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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Arguing pluralism instead of Church-State

by Michael De Dora

When Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan were asked about how their religious beliefs influence their views on abortion during last week’s debate, Americans were given more than just the chance to hear two vice presidential candidates discuss their faith and how it relates to a controversial political issue. They were given the chance to observe the candidates address a much broader subject: the relationship between religion and politics.

As could be expected, the two candidates outlined two very different approaches to this relationship. In order to discuss the broader points, let’s first take a look at what Biden and Ryan said.

Ryan’s answer:

I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life.

Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course. But it’s also because of reason and science.

You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born, for our seven-week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. A little baby was in the shape of a bean. And to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child Liza, “Bean.” Now I believe that life begins at conception.

That’s why — those are the reasons why I’m pro-life. Now I understand this is a difficult issue, and I respect people who don’t agree with me on this, but the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

Biden’s answer:

... with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a — what we call a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.

But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the — the congressman. I — I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that — women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor. In my view and the Supreme Court, I’m not going to interfere with that.

Ryan's response:

All I’m saying is, if you believe that life begins at conception, that, therefore, doesn’t change the definition of life. That’s a principle. The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

(You can find a full transcript here).

According to Ryan, there is no way (or no reason to try) to separate one’s beliefs regarding the veracity of religious claims from one’s approach to specific policies. For example, if you believe an embryo is a person made in the image of God, and deserving of certain rights, that will undoubtedly influence your approach to abortion. But, according to Biden, there is a way to separate these two. In his view, an elected official must realize that not everyone he or she represents practices his or her religion, and therefore should not have to live according to its dogmas. I think they each make an important point. Allow me to explain.

Ryan’s point cannot be easily dismissed. When Ryan says that he does not see “how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith,” he is stating what counts as a fact for many people. Ryan — like many devoutly religious people — honestly and ardently believes that embryos are people, and that abortion is murder. Though I consider that position incoherent and unsupportable, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a person to believe that, yet sit idly by while thousands of abortions are happening every year. That is simply how belief works: once you accept some proposition as true, you are bound to act on it.

As for Biden, I have a hard time believing that he truly agrees with the Catholic Church on abortion, at least as fervently as Ryan. But that’s not necessarily what matters here. Biden has a compelling point in regard to making laws in a pluralistic society. While he readily admits that he has religious beliefs, he also realizes that public policy influences the lives of millions of different Americans. As such, he thinks public policy should not be based on his (or anyone’s) religious beliefs, which require a personal leap of faith, but on reasons that are accessible by all Americans.

You’ve probably noticed that Biden’s position does not employ the separation of church and state argument; he uses the pluralistic society argument. I suspect some secularists found Biden’s answer incomplete, but I think the pluralistic society argument could actually be more effective at convincing religious believers to adopt secular policies than a purely church-state argument (though I would note that pluralism is indirectly an argument in favor of church-state separation).

To be clear, I interpret the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as mandating government neutrality on religion. Government should not favor religion over non-religion, non-religion over religion, or one religion over another. But there is nothing in the Constitution that states that religious lawmakers are required to leave their consciences at home when they arrive at their respective statehouses. In my view, secularists should realize this, and consider directly rebutting arguments for religiously based laws when they come to the surface, instead of asking politicians to dismiss them as personal or as outright absurd (even if they are). These beliefs are clearly influencing our political system, and should be exposed to critical reasoning.

While we cannot control the reasons people give for their beliefs, we can work to prevent religious-based reasons from entering the debate in the first place, steering political discourse towards secular reasoning. How? I think Biden’s pluralistic society argument is instructive here.

As it happens, this argument has been detailed before by a familiar figure: President Barack Obama. As Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope, “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.” [1] An example he uses is (oddly enough!) abortion:

If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

People cannot hear the divine voice others claim to hear, nor can they rely on others’ assertions that they have heard God’s voice. Furthermore, most people do not believe in the same holy book. In fact, even adherents to the same religious traditions often disagree over central tenets. And, of course, many people (reasonably, I might add) deny that the supernatural realm exists to begin with.

What does the pluralistic society argument mean for religious lawmakers? It doesn’t mean that they cannot hold or even speak about their religious beliefs in political debates. The fact that we live in a highly religious open democracy means that such reasons are bound to appear often. A person’s religious views naturally influence his or her views in politics, and we cannot bar these from entering the discourse. But politicians should also hold to certain practices regarding how to best make public policy. Since laws influence millions of different people who have different values, they cannot be defended by mere reference to a holy book or faith. Public policy must be based on natural world reasons that everyone can grasp and understand. Believe in religion if you like, but also believe that “I can’t make other people live according to my religion; I need to base laws on values that apply to everyone.”

