Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Secularism: Religious Testimony in Policy Debates

My current project is a defense of secularism.

The defense I offer is not that of the incoherent ideology that the public square must be free of all ideology except the ideology that there should be no ideology but the ideology of no ideology.

I am not treating secularism as something like a divine command handed down from the heavens or sewn into our evolutionary genes allowing for no further justification - as a "self-evident truth" that cannot be verified or falsified.

I am also rejecting the defense option that treats the Constitution as scripture such that whatever is written in the Constitution must be done. For decades, this type of reasoning was one of the more useful political gambits used in the defense of slavery.

The defense I offer began by pointing to a current institution that is entirely secular - the presentation if evidence in a criminal trial.

In a criminal trial, the prosecutor must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. More important for the purposes of this series of posts, prosecutors are prohibited from using religious or sectarian arguments in their attempts to prove guilt. In making their case that the accused is guilty, they are absolutely and without qualification or exception restricted from using anything other than secular evidence.

These types of arguments should also be prohibited in debate over public policy - and for entirely the same reason.

Whenever the subject comes up that a group of people shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, we should (as with a criminal trial) begin with the assumption that this denial of life, liberty, or well-being is unjustified, putting the burden of proof on those eager to do harm to others. Also, as in a criminal trial, only secular evidence should be permitted in making the case that the harms inflicted as a matter of public policy are justified. Religious or sectarian arguments - as in a court of law - should be rejected, allowing for no exceptions.

A person should never be denied his life, his liberty, or his well-being simply because somebody else asserts, "My God wants you to suffer this harm; therefore, it is justified."

In referring to testimony in a court of law, I drew a scene in which the accused is confronted by somebody who takes the stand and says, "I talked to God, and God told me that the accused us guilty." Let some district attorney try a move like this, and all but the most incompetent defense attorneys will be on their feet in an instant shouting their objection.

Furthermore, that objection will be sustained. This type of testimony is not permitted precisely because there is no way to determine through evidence that such a conversation actually took place or, if it did, that the witness understood what was being said. The defense must also be able to confront the possibility that God was lying, or that God did not know what he was talking about. None of these options are available in a court of law. Consequently, this type of testimony is ruled too problematic to be used to establish the guilt of the accused.

The defendant in the criminal trial is only required to answer the secular case that can be made against him.

To take just one example, homosexuals in this country face the same situation in the public policy debate over homosexuality as a defendant in a criminal trial confronted with a prosecution witness who says, "I talked to God and God told me that the accused is guilty." In the former case, the homosexual is confronted with people in the public forum who say, "We talked to God and God told us that homosexuality is an abomination."

All of the problems that we would have if we allowed prosecutors to bring in witnesses to testify, "I talked to God and God told me that the accused is guilty," we find in the public debate where people testify, "We talked to God and God told us that homosexuality is an abomination."

Did this conversation actually take place? If it did, is it being reported correctly? How can we find out in a publicly verifiable way? Did the witness accurately understand what the speaker was saying? Was the speaker actually God, or merely some person claiming to be God or asserting a special power to hear God talking to him? Could it be the case that the being claiming to be God was lying? Did this being actually know what he was talking about?

There are simply too many problems with this type of testimony to allow it to be used to claim, "Therefore, we are right to deny the accused of their life (in some parts of the world), or their liberty (e.g., to merry). A person who makes this leap from religious claims used in public debate to the conclusion that harms inflicted on a target group are justified are behaving just as immorally as a jurist who declares that a defendant is guilty because a witness reports, "I talked to God and God told me he was guilty."

The testimony is far too problematic to be considered a legitimate justification for denying others their life, liberty, or well-being. It is no less problematic in the public sphere than in a court a law, and should be judged no more legitimate than it is in a court of law.

Another problem with allowing this type of testimony is that it is infinitely corruptible. It can be (and will be) bought and paid for by those who have a surplus of money and a shortage of virtue.

I will talk about the corruptibility of faith or religious testimony in matters of policy in my next post.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you

Anonymous said...

I think you forgot to edit out a paragraph.

"To take just one example, homosexuals in this country face the same situation in the public policy debate over homosexuality as a defendant in a criminal trial confronted with a prosecution witness who says, "I talked to God and God told me that the accused is guilty." In the former case, the homosexual is confronted with people in the public forum who say, "We talked to God and God told us that homosexuality is an abomination."

All of the problems that we would have if we allowed prosecutors to bring in witnesses to testify, "I talked to God and God told me that the accused is guilty," we find in the public debate where people testify, "We talked to God and God told us that homosexuality is an abomination."

Director's Page said...

