The Parameters of Religion

I want to go back to what Charles “The Turtle” Krauthammer wrote here:

A certain kind of liberal argues that having a religious underpinning for any public policy is disqualifying because it is an imposition of religion on others. Thus, if your opposition to embryonic stem cell research comes from a religious belief in the ensoulment of life at conception, you’re somehow violating the separation of church and state by making other people bend to your religion.

This is absurd. Abolitionism, civil rights, temperance, opposition to the death penalty — a host of policies, even political movements, have been rooted for many people in religious teaching or interpretation. It’s ridiculous to say that therefore abolitionism, civil rights, etc., constitute an imposition of religion on others.

In the face of Mike Huckabee’s bid for the GOP presidential nomination, Krauthammer and other conservatives today are fine-tuning their ideas about church and state. Why is Huckabee’s religiosity objectionable, if Ralph Reed’s or Pat Robertson’s was not? Why was it OK, four years ago, to slam Howard Dean for his obvious discomfort with God talk and now say, as Krauthammer does in the op ed linked above, that a person’s religious beliefs are “None of your damn business”?

Well, we know why, so let’s move on.

Typically, Krauthammer refuses to engage with liberals in honest argument; he distorts our point of view so he can bash it. The examples he gives — abolitionism, civil rights, temperance, opposition to the death penalty — all had or have civil underpinnings as well as religious ones. Yes, even temperance. Temperance literature certainly was laced with reference to God, but public support for Prohibition grew after many decades of popular news stories and lithographs picturing drunken men neglecting or abusing their wives and children.

As for civil rights — Krauthammer, let’s consider the word civil in this context, an adjective meaning “Of or relating to citizens and their interrelations with one another or with the state.” A civil issue by definition has more to do with man and government than with man and God. Christians may believe that civil rights are endowed by God (which, if so, makes me wonder why it took Him until the 18th century to start endowing), but atheists can support civil rights with the same passion as any “person of faith.” In the U.S. the protection of the civil rights of citizens is basic constitutional law.

On the other hand, objections to embryonic stem cell research are entirely religious; I can think of no civil reason for banning such research. Thus, if your opposition to embryonic stem cell research comes from a religious belief in the ensoulment of life at conception, and you manage to impose a ban on such research by law, you are violating the separation of church and state by making other people bend to your religion.

Abolition of slavery gives us a more interesting example. In the antebellum U.S., persons on all sides of the slavery issue claimed biblical authority for their positions. The Southern Baptist Convention came into being in 1845 because of a split with northern Baptists over the issue of slavery. At the same time, many of the leaders of the abolitionist movement were Christian ministers. They were all reading the same Bible, but with different eyes.

I’m sure no end of Ph.D. dissertations have been written about the social differences that caused this schism. An obvious difference was an economic one. The antibellum South was, to a large extent, a plutocracy run by plantation owners. Although they were a minority of the white population, the plantation class hoarded most of the South’s wealth and, thereby, determined which clergymen had public influence, not to mention comfortable parsonages. I’m not saying that the Southern Baptists consciously betrayed their religion for the sake of the economic status quo. Rather, the economic status quo shaped their values and affected the way they understood scripture.

And this takes us to an often unrecognized truth about religious doctrine — much of what passes for religious doctrine started out as plain ol’ cultural values and mores. If you look at the history of the major religions, most of them have changed considerably over time. Often, when a religion establishes itself in new territory, within a couple of generations many of the values and even the folklore of that territory will have been absorbed into the religion. For example, when a new religion moves into a paternalistic society, soon enough paternalism will be hardwired into that religion even if it hadn’t been particularly paternalistic before. This happens because new generations of priests assume their culturally conditioned biases are the will of God.

And as cultural values change, religion changes with it. The abortion issue is an excellent example. The Bible says nothing whatsoever about abortion, even though we know it was widely practiced in biblical times. Some biblical passages seem to support the view that a fetus is fully human, but this may be the result of sloppy translating. The Catholic Church has changed its collective mind several times on the issue of abortion. Very generally, the Vatican was reasonably tolerant of abortion until the late 19th century. Similar shifts took place in conservative Protestantism, although I think somewhat later.

Yet for the past several years Americans have been beaten over the head with the claim that THE religious view of abortion is that it is FORBIDDEN BY GOD, and only dirty evil compromised secularist liberals don’t understand this. We hear this even though Judaism is, generally, pro-choice, as are many Protestant denominations. Many Catholics and conservative evangelicals are so obsessed with abortion you’d think no other transgressions matter. Only 150 years ago abortion was widely practiced yet didn’t raise nearly as much fuss.

