Friday, October 9, 2015

A Correspondence between an Atheist and a Lutheran Pastor on Atheism, Science and Religiously-Motivated Civil Disobedience

On September 16, 2015, Issues Etc. (a conservative Lutheran radio show and podcast) broadcast an interview conducted between two Lutheran pastors, Todd Wilken and Charles St-Onge, about a recent New Yorker article by the physicist Lawrence Krauss titled “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists”. I wrote a letter critiquing their critique and sent it to Issues Etc. and Pastor St-Onge. St-Onge was kind enough to answer me, although, undoubtedly because of his other duties, his letters were brief, while I was, as usual, quite long-winded. Below is our email exchange. It refers to a transcript of the original podcast, which I made before composing my critique. I will gladly supply this on request. Comments are welcome.
Dear Pastors Wilken and St-Onge,

As Issues Etc.’s self-appointed science-loving atheist gadfly (and yes, I’m probably a somewhat militant atheist), I had to respond to your 9/16 interview titled “A Recent Article in the Atlantic ‘All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists’”.

My view is that you both completely misunderstood the article. You attacked Lawrence Krauss, its author, for things he didn’t say, and ignored the interesting points he did make. Perhaps St-Onge was responding to other writings of Krauss’s, or perhaps he was simply using the article’s title as an occasion to repeat his favorite attacks on so-called ‘scientism’. That’s unfortunate because, while not especially deep, Krauss’s article did have some interesting things to say, and they resembled St-Onge’s characterization of them not at all.

Consistent with this off-target response, but still remarkable, is the fact that you repeatedly described Lawrence Krauss’s “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists” as a column appearing in The Atlantic – and even so titled it on your web site – but in fact it was published in The New Yorker!

To be fair, part of the confusion about Krauss’s actual message is due to the article’s title, which I feel certain was not written by him, and which, while catchy, seriously mischaracterized the article’s content. (A more accurate title might have read “Atheist Scientists Should Boldly Challenge Sacred Cows”.) But compounding this initial trap was the fact that it is very difficult to arrive at a fair and accurate understanding of people with whom we deeply disagree. It is very easy, in such cases, to react to caricatures we store mentally of our adversaries’ positions, instead of making the extra effort required to comprehend what is actually being said.

To avoid, as far as possible, my making the same error with respect to you, I took the trouble of transcribing the podcast of your conversation. You will find a copy attached.

As I wrote down your words, I was impressed with the intelligence you both displayed. You speak in complete sentences. You make good arguments. But nevertheless, although you both purport to be responding to this particular article, I believe you completely missed its point. No doubt you were responding to other arguments made in other contexts, perhaps even by the same author. But I am going to be talking about this particular New Yorker article – trying to explain what I believe it is saying – as well as discussing some of your arguments.

Here’s a particularly egregious mischaracterization of Krauss made by St-Onge:

We know that there’s a law of gravity. I know that if I take a coffee mug and I drop it there’s laws that govern the falling of that coffee mug under normal circumstances. But it doesn’t tell me whether the coffee mug ought to fall that way. [Chuckle.] Should gravity exist? Science doesn’t say. It doesn’t know. It just knows that it exists. So for example in the article, where the author is trying to argue that science says we should be allowed to have abortions on demand [emphasis added], all science can really do is say, here’s what’s happening in a woman’s womb. But it can’t tell us whether that ought to be happening, whether it ought to be protected, whether it shouldn’t be protected, whether it’s life, whether it’s not life. Science can’t even accurately define what life is. So it really can’t go off into the realm of oughts unless, like our author, you try to create a realm of presuppositions and smuggle it in into science, and say, ah hah! My presuppositions are part of science, and that’s really disingenuous.

First of all, Krauss didn’t argue that “we should be allowed to have abortions on demand,” let alone that science says anything of the kind. In fact, Krauss expressed NO opinion on the morality of abortion. But he did have something to say about fetal tissue research. Here is what he actually wrote:

Consider the example of Planned Parenthood. Lawmakers are calling for a government shutdown unless federal funds for Planned Parenthood are stripped from spending bills for the fiscal year starting October 1st. Why? Because Planned Parenthood provides fetal tissue samples from abortions to scientific researchers hoping to cure diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer. (Storing and safeguarding that tissue requires resources, and Planned Parenthood charges researchers for the costs.) It’s clear that many of the people protesting Planned Parenthood are opposed to abortion on religious grounds and are, to varying degrees, anti-science. Should this cause scientists to clam up at the risk of further offending or alienating them? Or should we speak out loudly to point out that, independent of one’s beliefs about what is sacred, this tissue would otherwise be thrown away, even though it could help improve and save lives?

