Why Religious Ideas Matter: Even in Public Debate

As you probably have heard, I am going to be a participant again in the Oxford Round Table this summer. This time it will be held at Harris Manchester College in Oxford. I will be presenting a paper entitled, “The Decline of Religion in Public Education and The Decline of Public Education”. As a part of my presentation, I included an argument in support of the validity of “religious arguments” in the public marketplace of ideas like education, politics, law and morals. Although I am not quite through with the argument, I thought I would share it with you before I leave on vacation.

As you know, I am a strong proponent of Christians going into the public domain and presenting “the truth in love”. Hopefully, the following will help you be better equipped to do that in even the most secular of forums.

Secularists summarily dismiss religious arguments from the public square simply because they are religious, which they define as being associated with supernatural religion or anything non-secular. In addition, an opinion is determined to be religious and therefore unworthy of public policy because it is either a part of a religious worldview, is derived from one’s religion, there is an element of faith involved, it is partly based on religion, or because it is merely consonant with religion.

The context of the discussion concerning the appropriateness of religious arguments and their influence upon public policy may be considered from the vantage point of historical precedence, constitutionality, morality and rationality, or spiritual mandate for adherents. The following is intended to addresses only moral and rational considerations. Thus, the question is, “Is it moral to exclude religious opinions from a democratic public marketplace of ideas just because they involve an aspect of faith–a faith assumption?” For the following reasons, my answer is NO.

Everyone believes some unproven assumptions

Everyone holds to, and reasons from, some assumptions that have either not been proven and/or will never be proven to be true; thus, every worldview contains faith assumptions. For example, belief in macro-evolution contains the belief that the speed of light has always been constant but that can’t be proven. Norman Geisler notes that “it has not been proven that the speed of light has never changed.” Another example is radioactive dating of which he says “one must assume at least two things that apparently cannot be proven in order to come to the conclusion that the world is billions of years old. First, it must be assumed that there were no lead deposits at the beginning. Second, it must be assumed that the rate of decay has been unchanged throughout its entire history. This has not been proven.” The same could be said for the amount of salt in the sea ((Systematic Theology Vol. 2, Norman Geisler, p649)) as well as other presently unprovable ideas.

Now, perhaps light has always been constant or perhaps it has not. The truth is that neither of those beliefs is provable, and therefore each requires an element of faith. My point is to merely show that everyone operates based on some unproven or unprovable assumptions. Further, just because a belief is unproven or unprovable–at least for now–that is not the same as being an irrational belief.

For example, I may believe that a certain pill is going to heal me of cancer if I take it for five years. Regardless of whether the pill actually heals my cancer at the end of five years, the belief that it would contains an element of faith; however, that element of faith does not necessarily make the belief irrational. It may in fact be very rational, and that may be my primary reason or one of the reasons that I am willing to believe it will have a curative effect.

Now, depending on the amount of faith required, concomitant with the lack of objective evidence that the pill may be curative–is the pill made of sugar or a tested chemical that has cured others or that other rational people believe will cure–the belief may be irrational or rational. Therefore, an unproven or unprovable belief may be very reasonable–rational–since its inherent component of faith is consistent with and supported by arguments based upon reason, objective facts and human experience. Furthermore, whether the arguments that are offered in support of the belief are compelling or not can only be decided in public debate not by being summarily dismissed as “religious”.

Secularism is a worldview as religion is a worldview only without the belief in a deity

Not only do all people operate from some “faith assumptions,” but these faith assumptions are related to a worldview or perspective, whether that view is secular or sacred. Secularism can be seen to be a worldview like supernaturalism–except that secularism denies a deity, which is a part of their faith assumptions. Since both worldviews address, either explicitly or implicitly, questions like where did we come from (Big Bang or God), why are we here (no teleological reason or serve God), what is our problem (religion or sin), what is the essential solution to the problem (education or education and repentance) and where are we going (nowhere, we don’t know or to heaven or hell)? Similarly, secularism can be seen to be a worldview or religion because it contains beliefs about “the three primary areas (the nature of reality, the nature of the human person, the nature of moral and political values).” ((Why Politics Needs Religion, Brendan Sweetman p77))

An example of an overarching faith assumption that is a part of and colors much of one’s worldview for a Christian is that God exists, and for a secularist it is that God does not exist, or is not knowable, or that secularism is the best way. Regardless of the answers to such questions, they are unprovable at the present and therefore require faith from which we formulate values, imposable values, and other ideas.