Obviously, some sort of social-cultural shift took place that caused conservative Christians, especially in the United States, to become obsessed with abortion.

You could argue that a similar shift caused people in the 17th and 18th centuries to turn against slavery and toward an ideal of individual liberty. Some like to think that this shift, also, is a gift from God. Again, one wonders why He was so stingy with the generations that went before. However it came about, this change in values has had a demonstrably beneficial effect on civilization and the quality of life of millions. Thus, defense of liberty doesn’t rest on religious arguments.

But the results of the criminalization of abortion are not so beneficial. Those pushing for criminalization manufacture civil reasons, such as claims that abortion causes breast cancer (it doesn’t). They imagine that women suffer emotional damage after abortion, a condition they call Post-Abortion Syndrome that, by any objective measure, does not exist. Yet I have no doubt most of the criminalizers sincerely believe they are doing God’s will. This is fanaticism, pure and simple, not religion (click here for an explanation of the difference).

Let’s take the discussion to another level. Immanuel Kant argued that reason rests in part on what he called an “architectonic” order of the mind that organizes what we experience and in time and space. Whatever “architectonic” order we have in our heads effects how we understand our experiences, ourselves, everything. I think ol’ Kant was on to something here. I argue here that much of the objection to abortion is based less on religion doctrine than on particular architectonic notions defining selfness. If your head is organized in a different way, much of the criminalizers’ arguments — including “life begins at conception” — make no sense.

Where I’m going with this is that the line between “civil” and “religious” underpinnings is much fuzzier than Charles Krauthammer imagines. Many, if not most, religious doctrines are nothing but values arising out of society that have somehow, by accident of circumstance and history, become embedded in organized religion. And these values are no more or less likely to be beneficial to mankind than those values that have not become embedded in organized religion.

As a religious person myself, I appreciate how one’s religion does affect one’s opinions and outlook. Religion becomes a critical part of how our brains organize and interpret experience. Most of my political opinions have some kind of religious underpinning. On the other hand, I can respect a politician who says, as John Kennedy did, that he would not allow his church to dictate public policy. And for many of us, religion is a personal journey, not a global crusade. I think most religious people appreciate that, whatever our private thoughts, a public policy must have a clearly defined, measurable civic benefit.

This has been the argument of most of us liberals all along, and for this we were told we were “hostile” to religion.

Now many right wingers are frantically backpedaling. They don’t heart Huckabee. As Kevin Drum says, the high priests of mainstream conservatism are unglued. Suddenly they want to reclaim some separation between church and state. Don’t expect ’em to admit we were right, but some are starting to sound like us liberal religion haters. Heh.

25 thoughts on “The Parameters of Religion

  1. I was raised as a Fundie, and even though I am basically non-religious these days the teaching of Jesus have a lot to do with why I am a liberal. One of those teachings was “mind your own business” (the mote in your neighbor’s eye vs the beam in your own.)

    If you think abortion is a sin, DON’T HAVE ONE! But don’t make it illegal for your neighbor to have one. If you want to pray at school, go ahead, but don’t make your teacher and classmates pray along with you.

  2. But…but…but if I don’t force everyone else to kowtow to my personal belief system, how can I ever be certain they won’t one day do the same to me? Because everyone is as paranoid and insecure as I am! I know it! I know it! YOU’RE ALL OUT TO GET ME BECAUSE SOMEONE SAID HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!! ,i>SPOOOOWARRRRRRRRRRTAAAAAAAAH!! Honk! Honk!

  3. I used to bemoan the infinite elasticity of religious belief. I thought it was hypocrisy, a failing; but then I realized that it’s really adaptability, an accomplishment. It’s a feature, not a bug; a highly-evolved trait favored by natural selection. Infinitely elastic religious beliefs are best fit to survive in the natural human environment.

    I now no longer consider religion to be a set of statements, true or false, but instead a language, within which one can make statements, true or false.

    This takes religion off the Contradiction hook, but puts it on the Irrelevancy hook.

