Sola Scriptura Secularism and Hobby Lobby

On this page on Tuesday, Hadley Arkes raised a very important concern about the way in which the beliefs embraced by the plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case, the Green Family, were portrayed by the Court:

In the style of old, “religion” was reduced simply to claims of “belief” held “sincerely.” The Greens professed to “believe” that human life begins at conception. That is an anchoring proposition in the textbooks on embryology, but it was reduced here to a mere “belief” – as indeed religion itself was reduced to mere “belief,” without a ground of reason.

Hadley’s observation is clearly correct. But it is not unique to this opinion. It is largely the way legal scholars and academic elites often characterize religious beliefs that seem to pose a threat to the dominant liberal account of the good life. Rather than portraying the religious belief as an intellectually serious rival to the liberal account of the subject that is in dispute, the religious belief is presented as an entirely different subject.

The reason for this, it seems to me, is that these critics of religion mistakenly think of all religious beliefs as merely the deliverances of what has historically been called special revelation, which may be accessed by the believer through Scripture (e.g., the Bible, Qu’ran) and/or ecclesial authority.

So for the typical secular academic, a Catholic’s belief in the full personhood of the embryo (with which the Protestant Green Family is in agreement) is no different than his belief in the doctrine of transubstantiation. Thus, for the secularist, just as the Catholic account of the consecrated bread and wine adds a religious something not found in the purely scientific account of the bread and wine, the Catholic view of the embryo adds a religious something to a purely secular account of nascent life.

By employing this sleight of hand, the secularist is able to beg the question as to the issue in dispute by making it seem as if it is really a matter of two allegedly incommensurable subjects – faith and reason – rather than a matter of two contrary answers to the same question: is the embryo one of us?

A philosophical analysis of an empirical reality

As Hadley rightly notes, the deliverances of embryology are immensely helpful here. But for the more sophisticated secularist – one who denies the embryo’s personhood but not its humanity – the pro-life advocate must employ the resources of philosophy, since it is those resources that the sophisticated secularist employs to make his case as well.

The secular critic argues that what makes any being a moral subject is its present capacity to engage in certain acts we typically attribute to persons, e.g., the ability to communicate, have a self concept, etc. Thus, for the secular critic, an embryo is not a moral subject, i.e., a person.

Although the prolife advocate does not dispute that persons may do these things, he disagrees that the doing of them is what makes a human being a person. Rather, personal acts are perfections of the sort of thing an embryo is, a being with a personal nature. This is why a blind, unconscious, or developmentally disabled man is still a man. Our judgment as to what he lacks implies that we know what he is. Thus, for the prolife advocate, the embryo is one of us because of what it is, not what it does.

But this means that the position of the Green Family – that the human embryo from its very beginning is truly one of us – is not an answer resulting merely from ecclesial edict or scriptural exegesis, even though it is an answer tightly tethered to these other resources. Rather, it is the result of the same sort of reasoning engaged in by the secular critic of religion: philosophical analysis of an empirical reality.

Thus, the Green Family’s belief is no more or less “religious” than the secularist’s. For each is offering an answer to the same question, albeit within the confines of contrary traditions of philosophical reflection.

In that case, certain critics of the Court’s Hobby Lobby opinion – those who portray it as a victory of faith over reason – are either ignorant of the nature of the dispute or, they know if they are honest about its nature, it will not advance their political agenda.

If it is the former, then there is hope for mutual understanding and serious but respectful public argument. If it is the latter (and I fear this is the case), then we are dealing with adversaries who not only reject faith, but reason as well. Adiuva nos Domine Deus

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).