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 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).