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Monday, June 27, 2016

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Article VII of the U.S. Constitution:

"Attest William Jackson Secretary done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independance of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names,..."

I know this is not exactly what you meant, but does it count as a reference?

Thanks, Kurt. That is relevant. The word 'Lord' does indeed appear in the Constitution. But is this a reference to Jesus Christ, and thus indirectly to God? I would say it is a reference to a certain man, Jesus of Nazareth, who some believe to be divine and some do not, a man whose birth starts off our calendar. That's all.

So there is no reference to God in the Constitution, nor is any theological doctrine a part of the Constitution.

Even if there were a reference to God in the Constitution, unless it specified that some particular principle were required as a matter of religious doctrine, the document would still not be a religious one.

To invoke God's blessing on our attempt to design and maintain a political system, or to seek God's protection as we try to find our way in the darkness and impose order upon chaos, does not make the political religious.

Hi Bill,
Thanks for this very interesting response. Let me see if I can clarify what it is that we are (maybe) disagreeing about.

For me, a position is 'religious' if people who hold the position are rationally committed to religious beliefs (in virtue of holding that position). So it doesn't matter that the US Constitution says nothing explicit on any clearly religious topics. And I consider atheism a religious position.

A hypothesis: God has a deal with the Jewish people requiring them to uphold hundreds of strict rules as a community, and if they renege on the deal, He is going to inflict terrible multi-generational vengeance on all of us. If you thought that hypothesis was fairly probable, it would be irrational for you to think that individual Jews should get to decide for themselves whether to follow all the rules. You'd have grounds for thinking that individual Jews who break away from the community's norms are putting all of us in grave danger, and presumably also doing something very immoral. A rational person who thinks religion should or may be treated as a private matter should think this hypothesis is very improbable. (And, not coincidentally, it seems that almost every tolerant secularist you can find does in fact think this.)

If you thought it was highly probable that God had commanded everyone on earth to live by the Sharia, how could you reasonably regard Nozick's libertarian doctrines as true or reasonable? How can Nozick reasonably regard them as true without regarding Islam (or some versions of it) as highly improbable?

I agree with you that there is a conceptual difference between politics and religion. But this is tricky. In _our_ way of thinking these are terms with different intensions. Using our concepts, my claim is that the extension of 'politics' or 'political beliefs' always overlaps with the extension of 'religion' or 'religious beliefs'. If Islam is true we misconceive these concepts or intensions (or we correctly conceive of an intension with no actual extension). If Islam is true the _correct_ conception of the political--what politics really is, the norms governing the political realm--is partly a religious conception. Who has the correct concept? That depends in part on whether Islam is true. But I admit I'm a bit unsure how exactly to frame my ideas about this in terms of conceptual content, etc. You've raised some tricky points that I need to think over some more...

An analogy: There's a distinction between philosophy and logic. Sometimes people are just doing logic, and sometimes they're doing philosophy rather than just doing logic. But there's no such thing as philosophizing in the absence of any logical beliefs or habits or dispositions, and there's overlap in conceptual content of 'philosophy' and 'logic'. Does that help, at least to clarify things?

One more thought. You say:

"Jacques seems to be saying that there are no non-theological reasons for caring about the toleration of religious diversity. Well, try this reason on for size: We tolerate religious diversity because we do not know which religion is true; nor do we know if any extant or possible religion is true. Given deep and intractable disagreement within religions, across religions, and between religion and anti-religion, toleration makes possible comity (social harmony) and prevents foolish, costly, and sometimes bloody conflicts. There is no need for a theology to underpin this commitment to toleration. Atheists and naturalists have no theology, but that does not prevent them from espousing toleration."

The argument is convincing enough for me. But why do I accept the premise "We do not know which religion is true"? I accept it because I have certain religious beliefs. For example, I don't believe that the King James Bible is the kind of testimony about the past that could provide me with knowledge about the past--knowledge that Jesus walked on water and rose from the dead, that Jesus was the Son of God. I believe that just trusting in the pronouncements of the Catholic Church, in the absence of any attempt to rationally assess those pronouncements, is not a way of acquiring knowledge. And I believe that because I don't believe (or disbelieve) that Catholicism is true. Some people do believe these things, or they have other religious beliefs that would rationally commit them to denying this premise. Yes, atheists and naturalists have no theology, but I think they believe the premise "We do not know which religion is true" only because they believe God does not exist. They believe that we don't know because they believe Christianity is not true, and every other religion is also not true (and they know that non-truths can't be known). If they didn't have such beliefs could they still rationally accept this argument for toleration? Can you have rational beliefs about what human beings know, or what they can know, which don't ultimately depend on religious beliefs?

Good point, Malcolm.

Thanks for the response, Jacques.

>>And I consider atheism a religious position.<<

I thought this might be a source of our disagreement. I don't consider atheism a religious position. From your definition, the people who hold atheism are committed to religious beliefs. I don't talk that way. We can agree, though, that atheists take a position on the question whether God exists: they deny that there is any such thing.

Or at least that is one view of what atheism is. As you know, some will argue with it.

You also bring probability into the discussion, which will 'probably' be another bone of contention. If God exists, he necessarily exists; if he does not exist, he is impossible. No room for probability here. Nonsense to say: the probability of God's existence is .376. As for epistemic probability, what exactly is that? And is it wholly in the clear?

Are you saying that the extension of 'political beliefs' and of 'religious beliefs' is the same or are you saying that political beliefs are a proper subset of religious beliefs? What do you mean by 'overlap'?

Let me see if I understand your analogy. I agree that one cannot philosophize without being disposed to accept certain inferences as correct and certain other ones as incorrect, and thus without having beliefs about logic. Likewise, you think that one cannot do politics without presupposing answers to religious questions (Does God exist? Did he reveal himself? To Muhammad?)