  4. The arguments of those opposing separation of church and state have become more sophisticated over time. About a year ago I heard the political theorist, Jean Bethke Elshtain speak at Princeton. In essence she was arguing that America is sliding toward nihilism as the ideological underpinnings of our public policy increasingly rest on choice preference utilitarian values. She appears to view stem cell research and any practice that measures the value of human life in terms of instrumental utility as symptomatic of our slide toward the abyss. She ponders whether we will eventually reach a point in which the elderly and infirmed are encouraged to kill themselves because the rest of society has no use for them. Isn’t measuring the value of human life by a utilitarian yardstick what the Nazis did when the exterminated thousands of mentally and handicapped people the Reich deemed inconvenient or undesirable. Although I reject this whole line of argument, I do recognize that the arguments themselves are evolving into more nuanced, informed by post modernism as much as the Bible, philosophical rhetoric that will force those of us adamant to maintain secularism to do a lot of mental gymnastics to counter the assault.

  5. I’m a fan of Rawls’ conception of it. If you want to do a specific policy for religious reasons that’s fine, but you have to be able to justify it to your entire constituency, not just the people of your religion. I think it is from Rawls’ Justice as Fairness.

  6. Behind much of this is the human mind’s amazing ability to project its own inner workings onto God or whoever, and its tragic blindness to the same.

  7. I guess I’m about to be a “concern troll.”

    On the other hand, objections to embryonic stem cell research are entirely religious; I can think of no civil reason for banning such research.

    I can think of such reasons. One might believe in the humanity of the fertilized egg on principle, regardless of religion. One might see a danger in instrumental views toward humanity, and see that those views are at least suggested, if not embodied, in stem cell research. One might see such research as an example of scientific hubris. One might make a “slippery slope” argument about the consequences of uncritically embracing stem cell research.

    Consider, for example, the ethical problems associated with conceiving a child for the purpose of providing a matching donor for a living child who has a life-threatening medical condition. Prenatal testing can determine whether the match is sufficient; if it isn’t, the parents can abort and try again. I don’t believe the aborted embryo is a “person,” per se, and I do believe in the personhood of the sick, living child. Because of those beliefs, I should be able to uncritically embrace such a practice. I do accept such a practice, but not uncritically. Embryonic stem cell research seems likely to make such ethically questionable (not obviously wrong, but questionable) practices commonplace.

    We make decisions about which practices should be allowed by weighing the costs against the benefits. One of the costs of stem cell research might well be a negative shift in our shared attitudes toward the inviolable rights of individuals who cannot advocate for their own interests. Children, infants, viable fetuses, pre-viable fetuses, embryos, blastocysts: where, exactly, do we say a human being begins to have “rights,” especially when the countervailing rights of the mother who carries the being are not part of the equation?

    On balance, it seems to me that the benefits of embryonic stem cell research vastly outweigh the costs, but that doesn’t mean the arguments against the practice have no weight whatsoever. The distinction between civil and religious arguments is that religious values may justify absolutist responses, while a civil perspective obliges us to weigh competing values in making a decision.

    Krauthammer says “A certain kind of liberal argues that having a religious underpinning for any public policy is disqualifying because it is an imposition of religion on others,” because he is disingenuous (or because he is a moron). You address that argument quite effectively, I think. But let’s keep in mind (and I say this as an atheist) that religion can serve as a valuable force in public discourse because it can motivate people to articulate and energetically advocate for positions that might not otherwise be fully aired. Just as religious objections to slavery lent force and energy to enlightenment objections that were founded in a doctrine of natural human rights, so religious objections to stem cell research can help us better frame the conflicting moral and ethical questions associated with that issue. We don’t have to end up agreeing with those religious objections, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take them seriously.

  8. gigi — The sort of slippery slope argument Elshtain used can tilt both ways. If religious conservatives are allowed to dictate what scientific and medical research and treatments are allowable, people will die for the sake of other people’s religious beliefs.

    And, again, Elstain’s thinking is based on a conceptualization of “self” that I reject.

  9. I’m sure that in the first draft of his article Kruathammer’s sentence was:
    ” A certain kind of Strawman….”

  10. I don’t actually believe most of the Religious Right believe a lot of the modern day interpretation on morals. They say they do, but in reality they don’t. If they really thought abortion was murder they would be burning the abortion clinics to the ground. As we all would if we thought murder was taking place inside of them. I believe one of the reasons that the political answers to so many ‘moral’ issues worked so well was because it allowed Christians to feel as if they were doing something without actually doing anything. To stop the murder of unborn children they, what, vote for the Republican candidate. Biblical teaching on homosexuals is to have them killed. Modern day Christians, again, vote for their favorite Repubican candidate. But they can sit in their churchs and have this moral outrage without really getting out there and doing anything. It’s really sad, actually.