I read this blog quite often. While skeptics, atheist and secularist are very careful to get the science right often they do not take the same care with historical themes. One of the most frequent errors that people make in regards to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is that they can be conflated as to purpose and origin. This essay make the same error. The primary author of the Declaration was Jefferson. He was not present at the Constitutional convention. (As is also the case with John Adams, even though the Massachusetts Constitution he wrote was one of the primary influences on the federal constitution). While many historians consider Madison the primary author of the Constitution he was not present for the signing of the Declaration.
So to state that the Declaration is based on the premise God gave the human race rights and thus the Constitution also derives its authority from God is to commit the same sort of fallacy that we accuse the christian right of making. The framers of the Constitution (including Madison) knew their history. The historical example that had the most profound influence was that of the mother country. England had been though civil wars and upheavals that were seen as the result of the mix of church and state. One only need to thumb through the Federalist papers to see how much the framers wanted to avoid the same mistakes that cost so many lives and wrought such oppression in England's past.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Director's Page

I do not make the mistake that you attribute to me - because the facts that you mentioned are not relevant to the point that I did make.

It does not matter who was where and signed what. The philosophical perspective remains the same - that the Constitution gets its authority from "we the people", and "we the people" get their authority to create governments from the rights endowed by their creator.

One cannot argue against this perspective by facts about who authored or what signed what. It makes no sense to argue that the proposition that humans get the authority to create governments from God is false because Jefferson was not at the Constitutional Convention.

That would be like arguing that, if one person were to demonstrate that all dolphins like peanut butter, and a different person authored the proposition that Flipper is a dolphin, we cannot deduce the conclusion Flipper likes peanut butter because the premises were written by different authors.

Director's Page said...

If you posit that the founders and framers thought they had the right to form governments due to divine right you have missed the point of what they wrote and did. The framers of the CON. argued that the new proposed government would derive its power from the people. They called this theory of government- popular sovereignty. One can disagree about the practice of this idea, but not the fact of what they said and wrote. I am sorry that you do not understand the history of this period. I suggest you read- Madison: Notes on the Constitutional Convention and the Federalist Papers. You missed the point on my argument on the conflation of the two documents. You seem to think that all governments claim to derive their authority from God. that is not what the framers thought. I am done and will not respond again. It is a shame that so many in the skeptic movement do not know or understand history.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am sorry that you do not understand that I was not making a point about the history of the period and what the founding fathers thought.

I was making a point about a political philosophy that holds that governments get their legitimate power from the consent of the governed (an idea that appears in the Constitution), and that people get their rights from their creator (an idea that appears in the Declaration of Independence).

You are perhaps confused by what I wrote because you are accustomed to having debates with people about what the founding fathers did or did not actually mean - and you brought that assumption into your interpretation of this essay. However, that assumption does not belong here.

I am not writing about what the founding fathers believed. I am writing about a view of what (many conservative Christians today think) the founding fathers would have believed once all of the false starts, false beliefs, dead ends, inconsistencies had been removed.

This is not a descriptive account of what they thought (though there are those who will argue that this is the case). It is a prescriptive claim about what it takes to make create a legitimate government. The founding fathers may or may not have gotten this entirely right - but they did include the main points of this precriptive theory in their writings.

Don said...

Is the sectarian/secular distinction nothing more than the private/public distinction? Meaning that to call certain evidence or testimony sectarian, you are really saying nothing more than it's not publicly verifiable, and it's this unverifiabilty that make it unacceptable in courts and the public square, not because it have anything to do with gods or religion.

Director's Page said...

You stated that the Declaration and the Constitution claimed that there writers relied on divine authority. I do understand. but by the tone of your comments you are not able to convey your opinions in a such a way as to not insult the reader, you may want to change that if you wish to engage in a real exchange of ideas. Good bye and good luck. I am done

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am afraid that as far as tone goes, I admit that I deliberately sought to match the tone of the comment received, in part by using a phrase i found in that comment, "I am sorry that you do not understand...."

You are correct to note that this phrase is insulting - an attack on the person rather than a discussion of ideas. But, I reused that phrase specifically to illustrate that point. By echoing your own words back at you, I sought to make you aware of elements of tone you might have originally missed.

As for the rest of it, I went back and reread the relevant posts. I cannot find a place where I made any statememt about what the founding fathers believed.

I have stated that the key points of a philosophy that holds that governments get their legitimate authority from the people, and the people get their inalienable rights from God, can be found in the Constitution and the Declaration.

Take any person today who believes that governments get their authority from the people, and people get their inalienable rights from God. That person can agree with the phrase, "We the people," found in the Constitution, AND agree with the phrase "all men are ... endowed with certain inalienable rights, including a God-given right to "create new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as, to them, shall seem most likely to secure their future safety and happiness."

All of the pieces of the puzzle are present.

Did the founding fathers actually put the pieces together in the right way? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps they had all the pieces, but still failed to understand how they fit together.

For my purposes, this is a separate question. I am not making a statement one way or the other about what the founding fathers believed. I am making a statement about what people believe today. Today, there are people who believe that government get their legitimate authority from the people, and the people get their rights from God. They can point to the Constitution amd say, "It says right here that the government gets its legitimate authority from the people." They can point to the Declaration and say, "It says right here that the people are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights."

