Losing Faith

Sunday, 10-26-2014

Why do so many religious students lose faith in college?  Not because they are getting smarter.  In the first place, our schools are not doing very well at making them smarter.  In the second place, the phenomenon of loss of faith is peculiar to our own universities.  There is no evidence that it was widespread in, say, medieval universities, which were much more demanding intellectually.

The prime reason it happens is that our intellectual culture is tacitly atheistic.  Don’t imagine that students are presented with compelling arguments against faith in college.  Frankly, most don’t encounter any serious arguments at all about the question of faith, either for or against – which is telling in itself.  Nevertheless a certain attitude is strongly conveyed without words.

This attitude has two main elements.  One is a widespread view that people who believe in God do so because of their upbringing, but that people who disbelieve in God do so because they have thought about the matter.  The other is a settled feeling that it doesn’t make any difference whether or not one believes in God anyway.  Students tend to live as though there were no God, and most people who live that way come to feel that even if there is one, He must be remote and uninvolved.

It’s true, of course, that those who are considered more intelligent are more likely to go to college, and that those who go to college really are less likely to take God seriously -- but not because they are more intelligent.  Rather because that is the sort of attitude college subtly encourages them to take -- and because the young people most concerned about seeming intelligent are the quickest to conform.


Is Religious Liberty an Indulgence?

Saturday, 10-25-2014

Why should free exercise of religion be defended?  Not because people can make wrongs right just by thinking that they are right, or because religious folk would like indulgence for private eccentricities, or because they would like exemptions from reasonable demands grounded in the common good.

No, free exercise is an element of the common good, grounded in our shared human nature.  As a rational being, man is ordained to know the truth, especially the truth about God; knowing the truth requires seeking it; and a certain liberty is necessary even for the search.

The common good has other elements too; religious liberty does not justify violating the natural law.  Even so, the burden of proof for regulations on religious liberty should be on the state.  Why?  Because governments make people do all sorts of things that are objectively wrong, and because even an erroneous conscience deserves some consideration -- not because it is erroneous, but because it is a conscience.

So on one hand, the claims of conscience must be exercised within the bounds of public order, but on the other hand, "public order" must be understood as the common good as viewed in the light of the natural law -- not as a synonym for whatever the government wants to do.

Any lawyers out there?  The real challenge is to figure out how to make coherent arguments along these lines within the incoherent framework of First Amendment religion clause jurisprudence.


Two Things You Will Never See

Friday, 10-24-2014

Something you will never see at a Catholic church:  A marquee urging passing motorists, “Come for the latte, stay for the worship.”

Something you will never see at a Protestant church:  A website at which the list of pastoral staff gives not the name of the current pastor, not the name of his predecessor, but the name of the one before that.


Hope for Us All

Thursday, 10-23-2014

“‘There's a young student at this university,’ says [British neurologist John] Lorber, ‘who has an IQ of 126, has gained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and is socially completely normal.  And yet the boy has virtually no brain.’  The student's physician at the university noticed that the youth had a slightly larger than normal head, and so referred him to Lorber, simply out of interest.  ‘When we did a brain scan on him,’ Lorber recalls, ‘we saw that instead of the normal 4.5-centimeter thickness of brain tissue between the ventricles and the cortical surface, there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a millimeter or so.  His cranium is filled mainly with cerebrospinal fluid.’”  --  Roger Lewin, “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?”  Science 210 (12 December 1980), pp. 1232-1234.


What the Song Is to the Bird

Wednesday, 10-22-2014

“The vow is to the man what the song is to the bird, or the bark to the dog; his voice, whereby he is known.  Just as a man who cannot keep an appointment is not fit even to fight a duel, so the man who cannot keep an appointment with himself is not sane enough even for suicide.  It is not easy to mention anything on which the enormous apparatus of human life can be said to depend.  But if it depends on anything, it is on this frail cord, flung from the forgotten hills of yesterday to the invisible mountains of tomorrow.”  G.K. Chesterton, The Appetite of Tyranny


The Relativism of Judge Posner (Part 2 of 2)

Tuesday, 10-21-2014

To continue yesterday’s discussion:  Are there in fact implicit norms to which the codes of particular cultures are better or worse approximations?  Judge Posner says “No.”  Let's consider his first example, murder.  Posner claims that the prohibition of murder is a mere tautology – that killing is wrong when killing is wrong – so that essentially it says nothing.  But is this correct?

Not at all.  According to the natural law tradition, the implicit norm concerning murder is that we must never deliberately take innocent human life.  The norm is not a tautology, because it specifies when killing actually is wrong.  Consider a difficult case:  Cannibalism.  It may seem that the cannibal thinks it is all right to deliberately take innocent human life, but it is much more likely that he concedes the point and denies that the people in the other tribe are human (or perhaps that they are innocent).

If I were Judge Posner, I might reply as follows:  "Granted what you call the implicit norm, you have merely substituted an elaborate tautology for a simple one.  A human is merely a being such that deliberately taking his life, when he is innocent, is wrong.  Therefore, your so-called implicit norm translates 'It is wrong to deliberately take the lives of innocent beings whose lives, when they are innocent, it is wrong to take.'  Just as before, you are saying precisely nothing."

