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Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part V

November 30th, 2009 by Madeleine

In my last posts, beginning Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part I,  I set out the doctrine of religious restraint and critiqued some of the key arguments in support of it. I looked at the objection that the argument from respect is too thin, that applied consistently it excludes too much and Audi’s response to this. I examined Gerald Gaus’ attempt to salvage the argument from epistemic inaccessibility. In this post I will examine and critique Gaus’ idea of open justification in more detail.

(ii)        Are religious reasons ever subject to open justification?

Gaus might rejoin that commitments to freedom of religion can be defended in terms of open justification. Consider some of the cases that divide society that I listed earlier; at least one side in such debates is mistaken, has made an error in rejecting the purported open justification presented to them. This is entirely possible. It could also be true of Qutb; perhaps he mistakenly rejected a premise that, given other things he believes, he should have embraced.

While this rejoinder would avoid the thinness objection, the problem is that it would no longer be clear or obvious, in the absence of substantive argument, that any viewpoint could be openly justified. Neither side in the above debates is likely to concede its position as the one in error. Cuneo and Eberle note the problem;[66]

Were we to ask Qutb whether he would have reasons to support laws that protect a robust right to religious freedom if he were adequately informed and reasonable, surely he would say: no. Moreover, he would claim that his compatriots would reject the liberal protection of such a right if they were adequately informed about the divine authorship of the Quran and the proper rules of its interpretation. While Qutb’s say-so doesn’t settle the issue of who would believe what in improved conditions, liberal critics maintain that his response indicates just how complicated the issue under consideration is. Among other things, to establish that Qutb is wrong it seems that one would have to deny the truth of various theological claims on which Qutb relies when he determines that he would reject the right to religious freedom were he adequately informed and reasonable. That would require advocates of the standard view to take a stand on contested religious issues. However, liberal critics point out that defenders of the standard view have been wary of explicitly denying the truth of religious claims, especially those found within the major theistic religions.

Gaus’ case for open justification can only succeed if one makes certain assumptions as to the merits of substantive contentions about morality, philosophy of religion, the truth or falsity of various religious doctrines and questions of meta-ethics. However, such contentions are controversial.

An additional problem is that open justification commits one to the DRR only if one assumes that religious reasons can never be openly justified. Recall that Audi’s definition of a religious reason is one that possesses “normative force, that is, its status as a prima facie justificatory element, does not (evidentially) depend on the existence of God.” This suggests that proponents of the DRR must assume that belief in God cannot ever be openly justified. I would dispute this.

Philosophers and theologians have offered arguments for God’s existence entailing that the beliefs most rational people already accept commit them to theism.  Richard Swinburne has written several works arguing that Christianity is more probable than not on the public evidence than any alternative.[67] Robert Adams has argued that the best account of moral obligation is such that they are the commands of a loving God.[68] Alvin Plantinga sketched 26 arguments for God’s existence, which are currently being defended in the literature.[69] Blackwell recently published an encyclopaedia containing 11 current arguments used to defend the existence of God.[70] Edward Feser agrees,[71]

Versions of these arguments were defended by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, and Newton, and their defense had absolutely nothing to do with ignorance of modern science — indeed, some of these thinkers were among the founders of modern science — because the arguments do not ultimately stand or fall with any scientific results in the first place. … Among the contemporary defenders of the arguments are writers like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, John J. Haldane, James F. Ross, Richard Taylor, William Lane Craig, David S. Oderberg, David Braine, Barry Miller, Robert Koons, Charles Taliaferro and many others — analytic philosophers highly respected within the field and applying the most rigorous methods of analysis and argumentation. … anyone familiar with the classical and contemporary literature on philosophical theology [cannot] deny that the arguments for the theistic worldview mentioned above are every bit as defensible today as any other philosophical argument.

Just as there are numerous secular arguments, each defended by intelligent and capable scholars, held to be sound by their proponents even if rejected by their opponents, so too are there arguments for the existence of God that meet these criteria. In light of this it seems arbitrary to simply assume that religious arguments cannot meet the standard of public justification. Critics can argue the merits of these arguments and claim that only secular arguments can succeed but this will not give proponents of religious reasons a real reason for accepting such claims. Religious believers hold quite different assessments on the cogency of these arguments. Therefore, the demand of open justification does not appear to be a sufficient reason for the restriction of religious reasons but not others.

