Liberalism and the Future of Taking Rites Seriously

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There used to be a time when liberalism – at least as an intellectual movement – was associated with a type of philosophical fallibalism: which is to say, given the wide variety of experiences and differing degrees of intellectual, religious, and moral formation among our nation’s citizens, people should not claim that their views on contested moral and theological questions are the only plausible deliverances of reason.

Understanding this reality, the great liberal philosophers of this generation – John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Thomas Nagel, for example – proposed that liberal democracies, such as the United States, should try their best to accommodate the eclectic moral and religious beliefs and practices within their diverse populations.

In order to achieve this end, one had to show at least an adequate familiarity with these differing views and the reasons why one’s fellow citizens may embrace them. Caricaturing those views – or not understanding their intellectual credentials – would surely lead to believing that compatriots who hold those views are outside the circle of rational discourse. But under such a regime of hegemonic exclusion, one is no longer obligated to seriously entertain voices that dissent from the “one true view” that prevails under such non-liberal conditions. This is precisely where we are heading in our culture, with enthusiastic assistance from those in the academy (some of whom should know better).

For example, in his 2013 book, Why Tolerate Religion?, law professor Brian Leiter argues that religious belief is fundamentally irrational. He writes that “[f]or all religions, there are at least some beliefs central to the religion that. . . do not answer ultimately (or at the limit) to evidence and reasons, as these are understood in other domains concerned with knowledge of the world. Religious beliefs, in virtue of being based on ‘faith,’ are insulated from ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, the ones we employ in both common sense and in science.”

He suggests three possible counters to this claim, all of which I address in my new book, Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press). Because of space constraints I will mention just one here. Leiter writes: “Might not a Catholic, for example, quite reasonably appeal to testimonial evidence, as recorded in the Bible and elsewhere, in support of her belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?”


Conceding that a Catholic may in fact offer such a case, Leiter swiftly dismisses it in one brief paragraph:

To be sure, testimony that Christ rose from the dead is a kind of colorable [sic, i.e., justifiable] evidence from a scientific point of view; that the testimony is inconsistent with everything we have reason (evidence) to believe about what happens when human bodies expire – both from massive amounts of testimonial evidence, as well as the evidence of physiology and biology – indicates that the ancient testimonial evidence deserves no credence at all.

Leiter, unfortunately, does not explain how the mere observation that there are regularities in nature, which are described by scientific laws – ironically, a necessary condition for any event, especially a physical resurrection, to be labeled a miracle – means that there is no amount of credible evidence a Catholic (or any other Christian) may marshal to show that her belief in Christ’s resurrection is rational.

Without offering an explanation, Leiter’s argument is almost a textbook case of circular reasoning, one anticipated in C. S. Lewis’s 1947 critique of David Hume’s very similar, and far more sophisticated, argument:

Now of course we must agree with Hume [or Leiter] that if there is absolutely “uniform experience” against miracles [or is “inconsistent with everything we have reason (evidence) to believe”], if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform [or “inconsistent with everything we have reason (evidence) to believe”] only if we know that all the reports of them are false [or “deserve no credence at all”]. And we can know all the reports to be false [or “deserve no credence at all”] only if we know already that miracles have never occurred [or is “inconsistent with everything we have reason (evidence) to believe”]. In fact, we are arguing in a circle.

What does this have to do with liberalism? Plenty. Whether we like it or not, we live in a culture that has been significantly shaped by the sort of thinking found in the works of philosophers like Rawls, Dworkin, and Nagel. Each, in different ways, has argued that, in general, religious believers, though perhaps mistaken in their beliefs, are obviously not irrational in embracing them. For this reason, a liberal regime should be generous in the way in which it accommodates these citizens and their communities.

But suppose over time those liberal habits of mind begin to wane under the influence of works that are hostile to religious beliefs (and their attendant moral, metaphysical, and epistemological notions) and lack care in engaging their intellectual credentials. It would only be a matter of time before powerful actors in public life – legislative bodies, judges, media, intellectuals, etc. – begin questioning whether religious beliefs and practices are worth protecting.

This is why it is not enough for one to merely appeal to America’s tradition of religious liberty and a cluster of important court cases in order to vindicate our first freedom. If one is to take rites seriously, one must make a case in the public square for the reasonableness of religious beliefs. For in this day and age, it is the culture that drives the law, not the other way around.

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).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Hume’s and Leiter’s argument is open to an even more serious objection.

    Is the Liberal’s belief in the Uniformity of Nature, every effect has a cause, and so on, an hypothesis; that is, a principle that can be discovered by recourse to observation and experiment, the balance of probability remaining in favour of it?

