The Raving Theist

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More Importantly

April 22, 2004 | 29 Comments

Professor Volokh isn’t “bugged” that those fundamentalist Christians are trying to force their religious opinions on us. What really bugs him are those people who complain that “[t]hose fundamentalist Christians are trying to force their religious opinions on us.” You see, all the fundamentalists are trying to do — just like the gay rights activists and the opponents of rape, murder and theft — is to “turn [their] opinions on moral or pragmatic subjects into law.” They’re just exercising their Constitutionally guaranteed right to participate in the political process. But those who complain about what’s actually being legislated and the premises and reasons upon which the legislation is based are miscreants — they are participating in the immoral and illogical process of, well, complaining.

Now, you’d think that if the proposed fundamentalist legislation was evil, and the reasons for it, crazy, one would almost sorta kinda have a right to complain. But accordingly to Volokh, complaining only commits the even greater sin of pretending there’s a difference between good and bad, sane and insane:

[M]ore importantly, all of our opinions are ultimately based on unproven and unprovable moral premises. For some of us, the moral premises are secular; for others, they’re religious; I don’t see why the former are somehow more acceptable than the latter. And the slogan “separation of church and state” hardly resolves anything here: Churches may have no legal role in our government, but religious believers are just as entitled to vote their views into law as are atheists or agnostics.

* * *

[N]aturally people will often find others’ religious arguments unpersuasive — “ban this because God said so” isn’t going to persuade someone who doesn’t believe in God, or who has a different view of God’s will. (Likewise, many devout Christians may find unpersuasive arguments that completely fail to engage devout Christians’ religious beliefs.) But there’s nothing at all illegitimate about people making up their own minds about which laws to enact based on their own unprovable religious moral beliefs, or on their own unprovable secular moral beliefs.

Always beware an argument for extreme moral and intellectual relativism that begins with the words “more importantly.” Nothing can be “more important” in a universe where everything is equally important. If Volokh is right, it’s only in the sense that he’s wrong, in the sense that “yes” means “no” and “true” means “false” and “secular” means “religious” and “God” means “no God.” As Reverend Mykeru might say, nothing is more important than Professor Volokh’s opinion.

I don’t dispute that law is the forcing of opinion upon others, or dispute (yet) that all people have the right to vote. And people who complain that “fundamentalist Christians are trying to force their religious opinions on us” aren’t generally complaining about the coercive nature of law or voting rights either. They’re complaining that the opinions are religious rather than rational, that they promote social policy based in some loony sky-god dogma promulgated by an imaginary self-slaughtered Jew who rewards obedience in Heaven, rather than social policy based on real human needs on Earth. But Volokh (after reciting the truisms about legislating morality and voting rights) declares that there’s no difference between the two.

The seams of his argument crack wide open after this bit of hedging: “[o]f course, it’s perfectly sound to disagree with people’s views on the merits . . . [i]f I don’t agree with the substance of someone’s proposal, whether it’s religious or secular, I’ll certainly criticize the substance.” The notion that ideas have merits subject to criticism is not exactly a relativistic one, and more importantly, it’s frequently impossible to attack the merits or substance of a religious proposal without attacking the merits or substance of the religion. The argument that God will torture children after death if their illness is treated with medicine instead of prayer can’t be met without addressing the merits of that God. Simply asserting that medicine cures and prayer kills is beside the point, unless, in violation of Volokh’s principle, you’re favoring a secular worldly life over a religious afterlife. And that is clearly what Volokh means to do: when he talks about criticizing the “substance” of a propose, he is talking about examining the secular substance (i.e., Earthly consequences) and applying a secular rather than religious standard.

He’s doubtlessly right that secular arguments would fail to engage the religious beliefs of a devout Christian Scientist who views medicine as evil. They would be ineffective, too, against astrologers and numerologists who treated disease with planets and numbers. But the intransigence of the thickheaded is hardly a ground upon which to declare your ideas as unprovable and arbitrary as theirs.

