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April 22, 2005

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On a related note, via Atrios I note that the Pope has condemned a Spanish homosexual rights bill, which includes the right to adopt. Cardinal Trujillo adds that Catholics in related professions should oppose the law, even if it meant losing their jobs. I think that's a good outcome. As a non-Catholic, the health of the Catholic church is not of significant interest to me (to be distinguished from the health of religiosity and spiritualism in general, which I do think is important), and I think the sort of cake-and-eat-it-too philosophy of those who want to ascribe to a particular church as a community, but not to many of its tenets, causes damage in the long run. I'd much rather a situation like this one, where people are simply given a choice between fidelity to that church or derivation of the benefits of living in a modern, secular society. I expect the outcome will be a much smaller, less powerful, more focused Catholic church (which Ratzinger has admitted approving of) and the creation of new interpretations of Christianity that support these 'modern' (ignoring for a moment that they were espoused 2,000 years ago by Christ himself) ideas.

While I disagree with them on a number of issues, Christian right is basically a special interest group. Like the ACLU, the Sierra Club, etc., it has its own agenda, and it impugns the morality and threatens economic, legal, and/or political retribution against those who don't support that agenda.

Great post, Edward. It's rare that Kennedy and Goldwater agree, and sad that we need to repeat them. -- I have always been puzzled about a lot of the religious right's stuff, largely because of having been seriously religious. Prayer in schools: when this issue first came up I was just baffled, partly because I had been praying in school for years (I used to pray that if God were planning to come again in glory in the near future, He would do so before rather than after my math tests), and didn't see why, exactly, having organized prayer would add anything, and partly because, not having any TV evangelists around to put me right, I thought that the Christ rather frowned on making a big public deal out of one's religion. And besides, whatever psychological view it is that makes people think that having the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, or prayers at football games, would make people more likely to be Christians, it's not one I find plausible. (Likewise, the related view according to which reading Harry Potter could make a kid turn apostate.)

I remember, back in the more PC early 90s, watching some students earnestly propose requiring everyone to take a course in -- what was it? -- "Class, Gender, and Power", or something like that; and wondering: leaving aside the question whether trying to make students more liberal (which seemed to be their goal) would be remotely appropriate, why on earth do they think that forcing another requirement on their classmates would be a good way to achieve this? (The effort failed, and since I and others talked to the students in question about all this and why we opposed it, it's not inconceivable that they learned something about ends and means.)

Argh! To misquote Whitman, it's my Catholic Church too!
But maybe not for long ...

There's no way around it, whether liberal or conservative, if you're not disturbed by how much power the religious right is attempting seize in this nation, you're not paying attention.

Attempting seize? Best say a prayer to von, Edward.

Ummm...I hate to say this, because I really, really don't like the religious hammerlock, but didn't you just have a discussion with someone on another thread, wherein you said you wouldn't stop until you'd done what you thought was right? Until you'd accomplished an end that you felt was morally and ethically justified (ok, I'm embroidering here)? This is just what the religious organizations are doing. Agree with them or no, this is where they're coming from.

Forgive the sloppiness of the argument; I didn't have lunch and so the first beer is hitting me hard.

Slarti:

This is just what the religious organizations are doing.

With one rather impotant distintion, which is the point of the post and quotes; which is that they argue policy based on faith and religious doctrine and do not tolerate debate of those religious principles.

the first beer is hitting me hard.

Now there's an idea. An ANchor for me and one for thee my friend!

which is that they argue policy based on faith and religious doctrine and do not tolerate debate of those religious principles.

I'm assuming that you've tried.

In my experience, religious principles are open to debate. However, they're not open to negotiation. In other words, because the overriding authority is the Bible, arguments that contradict that authority don't get any weight.

Slart: "In my experience, religious ..... etc.

This is precisely correct. Which is why we have a problem with the separation of church and state. Once a higher authority is invoked, debate and voting no longer matter. Voting presupposes a relativist world. We can't have that.

Which is why I say that God told me Social Security should not be destroyed by private accounts.

I'm two beers ahead of you.

note: The Peter O'Toole crazy Christ character in "The Ruling Class" is asked: "How do you know that you are God?"

"Why, because every time I pray, I find that I'm talking to myself."

I'm two beers ahead of you.

Depends on how many beers you think I've had.

Attempting seize? Best say a prayer to von, Edward.