At the least, this approach pushes religiously devout lawmakers to consider how they can defend their views on clearer grounds to all of their constituents. At its best, it will help foster a more reasonable public policy.

For Rep. Ryan, this means that it is not enough to simply tell the story of your wife’s childbirth and of the nicknaming of a seven-week-old embryo. If you think beans deserve equal or even more moral and legal consideration than women, you need a better argument than “I looked at an ultrasound and nicknamed what I saw; you should too.”

If you want to restrict abortion, you need to answer questions such as: what does it really mean to say that life begins at conception? Why do you think embryos are persons worthy of moral consideration and legal protection? Why shouldn’t a woman have the right to largely control her body and make reproductive decisions with her doctor? If you can’t answer these questions without reference to some religious principle, you should think deeply about whether you are fit for public office.


Note: a shorter version of this article first appeared on The Moral Perspective.

[1] Editorial Note: this is essentially John Rawls’ argument, as articulated in his A Theory of Justice.


  1. Public policy must be based on natural world reasons that everyone can grasp and understand. Believe in religion if you like, but also believe that “I can’t make other people live according to my religion; I need to base laws on values that apply to everyone.”

    I suspect that most religious adherents would agree, if only on strictly prudential grounds, even as they furtively attempt to "make other people live according [their] religion."

    For example, look at Ryan's specious claim that his pro-life stance is based in "reason and science" (albeit, in addition to his Catholic faith). Although the "bean" story that follows is a non sequitor* (unless one grants that an emotional reaction to an ultrasound image of one's embryonic offspring qualifies as "reason and science"), he does nonetheless seem to make a valid attempt at framing the issue in terms of "values that apply to everyone." Yet I perceive his "argument" as no less motivated by his religion.

    * and reportedly borrowed from the late Kurt Cobain

  2. The problem here is that the dispute over abortion is not about convincing each other whether "abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all." But about whether there is a fundamental right (what the Supreme Court called a "right of privacy") that inhibits the application of the normal democratic process to the question of whether it is advisable to prohibit abortion.

    Consider an "ordinary" legislative activity such as designating some piece of land as a national park. Suppose some people favor or oppose it because it contains a "sacred" site and other people favor or oppose it because it contains some natural resource. The former is a religious reason, the latter is a secular one. But both are legitimate. and the final decision will be (at least in theory) the result of a democratic process.

    On the other hand consider an attempt to ban certain kinds of speech. There are a variety of such bans that could probably gain a majority on secular grounds. But that isn't sufficient because we have agreed on an overriding fundamental "right of free speech".

  3. Though I disagree with pretty much everything Ryan stands for, I thought the science part of his argument, for him, was the fact that the bean had a heartbeat and the science also of being able to detect it at such an early stage. He was connecting having a heartbeat to being alive.

  4. Agreed with Michael's take on Biden. I don't really believe that most pro-choice Catholics agree with Rome on abortion. If they did, even though it's not a campaign issue, let's ask them about contraception, next.

    To riff on Apocalypse Now: "I love the smell of hypocrisy in the morning."

    More seriously, I have some problems with Roe v Wade, and other parts of this issue.

    On Roe v Wade, arguably, medical advances over the past 39 years mean that medically, we face a bimester system, not a trimester system, yet we're "stuck" with Roe's trimesters unless SCOTUS tosses the whole thing, which I surely don't want.

    Beyond that, I accept the "compelling interest" argument that some pro-lifers make; I don't accept, though, that it comes into play at conception; I think the "bimesters" that I mentioned give us the best reasonable point on viability. Unlike PZ Myers' stance, though, I also reject that it doesn't come into play until a person is 2-3 years old. Should modern society totally break down, unless PZ's been reading survivalist magazines, I somehow doubt he's "viable," either.

    Finally, missing from Michael's discussion is nonreligious people who are prolife. Nat Hentoff is the one who immediately springs to mind.

  5. Shannan: I think that's right, although it begs the question: Why should we prohibit a woman from terminating that "bean"? Just because it has a heartbeat? Something is missing from the argument, and the likeliest explanation in Ryan's case is his conservative Catholic dogma.

    Gadfly: Hentoff might actually make Michael's case. In other words, take away reliance on religious dogma and all you're left with are the kinds of weak arguments against abortion rights & voluntary euthanasia that Hentoff routinely makes.

    1. Mufi, I meant to reply to you, but it actually went to Phiwilli ... to summarize, Hentoff's not that weak; the American "center" is right on this case, and regarding Tweedledee, Tweedledum and the current election, there's much more under the SCOTUS litmus test sun than Roe v Wade: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2012/10/obama-vs-romney-does-scotus-really.html

    2. Gadfly: I'm not sure how you define "weak" in this context. I just know that I've yet to read an article by Hentoff on this topic that I found even remotely persuasive. (I used to read him regularly in the pages of Free Inquiry, back when I was still a subscriber.)

