About Rationally Speaking

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.

Showing posts with label Michael De Dora. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael De Dora. Show all posts

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Against lobbying

by Massimo Pigliucci

Recently I’ve had a Twitter “discussion” with my friend Michael DeDora (I know, the meaning of the term here is a bit stretched: think of having discussions on Twitter as analogous to being forced to write Haiku poetry. You will never get the Iliad out of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s all garbage). The topic of the discussion was the morality of lobbying, and it was sparked by my posting a link to this article in the New York Times, reporting that — entirely unsurprisingly, and just as entirely objectionably — lobbyists for large banks are “helping” US legislators write laws about bank regulation... [If I have to explain to you why this is a problem, you may as well not bother reading the rest of this post.]

Michael, who is a lobbyist for the Center for Inquiry, retweeted my tweet, adding a “Hey!” in front of it, in clear protest. [To complicate things, I should disclose that I actually helped Michael find his job at CFI, and am very proud of his career there!] An interesting exchange ensued, during which Michael tried to convince me that lobbying is not just a necessary evil (as I readily admitted, in the specific case of non-profit / non-corporate lobbying), but a positive good for our democracy. Here is why I think he is wrong.

[In what follows I will quote Michael’s objections verbatim, followed by my off-Twitter commentary.]

Michael: I think lobbyists/advocates are necessary no matter how “good” the democracy is, unless it is a form of direct democracy.

Well, no. Democracies have existed for a long time without lobbying, and have worked very well, thank you very much. Indeed, institutionalized lobbying is a recent phenomenon, pretty much exported by the United States, and still relatively young in other Western countries. I’m sure it will spread, but I regard this as yet another case of unfortunate American influence on the rest of the planet, not as something that is necessary for a functional democracy. Michael seems to be assuming that without lobbying organizations the American people would have no way of communicating their priorities and choices to their elected representatives. But this is clearly not the case: not only are said representatives elected (ideally, I know) precisely on the basis of what they explicitly say they will do on behalf of their constituents, but the constituents themselves can (and do) pick up phones, computer keyboards and the like and actually let their representatives know what they want or don’t want. Moreover, it is standard practice for elected officials to go back and visit their districts, and even to periodically conduct polls to assess the priorities of their fellow citizens. So, no, lobbying is not the only alternative to direct democracy. [And by the way, I think direct democracy is a horrible idea, just ask Plato.]

Michael: Elected representatives need to be reminded on daily basis what constituents care about, and to hear from experts on those issues.

I have already taken care of the first part of this argument, but the second part seems to me to mischaracterize what a lobbyist is: lobbyists are not just “experts,” they are advocates of a particular point of view. Yes, they may have expertise on a given subject matter, but that expertise is channeled specifically in the service of a pre-determined agenda. Representatives have other ways to get impartial expert advice (to the extent that impartiality is possible on political matters, of course). First off, they have paid staff whose purpose is precisely to provide them with background research on whatever issue they are suppose to be legislating. They can also ask their staff to contact, say, academic experts or organizations (like the National Academy of Sciences) to provide them with the needed perspective. Going to a lobbyist for education is like going to your bank for financial advice. Wanna bet they’ll tell you that their products are the best on the market?

Michael: Ideally citizens would be educated and engaged — your “good” democracy — but they still need guidance, support, representation.

Right, which is why we have, ahem, representatives who are supposed to also lead our country in better directions (whether they do it or not is, of course, another matter). Of course, Michael is thinking largely of his own type of activity with CFI, which I do think is — unfortunately — necessary. But recall that the exchange began with an article about corporate lobbying on behalf of banks. Do banks (or any other corporation or industry) really need “guidance, support, representation”? I think not.

Michael: American democracy is enormous; there are many groups which are underrepresented in the political process for whatever reasons.