To repeat, here is his argument: despite religious opposition, scientists should speak out in defense of fetal tissue research because, “independent of one’s beliefs about what is sacred, this tissue would otherwise be thrown away, even though it could help improve and save lives.”

This is a perfectly normal moral argument, made on moral, not scientific grounds. (It is good to help improve and save lives. If not put to this beneficial use, the tissue would be thrown away. Therefore Planned Parenthood’s practice of fetal tissue donation should be defended.)

This is true of all the moral arguments Krauss makes in the article. None of them purport to be based on science. Nowhere does he claim that scientific findings or theories or presuppositions dictate a moral value or decision.

But Krauss is taking a moral stand, and that stand expresses what he takes to be a scientific ethic. But St-Onge completely misunderstands the nature of this claim. His elaborate (and fictional) description of scientism is completely off the mark. Krauss is not illegitimately fashioning science, as a body of fact-based knowledge, into a moral authority, sneakily deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Instead he is expressing what he believes to be the ethic of a group of people joined in a common endeavor, namely science.

 As a parallel example, think of a military group like the Marines. “Semper Fidelis” – always faithful. “Never leave a Marine behind.” These maxims express the group’s ethic.

Likewise Krauss writes: “In science ... no ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking.” He characterizes this as “a commitment to open questioning.” That commitment is central to “the ethics that guide science.” He adds: “Scientists have an obligation not to lie about the natural world.” But this poses a dilemma for those who do not wish to offend adherents of religions whose doctrines are contradicted by science. (By this I assume he is referring to conflicts like evolution vs. creationism, where there are disagreements over facts and the most reasonable interpretation of those facts.) This thorny dilemma is the real subject matter of the article, and Krauss is advocating one solution: to dare to offend, for the sake of values he articulates, which he believes turn out to be central not only to the scientific endeavor but to a democratic society.
You pastors, with your belief that all moral values come from God, are understandably focused on where Krauss purports to get the authority for his values. You assume, mistakenly, that because he is expressing an ethic for scientists, that its basis is supposed to be science. Krauss doesn’t address this question explicitly, but I believe an alternative which is consistent with his view is that these are historically contingent values. Just as the Marines are a group with a history which developed its own ethic through that history, an ethic that virtually defines its identity, Krauss concludes his article this way:

We owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass to governments—totalitarian, theocratic, or democratic—that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered “sacred.” Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may offend.

That is, the ethics of science and democracy, which he argues are closely related, have evolved historically, and are bequeathed to us as valued traditions. They make moral sense because science and democracy, which we value, could not exist and thrive without them.

“If that is what causes someone to be called a militant atheist,” Krauss concludes – that is, standing up for the right to openly question any idea, no matter how sacrosanct – “then no scientist should be ashamed of the label.”

Ironically, I believe that, in your own way, you two share the value Krauss is championing here. You certainly believe in the freedom to openly question. As Christians you are constantly challenging non-Christian beliefs, especially those that have achieved, in your view, undeserved authority.
Krauss posed some interesting questions which should challenge you but which you ignored. For instance, regarding the Kim Davis case:

Imagine an Islamic-fundamentalist county clerk who would not let unmarried men and women enter the courthouse together, or grant marriage licenses to unveiled women. For Rand Paul [who defended Davis], what separates these cases from Kim Davis’s? The biggest difference, I suspect, is that Senator Paul agrees with Kim Davis’s religious views but disagrees with those of the hypothetical Islamic fundamentalist.

I wonder how a Lutheran pastor who has been very exercised over Kim Davis’s religious freedom would respond. Would you defend the Muslim’s right to deny marriage licenses on religious grounds? Krauss opposes such religious exemptions – really a privilege claimed by the religious – not on some scientistic basis, but in the names of equality and liberty.

Here’s another interesting point Krauss made. St-Onge claimed, with support from a quote by physicist Paul Davies, that the orderliness of the universe implies a divinity. Pr. Wilken concurred, saying that orderliness “is a signpost screaming the presence of a person who put it into and keeps it in order.” St-Onge had said that the orderliness of the universe is a presupposition of science.