That fact that religious people also do good things doesn’t advance his argument very far either. He claims that many civil rights law “were motivated by religious opinions” and notes that “it’s the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., you might recall” — but the only convincing justification for those laws and MLK’s cause is that a person’s skin color is irrelevant to a person’s character, abilities and rights. That isn’t a particularly “religious opinion.” I don’t know MLK argued that the Crucifixion somehow required enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (or if Jesus even had an opinion on racial discrimination), but I suspect his primary motivation was the secular one of not being imprisoned or lynched because he was black. Perhaps one day it will turn out that he made the decision that blacks weren’t inferior after consulting with an astrologer, but I doubt Volokh would argue that that particular “unprovable” superstitious justification was as good as any other.

And of course Volokh selected the MLK example solely because the particular allegedly “religious” opinion in question was justified by secular considerations. He didn’t use the World Trade Center attack as an example even though it was “motivated by religious opinions,” Osama bin Laden was a Muslim, and all of the participants were rewarded by Allah with 72 virgins in Paradise. Certainly the God’s approval and all those virgins should have qualified it as a good thing, but once again it appears that those factors were somehow outweighed by “unprovable” secular considerations.

Obviously there are many bad non-religious opinions that people seek to have enshrined into law. A person could believe that sugar water cures cancer, or that the section of a scalpel in a particular operation should be made by tossing a coin. But those people get carted off to mental institutions or prisons. There’s no pretense that their mode of thinking is as good as any other or that “there’s nothing at all illegitimate” about their decision-making process.

So there’s nothing at all illegitimate about complaining “that those fundamentalist Christians are trying to force their religious opinions on us.” Those who are “bugged” by the complainers simply have an irrational aversion to attacking religion in any form. But because they find it impossible to defend religion ideas on their merits, they claim that it’s impossible to defend any ideas at all.

Comments

29 Responses to “More Importantly”

  1. Mijae
    April 22nd, 2004 @ 11:59 pm

    Next time I hear someone criticize Ayn Rand’s “Non-absolute” villain characters for being unrealistic, I’ll just point ‘em to this guy. Sheesh.

  2. me oh my
    April 23rd, 2004 @ 12:30 am

    You said a lot. Let me comment on just a bit:

    Perhaps one day it will turn out that he made the decision that blacks weren

  3. Erik
    April 23rd, 2004 @ 10:59 am

    Here’s a lock-sure guarantee: Christians would just out and out love the judicial process if they found themselves in the minority. Clearly, one of the primary motivations behind seeking to get the Ten Commandments posted all over the place and having intelligent design taught in public schools is the fear that the majority position so long enjoyed by Christians is slipping. If you read modern conservative opinions on constitutional history, and replace the phrase “principles of the founding fathers” with “majority rule is OK as long as it’s white Christians in the majority”, their writing makes a whole lot more sense.

    Volokh’s problem is not systemic, it’s epistemic. He cannot see that a rule-based decision making process is imposing an irrational system on the rest of the people. Sometimes this process is easy to detect and deal with, such as in the Maryland case involving the blue laws. There the Supreme Court said that the blue laws, in their original purpose, violated the First Amendment, but had subsequently developed secular purposes that made them acceptable. So obviously, if the majority of voters happen to be Catholic, and pass a law that forbids eating meat on Fridays, that law would be unconstitutional.

    Volokh might not disagree with that specific application; his problem is that he can’t, or doesn’t want to, get his head around the more difficult applications, like gay couples adopting children, or perhaps for him even no-fault divorce. His argument defeats itself, because the defense of his rules-based morality is that deviation from the rules will undermine the peace and prosperity of the society. But saying that obviously provides some standard by which a law may be tested.

    Volokh is not espressing a preference for the legislative process over the judicial; rather, he is expressing the political version of the argument that faith is necessary because we cannot trust our senses.

  4. hermesten
    April 23rd, 2004 @ 11:45 am

    When you say Volokh is “expressing….the argument…” I think you give him more credit than he deserves. When you say

  5. me oh my
    April 23rd, 2004 @ 4:26 pm

    Christians would just out and out love the judicial process if they found themselves in the minority

    The sentiment is usually expressed: If liberals were in the majority, and the court system favored conservatives, then liberals would be states’ rights and majority-rule champions.

