Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Heather Mac Donald beats her dead horse

USA Today provides Heather MacDonald with yet another venue for her critique of religious conservatism, which I’ve discussed here, here, here, and here.

A couple of new thoughts from Mac Donald with Knippenberg responses:

President Bush says his belief that "God wants everybody to be free" informs his foreign policy. This declaration is disquieting, for it means that the president’s war-making decisions are not wholly amenable to worldly evidence. Even if the Iraq adventure were to appear to human minds as patently counterproductive, reversing course would violate a higher mandate.

That "God wants everyone to be free" clearly doesn’t imply that it is always and everywhere my duty to bring freedom to everyone. There is room for prudence, informed by reason and evidence, to respond to this sort of demand. And of course, what GWB has repeatedly said is that freedom is God’s gift to humanity, which at most affords us a principle for evaluating regimes and for informing our action, rather than supplying an imperative that we must fulfill, posthaste, here and now.

And there’s this:

Conservative atheists and agnostics vigorously support the two-parent family because the life chances of children raised by both their biological parents are demonstrably superior to children raised by single mothers. Moreover, when marriage disappears as a community norm, so do civilizing constraints on male behavior. It doesn’t take Bible study to see this. Conservatives do not need God to prove the value of marriage; the sad state of the inner city is testament enough.

As a matter of public policy judgment, she’s right, but people don’t choose to get married (or not), or divorced (or not) in response to public policy judgments. Those judgments might lead us to create some incentives and disincentives to inform these choices, but lots of people take their vows seriously because of the setting in which they made them (and I’m not thinking of city hall or the Elvis wedding chapel on the Strip in Vegas).

Mac Donald concludes (following Richard Rorty, that exemplary conservative): "Invoking God in the political realm is a conversation stopper, not an invitation to robust debate." In some circumstances, I agree, but so is denying the relevance of faith (and religious duty) in some circumstances. Religious folk should be humble, and they should offer reasons as well as religious witness. Secular rationalists, too, should be humble, though whether and how they’re open to being humbled remains to be seen.

Discussions - 7 Comments

Heather underestimates the importance of religion in social control (which is what you mean when you discuss motivations to marry). I think someone could argue that virtually all societies have norms that encourage people to marry...but their gods differ nonetheless. Social pressure flows form perceived authority, which can vary. Look at teenagers -- they do things as much for one another (peer pressure) as they do for God.

Bottom line: I don’t agree with MacDonald here...she is being short-sighted. But her point that a non-theistic moral code could encourage most of the same values is valid.

I’ve never understood the Rortian "religion as conversation-stopper" thing. As Chris Eberle said in his excellent book on the subject, it’s only a conversation-stopper for those who don’t want to do the work of understanding theological claims. After all, not only does Rorty *himself* often engage with theologically grounded views there are whole seminaries where most of the faculty and students don’t believe and are still "engaging" theological claims. It’s true that, for the non-believer, theologically based claims aren’t likely to be *persuasive* but I’ve never understood why they’re supposed to be "conversation-stoppers".

Ms. MacDonald, write a book! Forty books on American theocrats must be better than one!

Glad you stay on this beat, Joe, but man, does it get boring!

MacDonald says "Invoking God is a conversation stopper," not "religion is a conversation stopper." They’re different. And if she uses "invoke" as it is meant to be used, it is correct. It has nothing to do with secular prejudices causing one side to stop. It is the "invoking" side that has implied " doesn’t matter what you say because I know because God told me so." No room for reason there, by definition.

Even if, Fred, you’re right (and I have my doubts as to whether she’s being that careful), why exactly does that stop the conversation. Imagine: "Well, God told me that we should paint all the buildings in the city pink." "What do you mean God told you?" "Well, I saw in such-and-such text..." "Well, why do you think that’s the right interpretation?" And so on. It’s extremely rare for serious political argument to be couched in the "God told me so" (i.e. we were chatting over beers and...); rather, it’s usually a pretty complex stew of authoritative sources leavened by reason and reflection.

I’ll just suggest what my favorite atheist, Eugene Volokh, always says on these questions: *everyone’s* political claims ultimately resolve to foundational moral claims that we can’t - at least as a practical matter - resolve. Our disagreements are permanent and it makes no sense (moral, epistemological, whatever) to single out religiously rooted claims as opposed to other sorts of ones. If religion is a conversation-stopper, so is utilitarianism, deontological liberalism, etc.

I understand what you mean, but if the level of "being careful" is in question, then certainly we cannot consider that MacDonald understood "God is a conversation stopper" to be operating in the eternal ideologue realm.

I think Volokh is right in regards to religion as compared to utlitarianism as compared to deontological liberalism argument, but that is assuming, as you point out, that everyone has foundational claims that we cannot resolve. I’m not sure what operative function "practical matter" would play in such a context. If it is possible, but inconvenient for the sake of conversation, perhaps he should try harder, because it would appear that that is where most of the answers lie... but nobody talks in logic, and most people only think in logic to a certain extent, and the effectiveness of dedcutive conversation may bring an end to an argument, but probably not to a feeling, and feelings are likely to some extent a reflection of conviction, which has at its foundation something that was convincing... you realise the humor implied in de-ontological liberalism(I could have sworn I conjured the Sapere Aude...On a serious note I suppose that the grappling with the claim of Volokh is the de-ontological awareness (which is de-ontological liberalism in itself if you ask me)...or the awareness of the formative aspect of ontological structures upon human nature opposed to say the ideas of Thomas Reid . Which if you ask me is just a struggle within Hume...who happens to be my favorite Atheist...

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