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Religious and Secular Arguments Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 12 October 2012

This essay is excerpted and adapted from prepared comments made by the author this week at Georgetown University as part of the symposium, Which Model, Whose Liberty? Differences between the U.S. and European Approaches to Religious Freedom.  This event was co-sponsored by the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and the International Center for Law and Religion Studies of the J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University.

There is an important and influential stream of political thought – often associated with John Rawls and his many followers – that maintains that only secular arguments are permissible in the creation of law in a liberal polity.

I do not think that the distinction between religious and secular arguments, however, is as easy to make as champions of this tradition often hold, especially on the issues that so deeply divide us today.

Take, for example, the debate over abortion. The most sophisticated advocates on both sides typically zero in on one question: Is the prenatal human being a moral subject?

Those who defend the right to abortion – pro-choice advocates – will answer this question in the negative, but the specificity of their answer will depend on what they believe is the point in a human being’s development at which it becomes a moral subject.

The dominant view in the literature is that human beings do not become moral subjects (or persons) until sometime later in their gestation when they possess a level of organized cortical brain activity that suggests some primitive self-consciousness.

This is why pro-choice advocates will refer to fetuses prior to whichever decisive moment the advocates embrace as human beings that are potential persons but not actual persons.

Opponents of abortion – or pro-life advocates – with few exceptions, argue that the human being is a moral subject (i.e., a person) from the moment it comes into being at conception. This is because all human beings have a personal nature, even when they are not presently exercising the powers that flow from that nature’s essential properties.

These essential properties include capacities for personal expression, rational thought, and moral agency. The maturation of these capacities are perfections of a human being’s nature, and thus the human fetus can be wronged even before it can know it has been wronged.

No doubt, this view is tightly tethered to a particular reading of the Hebrew-Christian Scriptures that has been shaped by the development of a moral theology that employs the categories of certain realist philosophical traditions in its theological anthropology.

         The Triumph of the Innocents by William Holman Hunt, 1876

So, there is a sense in which the pro-life argument is “religious.” But not in a way that seems relevant to the question of whether religious arguments should be excluded from the public square. Why is that?

It is because the adjective “religious” contributes nothing to our assessment of the quality of the pro-life arguments. Arguments, after all, are either sound or unsound, valid or invalid, strong or weak, cogent or non-cogent. Their premises are true or false, more or less plausible, reasonable or not.

It is not clear how labeling the pro-lifer’s case “religious,” despite its theological roots, reveals anything about its quality, or even if the argument is or is not an example of what is often called “public reason.”

Moreover, when a citizen’s argument is labeled “religious,” it seems to serve the purpose of indicating to our compatriots that the argument is sub-rational and/or without any real intellectual content. 

This was made plain to me eight years ago after a lecture I gave at the law school at Texas Tech University. During the question and answer session, an audience member, a professor at the university, issued this judgment of my talk, “You’ve presented nothing but religious arguments.”

I responded, “I’m relieved. I thought you were going to say they were bad arguments.” 

Even though it is not always the case, it seems generally true that when an argument is labeled “religious” it is often perceived by the target audience as equivalent to announcing that the position in question is not a deliverance of rational deliberation and/or can never serve to defeat so-called “secular arguments.”

It seems then that to suggest that the pro-life position – because it is tightly tethered to a theological tradition – should be sequestered from the public square because it rests on a “religious” argument, while the pro-choice case is perfectly acceptable because it seems to rest on a “secular” argument, that one would in fact be creating a metaphysical exclusionary rule that seems suspiciously capricious.

For what we are in fact discussing are two rival accounts on how best to answer the same question: who and what are we and can we know it? 

It is not about two different subjects, religious belief and secular knowledge, the latter of which deals with reality while the former, some assert, is just a matter of opinion arising from non-rational sources.

Abortion, however, is not the only contested issue where this sort of analysis may be applied. Others include critiques of same-sex “marriage,” physician-assisted suicide, and scientism, as well as defenses of morals legislation and the full political participation of citizens informed by their religious beliefs.

Given this reality, we should be skeptical that attempts to distinguish between religious and secular arguments, for the sake of placing limits on the former, can advance in any meaningful way our political conversations on these contested issues.  