Methinks you've drunk a wee too much grog...it reads "attempting to seize..."

OK...it does now,,,now, that I've fixed it...in my 5 grog (who's counting) stupor.
*hic*

Something relevant about the DCT that Slart's referring to.

rilkefan: that's a very good post, and (speaking in my professional capacity) absolutely right about the failure of Divine Command Theory to get us out of any problems about morality at all.

I should add: Philosoraptor is also right to say this: any theist who believes in a benevolent God (as opposed to some cosmic sadist) will presumably say that we ought to obey God's commands. But neither Christianity nor most other religions require belief in a DCT (= the view that the reason to obey them, in general, is because God commanded them. That might be true in some particular case -- e.g., you might think that the reason to get baptized is because God commanded it -- but not that the reason to obey God's commands as a whole is just that He commanded them.) And most Christian theologians rejected the DCT.

Can't I prove with Arrow's theorem that there's no one particular absolute morality in a system with competing interests, hence God doesn't embody an absolute morality.

Ignore that last.

Just trying to channel John Thullen.

So the last time this came up, I think people failed to educate me out of my misconception that ethics is stuff based on abstract principles plus reason and that morality is stuff generated and handed down by a supreme being.

hilzoy wrote:

I have always been puzzled about a lot of the religious right's stuff, largely because of having been seriously religious. Prayer in schools: when this issue first came up I was just baffled, partly because I had been praying in school for years

I think you and I might have had similiar experiences in childhood. I was pretty much the only self-identified religious kid in my classes throughout school, and as long as the others didn't mockingly sing that horrible "I told the trooooth!" Mormon commercial, I was pretty much fine with keeping my devotions to myself.

Like most pedagogical conflicts, prayer in school is about what the parents hope for the future. I can understand why religious and traditional (and not just them) would be concerned about what ideas kids are exposed to. Sex ed has been the most obvious point of, erm, friction, but what everyone has decried, from left and from right is the cheapening of discourse, the coarseness of advanced consumerism. Prayer in school is a probably misguided attempt to create ethical resistance to the modern trend towards the total capitalization of our private lives. One of my relatives, still a practicing Mormon though liberal in her views, has taken another approach to protecting her children: they can watch TV only on DVD--in order to eliminate commercials.

Jackmormon: Encourage your friend to let her children watch C-SPAN and LinkTV -- no commercials there, either. Sadly, PBS is no longer an option.

A theist who is not a divine command theorist believes that right acts are right for some reason other than God's commanding them. Consequently, such a theist still faces the task of understanding and explaining why right acts are right. If God's commanding them doesn't make them right, then something else does--and the theist is in no better position to figure out what that is than the rest of us are.

Very interesting link, rilkefan, but do those who argue from divine authority necessarily believe in the DCT? The point being made here seems fine - if you argue that God would never tell us to do evil, that implies some standard that precedes God. In other words, God does not define good and evil, but is a sort of sage counsellor, on whom we may rely utterly.

But so what? While it might be interesting to discuss what these standards are, it is hardly necessary in order to behave morally. Just do what God says. Follow the doctor's orders. The conclusion is the same either way.

Bernard: yes, but I think one implication of this is worth noting: namely, that all sorts of people write as though without God, we must all turn into relativists, since only God provides the sort of firm foundation that morality needs. (rilkefan: in normal philosophy, as in ordinary usage, ethics and morality are used interchangeably.) But if there is some standard of good that God wills in accordance with but does not define, then this is false. And I think that's a point very much worth making. (Periodically I contemplate writing a post about it.)

With the disclaimer that this is a very foreign field of thought to me, I think the point is that the two sorts of theists would have very different conversations with me -
a) Do this. Why? God says so. Huh?
b) Do this. Why? As suggested by my faith, I've arrived at the following universal principle, which I think you'll accept regardless of your belief system because blah. Hmm, how does that square with foo? etc.
That's assuming I'm not all cranky and absolutist about heaps of particles.

Aristotelian morality? The Ethical Majority?

Prayer in school is a probably misguided attempt to create ethical resistance to the modern trend towards the total capitalization of our private lives.