    People switch their loyalties pretty quickly. Go over to the “atrios” blog and you’ll see atrios’ new approval of Howard Stern (and if you read the comments, everybody agrees with him). Stern is one of the biggest pieces of garbage in the country: a misogynistic, racist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, ridicule-fueled motherfucker…but if he’s anti-Bush, he’s a friend of the liberals. (As he used to be friend of conservatives.)

  6. hermesten
    April 23rd, 2004 @ 4:42 pm

    me oh my, if he’s anti-Bush that would make him a real patriot and a friend of America, as well as a friend of atheists.

  7. Eva
    April 23rd, 2004 @ 4:45 pm

    and if he’s anti-bush, then he is a friend of mine.

    (well, i’ve always appreciated his genious too…even if he has made me cringe at times….)

  8. hermesten
    April 23rd, 2004 @ 4:57 pm

    I haven’t listened to the guy in a long time, but even if he is a “ridicule-fueled motherfucker” I doubt that he is actually misogynistic, racist, and homophobic. He thrives on controversy, so I don’t know how you can tell whether he believes what he says or he’s just tweaking noses. I do know he’s listed as an atheist on the celebatheist website, which is enough for me to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    And personally, I find it very difficult not to like a guy who says stuff like this:

    Camille Paglia interviewed Stern in the Advocate in promotion of his book Miss America. Paglia asked “How do you feel about religion and politics?” Stern responded “I’m sickened by all religions. Religion has divided people. I don’t think there’s any difference between the pope wearing a large hat and parading around with a smoking purse and an African painting his face white and praying to a rock.”

    and this:

    During his April 12, 1995 E! network show, Stern said “Here’s what happens when you die–you sit in a box and get eaten by worms. I guarantee you that when you die, nothing cool happens.”

  9. Viole
    April 23rd, 2004 @ 7:52 pm

    Hm… anyone ever wonder if, back in the early days of civilization, someone said, “If we let them make stealing illegal, the next thing you know, they won’t let us kill each other, or rape our daughters. Morality will be a thing of the past!”

    Not in those exact words, of course. And not in that language.

  10. me oh my
    April 23rd, 2004 @ 8:08 pm

    He’s only anti-Bush because Bush is threatening his money supply. Geez.

    …oh, and I left out all the profit he makes from humiliating the disabled. What a great guy.

  11. hermesten
    April 23rd, 2004 @ 10:36 pm

    Nonsense, he was anti-Bush before his money supply was threatened; and that’s probably why it was threatened. Geez. Do I detect a Bushie? And anyway, what fucking right does fucking Bush have to threaten his money supply? Even Rush Limbaugh is against the FCC regulating Stern off the air.

  12. me oh my
    April 23rd, 2004 @ 11:15 pm

    Bush threatened his money supply from the beginning. Gee-whiz. I must be a Bushie if I hate Howard Stern. (And I do.)

  13. Viole
    April 23rd, 2004 @ 11:15 pm

    Wow, me oh my, I could have sworn you just described Rush Limbaugh. I don’t like Stern; I never have. I probably never will. However, if he lost his show because he criticized Bush, then he has my support until he gets it back. Not because I like him now, but because that’s worse than he’ll ever be.

  14. hermesten
    April 24th, 2004 @ 2:51 am

    Ok then, I have to ask, just how did Bush threaten his money supply. I assumed you were talking about the FCC charges, but apparently not. What are you referring to? Please include in your explanation Bush’s legal authority for threatening anyone’s money supply. I’d be anti-Bush if he cut my money supply even if I’d been a Bush supporter (and I bet Rush Limbaugh would too), so why do you think such a motivation is illegitimate?

    And I didn’t say you were a Bushie. I have no idea. I merely raised the question, sarcastically. Also, I’m not a Stern fan or supporter. The few times I heard his show I found little in it of interest. I am merely skeptical when I hear inflated rhetoric such as: “Stern is one of the biggest pieces of garbage in the country: a misogynistic, racist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, ridicule-fueled motherfucker…” One of the biggest pieces of garbage in the country. Yeah, right –ever looked inside a prison? It’s hard to take such a claim seriously.