Note: It is not true because the Constitution and Declaration say they are true - such that if you can show that they actually say something else, then something else is true.

Rather, it is true as a matter of fact, such that if the Constitution and Declaration say these things then they got the facts right. And if they say something else they got the facts wrong.

This makes any appeal to the Constitution either an illegitimate appeal to authority, or a non-secular argument. One or the other, take your pick.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don

I would not use the phrase "nothing more then".

It is certainly the case that the reason religious arguments are not permitted in courts of law is because of their private nature. However, there are certainly secular claims that are private. These are not permitted in court either.

Note: The proposition that ONLY secular reasons are permitted in court does not imply that ALL secular reasons are permitted in court. Secularity is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition.

Furthermore, it would follow that a religious claim that can be subject to cross-examination WOULD (if one were to exist) be permissible in a court of law. So, yes, it is not the religious nature, but the "private" nature, of the evidence that makes it impermissible.

Carneades Hume said...

Our rights per Lamberth's argument from autonomy is that we have rights due to our level of consciousness in line with the UN Declaration and with Morgan's Canon. These right supersede any wants of any other beings; Were there God, He'd have no rights over us, and we'd have no duty to worship Him,etc.!
This goes to the theistic jugular: the theistic love of might makes right that we find in their ever rationalizations for defenses and theodicies! Contra, John Hick any putative God would not have the right to put epistemic distance betwixt us and Him and would fact that one-way street of having put us into a better place in the first place per Fr. Meslier's the problem of Heaven!
With Roy Jackson, let's make theists give evidence for Heaven and Hell, contra-causal free will and the duty to worship Him!
Yes, this gnu atheist means business: no to the God-superstition!
Alonzo, please Google covenant morality for humanity- the presumption of Humanity, the problem of Heaven, the ignostic-Ockham, the presumption of naturalism, lamberth's naturalistic arguments,carneades and/or skeptic griggsy to see gnu atheism on the attack!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Lambert's argument from autonomy requires postulating some sort of intrinsic value which, as a matter of fact, is as mythical as any diety. How is it that "autonomy" acquired an ability to generate rights but jelly beans did not?

I agree with the conclusions that you state. If there were a god, then that god would be one person among many and entitled to count as such. However, there are a lot of theories out there that try to base their conclusions based on an assumption that some entity (autonomy, happiness, desire fulfillment, pleasure, humanness, consciousness, liberty, self-realization) has value. All such theories fail for the same reason. All such theories attempt to assign intrinsic value to some entity and derive all other value from that fact. However, intrinsic value is a myth.

It does not serve any explanatory purpose. At best it may support some portion of our intuitions, but for this to count as evidence then the intuitions themselves would need some sort of justification. Many religious beliefs can argue that their fundamental premises support our intuitions about the nature of God. However, this is not an argument that the premises are true - given that the intuitions about God are suspect.

Drake Shelton said...

Alonzo,

"I am not treating secularism as something like a divine command handed down from the heavens or sewn into our evolutionary genes allowing for no further justification - as a "self-evident truth" that cannot be verified or falsified."

>You are making my job pretty easy now. Now you are saying that humans are social BY NATURE and NOT by contract. Say goodbye to your enetire secular history from Locke, Rosseau, Jefferson and on. You are saying that by nature secular government is innate within men (Pierre Proudhon would roll over in his grave). It is innate by nature to be social and have a secular government.

"In referring to testimony in a court of law, I drew a scene in which the accused is confronted by somebody who takes the stand and says, "I talked to God, and God told me that the accused us guilty." "

>You see the problem with that is, God stopped talking to people directly after the completeion of the NT writings. Hebrews 1: 1God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, 2Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;" The Son appointed apostes who wrote books. The method of God talk you are adocating has no prescedent in the Protestant Reformation. Again you have failed to make even a scratch on the Protestant Theocracy. The only God talk allowed post canon is by reading the Bible.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Drake Shelton

You write that I am making your job easy.

I am curious, What is your job?

I wrote at the start that I would be defending secularism from a foundation that the vast majority of theists would assent to. Limiting testimony in a trial to secular arguments is not even disputed.

Carneades Hume said...

Alonzo, the only values would be ours. I refer to the charter and to the Canon as to why we have rights-empirical basis, One can dispute this but neither God nor the state could give us rights. Yes, the state can affirm and aid them, but ti's our level of consciousness that " gives" us rights.
I support the Great Ape Project to give our fellow great apes more protections in line with the Canon. Without invoking the chain of being, Morgan establishes the levels of concern to animals, I think. By consensus,many accept rights. That value does lie behind this argument I find that we have to come to agreement for laws and other matters so this argument falls in line with all that.\ Thanks.