See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Monthly Archives: July 2014

On Intellectual Coherency and Morality

One brief programming note. I got rather unexpectedly busy with some meatspace commitments at the same time I decided to write up a brief history of the American religious liberty tradition. Brief, as it turns out, is still rather long. That piece will hopefully be appearing towards the end of this week, but it could take longer in an effort to get it right.

I want to talk briefly about a perennial debate about the moral coherency of secular liberalism/libertarianism in the West. The form that I am most fond of goes roughly like this.

  1. Modern day secular liberalism (a belief characterized by a belief in individual rights and a rejection of supernatural forces) is descended from the Enlightenment.
  2. The language and ideas of the Enlightenment have religious underpinnings
  3. Secular liberalism has removed religion without replacing the ideas an equivalent non-religious basis
  4. Ergo, secular liberalism is unmoored
  5. as a corollary the New Atheists are dumb and shallow

Now, I enjoy this argument because I like making a punching bag out of the popular New Atheist writers (who must console themselves with their financial success and prestige, but I also think it has merit. Even when I was inclined to agree with them, I’ve always found the “freethinkers” a bit smug, and frustratingly incurious about, well, everything. Most especially the odd correlation between the supposedly rational ideologies of libertarianism and atheism with the markers of privilege: whiter skin, higher class, better education, more wealth and Y chromosomes. As one would expect, my prescription is to look closer at cultural forces instead of the supposed power of Reason. That’s all well and good, but it’s important to understand what the argument doesn’t say.

The argument about the intellectual incoherence of liberal secularism is actually very limited. Now, the most casual observer of history should recognize that the moral codes in the atheism of the Western intellectual is not the Atheism that springs up for the Chinese intellectual, any more than the supernaturalism of Christianity resulted in the same morality as the super-naturalism of Confucianism. We are talking about observing the world-that-is. Whatever atheisms might exist in the abstract, there are atheisms in the world now and they are shaped to the cultures that birthed and continue to host them. Whether Western atheism is descended from Christianity, bolstered by Christianity, and encumbered by its Christian baggage is, at its heart, an empirical question. It is, not coincidentally, a somewhat boring question, because it’s never been made clear that intellectual coherency matters! That’s just one of those tricky shared assumptions that can be found in well, the Christian heritage of the Enlightenment.

It seems to me that we should first be asking whether or not intellectual coherency in moral ideas is actually correlated to moral behavior. That is fundamentally an empirical question as well, and I’ve never heard evidence that the correlation is anything but weak. For that matter, intellectual coherency doesn’t seem to prevent the transmission of moral ideas. If you have any doubt, try to figure out the rhyme and reason of the various restrictions and superstitions in sports playing and watching. This isn’t to say that questioning the intellectual coherency of atheism (or for that matter, religion) isn’t important, but rather to relegate it to its proper place in the scheme of things. Intellectual coherency may be a means to improve moral outcomes, but it does so at the margins. We really should be treating intellectual coherency as a small good in and of itself – and then be upfront that. Maybe if we remember the stakes, we’ll be just slightly less likely to use such discussions as a way to harm another for our own emotional security.

I can hope so anyway.


Nonconformists, Parameters, the Constitution, and Heretics

There is some danger of reading this and seeing one’s self in positive terms, like a horoscope, but I think drawing lines between the different sorts of conformity and non-conformity is a useful one. I’d also add that “society” is a difficult thing to grasp here since within any one society, one can be a true believer of one faction (say, progressiveness) while perceiving yourself as a non-conformist or free-thinker.

Free speech, that is, resisting the urge to purge the non-conformists, or insufficiently true believers, is actually a very difficult fit. The inheritors of the Enlightenment have not done a particularly good job. This isn’t to say it isn’t valuable: quite the opposite. It is even more so, because it is so difficult to hold onto.

Some of this will be coming up this week vis-a-vis Hobby Lobby.

The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

So far we’ve discussed heresy as a general concept, looked at the definition of it from a Catholic perspective, and looked at the history of the concept.  Here I want to consider some of the sociological aspects of heresy.

Back here I had the following to say (editing a bit):

In all societies and cultures…beyond a certain level of complexity, you have various attitudes toward belief….  These are as follows:  1.  Sheep; or more politely conformists.

The vast majority of people–I’d say 70%, at least–are basically conformist.  Perhaps I should use that term–”conformist”–as it’s a bit more polite.  Conformists go along to get along.  They’re not extremely reflective and they tend accept whatever the prevailing religion, political ideology, or societal Zeitgeist happens to be.

This is most likely a survival trait, for obvious reasons.  In a hunter-gatherer tribe, there has to be a certain amount of social cohesion, which…

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A Preliminary Expectoration on Hobby Lobby

I’ve been without power for most of today, so I only have time for one quick thought on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.. I hope to have a more extensive write up, probably in a two three post series. For now, I want to start by introducing some concepts that may not be completely familiar to a general audience. Please note, despite the title, I do not think myself the equal of Soren Kierkegaard.

Hobby Lobby is not a First Amendment case. That means it is not about the Free Exercise of religion, even if it is about exercising religion, and it isn’t about the Establishment of Religion, even if there are religious actors are involved. It is actually a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA, sometimes pronounced “rif-ra”) case, so it is in large part about determining what Congress meant when it created and amended the act and less about the underlying judicial policy questions of religion and person-hood, although those are obviously a factor. Understanding the case in that way helps clarify the issues worth caring about as a lawyer and a lay citizen.

I like to think of policy questions as constantly asking about “who do we want doing what to who at what cost?” It is always worth asking, not only is the thing we are asking the right thing to want, but are the right people the ones doing those actions, and that the costs are acceptable. That’s already a lot to ask, and you have to keep asking at every step of the way. This also means that simple answers are usually the wrong ones ones. In fact, you’re usually going to come up with several answers that are in tension with each other. So we’re going to want to balance the needs and the costs. And then we’re going to have to figure out who does the balancing for us.

So before we deal with Hobby Lobby itself, let’s think about RFRA more broadly. Who? Religious believers. Doing what? Rejecting substantial burdens To who? Governments and their agents. At what cost? Governments have to have compelling interests and use the least restrictive means. Let’s iterate the questions once because this is important. Who decides what a compelling interest is? Who decides what qualifies as the least restrictive means? Who decides who counts as a religious believer? Who decides what a substantial burden is? How do we determine the balance?

Religious liberty is not easy, because it involves two big asks. We need to have our ability to pursue our religion (or irrelegion) protected from coercive powers, governmental or private. At the same time, we need to be able to pursue our lives and construct our society without having to bear the costs of someone else’s religion. The bottom line here is that I think the big question – is RFRA a good idea? – is hard and the smaller question – should Hobby Lobby have won? – is also hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably not asking enough questions.