  15. me oh my
    April 24th, 2004 @ 5:02 am

    Ah, well, you know. Bush is threatening (for example) the money supply of abortion doctors. But he hasn’t done anything against them. In general, a moralistic presidency will threaten those conventionally considered immoral.

    You know how you sometimes ask, “What’s the worst song ever?” or similar? What you really mean is the worst song, combined with its popularity. Thus, the neighborhood rock band has terrible songs, but you’d never mention them. Whereas, Grand Funk’s “I’m your captain” or Madonna’s “Like a virgin” are truly horrible. Howard Stern is extremely popular…combine that with his extreme crudity…and thus you get my meaning.

  16. theomorph
    April 24th, 2004 @ 1:14 pm

    “if he’s anti-Bush that would make him a real patriot and a friend of America, as well as a friend of atheists.”

    I hope you’re not serious. Why do so many atheists think having a religious nut in the Whitehouse is so horrible? Most atheists would love to have an atheist in the Whitehouse, but that won’t happen so long as Christians refuse to vote for someone who doesn’t believe the same as they do. I.e., people on both sides need to stop seeing religious belief as a litmus test.

    Every president is going to have policies you like and policies you despise. So this one is obsessed with religious quackery. That doesn’t make everything he does automatically illegitimate. A president’s policies should be judged on their effects, not on the motivations that created them. I.e., if you don’t like Bush’s policies, then say you don’t like his policies for how they affect the world, don’t tie your support or lack of support to your religious opinions.

    It is possible to be an atheist, to wake up every day, read the news, and slap yourself on the forehead because of what this nutball Christian says and does, but to still support certain policies of his against the alternatives. I get tired of atheists who seem to think that atheism requires one to be anti-Bush. If atheism comes with political requirements, then it’s no better than religion in that respect. Especially if atheists are going to keep saying that religious views ought to be private and separate from political views.

  17. Anonymous Atheist #14273
    April 24th, 2004 @ 1:27 pm

    MeOhMy;
    Don’t knock Howard Stern, he has a much bigger function on this planet then right-wingers like to think. He and others like him – ie: M&M = UTERLY BRILLIANT, et al. They are brilliant geniuses in their rail against censorship. They are what they are because of people (like you – not wanting to point fingers) who tell them what they can and can’t do and why.

    It’s a matter of who’s idea of “one of the biggest pieces of garbage in the country: a misogynistic, racist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, ridicule-fueled motherfucker…” we’re talking about, because I’m sure I could say the same about a lot of people you hold in high regard, or about theists.

    For a person to bad mouth someone like Howard Stern shows that they have little understanding not only of the necessity for such a personality in society but also of the humor. It also illustrates great fear of free-thought and the possible ramifications it may have on society that it possesses. Really what harm is he doing you or anybody on the whole. I would say he is in fact helping society losen it’s collective tie.

    The point is, free yourself from pretention and judgement, and appreciate the different types of people for who they are and the role they have in society. All people, right from the worste axe-murdering, child-raping scum of the earth to the (choke) president are important, because we use them to gague our ideals by and to learn right from wrong. I guess you could call these (all) people (collectively) God. If there were not such diversity we would have nothing to talk about and the world would be a cold, desolate place to live in, indeed.

  18. Andrew Dalton
    April 24th, 2004 @ 3:10 pm

    Volokh’s argument is a shining example of what happens when one tries to be “neutral” between reason and unreason. The advocates of reason get a reprimand, while the kooks get the benefit of the doubt.

  19. me oh my
    April 24th, 2004 @ 4:16 pm

    great fear of free-thought

    Please. The guy talks about womens’ anuses for 4 hours at a shot.

  20. Anonymous Atheist #14273
    April 24th, 2004 @ 4:49 pm

    Mmmm… womens’ anus sandwich would go good right now!

