Religious Affiliation

The Issue

Barna Group poll results

We hear a lot these days about the US becoming less religious, or, more specifically, has less religious affiliation. Nation-wide polls show that more and more people check off “None” when asked about religious affiliation. And that the percentage of those identifying as agnostic or atheist has risen from 16% to 23 %. What are dedicated Christians to make of such figures? Are we seeing a real downturn in religious commitment? If so, what is to be done about it?  

The answer, I think, is: “Yes,” there is a real downturn but, “No,” the figures aren’t accurate. Let’s take the downturn first.

GI Bill

Following WWII, the US Government hit on a great idea to help slow the return of 10 million GIs into the work force. The idea was to give them a free college education as a benefit of having served their country. Many of those who started college under what was called “the GI Bill” never finished,  but whether they finished or not having that opportunity forever changed their attitude toward college. Higher education, which had up to that time been available only to the wealthy, was now something the so-called “greatest generation” wanted for their children.

The result was that from roughly the middle of the last century onward, a college education was added to the expected post high school rites of passage for all but the poorest segment of the population. Moreover, the number of high school grads applying to college was given a significant boost in the 60s by the fact that going to college could exempt men from being drafted to serve in Viet Nam. The result was that by the early 70s, hundreds of thousands more high school graduates were seeking college entrance than would ever have dreamed of it.

Is Educating People Making them “Unaffiliated?”

So, am I suggesting that becoming more educated has resulted in the downturn in religious commitment? I’m sure that’s what some would like to have us believe, but it’s not quite true. It’s not simply being educated that has had the results we’re now seeing. Rather it’s the way religion has been taught at the college level across the nation for the generations since WWII.

pie charts of change

Religion courses of all types have been among the most popular in the college curriculum for a long time nation-wide. Comparative Religion, for example, has been a huge draw on all campuses from community colleges to major research universities. Students are drawn to religion courses by curiosity and by what they see as the opportunity to study a fascinating subject. The students’ expectation was a course taught from an unbiased source and point of view, as opposed to the biased sources of their childhood religious upbringing.

The reputation of being difficult that attaches to philosophy courses didn’t prevent philosophy of religion from being well enrolled. Actually,  most Introduction to Philosophy courses have regularly included the existence of God among the topics covered. It is the prevailing way these courses were handled that I see as the cause of the present-day decline in religious commitment and religious affiliation.

The Search for Unbiased Teaching

First off, the standard treatment of religious belief was not religiously neutral as opposed to the “biased” treatment of the average church, synagogue or mosque. College instructors have their beliefs and inclinations as do all other humans. And these include whether they believe in God or not. No one can expect anything different, but the average student entering college has been unprepared for that fact. Many even supposed the existence of a neutral stance from which to debate the question of God’s reality. There isn’t.

Second, the standard treatment of whether God is real was (and still is) to examine the arguments that have attempted to prove (or disprove) God’s existence. And there are, and always have been, a minority of professors who defend one or another proof. But, the vast majority left the upshot of their examination stamped “UNDECIDED.” This conclusion conveyed two great mistakes to the last four or five successive generations of American students. Without explicitly stating or examining these mistakes the following was simply accepted. 1) the way to ascertain God’s reality is by argument and proof.  And 2) the attempts at proving God’s reality have all failed. The conclusion these generations reached is that no one really knows the truth about whether God exists or not. Many choose to have no religious affiliation.

The Proofs Have Failed

Let’s take the second one first. I agree that the proofs have all failed. But I disagree that their failure leaves God’s existence in doubt. There’s a simple but important point that all attempts to prove God’s reality have overlooked: the New Testament says that God created “everything visible or invisible (Col. 1: 16). If that’s right, it includes the laws of logic, one of  the invisible creations. But if God created the laws by which we prove anything, then he is not subject to them. Applying them to God is therefore demoting him to the status of a creature. The proofs argue that God is governed by laws of proof instead of being their Creator.

Symbols of many differing faiths

The proofs have also done other mischief against their best intentions. They have led many people to think that belief in God is a theory, and therefore in need of proof. When we make theories we do, indeed, try to test them. And logical proofs are frequently part of that process. But belief in God is no theory! It is instead a report of the experience of those who have encountered God.

Experience it for Yourself

College students today need to be told to look for their own experience of God, rather than to engage in the logical evaluation of arguments. They need to be urged to read the scriptures in order to hear God speak to them. They need their own encounter with the living Creator who is not the conclusion of an argument. Instead, he is the God and Father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ.