Everyone argues from a worldview

Both secularists and “traditional religions” rely on arguments that contain varying degrees of faith in such things as unproven assumptions, an authority, process, or tradition (like when secularists appeal to liberal political tradition or Christians appeal to church tradition), which are a component of their worldview rather than merely uncorrelated ideas.

In addition, while these arguments may prove uncompelling to non-adherents, they are not by that excluded from public debate. As a matter of fact, it may be impossible to exclude these assumptions, even though they may go unannounced, since most substantive disagreements–morals, laws, politics, nature, education–are in fact a part of a worldview which includes certain faith assumptions.

Further, just because a belief is associated with a particular worldview (whether secularism or supernaturalism) or is unconvincing to others, does not mean it has no place in the public square. Moreover, if a belief is rational, it is worthy of the marketplace of ideas; however, being rational, and thereby worthy of the marketplace, cannot mean that everyone has to agree that the belief is rational or find arguments for the belief compelling before it can be a part of public debate. In fact, whether an argument is rational or compelling is itself a matter for public debate as opposed to being ignored through a fallacious dismissal tactic that is neither fair, accurate nor democratic.

Brendan Sweetman notes “it is crucial to recognize that it is not necessary for me to convince the secularist that religious belief is rational in order for religious beliefs to have a role in politics; all that is necessary is that I hold that they are rational…And…that I can convince a significant number of people of this fact or…that a significant number of people are already convinced of this fact.” (( ibid. p107)) This is true of secular or traditional religious beliefs.

Suitable publicly debatable ideas need only to provide some publicly accessible rational evidence.

Religious and/or secular beliefs need only to be reasonable and supported by some evidence that is accessible to non-adherents–the public at large–in order to be worthy of the marketplace. Beyond being reasonable and accessible, the evidence that makes a belief worthy of the marketplace of ideas may be empirical, logical, historical, or drawn from human experience.

An example of such a belief drawn from Christianity is the belief in God. That belief, although drawn from supernatural religion, is worthy of being brought to the marketplace since many publicly accessible rational arguments can be given in its support; in contrast, belief that God is a trinity is derived from the Bible, and is an article of the Christian faith, which is otherwise unknowable. However, even that does not make it irrational–internally contradictory or not held by reasonable people–but rather that it is knowable by faith alone.

Further, just because a belief is a part of a religious worldview–belief in God, marriage, absolute truth, homosexuality is abnormal, stealing is wrong–does not thereby exclude it from being argued and considered in public debate or education any more than beliefs of the secularist are off limits because they are a part of his worldview, which contains faith or religious beliefs, e.g. morals are relative, big bang, matter is all there is, science can tell us all there is to know or can be known, there is a scientific answer to the origin of the universe, appeals to secular liberal tradition, or that humans are not different in kind from animals, etc.

For example, whether education is to be founded upon the worldview of secularism or supernaturalism is a question for public debate, and the religious worldview is not to be excluded a priori merely because some of its beliefs, although not irrational, cannot be known apart from religious authority and a greater amount of faith than is required for the belief that God exists, man is more than matter…the same is true of secularism. Further, the reality that “supernaturalism” was the basis of American education up to the burgeoning of secular education in the 20th century affords another testimony to its rationality.

I would also add that even though beliefs that can only be known from an authoritative text of a religion may not be invoked upon non-adherents, these beliefs still have public debate appropriativeness in at least four ways.

First, if some, or all, of the citizens believe in the same faith, or a particular candidate espouses his worldview or religion, then it is quite appropriate to invoke commands or principles of that faith in discussions with one another or about an adherent whether in private or public since no one is thereby forcing religion upon another person, but merely discussing or questioning their consistency, seriousness, etc., which is a very rational thing to do. Afortiori, if an adherent running for public office is inconsistent with his espoused faith or feels no shame in publicly conflicting with its beliefs, which he claims are essential to who he is, there seems to be no rational reason why one would not assume that he may be equally inconsistent in public office; for example, he may claim to support one view on the campaign trail, but, once in office, fail to carry out the wishes of those who elected him.

Second, religion, worldviews, or “faiths” do not exist exclusively in the private world of an individual, and to require such is to require what is extraordinarily unreasonable. People know intuitively that what a person really believes, whether known publicly or not, affects what they do in private and public. For example, Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, believed that Quakers were unfit for certain public offices since they were pacifists. To deny a connection between what a person really believes in private and how he behaves in public or with public trust is indeed an article of faith and quite unreasonable.

Third, it is always appropriate for someone to argue a position drawn from or consistent with their deeply held faith and to not do so is irrational.

