Religious Belief and Public Policy

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Recently, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoed a bill passed by the Arizona legislature which made it legal for the proprietor of a public business establishment, like a restaurant, to deny service to another person based on the proprietor’s religious belief.  A proprietor who believed that homosexuality; for example, was immoral would have been able to deny service to homosexual people based on the proprietor’s religious belief.  If it had become law, this Arizona statue would have legalized discrimination.

Fortunately, Gov. Brewer acted wisely and the law will not be implementedjan brewer.  This instance, among others, does, however, raise an interesting set of questions about grounding public statues on religious belief.  Those who favored the law argued that not to allow proprietors to decline to serve those they found morally reprehensible on religious grounds was interfering with the Constitutional guarantee of “freedom of religion.”  Proponents argued essentially that free Americans had the right to practice their religious beliefs in the public sphere without interference from the State.

Opponents argued such a statute would violate the principle of the equality of all citizens by denying them access to services on discriminatory grounds.  Framed this way, the situation seems to be one in which we are confronted with two sets of rights that are in conflict with another:  religious freedom, on the one hand and the equal rights of all citizens, on the other.

The question I would like to pose in this brief essay is easy to ask and a good deal harder to answer.  Is religious belief a suitable grounds for public debate on matters of public policy? Typically people belief something to be true or false based on evidence from their experience or other authoritative source; for example, a scientific study or trusted news source.  We believe the source.  We accept what the source says whether that source be our own reason or the testimony of others.

Religious belief has a unique place in the pantheon of belief sources.  Religious belief claims as its source something that cannot be proved to actually exist.  Religious belief is grounded, in one way or another, on the existence of a deity (at least in the Western tradition).  For religious belief to stand shoulder to shoulder with other beliefs, it demands that the existence of the deity (God/Goddess) be accepted.  If God does not exist, than the guidance for human behavior provided by this source, can not have the same weight as other beliefs which are rooted in scientific study and secular philosophical/political reflection on the well-being of all, including the environment.

Without setting out on a discussion of the existence of God, almost all who argue this point would agree that the existence of God can not be proven.  Some may argue that it is reasonable to believe in a supreme being while others argue that it is unreasonable.  Both groups concede that proof for God’s existence does not and will not exist while clothed in “this mortal flesh.”

Thus, to believe in God is to believe something not in evidence.  It is to trust that there is a God. We call this “the gift of faith.” It is making as Kierkegaard said “a kierkegaardleap.”

No leap is required for me to believe or trust in the observation that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit or that the earth orbits the sun or that the moon is not made of green cheese.  These things I can believe without leaping–because there is tangible evidence.  Others can observe similar facts about the physical world and from these facts even reason to additional conclusions that also require no leaping. Outside of the realm of faith, evidence and reason rule.  Inside the realm of faith, both evidence and reason are subsumed and made handmaidens of the divine.

For public debate to proceed, all voices need to be heard but not all voices are equally credible.  Religious voices have no special claim in the forum of public debate at least not in the United States where we have a separation of church and state.

There are many who believe that the founding principle of religious belief (the existence of God) is false and not even amenable to empirical study.  Thus, for them, God and his/her principles, however revealed or made know, do not exist and have no authority in the public sphere. How can the non-existent have authority?

If public policy debate is to be meaningful, the interlocutors need to debate in terms that are meaningful to all.  Reason, rational argument and data must of necessity ground these discussions. There are a vast variety of religious systems of belief and, in the US, all are free to worship as they prefer and debate among themselves any topic with reference to any authority existent or not.

Once we enter the theater of public affairs, however, conversation and debate must be rooted in public, secular and not sectarian religious terms.  We must reason together using authority we agree upon in order to accept things like why lying is bad and charity is good, why mercy is preferable to vengeance and why openness of heart is superior to closed mindedness.