Basic Morality

Defining Basic Morality

The term “basic morality” is one which I think of as the basis for ethical positions taken on any number of subjects.  Basic morality is the moral vision which is shared by a whole community. Ethics is a shared group of moral values which help a community to exist. Basic morality is the foundation for a society that can function justly.  Basic morality is the shared understanding of what is expected from all members of society.

An Illustration

Cartoon of landscaper and tools

Perhaps an illustration is called for here. As I write this, there is a group of five men working on the landscaping at a property I own. Basic morality says that since they are working, they are to be paid for their work. It would not be just for me to refuse to pay them. But I am going to only pay the company itself for the work. There is one man who is the owner of the company, therefore I am fulfilling my moral obligation in extending payment to the company through him. The company, in turn, is expected to pay the employees. That is the moral thing to do.  The company cannot withhold payment from the workers without incurring moral judgement which could lead to legal judgement in a court of law.

There are several places in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures which call upon a person who employs another to pay that worker for his/her efforts.  That is the “right thing” to do.  Jesus (in Luke 10) referred to a verse in Deuteronomy when he said, “A workman is worthy of his hire.” When a person gives of her time for another, it is a basic morality obligation to remunerate her for her work.

All of this requires a mutually agreed upon basic morality. I did not ask each of the men who are working for me to arrive such and such a day at this time, and work. They arrived by agreement with the owner of the business. The various workmen do not expect me to pay them for their labor. It is understood by all of us that the company will pay them. Therefore, my observation is that basic morality leads to a system that is deemed to have justice at its core.

Incarnational Ethics

When we seek justice, we embody basic morality for our community. The commonly agreed upon moral order needs people who will “en-flesh” that moral order. The principles of the moral order need embodiment in society.  The principles must be put into practice by people who are moral agents fully aware of the implications of their actions for society.

planting a shrub

So, when you decide on a certain course of action for your life as a laborer, you are expecting (rightly so) that the person who hires you will treat you honestly. However, there are far too many occasions where employers are less than honest when dealing with their employees. It is when that happens that we all become moral/ethical  thinkers who rely on a philosophical outlook to shape our response to the situation.  

What is your take on this? Were you aware of being a philosopher when asking for a paycheck? Philosophy is not so abstract after all!

decision circle

Public Ethics

Public ethics in court
I swear to tell the truth…

Public Ethics in Question

One of the deepest issues of our culture today is determining which ethical principles apply to our lives and our conduct with one another.  We call these public ethics. This is especially true when we attempt to find an ethical pathway in a landscape which seems to be filled with hidden pitfalls and changing rules.  For example, Nancy Gibbs writing in a recent Time magazine article states,

 We all learned back on the playground that whoever makes the rules of the game stands a better chance of winning it. It’s an uncomfortable lesson, one that requires us to accept that norms are fluid, that expectations shift, that people’s actions are not only judged as right or wrong, but are also measured against the depravity or valor of their peers.

The Fluidity of the Rules

Notice that she does not say that the rules are a given. No, these days the rules are “fluid.”  People’s actions are not only judged or evaluated to determine if those actions are right or wrong. We judge a person’s actions by the depravity or valor of peers. Unfortunately, she gives no definition of either term. An online dictionary gives us a succinct definition of depravity. Depravity goes beyond mere bad behavior — it is a total lack of morals, values, and even regard for other living things.” The same dictionary defines valor as “honor plus dignity. It is gallant bravery and strength. Especially on the battlefield or in the face of danger.”    Just to round out this group of definitions we should note that the word “norms” is given a singular form when defined. “A statistical average is called the norm.”

Public ethics decision circle
Decision Circle

So, we discover that it is the statistical average that dictates the norms for behavior. In a culture of habitual liars, a person who tells the truth is outside the norm. But does that make the truth teller  a morally suspect person?  If the norms are fluid and are determined by someone else’s depravity and still another’s valor, then there is very little that can be called good.

Public Ethics is Fraught With Pitfalls

I define our topic as follows. “Ethics is the motivation to do what is good.” I read a story today of another newsworthy example of this ethical quandary. Google recently set up a public ethics  advisory board of people from outside their company. This board’s task was to give advice on ethics in Artificial Intelligence. Google ran into a stunning event. Thousands of their employees (actually about 2-3 %) decried the membership on the board of a person known to be a “conservative.” The woman engaged in “hate” speech toward some members of society (allegedly). See the article at the link https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/4/4/18295933/google-cancels-ai-ethics-board  So Google hastily disbanded the ethics advisory board. Google hopes that this puts the mistake behind.