      Of course, being an atheist by no means guarantees agreement - even with other atheists - on complex legal questions like the criteria of personhood or the limits of personal liberty as they apply to this and other social issues.

      I don't know what it means to be in the "American center", but I'm pretty sure that's got nothing to do with the validity of the argument or the factual basis of its premises.

    3. I mention the "American center" not as a referent on either the validity of the argument or truth of the warrants, but, to indicate empirically that (even if they don't know quite what they're grasping for), the majority of Americans seem to hold a position similar to mine.

      I thank you for recognizing that there's disagreement on this issue among secularists.

      And, I don't find Hentoff persuasive, but I don't find him weak, either. Most people probably won't agree with Peter Singer, or with P.Z. Myers whom I already mentioned, but, I think Hentoff is anything but weak for rightfully bringing up the "slippery slope" issue.

      That's why law always recognizes the principle of competing interests, and I see fetal viability "winning out" (if one most view this as a contest) at a point that, on average, would split gestation into two bimesters.

  6. In the early 60's when I was a student at a Southern Baptist seminary and taking an ethics course, the prof made a big deal of the difference between a)separation of religious beliefs and politics, and b) the separation of church and state. a)he said was unacceptable and probably impossible, but b)is essential - and has been the Baptist position for centuries. By b) he meant that it's wrong to use state power to impose one's religious beliefs on others - basically de Dora's position.

    Probably a Southern Baptist prof who took such a position today would soon be fired!

    1. Mufi ... while I disagree w/Hentoff, I don't think all of his arguments are week. And, as you can tell, I put myself in the "center" on this issue ... and on this issue the "center" (rightfully, IMO) has a clear majority in American politics. As a Green voter I normally laugh at claims of "polarization" between TweedleDEM and TweedleGEE-O-P (like the pun?) but, in this case, there is too much polarization, but I don't see how to reduce it.

      And, all THAT said, I'm not a "litmus-tester" for SCOTUS nominees, and frankly, Goody Two-Shoes and Dear Leader both agree on a lot, anyway, as I describe here in saying why a Romney win wouldn't be the end of the world: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2012/10/obama-vs-romney-does-scotus-really.html

  7. Religious belief may drive the conclusion whether life (personhood) begins at conception or at some other time. Once that conclusion is arrived at, however, and assuming it's accepted, the appropriateness of abortion is no longer a purely religious issue. If there is a person, to claim that person should not be killed is not necessarily a religious claim. It isn't necessary to believe a person is made in the image of God to maintain that a person should not be killed. There are (I hope) people who are not religious who would insist that it is wrong, and should be illegal, to kill people.

    Either you believe there is a person or you don't. If you believe there is a person, then to tolerate the killing of that person is not acceptable for policy reasons, or because we live in a pluralistic society and must tolerate those with different religious beliefs. That would be to assert that we should allow people to be killed because there are people who sincerely think people should or can be killed or that there are people whose religion tells them people should or can be killed.

    Regardless of what they assert, Biden, and people like him, don't really believe a fetus is a person nor do they believe a fetus should be treated as a person; or, if they do so, they haven't given the matter much thought.

    1. Well said, Ciceronianus. We must infer that either Biden (1) doesn't think abortion is morally reprehensible or (2) that he really doesn't support the right to an abortion.

    2. This is something of an oversimplification. If a person would die unless I feed them for free, I am not required by law to do so. If they would die unless I let them into my home, I am not required by law to do so.

      If a woman's body is her property, then she has at least as much right to deny its use to an unborn child as I have to deny a meal to a starving person or my home to someone freezing to death. This is true even if you fully accept that a mindless lump of meat is a person because it has a heartbeat.

    3. Stuart Andrew,

      There are two things to say here. First, even if I were to grant your argument, Biden qua Catholic does not have the moral wiggle room to accept it. For him, per Catholic tenet, the mother has a moral obligation to carry the pregnancy to term if the pregnancy does not result from rape or abortion.

      Second, you misrepresent the situation which exists between a mother and fetus. If the fetus was conceived through an involuntary sexual activity, your point stands. However, if the sexual activity was voluntary, even if the participants did not intend to conceive a child, they are responsible for the result. If the fetus is a person (as Biden believes) then it is deserving of legal and moral recognition. And the inconvenience of a pregnancy does not supersede those recognitions.

    4. Why are they responsible for the result? There is no will or intention to produce a child. There might even have multiple attempts to prevent it. Why then must a person commit a nine months worth of time and bodily resources, not to mention forced labor to an act happenstance? It seems like a child is simple a possible punishment for engaging voluntarily in sex...