Evangelicals will perhaps bridle at this position.  They need not.  They remain free to seek to convert others.  But, when it comes to public debate and the passage of secular law, reason and the common good trumps belief.  Some will protest that the God in whom they believe and reason are not antithetical.  Excellent! In that case,  we can reason together without reference to God and armed with the authority of our own best reasoned judgment on each ethical questions which arises. We will not, of course, always be right but we would not have abdicated our moral responsibility to one another.

If we conjure it, is it real?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2In today’s New York Times, there is an interesting article by Stanford anthropologist T. M. Lurhman entitled, “Conjuring up our own Gods.”  In this article, Ms Lurhman reprises the notion that God is akin to an imaginary friend.  Following the thought of contemporary evolutionary biologists, she suggests that we humans conjure up the notion of God because we are “hard-wired” by evolution to do so and that spiritual practices, like some forms of meditation and prayer (individual or collective), can increase the sense of the presence of a conjured incorporeal entity like a ghost, angel or ultimately God.

The notion of God being a human creation has been around for some time. Freud, for example, argued that God was a projection of our need for a father figure.  In this sense, we create God rather than vice versa.

Without denying or affirming the existence of God per se, reflections on the existence of God of the type that Professor Lurhman raises in her article beg the question of what it means to “exist” at all.

The typical definition of “to exist” means to have objective reality.  What sort of reality is objective?  Objective reality refers to that reality which is not dependent on the mind for its existence; i.e., that reality which we do not only think or believe exists or that multiple people think exists but which is, at least in principle, “there” whether we think and or believe it to be or not. Something which is objectively real has an existence independent of the ideation of a thinker or observer.

Objective reality is often juxtaposed to subjective reality which is that reality that is dependent on the mind or an individual’s/group’s perception for its existence.  There is, therefore, little doubt that God exists subjectively; i.e.,  there are a large number of people who think/believe that such an entity exists.  The same, however, cannot, be said for the objective reality of God.

Those who believe in God believe that God is an objective reality.  They think that God’s existence is not dependent on anything.  The claim the believer makes is that he/she knows that God is an objective reality by subjective means.  They claim to know the existence of an objective reality “subjectively.”

This subjective knowledge of an objective reality is commonly called the “gift of faith.”  The Greek word usually translated as “faith” literally means “trust.”  In short, the believer trusts that what she/he thinks/feels subjectively is objectively the case.

Believers cite miraculous occurrences, purported answers to prayers, tradition (written and oral) and all manner of events serendipitous and not so serendipitous as indicators that their “trust” is well-founded.  As great a thinker as Blaise Pascal, thought that it made sense to live as though God were an objective reality because to decline to believe and be wrong would be catastrophic while believing and not being correct would have no dire consequences.

As human beings we cannot have unmediated and objective knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God.  We can choose to trust that what some of us as a result subjective experience is objectively true.  But, we cannot know whether God is objectively real or not.  All we can do is conjure God. The observation that God’s objective existence, as far as we are concerned, is dependent on our minds does not mean that God does not have an objective existence.  God may objectively exist but we have no way to know.  If we choose to believe, we are trusting in our own conjuring and the conjuring of our forebearers. If we decline to believe, we are only admitting that we cannot know and therefore accept our conjuring for what it is–at best provisional (agnostic) and at worst destructively delusional.

Within the Bounds of Nature?

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2Are we human beings part of nature or separate from it in some unique way?  While this may sound a rather abstract question, the answer to it has significant implications for moral reasoning.  We have all heard acts decried and labeled as immoral because they were “unnatural.”  In the current debate on genetic engineering and biological manufacturing, opposition to forays into these areas are often protested on the grounds of inappropriate (unnatural) interference with the processes of nature. Opponents of everything from same-sex marriage, to stem cell research, to cloning and beyond,  are repelled by what they regard as the unnaturalness of it all.  They warn us aphoristically not to “mess with Mother Nature.”

For many, whether theists or secular humanists, any hint that an act is unnatural is synonymous with saying that it is immoral–or at least of highly questionable moral status.  Therefore, it makes a great deal of difference what we include in our conception of what is within and without the bounds of nature (or the natural).