I think this is wrong. You can’t just refer to “the orderliness of the universe” as if that were a given. In many ways we live in a chaotic, unpredictable world. People are not predictable. Rulers and warlords are not predictable. Weather is not predictable. Nor are health and disease, wealth and destitution. The gods and God are not predictable. One day you may be their favorite, the next they may turn against you. There is only one particular way that the world is so orderly that its laws of behavior are never broken. That order, the mathematical, physical order, was not a given, not a presupposition. It was a remarkable, amazing, non-obvious discovery.

Precise rigid mathematical physical order is about as far as you can get from the kinds of patterns one expects to be produced by persons. God created the world but then changed his mind and sent the flood. He was going to destroy Sodom but, when challenged by Abraham, said he would relent for the sake of 10. When St-Onge drops his coffee mug it falls, invariably, due to the law of gravity. But when he drops his baby does the supposedly divine source of that law take note? Or is it a supremely impersonal law, as far from love and mercy as can be imagined, which dictates with precision a body’s descent while utterly blind to its value? I agree with St-Onge that the orderliness of the world is truly remarkable. Also remarkable, and not to be ignored, is the kind of order it is. “Why shouldn’t the sun not come up tomorrow?” he asks. And I ask, why shouldn’t the inviolable laws of the universe pay attention to their moral consequences? We don’t know why the laws of physics are what they are, but we do know that they are not a morally sensitive order. Attributing them to a feeling God seems unmotivated to say the least. It fails to explain their rigid and strikingly impersonal nature.

In a similar vein, Krauss claims,

... science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.”

That is, persons, divine and otherwise, are fickle and unpredictable. In a pre-scientific world, one wouldn’t have expected precisely reproducible results. It would depend on the gods, or the will of God. It might even have been sacrilegious to presuppose such complete human control over the world as a reproducible experiment implies.

Krauss continues,

It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.

That is, science is “an atheistic enterprise” in the special sense that His existence or non-existence is irrelevant to scientific practice and theory. Christians may feel that the mathematical orderliness that science has discovered requires the cause of a personal agent in order to be satisfactorily explained. St-Onge objects to calling such religious explanations unscientific. But as a matter of fact they are. If saying “God did it” added any real information, if it made a prediction that another theory didn’t, it would be a legitimate scientific hypothesis, and “God” would be mentioned in scientific meetings (at least until the hypothesis could be rejected). But that’s not the case. Attributing orderliness to a divine source doesn’t add to our knowledge of nature. Of course it might be emotionally satisfying, but that’s a different matter.

A few more points:

·         St-Onge suggests that atheists are arguing unfairly against religion in general by throwing them all into the same bag with ISIS, but Christianity, at least these days, is not killing people for their religious beliefs like Muslim extremists are, so it is unfair to paint them all with the same brush. True enough. But by the same token, Pr. Wilken’s point that “the results of atheistic ethical systems have been historically some of the most tragic events, bloody events, in all of human history,” while true, is attempting to group today’s human rights-affirming atheists, including the largely secular peaceful western European democracies of today, with the monstrous totalitarian governments of the mid-twentieth century. That also is unfair. (It also ignores the bloody religious wars and persecutions which tallied up fewer victims than 20th century horrors only because populations were smaller and arms less lethal. And it neglects Christian complicity in slavery, fascism and Nazism.)

·         St-Onge doesn’t understand why a militant atheist wouldn’t condemn homosexuality on evolutionary grounds as a reproductive dead-end. There are at least a couple flaws in this argument. First, it assumes that a militant atheist must make the logical mistake of deriving an ought (what sexual practices should be allowed) from an is (what is evolutionarily advantageous to the species.) I agree with St-Onge that this is a logical error, and I too have never seen a successful derivation of values from facts, although facts (like what makes people happy in the long run) can certainly be relevant to values and moral decisions. Second, since homosexuality seems to be a constant in the world’s societies, it is at least possible that homosexual genes, to the extent they exist, are preserved by conferring a survival advantage sufficient to counteract the homosexual individual’s reproductive disadvantage. This could happen in two ways: 1) by conferring an advantage on relatives of homosexuals who share their genes, or 2) by conferring an advantage on the groups of which homosexuals are members (group selection).

