Sunday, March 4, 2007

Sunday Secularism Blogging: truth, faith and decision-making

Alonzo Fyfe at Atheist Ethicist has a wonderful post up that makes two very important points:

1. Religions and religious people get away too easily with claiming that they have access to a "special way of knowing" through the exercise of their faith that allows them to see truth and falsity and right and wrong, somehow, without evidence or argument, and with justifying their actions on the basis of this mysterious faculty.

2. The very popular idea (even among secularists) that we ought to respect religion because of the good things it has done for society leaves out accounting for opportunity costs. As he puts it:
So, when it comes to selling religion for the good that it does, we need to ask what could have been done with the same resources and the same effort. We must not only at the good that people do in the name of God and call this “the good that religion does.” We must look at the good that the devotion of these resources to religion prevented from being done. This becomes the cost of religion.
I don't actually have much to add to Alonzo's post (which deserves to be read in full, of course), except to make a couple of points about the connection between his ideas and secularism.

Firstly, these two points together sum up my biggest problem with enterprises like the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives (the title of which has apparently been changed to "Faith-Based and Community Initiatives", in a remarkably lame and questionably syntactical nod to secularism). Certainly, religious groups can and do help people all the time, but that in itself isn't even enough to find those groups admirable, since they might do more harm than good when looking at the broader picture. It certainly isn't enough to show that those groups are the best and most efficient way of spending the government's money to help people, which would be the only justification for spending the money on them in lieu of actual governmental social welfare programs. And, of course, there are all kinds of reasons for believing that the Faith-Based Initiatives are inefficient and don't provide the best services. (If examples are necessary, consider abstinence-only sex ed and the ridiculous marriage-promotion program I talk about here.)

One of the most important reasons to maintain a wall of separation between church and state is to avoid precisely this kind of situation: the government wasting money, time and effort (and even lives, in some cases) because it feels beholden to particular religious ways of tackling problems based on "special" ways of knowing the solutions to problems. As I see it, there are three ways that this can take place:

1. The cynical deference to religion shown by the Bush Administration in establishing the OFBI, which is almost certainly motivated by little other than contempt for social programs and a desire to shore up the religious right.

2. Outright theocracy or semi-theocracy, in which the government makes decisions on the basis of the outright or implicit establishment of religion--where the government itself claims to participate in the "special way of knowing".

This corresponds to our current situation to a certain extent, though not to the extent of, say, Saudi Arabia. Certainly politicians make policy arguments on the basis of religious claims all the time, and the government gives money to religious groups directly through OFBI. (OFBI may not constitute the establishment of any particular religion, but it definitely constitutes accepting the legitimacy of making decisions on the basis of "special" ways of knowing, which is problematic enough.)

3. A situation in which the government itself makes decisions on a secular basis but allows enormous leeway for its citizens to make decisions on the basis of their "special" ways of knowing.

This certainly corresponds to our current situation, but it's debatable whether it's a problem from a secularist point of view. Certainly, people ought to be allowed to think what they like, but ought they be allowed to make decisions on the basis of whatever they like if those decisions affect other people? I certainly don't think so, but there's a tricky gray area here. It's one thing to say that people shouldn't be allowed to kill people on the basis of their religious beliefs and quite another to say that they shouldn't, say, make their daughters wear veils...

In any event, the point I'm trying to make is that secularism is important not just for the sake of our civil liberties in the abstract, but for keeping our government responsive to reality. To the extent that a government allows itself to make decisions on the basis of "special" ways of knowing, it severs itself from reality and (perhaps more crucially) from accountability. (You can't have accountability without evidence.) That those "special" ways of knowing often line up just fine with reality is no comfort. We need our government to be responsive to us and to the facts, not just to the voices in our politicians' heads.

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