But this hypothetical reply wouldn’t work either.  The natural law tradition does not substitute an elaborate tautology for a simple tautology; on the contrary, the hypothetical reply substitutes an elaborate unproved assertion for a simple unproven assertion.  For this time it takes as a given that there is no implicit norm concerning what counts as human, to which the codes of particular cultures are better or worse approximations.  But again, this is not a given but the thing we are trying to ascertain.

If there really were no implicit norm concerning what is human, then it would be impossible to argue with cannibals about the matter.  Experience shows that this is not true, for various cannibal tribes have yielded to the persuasion of missionaries and others.  Consider too, that unless the cannibal knows deep down that the people in the other tribe are human, it is difficult to explain why he performs rituals for the expiation of sin before taking their lives.

The fact is that relativism is always more or less a fraud.  No relativist ever applies his relativism consistently; either he is a selective relativist (that is, a selective moralist), or else a smokescreen artist -- using relativism as cover for a pet moral theory that pretends to be something else.  Judge Posner is exception in one respect only:  He is both a smokescreen artist and a selectivist.

As to his being a smokescreen artist:  Posner’s own pet moral theory is "adaptationism," the view that the promotion of a society's subjective goals is an objective good.  In his own words, "Relativism suggests an adaptationist conception of morality, in which morality is judged nonmorally -- in the way a hammer might be judged well or poorly adapted to its function of hammering nails -- by its contribution to the survival, or other goals, of a society."  By saying that this judgment is nonmoral, Posner pretends that he is not offering a moral theory – that promoting a society’s subjective goals is not an objective good.  But let us be serious.  Either it is rationally appropriate to promote these goals, or it is not.  If it is, then it is an objective good.  And if it is not, then it is he, not the natural law thinker, who is offering a tautology:  We promote those goals which we do, in fact, promote.

As to his being a selectivist:  Upon examining his record, we find that Posner doesn't really believe in adaptationism either – and on the occasions when he abandons his adaptationism, he abandons the facade of relativism too.  Consider for example the line of moral reasoning advanced in his dissenting opinion in Hope Clinic v. Ryan (1999), a case concerning partial-birth abortion.  In view of the fact that large majorities oppose this gruesome practice, adaptationism would bid him submit to the "social goal" of ending it.  Instead he advanced a variety of arguments as to why this social goal was wrong, and the majority wrong to have held it.  This may be a loathsome moral view -- but it is a moral view.


The Relativism of Judge Posner (Part 1 of 2)

Monday, 10-20-2014

Moral relativism maintains that the natural law cannot exist because morality is different everywhere.  In philosophy, the most influential recent advocate of relativism is Richard Rorty, who writes "I do not think there are any plain moral facts out there in the world, nor any truths independent of language, nor any neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness are preferable to the other."   In jurisprudence, its most influential advocate is probably Richard A. Posner, judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  No babe in the woods, Posner knows better than to flatly deny the reality of moral universals; all cultures recognize the wrong of such things as murder.  Rather than denying the point, Posner trivializes it.  He doesn’t deny that there are moral universals, but that there are "interesting" moral universals.  In his own words:

“[M]orality is local.  There are no interesting moral universals.  There are tautological ones, such as "Murder is wrong" where "murder" means "wrongful killing," and there are a few rudimentary principles of social cooperation -- such as "Don't lie all the time" or "Don't break promises without any reason" or "Don't kill your relatives or neighbors indiscriminately" -- that may be common to all human societies.  If one wants to call these rudimentary principles the universal moral law, fine; but as a practical matter, no moral code can be criticized by appealing to norms that are valid across cultures, norms to which the code of a particular culture is a better or worse approximation.  These norms, the rudimentary principles of social cooperation that I have mentioned, are too abstract to serve as standards for moral judgment.”  ("The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory," Harvard Law Review, Vol. 111 (1998), p. 1637.)

The argument may be put like this:  Principles like "Don't murder," "Don't lie," and "Don't break promises" may seem to say something, but this is an illusion.  "Murder" means merely "wrongful killing," so "Murder is wrong" translates "Killing is wrong when it is wrong to kill."  "Lie" means merely "wrongful falsehood," so "Lying is wrong" translates "It is wrong to tell those falsehoods that it is wrong to tell."  "Promise" means only "vow it is wrong to break," so "Breaking promises is wrong" translates "It is wrong to break vows that it is wrong to break."  In each case, all that we are really being told is "It is wrong to do what it is wrong to do."  True, there is a rudimentary agreement across cultures that at least it is sometimes wrong to kill, to tell falsehoods, and to break vows.  But concerning the substance of the matter -- when it is wrong to do these things -- there is no agreement whatsoever.  The supposed universals turn out to be mere tautologies; they say literally nothing.

Now this is an empirical claim, and as such, it invites investigation.  Posner sees the invitation coming and heads it off by sheer assertion.  As he obviously knows, natural lawyers would say that discordancy among cultures about killing, telling falsehoods, and breaking vows conceals an underlying unity.  There exist certain universal norms -- discovered, not invented -- from which the codes of particular cultures may deviate in various ways, but to which they are better or worse approximations.  Though Posner asserts as a given that this is not true, it is not a given; it is precisely what we are trying to ascertain.  Are there in fact implicit norms to which the codes of particular cultures are better or worse approximations?

Stay tuned:  Continued tomorrow.