Public ethics questions

 This blog entry demonstrates how important the subject of ethics, justice, mercy and moral reasoning has become.  We, as a culture, are unable to even agree on the rules that we attempt to live by.  And as Nancy Gibbs says, the rules are changing and those who make the rules often do well because they made the rules. (Emphasis added) How shall we as a culture interact with each other? Which statistician will come up with the averages accepted as the norm? Whose rules will we agree to live by? More discussion will come!

Declaration of Independence: Justice

Introduction

Roy Clouser is my friend and partner (I’m the junior partner, just to be clear) in this effort to create a blog that addresses the issues facing philosophy. In the past couple of posts, I have began thinking on the subject of justice. Recently, I found a transcript of Roy’s lecture at Harvard Law School in October of 2007. He presents many insights into what our western culture considers to be justice and how to address this culture philosophically. A very short excerpt follows in which he speaks of the Declaration of Independence. Also, just to be clear, I believe it is rare for someone to be invited to give a lecture on justice at Harvard Law School!

I must hasten to say that this excerpt begins right after the introduction in which Dr. Clouser lays out his format for the content of the lecture.

A THIRD VIEW OF RIGHTS AND LAW: A critique of assumptions behind the Declaration and the Constitution The 13th Annual Kuyper Lecture for 2007, Harvard Law School 18th October 2007

natural law theory illustrated
This illustration does not necessarily reflect Dr Clouser’s description of natural law theory, but it does show something of how it is developed.

The Declaration’s Source for Rights

Let’s start with the Declaration’s version of natural law theory. The truth behind the words of that document may, I think, be summarized as follows. The truth is that all humans have a sense of justice. Every people, tribe, tongue, civilization, and culture that has ever existed recognized that it is a norm for life that people should “give to all their due” and be treated likewise by others. So I think it’s correct. Humans are “endowed by their Creator” with an awareness of this norm. And neither their awareness of it nor the norm itself are human inventions or anything they can make go away. Both seem instead to be “natural” and to generate obligations on people’s thoughts and actions whether they wish it or not. That is the element of truth I think the Declaration came close to getting right.

Is There A Universal Ought the Declaration Recognizes?

      But the Declaration doesn’t quite put the point the way I just did. It doesn’t say there is a norm for justice built into created reality, which all people have the ability to recognize. Nor does it identify that norm as the source of the obligation they feel to obey the statutes government enacts. The Declaration does not appeal to a universal norm that obliges all humans simply because they’re human. Rather, it skips the norm for justice and speaks only of rights.

This is a serious omission because such rights as it envisions could only result from the norm of justice. So as I see it, the Declaration gets things backwards. It assumes that people have rights and that those rights are the basis for justice. In fact unless people first recognized the norm of justice the whole notion of rights would make no sense. For a right can be nothing other than: a benefit or immunity that cannot be denied someone without injustice.

  Do Women and African Americans Have Rights?

   By getting the relation between the norm and rights backwards, the Declaration bases the authority for human law-codes on the subjective condition of individuals rather than on a universal norm. It was this significant distortion that led to arguments over exactly who is and isn’t born with rights. For example, in early US history political leaders actually debated whether women or African-Americans had rights. But such a debate would make no sense if rights were the result of a universal norm; in that case all people would have rights because the norm of justice holds for all people. But the Declaration reversed this and tried to make the rights of individuals the basis for knowing what is just. Then – sadly enough – it did make sense to argue over who was and was not born with those rights.

Does the Declaration Think Social Organizations Have Duties?

     The individualism of the Declaration is also deficient in yet another way. By making rights the possessions only of individuals, it fails to see that social organizations have rights (and obligations) as well. It is not only individuals who have rights and obligations vis a vis government. But so do marriages, families, churches, schools, businesses, and so on. For are not they, too, recipients of free speech and press? Are they not also to enjoy freedom from search and seizure? Should not each be guaranteed the freedom to conduct its own internal affairs rather than be dictated to by government? And do they not also have an obligation to obey the laws government enacts?

