Science Isn’t the Only Answer

I’m grateful that Michael Shermer joined the discussion and that he’s outlined his own approach. The main aim of Shermer’s piece is to agree with my conclusion that a great deal of religious liberty in the public sphere is fine, but not for the reasons I cite. The ultimate basis of political order, for Shermer, is the prospect of embodying Enlightenment principles of reason and experiment in politics:

Assertions of religion in the political sphere are becoming as obsolete as those in the scientific realm, and often just as wrong when they collide with reality. Still, just as in science, people must be free to be wrong, for how else will we come to understand what is right? The private religious beliefs of individuals may be asserted and tested in the public sphere—by which I mean the public marketplace of ideas—but never squelched or forced upon anyone through the law.

Religious political claims have been socially tested and refuted, but they’re useful to have around to remind us of failed past experiments in the realm of moral ideas. An appropriately experimental democracy shouldn’t be threatened by religion in politics.

In my response, I’d like to focus on Shermer’s positive proposal for a scientific basis for politics. I begin with an admission that Shermer’s approach sounds less like an Enlightenment view and more like contemporary pragmatist approaches to democracy. On the latter view, government is an extension of our ordinary practices of inquiry, and science provides the ideal model of inquiry.

Of course, Shermer doesn’t defend pragmatist theses about moral truth (where moral truth is constructed in the experimental process), but he also doesn’t defend the Enlightenment appeal to objective morality as deducible from incontestable axioms or the consistency of overwhelming observational confirmation. But it is nonetheless a position I respect.

My main concern about Shermer’s view is that it suggests that social epistemic processes will gradually converge on secular, scientific foundations for morality that will prove more effective in grounding political institutions. I am much less confident in the ability of the use of moral reasoning to generate agreement. Following Rawls, I think free exercises of practical reasoning tend to lead to disagreement rather than agreement about fundamental matters. That is why, contra Shermer’s claim, religious reasoning is not obsolete when it comes to justifying laws and policies. Many continue to believe that religions can serve as explanations of moral truth. This is even true among moral philosophers, an increasing minority of whom are theists.

My Rawlsian intuition is that any successful social order is going to develop many contradictory paths to moral consensus that will never be resolved in favor of one option or another. At least for the foreseeable future, Shermer’s scientistic approach to political order will remain as sectarian and philosophically dubious to many citizens as religious views. What we need instead is an overlapping consensus of approaches, of which Shermer’s view could form an important part.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Philosopher Kevin Vallier of Bowling Green State University suggests that libertarians need to think more carefully about the complicated territory between church and state. A propertarian approach will not suffice, he argues, and yet neither the left nor the right offers genuinely liberal solutions to the problems of religion in public life. Vallier recommends a set of principles that are at once anti-establishmentarian — there will be no official church — and yet “constructive,” in that it welcomes religious interests and even religious arguments on questions of public policy.

Response Essays

  • Patrick J. Deneen argues that the boundaries of political discourse have moved leftward. As a result, so-called religious conservatives now stand in the place that classical liberals formerly occupied: All that they want is a simple religious liberty, with an acknowledgement of the Judeo-Christian character of the morals needed to sustain such liberty. Today’s so-called classical liberals have forgotten their own heritage, and they stand ready to align with secular progressives. Deneen charges that these progressives have as their object nothing less than the criminalization of Christian belief and expression. Those who value small government should therefore side with Christian conservatives.

  • Maggie Garrett takes some issue with the classification system outlined in Kevin Vallier’s lead essay; she does not recognize herself, for one, in Vallier’s portrait of secular progressives. She denies that she stands for secular establishmentarianism in particular, and she would not discount the opinions of people of faith. Yet to count as a valid reason in public policy, she believes that more is required than bare divine revelation; justifications must be given that carry the power to convince others. She would refuse the granting of religious exemptions to otherwise secular institutions, like businesses, that would deny services to same-sex couples or marriages. She defends the contraception mandate along similar lines.

  • Michael Shermer argues that science is producing better government, and that religion hasn’t been a help to it. In a liberal democracy, citizens can experiment with how they want to be governed. They can compare ideas and try out new ones. The American experiment, as it is often called, has been a success in many different ways. Meanwhile, expressions of religion in the public sphere are increasingly “obsolete.” This fact should be recognized; religion should retreat from public life just as it has from scientific inquiry, and for the same reasons.