Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Joe Biden's Bad Religion [SK]

When Joe Biden isn't smearing Sarah Palin, he's busy peddling nonsense on abortion. "I'm prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and even more devout that I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society."

So Biden embraces a "religion" he doesn't think is true in the real world of politics and law? (Greg Koukl says more about that problem here.)

Bear in mind that Joe has no problem imposing the abortion-choice view that a fetus has no rights whatsoever on a pluralistic society and that contra his own claim, the question of when life begins is a scientific one that can't be answered by theology or philosophy.

There's more going on here than meets the eye. As Yuval Levin points out, the real debate is not over when life begins. Biden doesn't have a leg to stand on when it comes to that question. The real fight, culturally, is over the question of human value. Does each and every human being, regardless of size, location, and development have an equal right to life?

Now if you are a pro-lifer, the minute you reply that all humans have value simply because they are human, Biden and those like him are going to accuse you of making a controversial religious claim, one that has no place in the public square given our pluralistic society.

Whenever I hear this, my first question to my critic is: "What do you mean by religion?"

Everywhere and always, I’m told religion involves metaphysics, that is, comprehensive doctrines about ultimate reality that can’t be proved empirically or argued for rationally. You must accept them on faith. I then ask, "What do you mean by "faith?" Most often I hear that faith means believing something in spite of the evidence; it’s what you fall back on when the facts are against you.

After asking his reasons for believing that, I say: "Tell me why you think anything has value and a right to life." The answer inevitably is grounded in metaphysics, some comprehensive doctrine about the nature of human beings and their place in the world which can’t be proved empirically. I then explain that although the pro-life view is implicitly religious, it is no more religious than alternative explanations about human value and human rights. Everyone is asking the same exact question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? Science can’t answer that question because science deals only with things we can measure empirically through the senses. If you want an answer, you’ll have to do metaphysics.

I've dealt with alleged metaphysical neutrality in other posts, but Biden's dismissal of pro-life arguments as "religious" just won’t work. True, the claim that human embryos have value in virtue of the kind of thing they are (rather than some function they perform) is indeed grounded in a worldview that admits a transcendent starting point for human rights and human equality. But saying an embryo of fetus has value is no more religious than saying it doesn't. Both claims involve prior metaphysical worldview commitments.

I simply don't get why anything that smells like religion is so troubling to secularists like Biden. The Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail all have their metaphysical roots in the biblical concept of imagio dei (i.e., humans bearing the image of God). If pro-lifers are irrational for grounding basic human rights in the concept of a transcendent creator, these important historical documents—all of which advanced our national understanding of equality—are irrational as well.

Moreover, the claim that comprehensive doctrines are faith based and have no place in the public square is itself a comprehensive (and controversial) doctrine, an article of faith that is implicitly religious. What is "religion?" Tim Keller writes that religion "is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing." Keller argues that even the most secular pragmatist comes to the table with a master narrative, a comprehensive explanation about the nature of the universe and our place in it. In most cases, the secularist is attempting to answer the exact same questions theists do such as what makes humans special? Where do rights and moral obligations come from? What is the common good? A religion doesn’t have to be organized along denominational lines to count as religious. All that’s needed is a set of comprehensive assumptions about the nature of the world and how we should function in it.

Thus, all moral views spring from assumptions that are implicitly religious and sectarian in nature. They rely on overarching doctrines that cannot be proven scientifically and about which many people disagree. Consider the twin claims that women have a fundamental right to bodily autonomy and self-realization. Those claims, writes, Keller, "are impossible to prove and are ‘conversation stoppers’" just as much as appeals to the Bible. So why is only the pro-life view dismissed as religious while the abortion-choice view—which has its own set of moral oughts grounded in prior worldview commitments—gets a free pass?

In short, the pro-life view is indeed religious, but it's no more religious than the abortion-choice one.

McCain and Palin should make that clear to voters.

1 comment:

  1. An even more direct route to the point you are getting at is this: If saying that some human being is a person with a right to life is "religious," then saying that Joe Biden or Barack Obama is a person with a right to life is "religious." That the unborn child is a very young member of the human species is science, pure and simple. There is then no presumption that we should assume that some members of the human species are non-persons until we are shown (how, exactly?) otherwise, or we would all fall under that presumption. If Biden or Obama were assaulted, the assaulter would not have a leg to stand on as a legal defense if he said, "But they are just human beings. That doesn't mean they are persons. I haven't seen an argument I accept that they are persons, so it's an imposition of religion to punish me for this attack."

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