  21. hermesten
    April 24th, 2004 @ 11:01 pm

    me oh my, I still don’t get it. How is Bush threatening the money supply of abortion doctors? What has Bush done that affects the ability of a doctor to perform an abortion? I’ve heard him talk about it, but what has he actually done? I still don’t get how he is threatening the money supply of Howard Stern. Since you didn’t answer the question I must assume you don’t have an answer and your claim was just rhetorical posturing. And ok, you’re being hyperbolic about Stern, but I think that kind of hyperbole undermines your point, since it was originally made without context.

    theomorph, I’m absolutely serious. Why do so many atheists think having a religious nut in the White House is ok? You answer that, and I’ll answer your question with some reasons why I think it isn

  22. me oh my
    April 24th, 2004 @ 11:56 pm

    How is Bush threatening the money supply of abortion doctors?

    Like when a cop waiting in a speed trap.

    He

  23. hermesten
    April 25th, 2004 @ 1:56 am

    I agree with the way you characterize two of Bush’s “accomplishments.” And I didn’t say the fundies were in power. I said they are organized and advancing their agenda, slowly but surely, with Bush’s support as the most senior member of the Republican Party. Most of this stuff takes place behind the scenes –screening appointees for their religious beliefs, for instance. They are building their power base, as I described above. Major religious initiatives will fail without these structural changes, so the bites at the apple have been pretty small so far. For example, the appointment of Leon Kass to the President’s Council on Bioethics. Quoting from an article by Nick Gillespie:

    “Kass not only openly opposes cloning human embryos for therapeutic purposes but has also expressed his discomfort with in vitro fertilization and other “unnatural” reproductive techniques.”

    Another bite at the apple is Bush’s FCC making “blasphemy” illegal this March.

    However, the major impact of his nutty religious beliefs is in US foreign policy. Bush’s whole Middle East policy has its roots in belief of the Apocalypse and the Rapture. Furthermore, it is very dangerous for the leader of the most powerful nation in the world to see everything in two shades, black and white, good and evil. This perspective is based on his religious beliefs, and is enough in and of itself to reject him as a competent president.

  24. theomorph
    April 25th, 2004 @ 11:10 am

    heremesten: Could’ve done without the lecture on what Bush believes, what fundamentalists believe, and so on. I know all that stuff.

    But my overriding concern is the preservation of the American system of government, whereby we can withstand people of all stripes in the White House. I know Bush is a religious nut who thinks he’s been chosen by God. But just like a lot of liberals argued that Clinton’s sexual proclivities were a private matter, I think it’s important to argue that Bush’s religious proclivities are a private matter, too, even if they affect his policies. If an atheist were in the Oval Office, his or her irreligious beliefs would no doubt affect his or her policies, and I would hope that Christians could leave that be and deal only with the policies, not with the person. Fundamentalists have the same right as anyone else to run for, and win election, to the supreme office of the land. Are you saying they don’t (or shouldn’t) have that right?

    When U.S. politics goes in this direction, where we attack the person and his beliefs, rather than dealing directly and solely with the policies, we are degrading the system.

  25. ocmpoma
    April 25th, 2004 @ 11:32 am

    Should atheists judge politicians on their religious views? Theomorph raised a good point, stressing that religion should be a personal issue that does not affect one

  26. hermesten
    April 25th, 2004 @ 12:51 pm

    If your overriding concern is the preservation of the American system of government, you should be very concerned about George Bush, and you should have that concern regardless of his religious beliefs, based on his actions.

    If I said conservatives shouldn

  27. theomorph
    April 25th, 2004 @ 3:09 pm

    When Bush declares himself emperor or dictator, or whatever, and does away with elections, and all dissent is stifled, and people are coming to your house with guns because you don’t support the president and his policies, I will worry about the American system of government. When I don’t hear any dissent anymore, anywhere, I will worry about the American system of government.

    But Bush will one day be gone, either early in 2005, or early in 2009. We’ve had lots of other presidents that people have said all sorts of things about. A lot of the stuff some people say about Bush right now is eerily similar to a lot of the stuff some people were saying about Abe Lincoln in the 1860s–another “war president.” For instance, people have claimed that Lincoln deliberately precipitated the Civil War for economic or political ends, much like they say Bush has done in Iraq. Lincoln made executive orders that some felt unjustly and unconstitutionally abridged the freedom of citizens, just like Bush.

