Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life - Part 02

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.

I have already discussed the first of the propositions in this declaration.

This post concerns the second.

We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.

Immediately, one of the possible responses to that principle is, "Well, a lot of religious people think that their opinions are also backed by evidence and reason."

This response is a smoke-and-mirrors argument; a fallacy that attempts to distract the listener from what is being said. Like a magician, they want to wave the right hand around so that the audience quits paying attention to what the left hand is doing.

Yes, it is true that there are people who hold that their religious beliefs are backed by evidence and reason (the right hand). However, that does not change the fact that there are a lot of people who read something in scripture and seek to make it a basis for public policy, foregoing even the pretense of evidence and reason.

"That is why they call it faith."

Somebody who believes that their religious principles are also grounded on evidence and reason should be joining this chorus. They should be saying, "Yes! We, too, believe that government policy should be grounded on evidence and reason. People who rely on "faith" are merely trying to give their own wishful thinking more authority than it deserves. By definition, their policies are poorly justified, poorly informed, and poorly conceived."

Instead, those who offer this type of response decided to throw up a smoke-screen by saying, "Hey! Don't pay any attention to them. It's sufficient to know that at least one person believes that his religious conclusions are grounded on faith and evidence."

Note that I have not made the (bigoted) assertion that some "new atheists" make at this point. I did not assert that every and all religious moderate that exists is guilty of creating this smoke-screen. I have identified the guilty only as those who would respond to the proposition above with the statement, "Some theists believe their religious conclusions are grounded on evidence and reason." I leave open the possibility that some theists would not behave this way.

I leave open the possibility that one can be a theist and still see the dangers of grounding policy on "faith".

Because "faith" is all-too-often the prejudices, bigotries, and self-serving rationalizations of the faithful. Lacking any ability to defend their prejudices, bigotries, and self-serving beliefs by evidence and reason, they assert that faith is good enough - or that faith is even better than reason.

How utterly convenient for them that they do not have to back up their beliefs.

Using faith to determine who lives and who dies, who goes free and who has their freedoms denied, who to comfort and who to be made to suffer, is a singularly unjust and immoral way to decide the case. Each person shall be given a presumption of life, liberty, and comfort unless and until evidence and reason dictate otherwise. These harms, when inflicted on people, are not to be justified by, "I had faith that the harms I caused were harms that God wanted me to cause."

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.

The way that I describe this principle is to state that the types of evidence that shall be admitted in determining what the law is should be limited to the same types of evidence allowed in a trail over whether a person broke the law.

We do not allow priests with visions to get onto the witness stand and say, "I had a vision, and in my vision I saw the robbery that took place on 4th and Main on Thursday, November 12th. I saw the masked man standing at the counter pointing a gun at the now-deceased clerk. And God revealed the face of the gunman to me, and it was the face of the accused."

"I Object!" the defense attorney would shout, and no decent judge or jury would consider the claims of the priest to have any merit in determining whether or not the accused actually committed the crime.

Yet, when it comes to making laws - to determining what to is to be permitted and what is to be made criminal, legislators, governors, and presidents all to often report that they have consulted the oracles and sooth-sayers of the 21st Century and that their visions and prophecies were taken account in the making of policy.

Before I end, there is something to be said about those theists who agree that public policy should be grounded on evidence and reason, and who hold that their religious beliefs happen to be grounded on evidence and reason.

A particularly obnoxious subset of these are those people who hold that scripture (or, more precisely, their interpretation of scripture) is the answer book to efforts at deducing conclusions by evidence and reason. If the use of evidence and reason appears to yield a result that contradicts scripture, then the agent needs to do a better job of using evidence and reason - because evidence and reason can never contradict scripture.

This is not an example of basing one's conclusions on evidence and reason. The fundamental assumption of this form of thinking is the premise, "Scripture is without error, and all proper use of evidence and reason would support the claims made in scripture." This certainly is not found by evidence and reason. This is just a naked assertion.

This group is not to be confused with the group that scripture is without error, who also holds that all policy must be grounded on evidence and reason. This alternative group accepts that the conclusions of evidence and reason dictate the correct interpretation of scripture. Scripture says that the earth was created in 6 days. Science says it took 4.5 billion years. So, the correct interpretation of the phrase "6 days" in scripture would translate into English as "4.5 billion years."

This group would ground their policies on evidence and reason. Meanwhile, it might be fun to watch them try to interpret the ramblings of a bunch of pre-literate tribesmen as if they were claims made by people with complete awareness of all of the moral and scientific facts that would come to be discovered 2000 years in the future.

I would suggest that the reason these claims sound more like the ramblings of pre-literate tribesmen than the declarations of 21st-century scientists is because they are the ramblings of pre-literate tribesmen.


dbonfitto said...

Great post. I'm looking forward to the rest of this series.

Canadian Atheist said...

Good writing, thanks. Please consider dropping by my blog - Canadian Atheist.

Martin Freedman said...

Again you missed out the end note provided:

"[2] Societies in the 21st century must be built on a culture of objective knowledge and rational
thinking based on evidence provided by the sciences within the legal framework of international human rights. Religions are inherently based on faith and guided by myths and hearsay interpreted by a self-established clergy. Religions should therefore be relegated to the private sphere and have no role in public affairs"

Still there is quite a bit of agreement between your response and this end note, except for the more all-encompassing criticism of religions in this end note versus your point over those moderates who do criticise faith based argument in the public arena.

I think your critique in this proposition should have addressed possible issues in this end note too?