Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Insular secularism and the roots of bad public policy

Left of center media and academia often dismiss arguments against abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide and even the war in Iraq as arguments that only religious people could subscribe to. How many times have we heard that President Bush is trying to wage a "holy war" in the Middle East, despite the fact that Bush, the Methodist Christian, has called Islam a "religion of peace," much to the dismay of his religious and non-religious supporters.

One can be a conservative and not believe in God. But to be a conservative one must believe that there is a moral order to the universe. Much of the Left is extremely secular in its outlook and, quite often, it is the reason why they end up supporting bad public policies.

Edward Feser explains why we shouldn't dismiss arguments that contain a religious basis when we are embroiled in political discussions.
It is worthwhile reminding ourselves of just how committed to reason, and to its scientific and philosophical manifestations, mainstream Western theism has always been. The most obvious exemplars of this commitment are the many arguments for the existence of God developed by Western philosophers over the centuries. Not all of them are of equal interest, but several have for two and a half millennia found support among the greatest philosophers and scientists, and continue to have eminent defenders to this day. Chief among these are the famous cosmological and teleological arguments, and they illustrate how deeply grounded is Western religion in a sophisticated philosophical account of the nature of reality.

The cosmological argument comes in various forms. On one of the versions commonly associated with Aquinas, the argument attempts to show that a correct analysis of the nature of cause and effect shows that the series of causes that we observe in the world of our experience must necessarily terminate in a First Cause, itself uncaused and unchanging, existing outside of time and space, and sustaining the physical universe in being from moment to moment. On the version associated with G.W. Leibniz, the argument begins from the observation that the material world is contingent -- it could have been other than it is, and indeed could have failed to exist entirely -- and attempts to prove that the only possible way to provide an explanation for the existence of this world is in terms of a Necessary Being, a being which of its very nature could not possibly have failed to exist. According to the version associated with several medieval Islamic theologians and usually dubbed the kalam cosmological argument, a correct analysis of time reveals that it is incoherent to suppose that the universe might always have existed, that it must therefore have had a beginning, and that this beginning must have been caused by a being unlimited by time and space. Each version of the argument then proceeds to attempt to demonstrate that a philosophical analysis of the nature of a First Cause or Necessary Being shows that such a being must be personal, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and is thus identical to God as traditionally conceived.

The teleological argument comes in two main varieties. On the version commonly associated with William Paley, the universe is so complex and orderly, on such a vast scale, and in so many ways that appear to exhibit purpose, that it is improbable in the extreme that anything other than an omniscient mind could have been its cause. This sort of argument allows that it is at least conceptually possible that the universe could have come about without such a designer, but suggests that a correct weighing of the probabilities involved will show that this is too unlikely for anyone reasonably to believe it. The other sort of teleological argument, a version favored by Aquinas, is more ambitious, and suggests that it is conceptually impossible for there to be the sorts of purposes and functions we observe in nature without there being a cosmic designer. The idea here is that for something genuinely to have a function or purpose -- as, for example, biological phenomena like hearts, kidneys, and the like appear to do -- there must, logically must, be a mind which constructed them for that purpose.