This is a good point, though again, hard to imagine banks as qualifying here. More broadly, my objection to lobbying is based on the reality that groups who can pay for it get privileged access to legislators. The groups Michael is concerned about, ironically, are the least likely to get such access, because they typically have the smallest budgets. Wanna compare what CFI spends on his activities in Washington with what, say, the oil industry does? Besides, let’s think about exactly what it means for groups to be underrepresented in the political process. People of different genders, ethnicities, religious affiliations, political ideologies, and so forth, all get precisely one vote when it comes to electing representatives. Of course this does not automatically translate into equal representation, but that’s because of problems with the electoral process (e.g., disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor), lack of education, and so forth. Those are certainly problems worth addressing, as they are structural and truly fundamental to a viable democracy, but they have little to do with lobbying per se.

Michael: Special group = constituents. How do you view efforts of Secular Coalition, CFI-OPP, NSCE, Americans United? Necessary evil?

That’s right, that is precisely how I see them. And no, groups do not equate to constituents, but to particular types of constituents, usually with deep pockets and a resulting unbalanced access to Congress (see above).

Michael: Citizens have always formed groups based on shared social/political goals, partially in order to attain better democracy.

Indeed, as they should. But my objection isn’t to social advocacy in general, or organizing in support of social causes, and so on. It is specifically about lobbying, as defined above.

Michael: Define “the rest of the world.” There are activists/lobbyists all over Europe.

Yes, there are. But first off, there is a difference — again — between activists and lobbyists. Second, even a document [download] that Michael himself shared during the course of our Twitter conversation makes my point. The report in question essentially says that the only countries were there are registered (meaning: officially recognized as part of the way the government operates) lobbyists in the Western world are the US, Canada, and Germany. In all other countries, of course, there are people and organizations that try to influence the legislative process, but do not have regulated privileged access to the legislators. Indeed, the report mentions the case of the UK, which I think is one from which the US could learn: “The UK, on the other hand, has opted to regulate the lobbied rather than the lobbyists.” In other words, the focus should be on regulating the legislators and prevent privileged access to them by any group, an approach that hardly diminishes people’s rights to organize in support of their causes.

Michael: I think we need to differentiate between corporate-focused lobbyists (e.g., banks) and issue-focused lobbyists (e.g., church-state).

Indeed we do. Which is why I support CFI but not JPMorgan Chase. Still, it is far too easy for bank (or any other corporation / industry) lobbyists to make the argument that they too are concerned with issues. And being non-profit is hardly a guarantee, as it is all too easy to set up front organizations, like so many Washington “think tanks,” that end up doing the same sort of job that corporate lobbyists do. Once we buy into the idea of legalized privileged access, all bets are off, as far as I’m concerned, and democracy suffers. (I don’t think anyone can reasonably argue that current American democracy is not one of the worst in history, with an unprecedented degree of decoupling between what constituents want and what their alleged representatives actually do. And yes, lobbying is a major factor in this abysmal state of affairs — that and the legalized bribery that is the system of private contributions to re-election campaigns.)

Michael: If anything, it makes the situation worse. By not recognizing and regulating, there is more corruption happening.

Here Michael was responding to my observation that most other Western countries do not recognize lobbyists (see above). Well, this is of course an empirical question, and I’ll await pertinent empirical evidence to settle it. But note one thing: in Italy (for instance) corporations do not have special access nor can they give money to politicians to help elect them. This doesn’t mean that the Italian political system is free from corruption (far from it!). But it does mean that if you are caught engaging in that sort of activity you end up in jail. In the US, by contrast, not only is that sort of blatant bribery legal, but the Supreme Court has even magnified the problem recently under the Constitutional right of freedom of speech! (Yes, I know, strictly speaking campaign contributions are a separate issue from lobbying, though in reality the two are highly connected.)

My exchange with Michael ended up on the positive note that we’ll both look into empirical evidence for specific claims and revisit the topic. As one of my followers, Josh Bunting, ironically put it: “I was hoping this would end with ‘USA! USA! USA!’ instead of ‘I'll do some research and get back to you.’” How disappointing indeed.

[Note: I have invited Michael to respond to this post, if he feels so inclined. I hope he will, it’s an important conversation to have, particularly with someone like him, who has actual experience of lobbying from the inside.]