  11. But they can sit in their churchs and have this moral outrage without really getting out there and doing anything.

    Word. The culture of these churches in authoritarianism, fear and conformity.
    I get the feeling that holding onto the outrage, to channel their fear and hatred, to give them an illusion of superiority and ‘goodness’ and a sense of power to bully others into conformity, is more important than the actual content of the outrage.

  12. As I understand the history, the Churchs’ takes on abortion were intimately tied to the welfare of the mother. So long as it was as dangerous or more to go through childbirth as to have an abortion, abortion was acceptable as an alternative. Some time in the middle to late 19th century, medical/hygienic advances made childbirth much safer than abortions, and the local religions changed their tunes. Only very recently have some religious denominations gone overboard on the issue, as religion is rediscovered as a path to political dominance.

  13. Fear Itself: I would argue that to consider all forms of human life, including a blastocyst, to be untouchable — taboo, sacred, whatever you want to call it — is a religious view. A purely rational view, including a humanist one, would favor benefiting the already born over preserving a blastocyst.

    But let’s keep in mind (and I say this as an atheist) that religion can serve as a valuable force in public discourse because it can motivate people to articulate and energetically advocate for positions that might not otherwise be fully aired.

    Yes, thank you. I agree.

  14. As I have stated before, the Republican party is a many headed hydra. The capitalist elite don’t like the fundie wing any more than Mrs. Drysdale liked the Beverly Hillbillies, and the country club set is growing weary of both. Joe Sixpack is stuck in the economic quagmire and feels REALLY boned.The project was doomed from the get-go, I’m surprised it has gone this far.
    I believe this explains Ron Paul’s political sucess on the internet.

    After reading your wisdom of doubt for the second time, I’m even more impressed with your work Barbara.
    I’m glad I stumbled upon your site.
    Kismet, I assume,
    Or perhaps serendipidy………….

  15. Excellent post, Barbara & a great exchange of ideas, all. A few thoughts. IMO, the issue of abortion has little to do with saving babies. It has EVERYTHING to do with state control over womens bodies, at least the reproductive part..It’s no coincidence that the rise of fundamentalism in the political arena has followed, as a reaction to, the rise in womens rights.

    Now I am not suggesting that the kingmakers actually care about putting women in their place. They care about the issue as a source of shock troops come election time, and a source of funds for the party. They never intended things to get so out-of-hand that the fundies would actually demand the Republicans deliver on the implied promise to roll back Roe v Wade.

    The Republican kingmakers are a bit taken aback, because the same tactic of promising to keep negros in their place worked so well, broke the solid south and was a source of funds even though the civil rights movement won. (I am not suggesting we have perfect racial parity – but it sure ain’t the South of the 60’s.)

    I read the complete article from turtleface; he was critical of Mitt the Mutt and Hucklebery Hound. Which makes me think he is of a faction which favors Hizonor Rudy. Perhaps the Christian faction is deemed unreliable, because they might take an ethical stand at some point, and it does not say a lot for Rudy’s character that he can be couted on to be untroubled by ethics.

    Look at how this might play out in the presidential race. If Rudy wins, a portion of the Fundie far right will sit out this election to punish the Rpeublican kingmakers, even if Hillary wins.

    Fundamentalists will try to parley a loss in ’08 into THE seat at the HEAD of the table when Republicans are looking at ’12. But I think that Rudy will NOT get the nod, which leaves a huge block of Republican non-fundie voters willing to jump ship to a 3rd party candidate who looks like a moderate. The dynamics of ths presidental election are unprecidented.

  16. Well, I’m confused.. I guess religion is one of those words like “cleave” where it can be used properly to describe opposite concepts. The religion that Krauthammer is referring to where ensoulment is tenet is completely opposite to the religion where independent thought would be required. Krauthammer’s implication by usage describes the type of religion where the practitioner is precluded from the thought process, thereby becoming a drone of sorts whose only capacity is to mimic and confirm established doctrine and beliefs.

  17. God, I’m sick of religion…
    God, I’m sick of politic’s…
    Just leave everyone alone!

    The Founding Father’s tried to seperate the two, but the fact that we’re still arguing the two is proof that they were unsuccessful.

    In fact, the two can’t be seperated.
    Follow “da money:”
    Any, and every religion, is political. Don’t you have to practice politic’s to become a Bishop, Rabbi, Minister, Imam, etc.? Isn’t there a crazy lady with a big hat, or a man with a big button at every service who tries to convince you to donate money?
    And politic’s can be like a religion. You have a leader and his/her follower’s who will prostelatize to those who don’t believe or follow. Isn’t there a crazy man with a big hat, or a woman with a big button at every rally who tries to convince you to donate money?