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, Baylor University. He is the author of Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft, and (with Robert P. George and Susan McWilliams) the forthcoming A Second Look at First Things: A Case for Conservative Politics, a festschrift in honor of Hadley Arkes.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, October 12, 2012
If only the secularists were as familiar with religious thinking (not necessarily adherents, just familiar with our tradition) as we are with secularist thinking, then they would perhaps see that reason is not alien to one's religious beliefs and practices. Reason has its place alongside faith.

It is a ruse when "Catholics," in Cuomo-esque fashion state that they are "personally opposed to abortion but would not inpose their religious beliefs on others." Catholics should be clear about this: we uphold the sanctity of human life from the point of conception. not because our Catholic faith teaches it, but because our human reason leads us to the knowledge that this is a human person deserving of our protection. That's the compelling argument it seems to me, not our affiliation with the Catholic Church. Even the secularists are not wholly dispossessed of reason. They, too, can reach the same conclusion if they allowed it to happen. Even those attending Georgetown U!
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, October 12, 2012
I believe the notion of “secular argument” stems from a debased version of Kantianism (which Kant himself would have indignantly rejected)

According to this view, there are truths of facts (the empirically verifiable, the realm of the natural sciences) and the realm of “values,” (the realm of morality and religion). This distinction was one eagerly embraced by Modernists, both Catholic and Protestant, as insulating religion from the attacks of its Rationalist critics. Philosophers as different as the later Wittgenstein and Quine in his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” have destroyed whatever plausibility this distinction may once have had. That is before we turn to the criticisms of the notion of “objective” or “neutral” knowledge of facts by Post-Modernists like Derrida and Foucauld.

“Secular argument” should be decently interred, along with Logical Positivism, of which it is an off-shoot.
written by Sue, October 12, 2012
If anything it is the non-religious arguments, when it comes to value debates, that should be considered the least intellectually grounded because how can any "should" or "ought" be considered without the notion of a Deity in the background. This is a CS Lewis 101 concept.
written by Manfred, October 12, 2012
This morning on New York Public Radio I heard the commentator, Brian Lehrer, upon replaying both Biden's and Ryan's replies to Ms. Raddatz's question to each on their personal feelings on abortion, comment that "shows the Catholic Church is not monolithic." There you have it. A practicing Jew looks at the Church and reports accurately what he observes. Some years ago a bishop in Louisiana excommunicated one or two Catholics for racial comments or behavior. Catholics in government have facilitated 54 million abortions and now aberrosexual "marriage" and they have nothing to worry about. Every week they are at the place where the altar rail used to be to receive Communion.
written by Graham Combs, October 13, 2012
If you don't believe in authority -- as most secularists and post-modernists say they don't -- then one way to approach this is to ask why their authority is superior or inferior to any other. When did do your own thing become you can only do our thing? It's the incoherence of contemporary and establishment thinking that irritates me. At the end of the day it is impossible to have a conversation. It always dissolves into absurdities. Which is why I compare most 21st century thinkers to children. Children can surprise you with their intelligence and cleverness -- just don't mistake it for thoughtfulness or wisdom. The baby boomer man-children who still dominate the institutions are as humorless and inappropriate as their gray ponytails. Unfortunately they still get to make decisions and past decisions have maintained their momentum with no detectable entropy in sight. The frenzy of geriatric panic remains. Along with the damage to the rest of us. When they finally let go what will remain?
written by Other Joe, October 13, 2012
And "entertainment" is designed for man-child sensibilities. Popular entertainment used to be called a wasteland. It is now a waste pipe. TV and movie scripts are clever, sometimes ingenious, and funny the way a child’s first dirty joke is funny.
written by Robert E. Drury, October 13, 2012
The popular distinction between secular and religious argument does lead some to claim that arguments in accord with religious faith are unacceptable in public discourse. The solution is to point out the distinction between morals and ethics. Ethics delineates human behavior as that which anyone, thinking rightly of human nature, judges to be appropriate. Morals are ethics with the stamp of approval of faith. It is ethics which is the guide to public policy to the MINIMAL extent that unethical behavior may not be sanctioned by government.

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