Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life - Part 03

A member of the studio audience has asked that I comment on the Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life, a product of the World Atheist Conference: God and Politics.

Previous Episodes:

Proposition 01

Proposition 02

Today: Proposition 3:

We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.

The Rule of Law

I want to start with the "rule of law" because this principle actually has some substance to it.

To put a society under the rule of law means that we are going to get together and adopt a set of rules that are going to bind all of us - leaders and subjects alike. When one of us thinks that another - even a leader - has violated a rule, we are going to collect our evidence and present it to an impartial judge or jury that has no stake in the outcome, who will decide which position is better supported by the evidence.

This is in contrast to a rule of men...and, historically, it has almost always been men. This system holds that in all disputes we are going to appeal to some person - a sovereign - who is often one of the parties in the dispute. This person will decide the case, not according to some agreed upon rules, but according to his own wishes and interests.

On this account, there are many and good reasons to promote the rule of law over the rule of man. Men given such power tend to become quite tyrannical and abusive of those over whom they have power.

The system of the "rule of law" calls for the establishment of an impartial judiciary whose primary interest is simply to determine if the accused broke the agreed-upon rules.

An important part of this is that the judge might not like the rule he has agreed to uphold. He might think that society was foolish to adopt that particular rule. However, if she should decide the case according to the rules she likes rather than the rules agreed upon, then society has taken a step away from the rule of law and towards the rule of man (or woman).

There is a group in California called Better Courts Now that is trying to put judges on the bench in California with an explicitly Christian bias. This is a group of people who wish to abandon the rule of law and replace it with a rule of man, where men sitting on the bench get to decide cases, not in accordance with the rules, but in accordance with their own interests and concerns.

Wisely, California voters recently overwhelmingly rejected their first attempt.

In spite of its merits, there is still a problem with the rule of law which is: How are we going to make sure that the laws are good laws - that they are fair and just and provide the greatest overall benefit at the least social cost?

We can trust that if a monarch determines the rules, he will adopt those rules that best serves the interests of the monarchy. An oligarchy of elite families will adopt rules that best benefit the elite families. It would seem that the best way to get a set of rules that benefit the people generally is to have the people generally agree on the rules. Thus, we get the principle favoring democracy.


I wrote in the previous section on the rule of law that the way we create the laws will say a lot about the types of laws that we crate. A monarch will create laws that benefit the monarchy, and a church (theocracy) will create laws that benefit the church.

I suggested that the best way to get a set of laws that benefit everybody generally is to have everybody generally pass judgment on the rules.

To some, this seems to suggest a democracy . . . but not quite.

A democracy is not a state where people generally approve of the rules or laws. It is a state where the majority approves of the rules. If we follow the line of reasoning above, then the majority is not going to adopt the rules that benefit everybody. The majority is going to adopt the rules that benefit the majority - at the expense of the minority.

There is a general problem with majority rule widely recognized as "the tyranny of the majority" where minorities can be completely subject to serving the interests of the majority. Fifty-one percent of the votes translates into 100% of the power.

This is an evil widely recognized as a tyranny of the majority.

Fifty-one percent of the people may well acquire 100% of the power, but they do not acquire 100% of the moral rights.

To combat this tyranny, we recognize a concept of minority rights. This means that even if 51% of the people want to do something, it can still be wrong - an inappropriate use of power. It means that for the rule of law is fair and just it is not enough that it be agreed to by the majority. It also requires rules limiting what the majority may agree to impose on everybody else.

We often hear complaints against activist judges who overrule the will of the majority and make some unpopular decisions in favor of some minority. Yet, this is one of the things that judges working within a rule of fair and just law are supposed to do. They are supposed to stand above the fray and be able to say, "Um . .. majority . . . sorry but in this case you are abusing your power and establishing a tyranny of the majority. You may want this, but your want does not give you the right to acquire it."

These facts are the facts that lead us to the prospect of rights.

Human Rights

Whenever I hear the term Human Rights I think of a line in Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country. An earthling, sitting at a table with a group of Klingons, says, "We hold that everybody is entitled to basic human rights."

The Klingon, Azetbur, answers, ""Human rights. Why the very name is racist. The Federation is no more than a homo sapiens only club."

The term is, in fact, unjustly discriminatory.

We probably share the universe with beings who are not human - some of whom will be large enough and powerful enough to sweep us earthlings aside like w sweep aside a colony of ants. Hopefully, the groups we encounter will have advanced to the stage that they no longer define morality in terms of their species' interests. They no longer thing in terms of "Rigelian rights" and the such.

We definitely share the planet with a number of species that are not human, but that nonetheless have interests (desires capable of being fulfilled or thwarted). They give us an opportunity to practice thinking in terms other than human rights.

The concept of rights fundamentally stand as a check on tyranny - including a tyranny of the majority and a tyranny of the powerful, limiting what they may do to those who lack the ability to protect their own interests. The fact that we have the power to inflict certain harms on animals and they have no means with which to protest or object does not imply that we have the right to do so.

The same applies to the tyranny of the majority. Its power to enslave and exploit any minority simply by voting to do so does not provide it with a moral right to do so. When a judge declares that the majority has stepped over the line and sought to exploit or abuse a minority, this is likely to be met with protests that the judges are subverting the will of the majority. However, a fair and just society sometimes requires this.

A Secular Society

This provision also states:

History shows that secular societies are the most successful.

Where in heck did this piece of garbage come from?

It raises two questions. The first is: "Is it true?" My understanding of history tells me that every successful society from 3700 BC to 1800 AD was sectarian. What does it say about how successful sectarian societies are when, over a span of 5,500 years, not a single successful sectarian society came into existence.