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A brief detour through The Twilight Zone

by Michael De Dora

The end of another year and the start of a new one is quickly approaching, which means we are getting closer to one of my favorite annual events: The Twilight Zone marathon! As it has done for years now, the channel SyFy will air non-stop episodes of Rod Serling’s classic television show on Monday, Dec. 31 and Tuesday, Jan. 1. You can find more information, including a full schedule, on the SyFy website.

For most people I meet, The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) was an entertaining if not groundbreaking science fiction anthology series that set up extraordinarily hypothetical situations and ended with a twist few viewers saw coming. But for a devoted fan such as myself, the show did much more than just amuse its viewers: it explored the nature of the human condition. Through his storytelling, Serling (creator, executive producer, and often script writer) depicted the many flaws of the human mind and the wretched behaviors these produce – irrationality, authoritarianism, xenophobia, narcissism, and more – and portrayed what could happen if they were not recognized and dealt with head-on. 

As Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry put it, “No one could know Serling, or view or read his work, without recognizing his deep affection for humanity … and his determination to enlarge our horizons by giving us a better understanding of ourselves.” I would argue Serling wanted to do more than just enlarge our horizons: he wanted to motivate us to improve the world. Indeed, he once quipped that, “If you want to prove that God is not dead, first prove that man is alive.” I would also argue that a person cannot fully understand Serling’s passion without watching several episodes of The Twilight Zone.

As an inducement to readers of Rationally Speaking, what follows are brief summaries of ten episodes that in my mind best represent this passion, all of which will air during the marathon.

Death’s Head Revisited (Dec. 31, 10 a.m.)

Aired during the proceedings of the Adolf Eichmann trial, this episode features former SS Captain Gunter Luntze returning to remains of the Dachau concentration camp to recall his time as commandant during World War II. While there, Luntze is haunted by the ghosts of the Jewish people whom he tortured and murdered. The conversation between Luntze and the ghosts covers many of the arguments made by Eichmann and other Nazi officers.

The episode concludes with Serling’s response to the question, “Dachau … why does it stand? Why do we keep it standing?” I find it so gripping that I will quote it in full:

There is an answer to the doctor’s question. All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become gravediggers. Something to dwell on and remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God’s Earth.

Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? (Dec. 31, 7 p.m.)
On a cold, snowy night, two police officers receive word that a mysterious flying object has crashed in the woods. Upon reaching the site of the crash, the officers discover footprints that lead across the street to a diner. They follow the trail and find a group of bus passengers waiting out a storm. When the officers arrive, they ask the bus driver how many people were on the bus. He responds: six. Yet there are now seven passengers in the diner. What gives? 

The officers employ their best detective skills in trying to determine which of the passengers is the alien. The surprising and enjoyable series of twists that end the episode underline two points. First, sometimes the people you think are most likely to be guilty are least likely, and vice versa. And second, sometimes assumptions, when accepted without question, too narrowly limit the focus of our scrutiny. 

I Am the Night, Color Me Black (Jan. 1, 12:30 a.m.)

Serling reportedly wrote this episode in response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which took place roughly four months prior. The plot in no way makes this fact obvious: in a small town, a man is set to be executed for a crime he most likely did not commit, while nonetheless the town’s inhabitants are looking forward to – indeed, celebrating – his public hanging. 

But as the day progresses, the town is taken hold by an eerie and seemingly unexplainable phenomenon: despite the fact that the sun should be rising, the sky is continuing to darken. Is this occurrence related to real world ongoings? Or is there something else going on? You’ll have to watch to find out.

I Shot an Arrow Into the Air (Jan. 1 6:30 a.m.)

With the space race fully in motion, Serling often addressed the wide-ranging possibilities of what humans might encounter beyond planet Earth. In this episode, he introduces viewers to Arrow One, the first manned flight into space. 

Flash forward and the spacecraft has crash-landed on what appears to be a barren planet. Several astronauts are dead, and soon after the remaining astronauts begin to fight. The twist ending aside, this episode raises an obvious and deep question: how might humans behave toward one another if there was little to no expectation that they would be accountable to society ever again?