But why can't one 'bracket' -- in roughly Husserl's sense -- religious beliefs when doing politics, and work out a politics that is neutral with respect to whether God exists and cognate questions?

>>The argument is convincing enough for me. But why do I accept the premise "We do not know which religion is true"? I accept it because I have certain religious beliefs.<<

No offense, but I think you are "playing fast and loose" as Wm James would have said with 'religious.' You accept the premise for reasons that are broadly epistemological. Example. You have noticed the extreme diversity of opinions on religious questions, even among people that are well-informed, intelligent, sincere, etc. The best and the brightest disagree. The disagreement quite reasonably gives you pause.

>>Yes, atheists and naturalists have no theology, but I think they believe the premise "We do not know which religion is true" only because they believe God does not exist. They believe that we don't know because they believe Christianity is not true, and every other religion is also not true (and they know that non-truths can't be known). If they didn't have such beliefs could they still rationally accept this argument for toleration? Can you have rational beliefs about what human beings know, or what they can know, which don't ultimately depend on religious beliefs?<<

Naturalists accept a metaphysics that rules out theism. But that is not because they have religious beliefs; they have beliefs in metaphysics that rule out the truth of all such claims as that God exists, is triune, etc.

No one knows whether Islam is true, but suppose counterfactually that some dude, Ali, KNOWS this. Would he not be justified in imposing sharia on all for their own ultimate good, if Ali had the power to make the imposition?

I am inclined to say Yes. Others will say No.

Hi Bill,
I'm going to say more about this later but first a quick comment on probability. I am not sure that the existence of the Abrahamic God is necessary existence. That may depend on whether that Being is the same as the God of later Hellenistic philosophers. But in any case it's not clearly nonsense to say "Probably God exists" even if He exists necessarily or not at all. Someone unsure of the sum of two numbers can intelligibly say "Probably the sum is 204329" despite the necessity of the sum
Think of the evidential argument from evil: the conclusion (atheism) may rationally appear to the arguer to be merely probable, even if the arguer grants that God exists necessarily or not at all. But if this is a sticking point just replace "probable" with "seems reasonable to believe".

"But why can't one 'bracket' -- in roughly Husserl's sense -- religious beliefs when doing politics, and work out a politics that is neutral with respect to whether God exists and cognate questions?"

Well, to pursue this analogy with the 'overlap' (as I'm calling it) between logic and philosophy, imagine trying to work on some philosophical problem while bracketing all beliefs or presuppositions about logic. For example, I might reason that, logic to one side, contradictions might well be true, or possibly true. Then I might reason that, since they might be, the correct theory of freedom might be that everything is determined, but compatibilism is false, and yet people are still robustly free to choose. Setting aside the fact that any bit of 'reasoning' I could carry out would already involve logical presuppositions, even when I try to put logical presuppositions to one side, the result would then be a philosophical position incompatible with certain logical beliefs, e.g., the belief that contradictions can't be true. So in taking that position, or taking it seriously, I'd already be setting myself against other positions based on other logical beliefs; I'd be rationally committed (however irrationally) to rejecting some of those, in virtue of my philosophical theory of freedom.

You asked what I meant by 'overlap', whether I claim the extensions of 'religion' and 'philosophy' are the same. They aren't the same, for reasons you point out. There are probably some purely political statements, I guess, statements about politics (even normative politics) that are compatible with any and every religious position. But I claim that any reasonably worked-out, comprehensive, action-guiding political world-view will carry rational commitments to some specific answers to questions about God, the afterlife, the soul, etc. So the idea is that, for any such political worldview, many of the basic statements or axioms in the system are also in the extension of 'religion' in some broad sense.

"Naturalists accept a metaphysics that rules out theism. But that is not because they have religious beliefs; they have beliefs in metaphysics that rule out the truth of all such claims as that God exists, is triune, etc."

I don't really think you can have beliefs about metaphysics that are independent of any religious beliefs (in my sense--beliefs about the correct answers to questions about the existence and nature of God, and so on). I don't think you have to first answer religious questions, then figure out metaphysics. But I think you can't do metaphysics without being already involved in lots of essentially religious questions, whether you realize it or not. (Most philosophers nowadays seem not to realize.)

I am inclined to agree with Bill on at least the possibility of there being non-religious aspects of a religious culture that render it incompatible with the culture and government of the USA. But (a) I don't think this distinction is ultimately important, and (b) I'm disinclined to think that Islam can be ruled out using that distinction in the first place. The reason that the distinction is ultimately not important is that there certainly could be religions that are, qua religion, incompatible with the culture and government of the USA. So, even if we don't need to rule out Islam qua religion, there are, at least, hypothetical religions that we would have to rule out that way. The bit in the First Amendment about there being no laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion is either paradoxical or must be understood as applying to only religions that are consistent, at least, with the idea of religious tolerance expressed in the First Amendment itself as well as the other principles of the Constitution. So, we don't need to worry too much about whether Islam is incompatible qua religion or qua something that's non-religious, because, unless we feel the need to adhere to an ultimately incoherent interpretation of the First Amendment, we can indeed prohibit the free exercise of certain religions in the USA.

Is Islam even compatible, qua religion, in the first place? Well, doesn't it require intolerance of other religions? Doesn't it also require intolerance of criticism of Islam itself? If so, that seems to me to render it, qua religion, incompatible with principles of the Constitution.

Thanks for the comments, gentlemen. Immersed as I am in preparations for my 2016 Big Unplug, I cannot do your comments justice. Perhaps we cam return to these topics in mid- to late August.

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