It’s also a bit ironic that opponents of same-sex marriage tend to make an argument similar to the one you attribute to militant atheists: that because homosexuals can’t reproduce (an is), they should be prohibited from living as they choose (ought). Disapproval of “the unnatural” assumes what is (as a general rule) is what should be in every case.

·         I think there’s a misunderstanding regarding what Krauss means by “sacred ideas”. Pr. Wilken asks whether Krauss means to imply that these ideas are baseless. I think Krauss means by “sacred ideas” ideas that cannot be questioned. This is why he says, “In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking.” And this is why he says, “Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion.” Krauss, as I read him, is not claiming that because, according to the “scientific worldview”, nothing is in fact sacred, that religion is undermined. No. It’s because the scientific method fosters the audacity to question everything (in this sense, no idea is sacred) that religion’s claims are exposed to skeptical examination and test, and inevitably for many that results in a weakening or abandonment of tenets previously accepted on faith.

On the web page the great physicist Richard Feynman’s thoughts on science, religion, faith and doubt are explored: “Building on his assertion that the universal responsibility of the scientist is to remain immersed in “ignorance and doubt and uncertainty,” he points out that the centrality of uncertainty in science is incompatible with the unconditional faith required by religion.”

In St-Onge’s book 5 Things You Can Do to Appreciate Science and Love the Bible, it says “Let science be tentative and scripture be truth,” “The Christian worldview accepts Scriptures as the Word of God,” and counsels, “be certain of your own worldview.” This seems to put scripture beyond question. Once you have accepted it as the Word of God you never turn back to put it into question, or compare alternative hypotheses for why it says what it says, other than it is the absolutely true word of God. So it is sacred in the sense Krauss had in mind. If any hypothesis in science were treated in this way, that would be, as Krauss says, anathema to science. This is not a matter of the truth of the Bible’s truth claims. It is a matter of the certainty, the beyond-question status, which is given to it which makes it “sacred”. The deepest disagreement, it seems to me, between science and religion is one over the ethics of belief. Christianity’s epistemological ethic is corrupt. It regards certainty in what has no legitimate claim to certainty as a virtue. In contrast, the ethic of science regards certainty as a vice and doubt a virtue.

There’s much I haven’t probed in Krauss’s article. The relationship he claims between civic and scientific issues is not entirely clear to me. The meaning of ‘sacred’ does shift in different contexts. But I hope I’ve clarified his main points.

I hope you’ve found this interesting. I did.

Best regards,

Gerald Lame
San Diego, CA

Dear Mr. Lame,

Yes, we believe that morality ultimately comes from a divine source.  However, one doesn't need to know this to be moral.  Atheists can be moral people.  This is a fundamental Christian belief.

However atheism has no strong theory to explain the seeming existence of an absolute morality.  There are weak ones, to be sure - I studied evolutionary explanations for a recent graduate degree.  But their explanatory power is much weaker than the Christian theory.  Ergo, as a scientist, I accept the Christian theory for the origin and functioning of what we call "conscience" rather than the atheist explanation whose explanatory power is weaker.

Mr. Krauss' article was entitled "why scientists should be militant atheists."  One example of a theory where atheism makes the weaker scientific case is sufficient to defeat this premise.  At best, then, Mr. Krauss is left with a more sensible premise for debate: "why scientists can, or could, be militant atheists."  We can argue the merits of the "can"; but the "should" does not stand.

Charles St-Onge
Dear Pastor St-Onge,

Thank you for replying to my letter. What you say confirms my suspicion that you were responding to the article's title rather than to its content. You describe the title as Krauss's "premise" but , as Pastor Wilken noted in the podcast, we don't know if the author chose his own title for the column, and that the title was "a bit tongue-in-cheek."

As a matter of fact, "all scientists should be atheists" was not a premise Krauss defended in the article. He could be seen to claim that, insofar as they are doing science, all scientists ARE atheists, in the special sense that science does not refer to God -- neither to his existence nor non-existence. But his main point was more this one: "any scientists who are atheists should be militant ones," that is, they should speak out for what they see as the truth, regardless of possible offense to religious sensibilities.

But very well, that was your starting point, and you simply assumed that Krauss defended it by embracing your straw man, scientism, which you proceeded to argue against.