Nick of Time (Jan. 1, 4:30 p.m.)

In one of two episodes to star William Shatner, a husband and wife on a road trip suffer a problem with their car and are forced to stop in a small, unknown town and have it repaired. They decide to grab lunch at a local diner, where each table is equipped with a one-cent fortune machine. Shatner’s character proceeds to play. 

He quickly becomes obsessed with the machine’s seemingly accurate answers, and continues to drop in pennies despite his wife’s protests. Yet does the machine really have the ability to understand Shatner’s questions, or is Shatner being duped?

A Stop at Willoughby (Jan. 1, 7 p.m.)

Thus begins a string of four of my favorite episodes – and one that Serling claimed was a favorite of his. Gart Williams is an ad executive in the city who increasingly feels the stresses of a demanding job and a wife bent on riches. On his train commute home, Williams begins to dream of a stop named Willoughby, a utopian town “where a man can live his life full measure.” 

This episode was one of Serling’s favorites because it was personal. It dealt explicitly with the kind of work life becoming more common in that era – long hours in a competitive office environment featuring intense mental pressures – and its effects on life at home (Serling worked in television in Hollywood, and eventually retired to upstate New York). But I think there is another angle to this story: perhaps, for some people, imaginary life truly is better than the real thing. 

The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (Jan. 1, 7:30 p.m.)

It is a clear and normal day on Maple Street, when suddenly a dark shadow passes over, followed by a loud roar and a bright flash of light. Every house on the block loses power, and every car stops working. As the community speculates on what could have happened, they start to believe it must be aliens attacking Earth. A number of strange things begin to occur, and suddenly every person on the block is accusing the other of being an alien. 

This episode, which has been used in classrooms to explore with students ideas like critical thinking and intolerance, closes with another poignant Serling narration:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs, and explosions, and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy. And a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is, that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.

Howling Man (Jan. 1, 8 p.m.)

David Ellington is an American citizen touring the countryside in Europe who gets separated from his group and caught in a thunderstorm. Desperate for shelter, he stops in what appears to be a church and begs for help. The inhabitants demand he leaves at once, but a weary and sick Ellington collapses.

As Ellington recovers, he begins to hear howling. He demands to know the source of this noise, threatening that if the inhabitants do not tell him, he will go to the police. For your sake, I won’t describe any more of the story here, but let’s just say the moral I take from this one is that once again, reason loses and evil escapes humanity’s firm grasp. 

Time Enough at Last (Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m.)

This is one of four episodes to feature Burgess Meredith, who plays Henry Bemis, a bookworm interested only in reading. This focus draws criticism from both his co-workers and his loved ones, who try to convince Bemis that there is more to life than reading. 

While most people focus on this episode’s twist at the end, I think there is a deeper angle at play. Have you ever thought that life would be better if everyone else just disappeared and left you alone to your own devices? That’s precisely what Bemis thought – that is, until he happened to take a brief detour through The Twilight Zone.

The Obsolete Man (Jan. 1, 10 p.m.)

This episode represents perhaps Serling’s most direct attack on authoritarianism and censorship. It features Burgess Meredith again, this time as Romney Wordsworth, a religious librarian set to be euthanized because the state has found his work and views “obsolete.” 

The episode highlights the dangers of declaring any individual member of society unworthy of basic rights, with Serling flipping the focus from people to the state in his closing narration: Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete.


In case you cannot catch this television marathon, The Twilight Zone is streaming on Netflix. And since there are 156 episodes of the original series, those who enjoy the above offerings might also take pleasure in many other episodes. In case you’re looking for a decent starting place, here are ten other episodes I highly recommend: The Eye of the Beholder, Where Is Everybody?, The Shelter, To Serve Man, People Are Alike All Over, The Little People, Nothing in the Dark, A Nice Place to Visit, The Brain Center at Whipple’s, and The Silence.