    5. Why are the participants responsible for the result? There was no will or intention to produce a child. There might even have been steps to actively prevent it. Why then should a person be responsible for and dedicate nine months of time and forced bodily labour to a rougue act of biology that is still completely against her will? It seems to me that under this argument a child simply serves as a potential threat against the women voluntarily engaging in sex.

  8. Biden's argument (if we can call it that) strains all reason. He says, "Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life." And continues with this: "But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the — the congressman."

    The "it" here is abortion which, per Biden's belief, amounts to murder (if an intentional killing of a human being without just cause doesn't constitute 'murder', I don't know what does). But a prohibition on murder and similar actions are precisely the types of actions we impose on others.

    Essentially, Biden is saying:"I think x amounts to murder, but I refuse to impose a prohibition on murder on others." This is patently absurd. If one thinks abortion is the unjust and intentional killing of human beings, one is obliged to support prohibition on abortion, otherwise one is in the ridiculous position Biden finds himself in in this exchange.

    That said, I should say now that I don't think abortion is murder (not even late term abortions) and that a prohibition on abortion is an egregious violation of one's person.

    1. @ciceronianus, @eamon:

      While I agree that politicians are hypocrites, wouldn't Biden's position be acceptable if phased the following way?:

      "I believe that life begins at conception AS A GUIDING PRINCIPLE IN MY OWN PERSONAL LIFE. Yet, I realize that others do not hold this belief. I would not impose my personal beliefs on others, therefore I cannot hold others guilty of what I would consider to be murder if I should do it personally."

      It is not so much a question of whether one believes that murder should be punished, it is a question of whether one believes that one can be held LEGALLY responsible for murder based upon particular evidence.

      Suppose Joe believes that the glove belonged to O.J., but recognizes that the jury believes that the glove DIDN'T belong to O.J. Therefore, Joe is O.K. with O.J. NOT being punished for murder.

      Shouldn't we distinguish personal beliefs from universal beliefs that have the force of law?

    2. Biden's taking on a higher responsibility for himself than he would apply to others.

    3. Tom D.:

      If I believe that murder is wrong and should be illegal, I don't think that can be described as a belief I hold merely as a "guiding principle in my own personal life." In other words, I don't think that I, or anyone else, would maintain "Well, I wouldn't commit murder and think there should be laws punishing murder, but I understand that others think murder is just fine, so it would be improper for me to support laws prohibiting murder as that would be to impose my personal beliefs on others."

      Also, I don't think your O.J. analogy works; there was no doubt a murder was committed in that case and that it was illegal to murder. What was at issue was whether O.J. committed the murder.

      In the case of abortion, if you believe the fetus is a person and so with the same rights as any other person (even if "only" under the law) then you're bound to view abortion as the killing of a person. What Biden and others seem to be saying is "Well, I think a person is being killed, but I don't think the law should prohibit the killing of a person in this case because other people think differently." I think they should acknowledge this, and be held to it, or publically change their position.

    4. Tom D.,

      Re "Shouldn't we distinguish personal beliefs from universal beliefs that have the force of law?"

      Of course, but, as Ciceronianus aptly points out, murder is not the type of action we are merely personally against: Murder, rape, child abuse, and other heinous acts are precisely those things we must prohibit. Biden's statements are absurd and he should not be applauded for them.

    5. You guys miss the point. Biden has a vote within his party and the party decides a 'universal belief' as policy to become a 'universal belief' as law. Biden bows out if his vote fails. Do you seriously expect him to rally against his party after his vote fails? It's called maturity, politics, democracy, compromise. His subsumes his belief politically by necessaity and retains it personallly by necessity as he's a great guy.

    6. Let me put it another way. You won't find the likes of Biden declaring Jihads off his own bat.

    7. I expect him to, at least, be honest regarding his convictions, and not to obsfucate them. If he is willing to subordinate his belief that the fetus is a person (if he does hold that belief) and that abortion kills a person to the interests of his party and his own political interests and status, he should say so outright.

    8. I would say he maintains his belief that a foetus is a person and that abortion kills a person. He also maintains the belief that it is not his right to hold others to his beliefs by outright imposition of his beliefs upon them. He would rather submit to a universal vote when it comes to others. Having both those beliefs, he allows them to coexist, sensible fellow that he is.

    9. I would expect him, then, to take a similar position regarding killing of persons in other circumstances, and as to his beliefs in general. He has no business proposing or opposing laws of any kind, for fear of imposing his beliefs on others.

  9. I wrote a response to this article here (http://freethoughtforchrist.blogspot.com/2012/10/secularism-is-neutral-so-come-over-and.html), in case anyone is interested!

    1. Mark, your URL/blog title gives away the game immediately,of course. That said, if other people want laughs, go to this blog for a stereotypical fundamentalist and conservative evangelical misinterpretation of the First Amendment.


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