By the way, no one I know of treats history and testimony in the manner you depict scientism as embracing. In one of his writings (I can't recall which) the physicist Richard Feynman discusses history as a kind of empirical science. Real historians base their theories on evidence. They look at documents, artifacts, and compare testimonies. And in effect they make predictions about evidence yet to be discovered. So, when there is sufficient evidence, historians' accounts can be refuted. No single story or book of stories (even if the book tells tales of multiple witnesses to an event) confers absolute certainty, but this is not because testimony in general is rejected as a source of evidence, as you suggest. Testimony must be weighed, its source considered, possible alternative explanations for why it says what it says, counter-evidence, etc.

Personally, I think the best explanation for the Jesus stories in the New Testament is a process, which took place over decades, of urban myth-making. Look into urban myths. They often contain a framing device -- like "My cousin knew this person, who saw this with his own eyes..." -- which heightens plausibility. As it gets retold, the plausibility-producing features are strengthened and carried along with the story. If they didn't work, it wouldn't have been passed on, so the stories are shaped, with retelling, like a key to a lock, to fit the tellers' & listeners' willingness and desire to believe, and to fulfill their sense of wonder. The Jesus stories were told and retold in oral tradition for decades before being written down. Believers made them believable and wonder-provoking, without any fact-checking. And the stories, for good measure, included attacks on skepticism about the stories themselves, and not only praise for belief in them without evidence, but a promise of magical rewards for belief and retelling, and dire consequences for unbelief (devices often used in chain letters) -- all of which reinforced the virulence of the myth.

But to return to your letter, it seems to me that you are simply making another God-of-the-gaps argument. You find evolutionary explanations unable to adequately explain "the seeming existence of an absolute morality", so God did it. You speak of "Christian theory" as having "explanatory power", but "God did it" is not an explanation. Or to put it another way, an "explanation" that can explain anything and everything (it has infinite power), explains nothing. If, however it turns out, your explanation "predicts" it, that is not a theory that can be compared to a scientific theory. Scientific theories, in order to be explanatory, must be "constrained". God, the way Christians use Him to explain things, is not constrained.

He could be, but then He would fail. That is the way I think of Him. The problem of evil, in my judgement, has no convincing solution. Given that the all powerful single creator of the world and human beings also created pain, suffering, ignorance, stupidity, disease and death (I accept none of your feeble excuses), and at least witnesses these being inflicted willy-nilly on the innocent and the guilty, I find this so-called person a completely inadequate source of any kind of morality, because He abides by none Himself.  But that is because I constrain the God theory to be logically consistent. If you answer that feeble human reason doesn't apply to God, then I say you don't have a theory of a kind that can be compared to a scientific one.

Thanks again for responding.

Gerald Lame
Dear Gerald,

Krauss is entitled to publish his opinion and defend it, that (as you put it) scientists should "speak out for what they see as the truth, regardless of possible offense to religious sensibilities."  But then, so is everyone.  One of the ways theories are tested is to see if holes can be poked in them.  Are there weaknesses in the argument?  Are leaps of logic made that aren't adequately defended?

Several times in the article Kraus used examples of "religion" leading people to make decisions to which he is opposed.  Kim Davis, Hobby Lobby, Planned Parenthood are all included.  Krauss believes that certain moral decisions in these cases were "religiously motivated."  In his words, "religious sensibilities [are elevated] to an inappropriate level that makes society less free, not more."  What is the alternative?  To approach moral questions as a scientist does, "hold[ing that] no idea is sacred."  That was the point Todd and I were exploring in our broadcast.

One question.  If no idea is sacred, why is following the law something Kim Davis and Hobby Lobby ought to do?


PS: The idea of the Jesus-story being a developed legend or urban myth worked for a while in historical research.  I even accepted it in part until I examined the most recent research and actual evidence.  It's amazing how evidence changes people's beliefs :-)  Keep reading, my friend!

Charles St-Onge
Dear Charles,

Thanks again for your reply. My experience in the past has been that my letters disappear into a black hole of silence. It is heartening to receive a response for a change.

I actually thought that Krauss's attempt to draw a simple parallel between the roles of "sacred ideas" in science and civic life was unconvincing. Or at least, the argument was never quite clear to me. Part of the problem was with the meaning of "sacred".

The primary meaning in the article of "sacred" in the scientific context seemed to be "above question". In science no idea should be above question, was the thesis. Every hypothesis, insofar as human ingenuity and imagination allows, should be subject to searching examination and test. But that doesn't quite work for Kim Davis's problem. It wasn't a matter of whether her beliefs were above question. In fact, they weren't in question at all, since they were a matter for her personal conscience. The issue was whether her beliefs put her above the law, or whether the law applied to her regardless of her beliefs.