Enjoy, and have a happy new year!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Michael’s Picks

by Michael De Dora

* In case you are one of the many people who rush in donations at the end of the year, you might consider checking out the organization GiveWell, which evaluates and ranks charities based on how effective they are in allocating their resources to those in need and accomplishing their respective missions. GiveWell’s top three charities for 2012 can be found here

* On a similar note: it is often said that conservatives are more charitable than liberals, in that conservatives donate more money to charitable organizations than liberals. But is this commonly held view true? According to a new study, the answer is no. 

* The Washington Examiner recently featured yours truly in a profile, including a brief interview on my position regarding religion and morality. The creationist Ken Ham caught wind of it and was not impressed.

* Susan Jacoby, ahead of the release of her new book on Robert Ingersoll, pens a wonderful essay for The American Scholar on the little-known 19th-century freethought advocate and orator dubbed “The Great Agnostic.”

* Addicted to heroin? Meth? Alcohol? Neurosurgeons in China claim to have a cure: destroy the pleasure centers of the human brain. Carl Zimmer explores all sides of the intense debate on this issue for Time magazine.

* Christian blogger Robert Hunt clarifies that a secular government does not abandon discussion on moral beliefs it values. It simply requires a different approach to discussing them. What a refreshing read! 

* On his blog Against the New Taboo, Tauriq Moosa argues that fiction and literature play an important role in shaping moral thinking. 

* Gallup has released a new survey that details the reasons why Americans either support or oppose marriage equality. You can view the findings here.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The problem with baptisms

by Michael De Dora

Last week I received an invitation to a baptism. Usually mail of this sort would not merit enough consideration for an essay on a blog devoted to philosophical and scientific discussion. You might even consider it a normal part of life. Indeed, this was at least the 10th invitation of this sort I’ve received from relatives over the past couple of years, and I expect to start receiving them from friends in the near future.

Yet this time around, things were different. While I have accepted some invitations in the past, my living situation has often prevented me from even considering going to most. However, this latest baptism is being  held at a time when I would be able to go. But I am not going. Given that my decision to decline has drawn questioning, and that I plan to continue not attending baptisms moving forward, I think it’s worth explaining my position in a public forum. This will allow both others and myself the opportunity to make sense of this surprisingly heated issue. 

Before moving forward, let me paint a quick picture of what goes on at these gatherings, at least in my experience. The baptisms to which I am invited typically take place in a Christian church, usually Roman Catholic, somewhere on Long Island, New York. Attendees dress in their nicest clothes and gather at the selected church to watch a (supposedly) holy man lead a religious ceremony, some more sectarian than others, which concludes with the crowd rejoicing over a newborn being blessed. Depending on your religious beliefs, you might think God or Jesus Christ is present. When the proceedings conclude, everyone heads to a local restaurant for a celebratory meal. 

This might sound innocuous to most Americans, but I think there are a couple of significant problems that I can best illustrate by considering some common questions I receive regarding my opposition:
  • Are you so rabid about your atheism that you would be offended attending a religious ceremony?
  • Are you saying parents shouldn’t make decisions for their kids? 
  • Isn’t baptism just one small, meaningless ceremony? 
  • Why would you sit out a family event? What do you think you’re accomplishing? Isn’t that being intolerant?

Allow me to take these one-by-one. 

Simply put, no, I have not been personally offended when attending religious ceremonies such as baptisms. I do find them a waste of my time – usually I sit and read the Bible in an attempt to pull some education from the lengthy service – but I am rarely offended. That said, to focus on my experience is to miss the point. The reason why I am uncomfortable with baptisms is not because I am personally offended; it’s because I am offended by what is happening to the child.

To me, a baptism represents, at least in part, a parent forcing his or her religious heritage on a child unable to approve or reject the gesture. It labels a baby with a certain religious affiliation, and enters him or her into that religion, or else puts him or her on the path toward that religion. My presence at a baptism condones the practice of basing your child’s beliefs on yours. But as a person who values freedom of conscience, I reject in full the idea of parents passing their religious beliefs onto their children by default. I believe we should not label or push a child regarding religion – atheist, Christian, Muslim, or anything else – until he or she can make up his or her mind about the matter. I believe parents should provide their children a neutral and informative perspective rather than an indoctrinating and closed-minded one.

