December 15, 2004

From the latest National Review

Ramesh Ponnuru writes:
It may be said that apparently reasoned arguments against embryo destruction are really rationalizations for religious views. The opponents are overwhelmingly evangelicals and Catholics. It is certainly possible that our reasoning goes wrong because we are influenced by extra-rational, unacknowledged factors. But the reasoning of people from different religious traditions or none can go wrong, too. Atheists may have their own forms of rationalization, as do we all. Self-consciously secular thinkers can generate their own orthodoxies. Liberals tend to assume, without reflection, that the rational view of an issue is the one that most non-religious people take. The idea that a religious tradition could strengthen people's reason — could help them reach rationally sound conclusions they might not otherwise reach — rarely occurs to them.

During the campaign, Joseph Bottum of The Weekly Standard quipped that John Kerry apparently believed that the fact that his church agreed with him about the wrongness of abortion was a reason not to act on that view. The mental tic Bottum neatly identified is a special case of liberalism's general tendency to identify reason with irreligion.

Liberalism's hymns to reason always end up truncating reason. They are pleas for open debate designed to rule things out of debate. John Rawls himself notoriously ruled that arguments against abortion could not meet the test of his "public reason" (a position from which he later backed away). To someone unsympathetic to liberals, it must begin to look like a kind of trick. Let us imagine a conservative who says that abortion should be illegal because it kills human beings. His liberal friend responds that this sort of theological talk is inadmissible in a democracy because it violates the rules of open debate. We can see that this liberal has misrepresented his friend's views and shut down the discussion — all in the name of reasoned argument. Yet that conversation happens all the time in our politics, and somehow we don't see it.
He also says:
...And while there is no constitutional requirement that people make political arguments in terms that can be understood by fellow citizens with different religious views, it is a reasonable request. Since an appeal to a religious belief, authority, or text will be unpersuasive to people who do not accept it, such an appeal will often be counterproductive (rather than "dangerous").

But even that concession must be qualified. The contention that blacks, like whites, were made in the image of God and thus deserve fair treatment was probably "accessible" to more people when it counted than were purely secular arguments. The vast majority of Americans do not find such religious rhetoric alienating, and in a democracy that ought to count for something.

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