Certainly, naturalness, or the lack thereof, is only one of the many ways to think about morality; but, it is a very common one and one often turned to in order arouse public sentiment either for or against a certain course of scientific inquiry or social practice.

My thesis is a simple but, I think, important one:  everything which exists on this planet or anywhere else in the cosmos is a part of nature.  Put another way, nature is that which is and what “goes on” in nature consists entirely of natural processes or occurrences.

The birth of a cell

The birth of a cell

Human beings are therefore part of nature and the things that human beings do and think are also part of that nature.  For example, the use of the human mind to address problems of life and human health is an entirely natural thing.  Thinking, creating, building, fixing, adapting etc. etc. are entirely natural things as are cell division, natural selection, mutation, volcanic eruptions and beavers building dams.

That said morality is still of the highest importance.  Human acts can still be judged moral and immoral, prudent and imprudent as well as beneficial or harmful but they can not and consequently should not be judged on the basis of whether they are natural or not:  there is nothing which is or happens which is not natural.

The question of needing to distinguish the natural from the unnatural arises from the supposition or belief that the natural is a product of a force outside of the natural known as the supernatural and particularly the work of a divine entity existing in a dimension outside of nature.  The supernatural, it is argued, designed and created nature and its processes.  The supernatural, in this conception, is interested in its creation conforming to the original design and set of processes.

The whole notion of something being unnatural presupposes a supernatural which has defined what falls within the bounds of nature.  Actions that violate the original supernatural design are unnatural because they violate the supernatural designer’s intent and are ipso facto immoral.

This view of supernatural intentional creation has, in the Western Tradition, normally also made the claim that human beings have a foot, so to speak, in both the supernatural and natural domains.  The Christian tradition even claims that the supernatural created human beings in its own “image and likeness” and that there is a component of a human being called the soul which is spiritual and in that sense supernatural–outside of nature and both immortal and incorporeal.

Further, in this view, the supernatural creator has retained certain prerogatives vis-a-vis the creation.  For example, the actual creation of life and maintaining the basic integrity of the original design are the prerogative of the supernatural alone. Human beings, although “ensouled,” are not to violate these fundamental rules without dire consequences for themselves and the creation as a whole.  They should not do anything “unnatural;” i.e., arrogate to themselves any supernatural prerogatives.  In this way, the unnatural and the immoral have become almost covalent terms in the popular mind.

Additionally, only humans seem to be capable of doing unnatural acts.  One never hears of cats, birds, gold fish, or bacteria performing unnatural acts.  We assume that since they are part of nature what they do is simply natural and neither moral or immoral–what ethicists sometimes call pre-moral.  Natural organisms are thought to follow their instincts and not really exercise any choice other than  pragmatic ones like which prey to attack.  We would never imagine a non-human animal doing or even intending to do anything like Victor in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein did— that would be unnatural.

At this point, it should be clear that the existence of the unnatural presupposes the existence of the supernatural.  Without the supernatural, all is natural including what we experience as freedom, curiosity, love, hope and creativity.  With the supernatural, freedom is curtailed, curiosity limited and creativity shackled.  With the supernatural, the “image and likeness” to the supernatural claimed for humans is no longer remotely perceptible as humans are reduced to rule keepers or rule breakers–left in a place of persistent delinquency.

Most dictionaries define the supernatural something like: a proposed force outside of nature and beyond scientific understanding.  In that sense, the existence of the supernatural is a matter of faith: i.e., a strong belief grounded in spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

Personally, I would prefer not to be left in a state of persistent delinquency grounded on an idea (the supernatural) for which there is not and cannot be any evidence.  I would rather embrace and be embraced by what is and can be known to be and like the crew of the Starship Enterprise “boldly (and I might add prudently) go where no person has gone before.”  That is what comes naturally to me.110706Enterprise01