Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Say it like you mean it

Daniel Larison thinks that God-based arguments are the way to go to win public support for conservative political arguments:

How about social conservatives make their arguments without bringing God into it? By all means, let faith inform one’s values, but let reason inform one’s public arguments. ~Kathleen Parker

This is the standard Damon Linker line, which has always had the small problem that it doesn’t make sense. That’s not quite fair. It makes sense, provided that the goal is to keep religious people from making public arguments that have any force. Parker, like Linker, would likely deny that this is the goal. In Parker’s case, I expect that this is because she hasn’t thought through the implications. Were we to follow Parker’s model, we would on the one hand need to say that arguments informed by religious teaching are to some degree irrational by definition (use faith over here, but use reason in public, which implies that there is nothing rational about faith or that the two are not complementary). On the other hand, we would also have to say that our public arguments cannot invoke “values,” which are in any case derived from religious teaching and therefore unsuitable to public discourse. Even to the extent that “values” might be allowed, they would have to be “values” that do not conflict with pluralist, liberal “values.” This is the Social Gospel loophole, which permits the use of Christian discourse for left-liberal ends, but which clearly forbids any version or interpretation of Christian teaching that conflicts with these “values.”


The problem with Larison's argument is that it flies in the face of reality. If God-based arguments had force, they would be used much more frequently. As the wise man once said, nothing succeeds like success, and by definition arguments that carry the most force with the public win the day. That no politician has won national office in the last several decades by paying more than lip service to theology proves Parker's point that beyond providing symbolic window dressing, arguments based on explicitly religious appeals do not carry much force with the general public. To believe otherwise is to indulge in wishful thinking.

The point here is that social and religious conservatives should not have to truncate, abbreviate or deny their religious teachings when making public arguments, which is effectively what they would have to do if they are not to refer to God or religious teachings in public discourse. They could not in good conscience do so, but leaving that aside for a moment we should also acknowledge that it puts an undue burden on religious believers to insist that they leave out appeals to their core beliefs, which are or are supposed to be at the center of their understanding of man, society, creation and reason itself.


If the goal is to persuade a religiously plural public of the wisdom of a policy proposal, then as a matter of practical necessity the basis for the argument has to be much broader than the particular religious creed that underpins the subject's own political philosophy. Larison's argument presupposes that political agreement can only flow from theological agreement, which would make the process of political coalition building exceedingly more difficult than it needs to be.

Larison also, I believe, gets the motivations of the majority of religious people wrong when he states that their understanding of man, society, creation and reason itself necessarily flows from their core religious beliefs. I think for most modern people, religious as well as secular, such understanding is founded on a much broader philosophical base, of which religious revelation is at most a partial source. The scientific worldview is ubiquitous, and has been extremely successful at grabbing a majority mindshare of even religious people. Most people do not look to revealed religion as a source for understanding the workings of the natural world. Even for those who look to God as a first principle or prime mover, it is a distant principle that gives way to the detailed explanations provided by science for most of the phenomena that touch their lives.

Larison may wish that this were not true, but wishing it so won't add any power to his argument.

9 Comments:

Blogger David said...

This is a somewhat odd reaction to the fact that every president since Jimmy Carter has treated his religion as a major qualification for office, ended every speech by asking for God's blessing and made explicit appeals for the votes of the religious.

Not the mention the fact that we all agree no confessed atheist could be elected.

December 11, 2008 6:44 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Sure, but did they pay more than lip service? I don't remember Reagan quoting bible verse in defense of his tax cuts.

Obama may be the first closet atheist to hold the office.

December 11, 2008 7:26 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Larison is missing an excluded middle argument.

If an argument from GAWD ALMIGHTY HIMSELF is to be politically persuasive, then GAH must be equally as persuasive, so that it would be illogical to accept the political statement without first converting to the religion of GAH himself.

Which most people, for emotional reasons, will not do.

I certainly think that religious people who are trying to persuade people of other religions or no religion at all should make clear which parts of their statements are based, whole or part, on their irrational belief systems. Truth in advertising.

December 11, 2008 9:42 AM  
Blogger David said...

Specifically, environmentalists are getting traction using the argument that God wants us to be green.

December 11, 2008 12:13 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Wow, it is hard to know where to start with this.

The problem with Larison's argument is that it flies in the face of reality. If God-based arguments had force, they would be used much more frequently.

Of all the problems with Larison's argument, that may be the least of them.

IMHO, the way to find the biggest problem with an argument is to take it as stipulated, then look at their reasonable (never mind extreme) conclusions.