Fourth, some beliefs about right and wrong are not and cannot be merely personal; for example, the command to not lie, whether found in Christianity or…does not merely mean that it is good that I do not lie, but rather that lying is not right; therefore if I want the good of society, believe that there are publicly accessible truths to support this command, I must seek to influence society to do what is good and in this case to not lie. In other words, when a Christian is against abortion, which he believes is the wanton taking of an innocent human life, he does not merely mean that he does not want to do that, but rather he does not believe it is right for anyone to do, or for society to sanction anymore than he thinks it is right to wantonly kill grandmothers or steal from someone.

Consequently, it is unreasonable to ask people to be satisfied with wanting what they believe to be best, right, or good only for themselves and not for everyone. In fact, all public debate, laws, education, elections, and policy debate are about different groups or an individual seeking to impose their beliefs about what is best upon everyone, and most, if not all, of these ideas are connected to faith assumptions.

The source of an idea is not sufficient cause for a priori exclusion of the idea from public debate

Arguments can come from a source (whether religious or not), which others reject, e.g. recent study, opinion poll, scientific experiment, or the Bible, as long as there is evidence that is reasonable and accessible to all (history, archeology, logic, human experience, internal consistency) supporting the reliability of the source regardless if everyone agrees on the sufficiency of the evidence.

Further, to use an authority does not mean that everyone has to accept the claim of the authority, be it the latest poll, study, experiment, Bible, etc; for example, Brendan Sweetman says most people believe in God “because they believe (deep down) that it is rational to do so, even though they may never articulate their specific reasons for believing or ever engage the philosophical debate about the existence of God. There is a difference, after all, between having a reasonable belief and being able to show that your belief is reasonable.” ((ibid. p91))

This is also true for the secularist. It is not necessary for every secularist to be able to articulate–or even know–all of the rationally accessible evidences for secularism before expressing his secular views, as long as the beliefs can be shown to be rational by someone. This is true with supernaturalism as well.

Associated faith assumptions do not disqualify all associated beliefs

Religious beliefs cannot be dismissed from the marketplace because the adherents of the particular faith, e.g. Christianity, have some beliefs like the Trinity, which are derived from their authoritative text. This is because not all religious beliefs are derived merely from religious texts, personal subjective experience, tradition, leader, etc., but are drawn from or contain a significant amount of rationally accessible support.

There is, in fact, a crucial difference between faith in “the sense that describes believing on faith alone without regard to the evidence and the sense that describes believing on the basis of reason and evidence as much as possible…” ((ibid. p94)) Sweetman gives another source of religious belief in addition to the more commonly associated sources like text, authority, and subjective experience. He says “a sixth source of religious beliefs–beliefs based on rational argument, evidence and human experience.” ((ibid. p95))

One other note that is often missed by secularists when they rail against the dangers of seeking to impose one’s religion upon others, and that is that secularism is not benign. “Secularism is highly intrusive in the imposition of secular liberal values. It establishes public schools that systematically indoctrinate young people in secular humanism and prohibit the free expression of religion; it attempts to redefine masculinity and femininity by changing the culture of the family, the workplace, and the military; it launches it own versions of moral crusades, such as anti-smoking…in trying to restructure a private association like the Boy Scouts to diminish its moral opposition to homosexuality and to repudiate its religious roots [and so on].” ((ibid. p148))

Therefore, faith cannot truly be excluded from the marketplace of ideas.

Since the marketplace–education, law, politics, public morals–is a place of imposing one set of beliefs upon society and by that necessarily displacing another set of beliefs. For example, the acceptance of secularism in education results in things like “values clarification” which is premised upon the belief that there is no one standard of right and wrong which is suitable for public policy other than the standard of values clarification. To say that individuals can still choose to believe in some absolute moral code misses the point because by moral absolutes these individuals do not mean absolute for a person but rather absolute for every person or society; further, just like those who believe that values clarification is for everyone, so do those who hold that it is not good, thereby meaning not just for them but for everyone.

Since faith assumptions are always present in substantive deliberations and discussions, it is not reasonable or moral to summarily dismiss an argument in a democratic society because it is associated with a certain set of faith assumptions as long as the argument affords accessible evidence for its support or source.

Since it is inevitable that ideas based on or associated with one set of faith assumptions will be imposed upon all of society through public policy, it is thereby immoral, in a democratic society, to a priori exclude rationally accessibly evidenced ideas from public debate merely because of their derivation–the genetic fallacy.

Thus, religious arguments should not only be a part of public debate, they are in fact inevitable, and thereby leave only one question to be answered, which religious arguments? Afortiori, religious arguments are essential if democracy is to prevail.

Ronnie W. Rogers