I have deep respect for the role of conscience in lives of individuals and of the country. After all, stands of conscience in the form of civil disobedience have transformed the country for the better. So when Krauss wrote "no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal,” I thought, that can’t be right. Of course civil disobedience is illegal by definition, and those who participate in it accept punishment, even seek it to make a point, so “legal justification” is not at issue in civil disobedience. The point is that, though illegal, civil disobedience is morally justified. But there are legal accommodations made for the exercise of religion. For instance, there was that case of Native Americans and peyote...

That’s what I thought, that the Supreme Court had ruled that, although peyote use was illegal, an exception should be made for its religious use. I looked it up in Wikipedia and found that I had remembered it wrong. The Court ruled the other way, and Scalia wrote the majority opinion:

"It is a permissible reading of the [free exercise clause] say that if prohibiting the exercise of religion is not the object of the [law] but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended....To make an individual's obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law's coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State's interest is 'compelling' - permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, 'to become a law unto himself,' contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.' To adopt a true 'compelling interest' requirement for laws that affect religious practice would lead towards anarchy.

... The “compelling government interest” requirement seems benign, because it is familiar from other fields. But using it as the standard that must be met before the government may accord different treatment on the basis of race ... or before the government may regulate the content of speech ... is not remotely comparable to using it for the purpose asserted here. What it produces in those other fields – equality of treatment, and an unrestricted flow of contending speech – are constitutional norms; what it would produce here – a private right to ignore generally applicable laws – is a constitutional anomaly.

… The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind – ranging from compulsory military service to the payment of taxes to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.”

These are serious considerations, although one might argue, as for instance Justice Blackmun did, that the Court got the balance wrong in this case.

Krauss is basically concurring with Scalia when he says “no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal,” although the use of “sacred” really doesn’t quite work here. It’s not a matter of whether Davis’s idea of marriage is truly sacred in the eyes of God or not. It’s a matter of whether her beliefs about what is sacred and what is profane should exempt her from obeying (or in this case, carrying out) the law of the land. So Krauss might better have written, “No belief about what is sacred should legally justify actions that would otherwise be illegal.”

On the other hand, Krauss might also have been pointing to the possible motivation of some who hold that such ideas should sometimes trump the law, namely when they believe those ideas really are sacred, and represent God’s law, which is higher than man’s. That’s what Kim Davis believes. But that way really does lead to the anarchy Scalia was warning against, in which every person, by virtue of his beliefs, becomes a law unto himself. So here’s another version: “No idea should be held to be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal.” Note that this is not saying “No idea should be held to be so sacred that it justifies illegal actions” – some ideas may well justify breaking some laws in some circumstances – but “No idea should be held to be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal.” That is, man’s law should not be held to be obligated to submit/bow down to (what anyone believes to be) God’s law. Men (and women) may consider themselves to be so obligated, but the law is not, and in a democracy (as opposed to a theocracy) should not be.

My memory was not completely faulty though, because the Supreme Court’s ruling in the peyote case led Congress to pass RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, intended in effect to overturn the Court’s ruling. Rejecting Scalia’s warnings, it asserted the “compelling government interest” requirement in religious freedom cases, as well as mandating that the least restrictive means be used to achieve that interest. And when the Court ruled RFRA unconstitutional when applied to the states (but not to federal law), individual states passed their own RFRA statutes. And that leaves us in the “murky” situation that Krauss complained about.

Krauss wrote, “Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals. Laws should not be enacted whose sole purpose is to denigrate them, but, by the same token, the law shouldn’t elevate them, either.” That is, Krauss believes that religious liberty is sufficiently respected by religiously neutral laws. In contrast (quoting Wikipedia), “In the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Congress states in its findings that a religiously neutral law can burden a religion just as much as one that was intended to interfere with religion; therefore the Act states that the ‘Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.’”

So these are the kinds of quandaries we are in. They really have very little to do with atheism or science or the ultimate basis of morality. They are questions of political theory. How is a secular democracy to accommodate diverse religious convictions? I may be mistaken, but I don’t think you will find the answer in the Bible. These are questions of how we think it best to govern ourselves.