    Religion v. Politic’s.
    It is this simple, folk’s: It’s all about power/money.
    All religion’s have good at their base. They all teach us something about morality. And all politician’s believe that they are good. That what they espouse is moral and righteous.
    Hitler thought that what he was advocating was moral! Yet his righteousness led to million’s of death’s. Hmm, “right”eousness…? Nah, that’s a post for another day…

    But it’s how religion and politic’s are practiced that make it HUMAN.
    Religious leader’s demonize the one ones who don’t follow them. So do political leader’s.
    It all boils down to this:
    If you agree with me, you go to whatever Heaven there is in the religious/political world.
    If you disagree with me, you go to whatever Hell there is in the religious/political world.

    It’s all about Me v. Thee…
    In a better world, we’d just leave everyone alone!
    But being alone is frightening. So we all reach out for something, someone who agree’s with our world view.
    It’s the reaching out for the others who are like us that leads to herd mentality.
    And that’s religion in a nutshell…
    And that’s politic’s in a nutshell…

    And maybe I’m a nutshell….

  18. “The dynamics of this presidental election are unprecidented”
    Right-o Doug.
    Early elections in FL, threats from the DNC against the FL Democrats, more talk about election than impeachment, the CIA and other spooks essentially stabbing Bush in the back via the NIE, the Ron Paul phenomenon, the impending crash of both Hillary and Rudi.The “mouth from the south” (Falwell) is gone.The black eyes for the fundy faction via Ted Haggert and the church shootings in Colorado. The friggin’ ground is shaking………….
    The next several months should be very interesting

  19. I am a Catholic but disagree with many of the Church’s laws.
    What I would like answered by the Republican Right Fundamentalist is this one question that I have not heard asked anywhere.

    Would they support a Jewish presidential candidate?

    That, I think would be the real test to their moral debate.
    How could they support a candidate that believes that Jesus was not the son of God, yet be very religious and devout.
    I would love to ask that question.
    If you can accept a Jew as a candidate, then by logic you would have to accept other religious candidates.
    Personally, I would like to see a person with a strong moral compass after having 7 years of Bush who was suppose to be the Republican’s saviour.
    Can’t even they see the irony in their supposed religious administration and the lying, cheating and deviousnous that has been the hallmark of this administration?

  20. The capitalist elite don’t like the fundie wing any more than Mrs. Drysdale liked the Beverly Hillbillies….

    As a child of the 1960s, I love that image! I’ll keep it in mind as we watch the GOP implode over the next year.

  21. Just for fun, let’s prove Krauthammer really wrong. The Temperance movement actually really picked up steam when women got involved, and women got involved because they were tired of getting beat up by their husbands when the pubs closed every night. (It was also an issue women could rally around when suffrage was looking not particularly likely.) It was an effort to regulate behavior and a lot of the women justified their involvement in the movement on religious grounds, but there’s an undercurrent in a lot of the literature of the day about men growing violent after having too much alcohol, which was the real problem, not the existence of alcohol itself. That seems like a civil concern to me.

    Same deal with civil rights and the death penalty. Religious people were/are involved in those movements, but the philosophy behind them is not necessarily religious. So Krauthammer’s thinking in pretty shallow terms.

    You can argue for the inherent “right to life” of an embryo in theory, but in practice, a lot of the research is being done on blastocysts that wouldn’t have grown into babies anyway. I agree with maha that the life of a real live person outweighs the life of a hypothetical person, but we could sit here and debate the ethics all day.

  22. If you want to know about people’s values, don’t look at what they say–look at what they’re consistant about. As others have pointed out, consistantly, these people don’t show the least concern squat for children, even the unborn variety. If they did, America’s shameful infant mortality rate would be at least as much a crusade for them as abortion.

    What’s consistant, of course, is their obsession with other people’s sex lives, every move of which they feel entitled to micro-manage–purely on the basis of their self-perceived moral superiority in these matters, of course.

    The punchline is that they have no moral superiority at all. What they’ve got is some sort of alarm that’s trained to go off if other people might be having a good time in the rack. It barely registers if someone lies, steals, tortures, raids the public treasury or any other crime you can think of–as long as their pants stay on. Their rabidness over sex isn’t morality. It’s a morality substitute.

    And another thing: If someone insists that their religion be used as a basis for public policy , they don’t get to use that “How dare you disrespect my faith” pearl-clutching shtick when their beliefs get picked apart, as would happen with any other proposed reasoning for laws that affect us all.

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