    You’re free to think anything you want about either president, based on the facts available to you. Historians will tell you that the American system was irrevocably altered by our Civil War, but there are very few people are seriously advocating a return to the kind of life we had before 1861. No doubt the Bush administration is irrevocably altering U.S. and world politics with his actions, perhaps for good, perhaps for bad.

    Meanwhile, I don’t see how you can call the war in Iraq a “Christian crusade.” Maybe that’s how Bush says he sees himself, as chosen by God, but we aren’t over there forcing people to convert. If it was a Christian crusade, we wouldn’t be trying to build “democracy” over there, because democracy is not a Christian thing. As an atheist, you ought to know that, because here in the U.S.A. atheists and freethinkers have been trying to fight the mythological “Christian Nation” historiography almost since our nation was founded! And now we have people in Iraq trying to establish a more democratic system, and the religious element is Islam, not Christianity, and they’re discovering the same things we have discovered about religion and government–if they want to get along, they’re going to have to make their religion a private matter, as most in the “Christian” West have done. They’ll get to keep Islam, just like we’ve kept Christianity, but it will be de-clawed, just like our Christians are de-clawed–even Bush, who still couldn’t get away with setting up a theocracy, either here or in Iraq.

    People are going to be religious, and some of them are going to be nuttier than others, and it isn’t going to go away. Islam is still on the rise, especially in Europe, and all these problems that the West has dealt with regarding Christianity are probably going to pop up again with Islam. Already France is having a few little scuffles, banning the head scarves and deporting clerics, and so on. Is the solution to go fearing the occupation of high offices by fundamentalists? I don’t care who is in office, so long as the interests of the nation are served. Of course, people will always argue that whatever actions by whichever president are not serving the interests of the nation, but I happen to think that our nation is not doing too badly right now. And no, you don’t need to give me a litany of things like lack of U.N. support, Spain pulling out of Iraq, and anti-American sentiment around the world, and anti-war demonstrators here at home, the USA PATRIOT act, or whatever else, to somehow “prove” that American civilization is past its zenith and on the cusp of collapsing.

    At any rate, all that doesn’t really matter because the only point I’m trying to make is that you need to consider the fact that it is absolutely possible to support Bush and still be an atheist, just as it would be possible for a religious person to support an atheist, if that day ever came. What I don’t ever want to hear, from anyone especially someone who doesn’t know me, is the implication that my atheism should come with ready-made political doctrines, e.g., being against George W. Bush. The moment you begin implying that atheism requires certain perspectives on certain things, or certain political views, or even certain voting habits, you are not being any better than the Christians who claim their party affiliation (to whichever party) stems from their religious beliefs. The fact is that anyone, no matter what they believe about metaphysics, has the freedom to choose a political path independent of those beliefs. I.e., religion isn’t partisan, and neither should be atheism.

    And for your information, my voting record is about as independent as it gets. I support most of Bush’s foreign policies, and loathe most of his domestic ones. So figure that one out–I don’t like tax cuts, but I’m an Evil Imperialist Scumbag who thinks the only way the Middle East is going to achieve democracy is by holding its fanatics at gunpoint. MOST Iraqis, though, are not fanatics, but are just ordinary folks like you and me who would really like to have their homeland be as peaceful as ours is, and as long as they have Islamofascists blowing stuff up for Allah, they aren’t going to get that. Try reading http://iraqthemodel.blogspot.com

  28. theomorph
    April 25th, 2004 @ 6:22 pm

    Or, let me put it another way, simply, exactly what I think:

    Atheism does not equal leftism, imperialism, conservatism, progressivism, Marxism, anti-imperialism, environmentalism, objectivism, feminism, chauvinism, Trotskyism, capitalism, communism, absolutism, authoritarianism, racism, anti-Americanism, constructivism, elitism, Bolshevism, ethnocentrism, individualism, multiculturalism, pragmatism, socialism, or any other political, social, or philosophical -ism.

    Atheism does equal “I don’t believe in god(s).” That’s it. Anything else I think and believe comes from my particular history and circumstances. If you have a problem with my being an atheist and not a Bush-hater, then you aren’t going to get that problem solved.

  29. hermesten
    April 26th, 2004 @ 12:04 pm

    You

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