14 September 2006

Yes. Let’s rob Muslims of their case against us. (2)

In a previous post I mentioned a post by Peter Hitchens to his blog. A commentator made an astute observation. Many people who oppose a ‘reawakening of Christianity’ do so because they have been given no clarity on what this ‘reawakening’ entails. Does it mean, for example, that secular laws and values are to be abandoned?

Most Christians, I dare say, would expend a great deal of time and energy and verbiage attempting to placate secularists, assuring them that secular laws and values will survive the ‘reawakening’ of Christianity. But really, why bother with all that? Let’s say that the answer to the question is: Yes, secular laws and values are to be abandoned? So what? What this commentator fails to see, I think, is that one perennial question, particularly in the philosophy of law, is just this: How do these secular laws come to have any claim upon us in the first place? The philosophy of law isn’t dead, which means that the question (i.e., How do laws come to have a claim upon us in the first place?) remains unanswered to the satisfaction of a great many people. Natural law theorists give one set of answers, positivists another set, and the critical legal theorists yet another set. Since that question remains unanswered, why worry about reassuring people that secular laws will remain?

The question of whether secular laws and values are to be abandoned assumes that these laws and values have a legitimate claim upon us in the first place. I don’t think they can have. In fact, I don’t think they have anything to commend them.

It doesn’t do much good to talk about ‘secular’ values with out defining the term. For the sake of brevity, I’ll use the term ‘secular’ in the sense it has in the phrase ‘secular humanism’, especially since, as a former secular humanist, it is the sense with which I am most familiar. Secular values include (among others, of course):

+ Need to test beliefs - A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.

+ Reason, evidence, scientific method - Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.

+ Fulfillment, growth, creativity - A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.

+ Search for truth - A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.

+This life - A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.

+Ethics - A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.

+Building a better world - A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.

On first glance there doesn’t seem to be anything objectionable about these values. Indeed Christians can affirm them, with certain qualifications, of course, despite what critics will say about dark periods in the history of Christianity (like, e.g., the Galileo affair). For one thing, the period that critics like to raise was brief episodes in the life of the Church. Not only that, but those episodes are better explained as unjustifiable attempts to maintain an unwarranted political stability by closing off new ideas. But that, even if true, is not critical to my present purpose.

No doubt, the fact that Christians can affirm many of these values accounts for the reason that many Christians will want to reassure others that ‘secular laws and values’ will remain. But, as I said, these values and laws have nothing to commend them. These values are arbitrarily selected and, therefore, cannot be justified. They are valued simply because those who hold to them for no other reason than that they just happen to like them.

Take for example just one of the values, reason. Why should reason be valued? No doubt the answer is its utility in discovering those “solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but it really doesn’t go far enough. For if reason is to be justified on the basis of its utility in finding these solutions to human problems, then we have to ask exactly what justifies attaching such value to humans that their questions and problems deserve solutions in the first place. The argument that would seem to justify reason’s being a value goes something like this:

(1.) We value humans.
(2.) Humans have questions and problems.
(3.) These questions can be answered, and the problems solved.
(4.) These questions ought to be answered, and the problems solved.
(5.) Reason has tremendous utility in answering these questions and solving these problems.
(6.) Therefore, reason ought to be valued.

Proposition (1) is true enough for most humans, I suppose. We do value humans. But in order truly to complete the argument, (1) should really be rewritten as (1') We ought to value humans. (And indeed I think we are well within our epistemic rights to suppose that this is what secular humanists believe, since they frequently fault religions for not valuing humans above all other considerations.) But is the proposition that We ought to value humans true? If it is true, then how precisely are we to know this? We cannot employ reason here: we are predicating our valuation of reason upon the proposition the we ought to value humans. Or must it be accepted as an assumption (unproven and improvable)? Looks that way, doesn’t it? In fact, thinking about that first bullet point above (i.e., the one about requiring that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested, not simply accepted on faith) it begins to look as if we must accept 1' on, well, faith. (Alternatively we could accept is a ‘reasonable’ assumption, but since it serves as part of our reason for valuing reason in the first place I don’t see why we should bother.)

Now that I’ve called into question the justification for valuing humans in the first place, all of the other bullet points above must be called into question: they all assume that human life ought to be valued.

I suppose one could argue that I’m just saying all this because it helps me grind my theistic (Christian) axe. “You’re just saying that because you’re a Christian.” Perhaps. (It’s actually the other way around.) But several nontheists have recognized the fact that these values have no grounding. (That is, if we really need to disregard Nietzsche’s talk of the “revaluation” of all values.) Dr. Steven Weinberg, in his, Dreams of a Final Theory wrote:

[T]hough we shall find beauty in the final laws of nature, we will find no special status for life or intelligence. A fortiori, we will find no standards of value or morality (251).

The finals laws of nature are those laws which will explain—and let’s be clear on this—everything. Those laws will provide, in addition to no special status for human life, no standards of value. That is to say, these laws will not give us any justification for preferring any set of values to any other set of values, not even reason itself, which will have been, ironically, the means by which the final laws are discovered. And too, these laws will give us no standards of morality, no reason for preferring one action to its opposite. Now, it is true that laws of nature don’t give us standards of morality now, so we shouldn’t expect them to do so in the future. But we have already disposed of reason, which, at present, we do employ in making ethical decisions. We’ve been informed by Weinberg that we shall have no reason for preferring any value to any other value, so an appeal to irrationality would be just as worthy as an appeal to rationality. The preservation of a human life is of no more value than the taking of a human life, with or without cause. And science has no more value than anti-science, even if that ‘anti-science’ is only falsely so-called.

I would be lacking in integrity if I did not go on to quote a bit more of Weinberg:

Many...religions teach that God demands a particular faith and form of worship. It should not be surprising that some of the people who take these teachings seriously should sincerely regard these divine demands as incomparable more important than any merely secular virtues like tolerance or compassion or reason (258).

I suppose someone could now say, “Ah! You see, James, Dr. Weinberg disagrees with your claim about values.” Perhaps he does, but in so doing he contradicts himself. He has a complaint about “divine demands” being more important than “merely secular values.” One has to wonder what the grounds of his complaint are: he’s just told us we have no standards of value. We have no standard for deciding to prefer these “secular values” to the “divine demands”. So why prefer secular values to such an extent that “divine demands” present any sort of problem? (That and he’s ignorant: some of those “divine demands” include tolerance, compassion and the use of reason, but within certain limits. And of course those limits are objectionable to him, but Weinberg is in no position, having no standards of value or morality, to complain about them.)

So in answer to the question, “Are secular values to be abandoned?” the answer is, “Yes, if those values truly are secular.” But, they won’t really be abandoned because in actual point of fact, most Christians don’t hold those values as being properly secular. They are values precisely because humans are bearers of God’s image. So, depending upon what specific values the commentator has in mind the answer is, “Those values will be abandoned as secular values (i.e., because they aren’t secular) but will be retained as Christian values. This would even go so far as to ensure the tolerance of (simply to list a single example) homosexuals. I would have to explain why in a separate post, so I won’t do so here. Let me just say that, on a Reformed catholic view, nothing about the retention of these values as properly theistic entails the establishment of a theocracy. And no passage of Scripture grants to the Christian the right, or creates in him an obligation, to establish a theocracy. Post-Calvary, the only theocracy which can now exist must be ruled by Christ Himself. If He wants a theocracy, He’ll have to come establish it himself. And we think He will, naturally. (For a more detailed explanation of a Reformed view of this matter, I recommend Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures in Calvinism, specifically the lecture on “Calvinism and Politics.”)

I’ll have to deal with the issue of ‘secular’ laws another time.


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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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