I went to a nominally secular primary school as a child but nevertheless we sang hymns every morning in assembly. [I remember particularly liking my rather lusty rendition of Onward Christian Soldiers until I figured out what it meant.] The difference was that it was an English school and the religiosity, such as it was, was Anglican; and somehow, because of that, it didn't mean anything. There was no ulterior motive, no closet "My religion's the only true religion/it's better than yours", no cramming a specific religious theme or paradigm down our tiny throats. As such, a number of my friends from other religions -- primarily Hinduism -- sang along too because what did anyone care? It didn't mean anything. It was just vaunted and pointless English tradition.

And that is, to me, precisely the difference between the prayers and hymn-singing in my old primary school and the prayers and hymn-singing that people are trying to have in this country: here, it really does mean something. It's intended to mean something. Its specific intent is a glorification of a particular conception of God (with which I do not agree) and often a blanket denial of any other conception of the divine (with which I most definitely do not agree). It means too much, in other words, and so I must oppose it.

I think it's an odd sort of line to be drawing but then I think it's an odd sort of religion wherein other people's enforced worship gets you some kind of spiritual brownie points. There's something profoundly offensive about it, as if my worship can be bought and sold, bullied and coerced, at the whims of one particular sect. There's something profoundly threatening about it, too -- especially as a non-Christian -- so until that particularly virulent brand of evangelism is stricken from American Christianity, no form of mandatory genuflection is acceptable. Which is a pity, because it didn't have to be this way.

In other words, God does not define good and evil, but is a sort of sage counsellor, on whom we may rely utterly.... But so what? While it might be interesting to discuss what these standards are, it is hardly necessary in order to behave morally. Just do what God says.

The key point, to me, is in this latter step: how do you know what God says? If you believe in some variant of the DCT, the only acceptable method of deduction is an interpretation of the text which -- pace the deconstructionists -- has an alarming tendency to confirm whatever paradigms we bring to it; or worse, the paradigms brought by generations of preachers and translators before us. If you believe that there is a notion of good extrinsic to the Bible (and possibly even God), however, then you can also consult your conscience, your view of the world and so forth; it allows for a more complete understanding of right and wrong, a means to clarify and purify your interpretations, and thus, I'd hope, a better, more righteous life.

For example, not that this is a hot button topic or anything: if you're a believer of the former type, all you have to do is quote Leviticus: homosexuality is evil, you're done. You never have to think about it again. If you believe that there is a notion of good encapsulated that is witnessable in the world, however, you can look out and see loving gay couples who aren't hurting anything; you can see communities rampantly not being destroyed by Teh Gay; you can see homosexuals as three-dimensional people and not ciphers for Satan or whatever ridiculous notions are being put forth nowadays; and you can therefore come to the conclusion that (and this is key) your interpretation of the Bible was in error.* This allows you to refine your understanding of God's word which in turn allows you to live a life more fully in Christ, which one can only think of as a good thing.

IOW, believing in the DCT lends itself to a closed-minded, self-reinforcing worldview where God's will happily coincides with one's own wishes. Believing in something larger than that -- that there is a notion of good attainable by the full faculties of our mind and not merely our obeisance; that reason and faith are not antagonistic but rather mutually supportive -- produces what I would consider a more open, more understanding, more loving and a more, well, Christian faith.

* You could go even further and say that the Bible itself was in error but that extra step is not necessary and, indeed, not necessarily justified.

Good point, hilzoy.

Really, Rilkefan, you need to turn to a new channel, because I'm just one of those local, amateur outlets with no budget for doppler radar.

So, there's this cartoon in the New Yorker a few weeks back. God is floating facedown, looking like he just cast some judgement earthward. Two angels, let's say Hilzoy and Rilkefan, are standing in the clouds which comprise his back.

God is craning his neck to look upward, beyond his vexed self, because something, someone, from somewhere has just cast a huge lightening bolt in HIS back.

Does this help?

you can therefore come to the conclusion that (and this is key) your interpretation of the Bible was in error.*

Good point, Anarch.

What you say here has always seemed very important to me. One central point of religious belief is that there is a difference between the human and the divine, and a big part of that difference is that humans are fallible. To refuse to admit one's own fallibility is, I would almost say, blasphemous, because to do so is to place oneself on the level of the divine.

Therefore devout believers must, as you point out, accept the possibility of having misinterpreted the divine word, and should, therefore, try to understand matters on their own, in hopes of attaining "a more complete understanding of right and wrong."

I need hardly point out that the refusal of religious leaders to do this is has led to a great deal of human suffering.

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