journalist, reviewer. “Atheists, Like Fundamentalists, are Dogmatic,” Pieces of Eight, Houghton Mifflin (1985).

"Uh...What’s up Doc?"- B. Bunny date unknown possibly circa 1940’s

Jesse fan - you have no qualms with that part from the quote that describes religious belief as "a structure that is not built upon reason."??

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