    Obviously not, as Mgr Ronald Knox points out: “If you start by treating the uniformity of nature as an hypothesis and no more, you will find your hypothesis upset by every recorded case of witches flying, tables turning, Saints being levitated, oracles coming true, horoscopes being verified, broken limbs being cured by faith-healing, and the like. It is no good to say that there may be some higher law under which such phenomena would come, for that is a petitio principii; it assumes that things do work by law, and you haven’t found the law. It is no good to say that they are bogus statements of fact, for apart from your conviction of the uniformity of nature you have no ground whatever for supposing the evidence for them to be otherwise than fully adequate.”

    We cannot even claim uniformity is probable. As Hume says, “probability is founded on the presumption of a resemblance betwixt those objects, of which we have had experience, and those, of which we have had none; and therefore it is impossible this presumption can arise from probability.”

    • Fr Kloster

      Very well stated. The Church has been very careful to document medical cures in order to advance the canonization process. We could never prove that St. Brother Andre Bessette in Canada turned water into oil to light the sanctuary lamp. Neither can we prove that St. Martin de Porres bi and tri-located. But then again, in whom should I place more trust? I rather prefer sanctity than the pedantic ruse of those who think there is a scientific answer for everything. Metaphysics nor natural philosophy cannot be so easily discarded by the new breed of gnostics. Virtue, beauty, and absolute truth always come out on top for anyone who is not trying to manipulate the results.

      • John II

        “I rather prefer sanctity than the pedantic ruse of those who think there is a scientific answer for everything.”

        Slight emendation, just for resonance to a key point raised by Mr. Beckwith and many responders on this thread, including yourself:

        I really do think that you don’t intend to say “those who think there is a scientific answer for everything.” The scientism to which you allude is itself a matter of particularly flimsy faith, not reason. And those who believe there is a scientific explanation for everything are already entangled in a kind of unreflective fideism.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      Actually this is one of the few instances when I believe Hume was right even though he debunks reasonable argument by saying causality is simply an association of repetitive events not fact. The British and empiricism take their cue from Hume but the benefit to reasonable thought is purging it from fantasy. It seems you are in England. Please inform if you sight witches flying over rooftops. Not that I disbelieve it has not occurred but it would be fascinating to know we have a witness.

  • Chris in Maryland

    I wonder if it has yet occurred to the “law-givers” that it is impossible to take the “law-givers” seriously, since the law says some human beings are not persons, and marriage isn’t about the union of man and woman in service to their children?

  • Michael Dowd

    Very good Professor Beckwith. Now take the problems with Islam. “The basic problem is very clear. “It is that millions of people in the Islamic world do not believe in free speech, freedom of religion, democracy, a secular state, free enterprise and human rights. Millions of Muslims also have a hatred for Israel and America that has no rational basis.”

    As a means of fighting ISIS and the potential problems of Islam in general I think there is a real possibility that all religions might in some ways be restricted. This is certainly not a new idea but one that could surely happen.

  • Manfred

    Your points are stale. They are the arguments made by Fr. Richard Neuhaus in his arguments on Religion in the Public Square. The government today, along with the secular elites, promote contraceptives, abortifacients, abortion (along with the sale of baby body parts), as well as smae-sex “marriage” which makes religion not only problematic, but someting which must be erased from the conscientiousness of our citizens. Many in the Catholic hierarchy, starting at the very top, are aiding the secular elites in their imission.

  • WSquared

    Professor Beckwith, given that you’ve noted that: 1. “But under such a regime of hegemonic exclusion,
    one is no longer obligated to seriously entertain voices that dissent
    from the “one true view” that prevails under such non-liberal
    conditions. This is precisely where we are heading in our culture, with
    enthusiastic assistance from those in the academy (some of whom should
    know better).”


    2. “Religious beliefs, in virtue of being based on
    ‘faith,’ are insulated from ordinary standards of evidence and rational
    justification, the ones we employ in both common sense and in science.”

    A book suggestion comes to mind regarding the history of “common sense,” and its exclusionary modus operandi– Sophia Rosenfeld, “Common Sense: A Political History.” Whether one agrees or disagrees with it, it wouldn’t hurt for any Catholic who takes the life of the mind seriously to not only be aware of it, but to read it.

  • Dave Fladlien

    It amazes me how knowledgeable people can make the kinds of mistakes that the author describes Leiter as making. In fact, nature is full of discontinuities, singularities, and other kinds of phenomena which are not linear at all. Catastrophic flow break-downs occur in fluid dynamics (to use an example that I interact with), mathematics presents many truly strange-sounding phenomena, etc. How then can someone suppose that, simply because it is uncommon (to say the least) for someone to rise from the dead, that the uncommonness proves it could never happen. That same person, if scientifically inclined, would never say such a thing about any other unusual occurrence.