Let's take as given that arguments informed by religious teaching have merit.

Since religious teachings are internally contradictory -- that is, some religious teachings completely contradict other religious teachings -- then religious teachings can have no merit whatsoever, absent a means to distinguish among religious teachings.

As David has unintentionally demonstrated, there is not. In asserting it is possible to distinguish between a religion and a cult, his criteria were completely material. Within religious discourse, there is no means to distinguish between competing religious claims.

The only way to do so is through material considerations. However, if one is resorting to reason to determine which among competing religious arguments is worthwhile, then there is no need to resort to religion in the first place.

So, when Larison says

The point here is that social and religious conservatives should not have to truncate, abbreviate or deny their religious teachings when making public arguments, which is effectively what they would have to do if they are not to refer to God or religious teachings in public discourse.

he has missed the tsunami that has already engulfed him: referring to God or religious teachings is a failure at the outset, because there is scarcely an instantiation of God or a religious teaching that is not roundly contradicted by another God or teaching. It is a pointless exercise that serves only to cover in sectarian clothing the material reasoning underneath. Rather than insist religious conservatives invoke God and religious teaching as freely as those exploiting the "Social Gospel" loophole, he should admit both are empty vessels.

++++

Not the mention the fact that we all agree no confessed atheist could be elected.

Just as everyone agreed at one time that no confessed Catholic could be elected. Or (to emphasize my argument above) everyone secretly admits that that no Mormon or Jew could be elected.

Acknowledging such irrational nonsense existed, or its identical siblings still exist, only serves to demonstrate how silly it is.

December 11, 2008 12:35 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I don't remember Reagan quoting bible verse in defense of his tax cuts.

Well, he wanted to, Duck, because as a good Protestant he knew he had Leviticus and Jeremiah backing him. But the Catholics and orthodox rabbis were agitating for tax hikes based on the divine orders in Paul's letter to the Corinthians and Ecclesiastes respectively, and Reagan was trying to promote sectarian consensus on revealed truth about fiscal policy.

Honestly, you guys have become positively wacky about this issue. It's as if you see religion as an infinite number of "values" from some completely inverted enchanted kingdoms that stand in counterpoint to secular analysis ("Hip, hip...hurrayy!") on everything from agricultural subsidies to traffic planning.

I think for most modern people, religious as well as secular, such understanding is founded on a much broader philosophical base, of which religious revelation is at most a partial source.

You just don't get it. It's not one or the other, its both at the same time and there is nothing modern about that. Probably the epitome of the caricatured religious mindset is the medieval peasant. He prayed ceaselessly for bountiful harvests, but I think he still knew nothing much would happen unless he seeded and watered. And today's ultra-modern young professional couple that arranges the very best modern medical care for their very sick child may still pray during the operation and believe their prayers were answered if it is successful. For the umpteenth time, religion is not a competing epistomology.

Larison and Parker are arguing about inter-religious and public discourse, not religion's credentials as authority. But thanks, Duck, for this nostalgic revisiting ofour blogging youth. If I have to read one more post about American or Canadian electoral politics, I'm going to rend my garments.

December 11, 2008 2:10 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I'm cool with interreligious discourse, but it cannot speak to me. It tries. I had to chase missionaries out of the carport last Saturday. They were most reluctant to go, too.

December 11, 2008 4:20 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Larison and Parker are arguing about inter-religious and public discourse, not religion's credentials as authority.

From the article: [Social conservatives making their arguments without bringing God into it] makes sense, provided that the goal is to keep religious people from making public arguments that have any force.

What Larison et al are arguing about is applying religious precepts in an authoritative way to public discourse.

Unfortunately, they haven't taken on board that the attempt is fatally flawed from the outset. On a good day, religious precepts give people a reason to do what they should in any event. On a bad day ... well, there have been enough religious bad days to make further description unnecessary.

The problem with inter-religious discourse is that it consists of nothing more than trading content-free RNGs. Christians can talk to Hindus about the evils of the caste system, but they aren't going to get the point across in metaphysical terms.


But thanks, Duck, for this nostalgic revisiting ofour blogging youth.

Unless the claim that Larison makes has any validity, why shouldn't we call him on it?

December 11, 2008 5:04 PM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: Religious truth is irrelevant to this question. Evangelists and Orthodox Jews don't agree on much when it comes to doctrine, but have similar politics. Both would say that it's because they take their religion seriously.

December 11, 2008 5:44 PM  

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