(iii)       Are secular reasons for coercive laws subject to open justification?
Gaus contends that religious reasons cannot be openly justified and that secular beliefs can. Many thinkers have argued that secular perspectives cannot justify the core commitments of a liberal democracy. Nihilist thinkers have argued that secular naturalistic views of the world entail that all moral claims are false.[72] Stephen Layman[73] and George Mavrodes[74] have argued that a secular view renders belief in morality irrational. Using a Kantian line, John Hare has argued that atheism makes the moral life rationally unstable.[75] Mark De Linville argues that atheism, when combined with evolutionary theory, provides good reason for thinking our moral beliefs are unreliable.[76] Alvin Plantinga has articulated the case for the conclusion that evolution, when combined with atheism, provides a reason for being sceptical about everything we believe (public policy would be no exception).[77] Michael Perry and Wolterstorff claim that human beings possessing inherent rights (a fundamental commitment of liberal democracy) cannot be adequately defended on secular grounds and is only defensible if one assumes religious doctrines.[78]

As with many secular arguments, religious justifications for coercive policies have been advocated by intelligent and capable scholars, held to be sound by their proponents even if they are rejected by their opponents. It would be arbitrary to simply assume that secular arguments meet the criteria of open justification and that religious ones do not.  Cuneo and Eberle note the problem;[79]

Liberal critics maintain that we are simply not in good epistemic position to judge the reasons an agent would have to support laws that protect basic liberal commitments were he better informed and more reasonable. More exactly, liberal critics maintain that we are not in a good epistemic position to determine whether a secular agent who is reasonable and better informed would endorse or reject the type of theistic commitments that philosophers such as Wolterstorff claim justify the ascription of natural human rights. The problem is that we don’t really have any idea how radically a person would change his views were he to occupy these conditions. The main, and still unresolved, question for this version of the standard view, then, is whether there is some coherent and non-arbitrary construal of the relevant counterfactual conditions that is strong enough to prohibit exclusive reliance on religious reasons but weak enough to allow for the justification of basic liberal commitments.

Given the divide between intelligent and capable people over various arguments for and against particular coercive policies it is not prima facie evident that any of these arguments can meet the standard of open justification. Moreover, if an argument could, there appears to be no reason to assume that it could not be a religious one. Now Gaus could examine all currently unsettled policy disputes in society and defend the ones he agrees with and attack the others but the inevitable result will be that many who do not share Gaus’ position will likely be unconvinced. If this is the outcome, there seems no reason why those who do not agree should accept the DRR.

Feser suggests that this arbitrary singling-out of religious reasons for restraint with little or no basis seems to be based more on ignorance and bigotry than reason,[80]

The problem, in the view of many liberals, is that religious considerations are matters of faith, where “faith” connotes in their minds a kind of groundless commitment, a will to believe that for which there is no objective evidence. Opinions on matters of public policy, they would say, can only appropriately be arrived at via methods of argument assessable by all members of the political community, not by reference to the idiosyncratic and subjective feelings of a minority.

If religious arguments were in general really like this, then I would agree with the liberal that they ought to be kept out of the public square. But in fact this liberal depiction of religion is a ludicrous caricature, and manifests just the sort of ignorance and bigotry of which liberals frequently accuse others.

Jeremy Waldron makes a similar point,[81]

Secular theorists often assume that they know what a religious argument is like: they present it as a crude prescription from God, backed up with threat of hellfire, derived from general or particular revelation, and they contrast it with the elegant complexity of a philosophical argument by Rawls (say) or Dworkin. With this image in mind, they think it obvious that religious argument should be excluded from public life, … But those who have bothered to make themselves familiar with existing religious-based arguments in modern political theory know that this is mostly a travesty;

A common theme in the arguments from respect, despite both possessing the features considered relevant, is the asymmetry between religious reasons and secular reasons. On the golden rule argument, Audi privileges secular reasons over religious reasons even though secular reasons were potentially subject to the same charges of being false and burdensome. Similarly with the argument from epistemic inaccessibility, reasonable people are able to reject both secular and religious reasons in a pluralistic society yet Audi and Rawls use this fact to exclude the latter and not the former. Likewise, with open justification, prima facie, there is no reason to accept that religious beliefs cannot be openly justified whilst secular beliefs can. Nor is there a prima facie reason for assuming that liberal commitments can be openly justified on secular grounds. In both cases intelligent and capable scholars have advanced arguments from premises which they believe others are committed to holding. Further in both cases the cogency of these arguments can be reasonably disputed.