    It’s not the acceptance of the seemingly incredible, but the unwillingness to accept even the possibility of them, that runs counter to evidence presented by the world in which we live. Those who know me well will recognize that I argue this case against all who contend that there can never be an exceptional situation. There can be; the world is full of them. Many don’t even require a miracle; God’s creation is way more complex than any of us can begin to fully comprehend. When we add in even the theoretical possibility of a Divine Being intervening, the possibilities literally do become infinite.

  • DeaconEdPeitler

    What account do we make of love which is anything but rational? Where is the proof that love exists? Perhaps it is scientism to the exclusion of all else that explains why we see so little love in our culture.

  • Craig Payne

    I think the charge that these points are “stale” is not well founded. We reading this column may have known these arguments before, but for many or most of my (secular) students, hearing an argument such as this would be a brand new experience. If we are going to bring about the resurgence of a Christian civilization, we have to begin with basics and work our way up. It is going to take a lot of heavy lifting, since we did not arrive here overnight, but with God nothing is impossible. Never despair and never give up the good fight of faith.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    The need is well argued. As regard’s Hume Lewis’ dismissal is sufficient insofar as possibility. Hume’s absurd contention that what we know in sensible perception is a bundle of sensations is more absurdity not given in experience. Aquinas states sense perception is the first principle of all knowledge. As I explain in my book Assent to Truth the senses operate in tandem with the intellect in the apprehension and immediate judgment of the reality of things. This speaks directly to the Resurrection. Unlike other miracles Christ’s Resurrection is entirely unique because it was evidenced as visible tangible historical fact by the witness of the Apostles. Aquinas differs with Avery Dulles on the Resurrection Dulles, Dulles saying that miracles are not extrinsic signs of credibility but integral parts of revelation whereas Aquinas says the miracles of Christ were sufficient proof of His Godhead. Aquinas adds God having said certain things is reason why we believe in faith. And faith assents to something because it is said by God and not argument (ST III 43 Ad 4). Knowing Aquinas’ emphasis on reason that may sound astounding. To comprehend him Aquinas says at the beginning of the Summa Theologiae that the only absolute truth is the existence of God. He means that in the context that all that exists outside God namely created being does not contain within itself the cause of its existence. They are dependent on God. Then he proceeds to give the rationale that supports our faith because it is not always facile to arrive at that knowledge. Nonetheless the evidence is there within existence and accessible through reason. I argue that support of this reasoning is found in the Crucuifixion and Resurrection. Those who believe will be saved and those who refuse to believe will be lost as was told to the Apostles during their mission to Israel. Why this uncompromising edict and what of conscience? My conviction is that Christ is Truth and the Essence of that Truth is revealed in the Passion and Cross. Reason and the will are created by God with an intrinsic tendency and capacity to acquire and know truth. The willingness to believe is what reason and the disposition of the will [the will is rational desire] appeal to the intellect to judge as true. Those who disbelieve and are condemned simply in refusing the word of God preached to them is due to their willful intent not to believe what is most evident. Faith a gift of the Holy Spirit confirms the interior assent to what is evidenced exteriorly.

  • Mike Hurcum

    Do not forget the scriptures which even archeologists have used. If these scientists use it then we can trust in the statements that are in there. Statements that the Jews at the time would have loved to dismiss. There were 500 witnesses
    at the Ascension and not one Jew at that time denied it. This means that as Christ is merciful you can bet that those who crucified Him met Him

  • The key to me in this article is Beckwith warning that society might be wondering “whether religious beliefs and practices are worth protecting.” Manfred and Dowd in their comments also touch on restrictions on religion. One quote attributed to Leiter brings up the issue of common sense. I am surprised this issue isn’t used more often by governments, judges and society as a whole when questioning religious beliefs. To them same sex marriage, abortion and women’s rights are accepted in society and it’s only believers who are hanging on to outdated moral beliefs. It makes sense to them to change our beliefs for the common good of all humans.
    As a Catholic I must admit that there are times when I’ve been at Mass and I look around at the congregation and realize that probably 70 % of those present are women. What does a woman think when she realizes she will only ever see a male priest at the altar in her lifetime? It might be a Church teaching but does it make sense to her? Does it make sense to me?
    I probably won’t live to see the day but I can imagine when politicians will agree that the various religious groups will be allowed to continue but their beliefs and practices must make sense to the general population.