Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Secularism and Matters of Fact

For the past couple of weeks I have been defending secularism - defined as a the view that religious claims are illegitimate in the discussion of public policy.

Many secularists assert that secularism is a good thing. Yet, when asked to defend it they tend to come up with feeble arguments that are incoherent, require the invention of useful fictions, or come dangerously close to being sectarian.

The challenge I have taken up this month is to actually defend secularism.

I have been illustrating my points by looking at the institution of the public trial. In a public trial, religious augments are strictly prohibited. Only secular arguments may be used to establish the material facts of the case. We can easily see how messed up trials would get if evidence was not limited strictly to secular claims.

I argued that the problems with using religious arguments in policy debates are the same as those facing the use of religious arguments in a court of law. That these problems argue for using strictly secular arguments in a trial, hey also argue fir using strictly secular arguments in matters of public policy.

I then pointed out that secular arguments are required fir all matters of fact, that courts if law appeal to an external law giver to determine what the law requires. Similarly, we can argue that, on matters of policy, we may restrict the debate over material fact to secular arguments only, but we must appeal to an external law giver (God?) to get the law. Secular arguments may be required on all matters of fact, but we must go to religion to discover all matters of value.

I will address the alleged need for an external law giver in a later post. Today, I want to look at the line separating fact from value.

That the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and that it formed from heavy elements manufactured in a previous generation of stars that blew up - scattering these elements through space - is a material fact.

That life evolved on this planet. It started with a basic life form and, through a process of random mutation and survival of the fittest, evolved to produce the creatures we see around us, including humans. The evidence for this is so strong that if this issue were to come up in a court of law, evolution would be proved beyond a reasonable doubt as a material fact.

Another matter of fact would be that scriptures were authored by primitive humans with severely limited understanding of the world around them in which they attributed their own bigotries and prejudices to a divine being. This, too, is a material fact - the type of fact that, insofar as it affects public policy, can only be legitimately defended using secular arguments. Taking scripture as inerrant would be comparable to asserting at a trial that a particular witness must be assumed to be infallible and perfectly honest, disallowing all cross-examination or counter-evidence.

By the way, this does not contradict the claim that there is a God that is the foundation of all moral law. It only asserts that the Torah, the Koran, the Bible, the Iliad, and other religious books - when it comes to matters of public policy - are to be taken as flawed human contrivances guessing at what such a being would command.

Everybody, in every religion, already believes that this is the case of every religion to which they do not belong. Many people in each religion are willing to admit that this is the case even within their own religion. This is not an argument for atheism and against religion. It is, instead, an argument for the proper approach to take to scripture in terms to its relevance to public policies that affect real human beings. Scriptures are contrivances invented by humans who have been dead for over a thousand years reflecting the prejudices, moral beliefs, and opinions of its flawed human authors.

In our list of material facts, we can add that as a matter of fact wine remains wine and the communion cracker remains a cracker during Catholic mass. The belief that the wine transforms to the blood of Christ and the cracker to the body of Christ even though its sensible properties remain the same is nonsense.

We can imagine a witness at a criminal trial claiming that he is innocent of cocaine possession because, through some magic ritual, the white powder in his bags was transformed into powdered sugar even though all of its sensible properties (including those that can be determined by chemical analysis) are those of cocaine. For all practical purposes - the substance remains cocaine in spite of these outlandish claims. The prosecution does not have to prove that transubstantiation did not take place.

Gay pride parades are not a factor influencing the course or severity of hurricanes. It is surprising - well, sickening, actually - how many people will assert that there is not sufficient evidence to support the claim that atmospheric CO2 contributions have an effect on such things as storm severity claim with absolute certainty that homosexual marriage does have an influence. Either way, just as it is not permissible in a court of law to declare as a defense, "God did it," it should not be taken as a legitimate argument in defense of or opposition to a matter of public policy.

These relationships of cause and effect (such as between hurricane severity and homosxual marriage) are material facts no different from the relationship between a bullet shot through the heart on the subsequent death of the victim. Let some shooter try to argue that the course of the bullet had nothing to do with his intent but, instead, was guided by a God to kill the accused for the crime of sodomy or for worshipping a false God. We will see how far that type of argument goes in a court of law. It should go no further in matters of public policy.

Even if we were to accept the claim that a requirement for secular arguments is only applicable to matters of material fact and not at all relevant at all to matters of value, we can come up with a huge list of material facts that need this application. We see around us far too many violations of this principle - and far too much need to return to the same secular standards for evidence we find in a court of law.

However, we can go further. The distinction between fact and value is not as sharp as some like to pretend. Many questions of value are, at the same time, matters of material fact that would also require a restriction to strictly secular arguments where those facts touch on matters of public policy.

I will have more to say on this in my next post.


Don said...

As you use the word "secular," it seems synonymous to "scientific." If you disagree, could you offer examples where they are different?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Well, definitions are fluid and there may be uses of these terms in which this is true.

However, generally speaking "history" is not considered a science. Yet, the facts that one are trying to determine in a trial have much to do with history. It is a question of "What happened the night of August 14 that produced a corpse."