Even if one wants to focus on modern nations, there is a still a question of whether history shows them to be most successful. 5700 years in which sectarian societies dominated history compared to 200 where secular governments had an edge hardly supports the claim that history has given a clear verdict to secular government.

Second, even if it is true, it is irrelevant.

History shows us that every president of the United States has been male. This doesn't imply that we should oppose any attempt to elect a female President. Even suggesting this betrays a prejudice.

One might well be able to come up with a theory as to why secular societies would be more successful. If we do, we can appeal to history to verify or falsify that theory. But the conclusion does not come from history. You cannot get the conclusion by looking at history in the absence of such a theory and simply asserting that history sides with secular governments.

It is also possible that history might show that secular cultures do better than sectarian cultures in general, but also that there is one specific sectarian culture that outshines them all. At best, history can only show that secular cultures that have been tried are more successful than sectarian cultures that have been tried. This says very little about what type of cultures will ultimately be the most successful.

Even if it were true, we what was it is about there being a history of something that implies it ought to be done in the future. A history of slavery does not justify slavery, Neither does a history of denying people a right to vote. A history of successful monarchies does not justify monarchies.

This particular proposition is pure nonsense. If here is a case to be made for secularism, then let that case be grounded on evidence and reason. It defeats the entire position when the proponents of evidence and reason abandon it when given an opportunity to present, in its place, the secular equivalent of dogma.


anton kozlik said...

Where in heck did this piece of garbage come from?

There are several "secular" societies in our world. The problem, of course, is that it is difficult for US American's to recognize them as successful because they don't use the US formula or worship at the "USAltar of Greatness". For example, the very country where this was held has the highest concentration of atheists per capita in the world. I would imagine that we have to agree on "what constitutes success" before we can use the "garbage label".

Sam said...

Nicely put Professor. I lived the proposition you declare in the begining of this part. I live in the middle east and feel what a nonsense religion is. thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

Martin Freedman said...

The end note here refers to the Brussels Declaration 2007 (BD)created by the International Humanist and Ethical Union

As to which clauses are being referred there appear to be a few that are relevant. Now as another declaration this too could be examined the same way as you are examining the Copenhagen Declaration (CD). I fear a regress of de-constructing declaration after declaration could ensue and not something to recommend!

However it might be that this and other declarations phrase points better than the propositions in the one you are examining. For example compare CD_P1 to BD_4:

"We affirm the right of everyone to adopt and follow a religion or belief of their choosing. But the beliefs of any group may not be used to limit the rights of others."

This prima facie seems less problematic that CD_P1 that you criticised in a previous post. (You might have criticisms of this too but this is not the point I want to make here)

The point I want to make here is that, when, as you were already planning and I additionally suggested, you create your Declaration (lets call it AD?), it would be easier to get such a declaration accepted by others if one could lift already agreed clauses from other declarations. I am not saying that my proposed substitution of BD_4 for CD_1 is correct, it is just an illustrative candidate.

Martin Freedman said...

As for the second part of this proposition "History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular. [4]" The end note states:

"Research in social science show that strongly religious modern nations have been unsuccessful
in terms of basic social and economic indicators such as levels of crime and incarceration, life
expectancy, the adverse consequences of sexuality and in securing prosperity. The most secular advanced democracies are consistently the most successful."

Certainly their statement of this in the proposition is very ineptly stated and you correctly criticised but certainly there is much well grounded support for this assertion - although they do not provide the actual and numerous references in this footnote.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

anton kozlik

The "garbage" I was referring to is not the claim that secular societies are the best. It is the claim that "history" supports this view.

I agree that secular societies are bette. However, it is not because history supports the view.

It is because faith-based policies effectively justify state violence grounded on myth and superstition.

It is because faith-based policies allow for no method to test their conclusions against reality.

It is because when two people come at each other with firm convictions based on faith, there is no way to appeal to reason and evidence to determine who is right. The only option that remains is to appeal to the gun.

I think it is absurd, at this point, to argue that the conclusion is correct based on history, unless and until the appeal to history is itself based on a decent theory that explains and predicts those historic events.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

faithlessgod create your Declaration, would be easier to get such a declaration accepted by others if one could lift already agreed clauses from other declarations.

Yes, it could. I understand the political usefulness of these types of tactics.

However, for the purposes of my blog, I would rather focus on what is true rather than what is politically expedient. Not that political expedience is bad - political inexpedience can sometimes be extremely costly. But, this little blog in its corner of the universe is not the place for it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


As for the research mentioned in the footnote, the type of conclusions that historical research can bring to discussion is the same type of research that declars, "History says that black men are more likely to break the law than white men."

A history of correlation is not a history of causation. In order to demonstrate causation, you need a different type of theory - a theory that explains HOW one item is related to another such that variation in one corresponds to variation in the other.

Once one has such a theory, one can then look to history to determine if the theory can do an adequate job of explaining history.

However, the justification comes from appeal to the theory, never by appeal to history itself. History can only give us correlation.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I also want to point out how, in the footnote, the authors have cherry-picked their data, selecting only that portion of history that seems to confirm their conclusion.

Anonymous said...

'This includes everything from stoning a woman to death to denying the benefits of marriage to a homosexual couple to denying an abortion to a young girl raped by her father to beheading a man because he is an atheist.'

Above are 4 actions. What is your view of the morality of these actions? Do you think moral reasoning can get us to answers about the morality of these actions?

I will check back on here for your reply, so we can discuss this.