In my next post, Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part VI, I will look at the dangers of religion as a justification for its asymmetrical treatment within the DRR and conclude my argument.


[66] Christopher J. Eberle and Terence Cuneo “Religion and Political Theory” (2008) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (at 9 August 2009).
[67] Richard Swinburne The Coherence of Theism (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1977); The Existence of God (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979); Faith and Reason (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2005); Responsibility and Atonement (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989); Revelation (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2007); The Christian God (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994); Providence and The Problem of Evil (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998).
[68]
Robert Adams Finite and Infinite Goods (Oxford University Press, New York, 1999); “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” (1979) 7:1 Journal of Religious Ethics 66; “Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief” in Robert Adams (ed) The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology (Oxford University Press, New York, 1987) 144; “Divine Commands and the Social Nature of Obligation” (1987) 4 Faith and Philosophy 262.
[69] Alvin Plantinga “Appendix: Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments” in Deane-Peter Baker (ed) Alvin Plantinga
[70] JP Moreland and William Lane Craig Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell Publishing, Malden MA, 2009).
[71]
Edward Feser “How to Mix Religion and Politics” (20056) TCSDaily (at 6 October 2009).
[72]
Prominent examples are: JL Mackie Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1977); Michael Ruse “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics” in Michael Ruse (eds) The Darwinian Paradigm (Routledge, London, 1989) 251-273.
[73]
C Stephen Layman “God and the Moral Order” (2002) 19:3 Faith and Philosophy 304; “God and the Moral Order: Replies and Objections” (2006) 32:2 Faith and Philosophy 209.
[74]
George Mavrodes “Religion and the Queerness of Morality” in Robert Audi and William Wrainwright (eds) Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1986) 213-226.
[75]
John Hare The Moral Gap (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996); “Naturalism and Morality” in JP Moreland and William Lane Craig (eds) Naturalism: A Critical Appraisal (Routledge, London, 2000) 189-211; “Kant and the Rational Instability of Atheism” in Andrew Dole and Andrew Chignell (eds) The Ethics of Belief (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005).
[76]
Mark D Linville “The Moral Argument” in JP Moreland and William Lane Craig (eds) Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell Publishing, Malden MA, 2009) 391 449.
[77]
Alvin Plantinga Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford University, New York, 1993) 216-239; “The Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism” and “Replies to Beilby and his Cohorts” in James K Beilby (ed) Naturalism Defeated? Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (Cornell University Press, New York, 2002) 1-15 & 204-277; “Naturalism vs Evolution: A Religion Science Conflict” in Paul Draper (ed) God or Blind Nature? Philosophers Debate the Evidence (at 3 September 2009).
[78]
Nicholas Wolterstorff Justice Rights and Wrongs (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2008); Michael Perry Toward a Theory of Human Rights: Religion, Law, Courts (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006).
[79]
Eberle and Cuneo, above n 65.
[80]
Feser, above n 71.
[81]
Jeremy Waldron God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations of John Locke’s Political Thought (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002) 20. Gaus appears to agree; in his book review of Eberle’s work on the subject he writes, “At the outset, however, let me stress that Eberle has written a very good book indeed. It is manifest that he has thought much harder and deeper about justificatory liberalism than justificatory liberals have thought about religious justification and belief. His analysis of religious epistemology and mysticism (ch. 8) clearly demonstrates the extent to which many liberals have attacked caricatures of religious justification. After Eberle’s book, secular liberals must be much more careful in their claims about religious beliefs and their justifications.” Gerald Gaus “Religious Convictions in Liberal Politics (2003) Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (at 13 September 2009) (book review).
(Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007) 203-229.

RELATED POSTS:
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part I

Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part II
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part III
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part IV
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part VI


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