In this sense, baptisms categorically differ from other religious ceremonies that I have attended and will continue to attend. For instance, several of my friends have been married in churches, through religious ceremonies. I have attended each one and will continue doing so. Why? Because they are two grown adults deciding they, and only they, want to get married in a religious ceremony at a church. While I would certainly choose a different setting for myself, at least they have thought about it, and consented to the final decision (unless, of course, their family has coerced their decision, in which case I say shame on the family). 

But back to baptisms. Some people have responded to my previous line of argument by stating that, “you know, parents need to make decisions for their children. They don’t have a choice.” In a certain respect, I agree. Clearly parents need to keep after their children, and ensure their safety, health, and happiness. A good and generally agreeable example is that a parent has to make decisions regarding a child’s dietary habits (though I say generally, because clearly parents do not have an absolute right to instruct their children as they wish, an issue I’d like to take up in another essay). But a baptism has nothing to do with the direct safety, health, and happiness of the baby. A baptism is the act of deciding for a child something that is irrelevant to the child’s immediate well-being. It is not akin to telling your child to eat his or her greens; it is an effort to plan and control the development of the child’s beliefs and values, especially regarding religion.

Which brings me to the next question, regarding baptisms being a single and small instance of parents’ intrusion. I admit this, and do not believe baptisms in themselves represent a severe or pressing moral problem. You might even point out that children in Islamic societies undergo far worse methods of indoctrination, and I would agree. However, the fact that these experiences are different doesn’t make either of them good or desirable. Nor does it alter the fact that these experiences are all part of a broader landscape of behaviors in which parents are pressing their religious beliefs onto children, without giving the children a chance to think things through from an objective standpoint. Some rituals might be worse than others, yes, and it would be short-sighted to pick on only one specific behavior at the expense of others. But I do reject them all, I just happen to think that rejecting baptisms in particular is a worthy focus in the U.S., since they are often the beginning of a lifelong trend for the child.

In regard to my family and friends, I think it’s misleading to claim that sitting out a baptism is akin to sitting out a family event. To me, a family event is one where the family comes together to celebrate the family. A baptism is an event focused almost solely on religion. There is no other reason to gather on the day of a baptism but to celebrate the child’s induction into a certain religion. Hence, I am not missing a family event; I am missing a religious event attended by my family. There is a difference.

Even so, I do not sit out baptisms to offend my family members (or friends), nor should my absence necessarily offend them. I wrote above that the focus of this discussion should not be about my feelings as a secular person. It also should not be about my feelings for family members and other loved ones, which are irrelevant and unquestionably strong – I value my family members and friends, and try to spend as much time with them as possible. The focus here should be on the child. And in my estimation, the child is being wronged. 

In closing, I would argue that the simple act of sitting out baptisms does actually serve a purpose. Historically speaking, one of the only ways that tradition has ever changed is when certain people stand up and proclaim, “wait a minute; something isn’t right here; we have some issues with what’s being practiced.” This allows other people who might share in this dissent to see some safe ground on which to plant their feet. Perhaps, as a result of my actions, one of my relatives (doubtful) or friends (more likely) will find the courage to not baptize their child. At least I can hope so.

Even if I fail to convince anyone else, I see no reason why my secular and others’ religious opinions cannot coexist within a framework of tolerance. Certainly I am disagreeing with a long-practiced tradition. But I am not organizing anti-baptism protests outside of churches, or lobbying for laws banning baptisms. I am simply stating that I would prefer not to attend baptisms because I consider them a harmful practice, or at least part of a broader spectrum of harmful practices. How is that intolerant? Tolerance doesn’t mean going with the flow or keeping one’s mouth shut for the sake of tradition. Tolerance means being respectful toward others. There’s nothing intolerant about sitting out a religious ceremony that is contrary to your values, or providing honest answers when asked a question about your decision. If anything, it is the vocal criticism of my right to not attend such ceremonies that betrays a degree of intolerance.

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.