You say, “One of the ways theories are tested is to see if holes can be poked in them.  Are there weaknesses in the argument?” Krauss posed a question that reveals, I think, a weakness in the position taken by those who defend Kim Davis’s right to refuse to issue marriage licenses which her religion tells her are invalid. (This is, in fact, a misunderstanding on Davis’s part. The marriage licenses recognize a legal status according to law, not a spiritual status according to her or anyone else’s religion.) Krauss asked if one would defend a Muslim’s right to make an analogous decision if she held Davis’s office, denying marriage licenses to the unveiled. Krauss suggested that those who would support Davis but not the Muslim would do so because they favored one religion over the other. That would violate equality under the law. I think it’s a good argument because it shows, one imagines, that the position is not consistently held. So this hysteria supporting Davis is not really about religious liberty as a principle, but about asserting a particular brand of Christianity over the law of the land. If that were to be countenanced, it would violate the establishment clause.

You ask “One question.  If no idea is sacred, why is following the law something Kim Davis and Hobby Lobby ought to do?”

Why individuals should follow the law is a difficult question. Perhaps they shouldn’t in all cases. Perhaps if it really violates Kim Davis’s conscience, she shouldn’t. But I think the real issue here is what should be done with citizens who refuse to obey the law? Should they be punished equally, regardless of their reasons, or should the religious be exempted from obeying laws they say conflict with their religion? I think Scalia made a good argument that a blanket exemption of that kind would lead to anarchy. And nobody wants anarchy. So nobody should want such a blanket religious exemption from obeying the law. Some balance between the rule of law and respect for individual conscience is what’s needed. That is what we should be looking for. And people who, instead of the secular constitutional democracy we have, want to establish a theocracy instead, and to raise a huge cross over the capitol dome, are being disingenuous to advance their cause under the banner of religious liberty, since it is only fundamentalist Christian liberty they truly value.

Dear Gerald,

I wish I had time to write more, but the press of duties makes it hard.  But I usually try and get out at least one response to any letter we received.

You raise some good points again below.  I wish I had time to discuss them further.  But let's end on two points of agreement.  I happen to agree that ideas should be open to debate and discussion.  I also don't think the origin of the idea is as important as whether it is true or has strong explanatory power.  Through careful study I've become convinced, based on historical evidence and analysis, that what Jesus claimed about himself and the world as recorded in the Gospels is accurate.  It corresponds with my conscience, and with what I observe in the world.

Second, in my case because of point 1, I believe that laws are meant to be obeyed - or disobeyed and the consequences accepted and suffered.  Christianity grew up under a political system that had a very different approach to sexuality from ours; where infanticide was openly practiced; where slavery was condoned and capital punishment was brutal.  Christians backed away from jobs they couldn't do with a clear conscience; they kept the law as best they could, and accepted the consequences when they couldn't - and their crime was pretty much always related to the freedom of personal worship.

I commend for your further reading "The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus", a 2nd century Christian letter.  The American (and in many cases Canadian) church has strayed far, far from these humble origins.  But the hope of every good pastor is that somehow we might recapture these days again:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Charles St-Onge
Dear Charles,

Thank you for your clear and gracious answer. I had never heard of the epistle you mention. I enjoyed the passage you quoted, and will read the rest. It is from a time before Christians became the majority and gained power. I think too often these days their self-image is of the oppressed, but what they suffer most painfully is the waning of their majoritarian power to oppress.

I just downloaded your thesis on the human conscience. Perhaps some day, when I've read it and you have more time, we could discuss it.

I've never felt I had a good handle on the basis of morality, but the closest I've gotten -- the best thing I've read on the subject-- is Adam Smith's little-read first book (before The Wealth of Nations), The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I highly recommend it. I believe Smith's approach is ultimately compatible both with theism and evolution. He says somewhere something to the effect that God endowed us with the moral sentiments that we might thrive, just as he endowed us with the urge to reproduce and made it pleasurable!

I have a favor to ask. In the past I've posted letters I've written on serious subjects to my much-neglected (by me) and infrequently visited blog, Most recently they have been letters to Issues Etc. I would like to post my letters to you on the website, and with your permission, I would like to include your replies. But of course, this is up to you.

Gerald Lame
Dear Gerald,

Sounds like Smith was channeling Aquinas.  Thanks for the title - I'll add it to my reading list.

Yes, you may post my responses.  Let me know if I've written anything that you think might need clarification - I don't think I did, but you never know.  Blessings on your week.  Keep reading!

Charles St-Onge

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