By speaking only of individuals and government, the Declaration has bequeathed to America a habit of thinking in a truncated way that misses an important point. That point stems from the universality of the norm of justice. That is, justice requires that there be rights and obligations not just between individuals and government but between individuals, between individuals and all types of organizations, and among the various organizations as well.

I hope this gives you some grist for your mill. We will continue this in my next post.

Doubt: A Response to William Irwin

Preface

Philosopher William Irwin teaches at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He recently published a book entitled God Is a Question, Not An Answer.  In this volume Irwin contends one could find companionship with others who struggle with doubt about God. The title comes from a line in a novel, The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. Apparently Irwin’s book responds to the statement uttered by an impious man in the novel, “God is a question, not an answer.” In an article in the New York Times in 2016, Irwin makes this statement, “It is impossible to be certain about God.” In this post, Prof. Roy Clouser gives his response to Irwin’s thought.

Some history of “Doubt”

There is a long history in the western intellectual tradition of opposing doubt to certainty.  Ancient skeptics argued that we have no genuinely certain knowledge because there is nothing that cannot be doubted. Further, the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, thought he had to answer the skeptic’s claim in order to rescue the future of both philosophy and science.  His proposal for the one belief that cannot be doubted is each person’s own existence. No one, he said, can doubt his or her own existence so long as he or she is conscious of anything because existence is a precondition for consciousness.  The fact is – and no matter how far-fetched it may seem –  the Buddhist Pali Canon teaches the doctrine of Anatta which rejects the certainty of the self!  The result is that there are Buddhist monks who have cultivated doubt as to their own existence for centuries.

A Delusion?

So does that really mean we have no certainty?  Is it somehow a delusion innate to humans that causes billions of normal people to regard themselves as certain of countless beliefs all day every day?  David Hume, a sceptic, dismissed their certainty when he derisively referred to average folk as “the masses of the ignorant, unlearned, children, and savages”?

My Contention is…

I contend that the real illusion is that there is no good reply to skepticism along with its contention that there is no certainty. The illusion is the product of a category mistake.  The two categories confused are:  1) doubt as a subjective psychological condition, and 2) doubt incurred because of the actual grounds for a belief.  My point is that we can and often do have excellent grounds for a belief so that it deserves to be certain, while at the same time our subjective condition can prevent us from feeling fully confident about it.  What is more, we can be justifiably certain of a belief and doubt it at the same time because doubt is not the denial of certainty, disbelief is.  

We are entitled to be certain of whatever cannot be reasonably disbelieved, not of whatever cannot be doubted.  Thus, the proper reply to the claim that everything can be subjectively doubted is:  So what?

An illustration

Think of it like this. I start across the street and see a bus headed directly at me. I am fully justified in being certain I will be hit by it unless I move out of its way.  The certainty of that belief cannot be affected in the least by the fact that I happen to feel invincible that morning. My feeling gives me the idea, “I doubt the bus will hurt me.” By the same token, if I see a jeep drive over a rope bridge that spans a 1000- foot-deep gorge, I have every reason to believe it will hold me if I walk on it.  All the same, I may be terrified to walk that bridge. In fact, I may find myself in subjective doubt that it will support me with every step I take.

Doubt

Doubt and Belief in God

The same is true with respect to belief in God.  The New Testament speaks of faith as certainty derived from experience, and never as belief without – or beyond – the evidence. In a number of places the New Testament uses language for this experienced certainty. It echoes what mathematicians and philosophers had long called “self-evident” truth. Thus, people experience seeing God’s reality to be a self-evident truth. That belief may very well be fully justified. They are entitled to regard it as certain.

Pascal likened the recognition of the truth of God’s existence to the intuitive recognition of “the first principles of number, time, space, and motion.” Then he added: “Therefore those to whom God has given religion by intuition are blessed and justly convinced.”

Similarly, John Calvin compared seeing the truth about God to normal sense perception. He wrote “scripture bears on the face of it such evidence of its truth as do black and white of their color, sweet and bitter of their taste.” Nevertheless, Calvin also thought the life of the believer in God to be “a constant struggle with doubt.”

Conclusion

Many non-Christian thinkers – Prof Irwin among them – claim that the only beliefs worth having are those we in fact doubt. They assert that doubt renders a belief less than certain. As a result they conclude (quite confidently!) that it is impossible to be certain about God.

But, in fact, they have never given us any good reason to believe either of those claims are true.

Roy A. Clouser                                          

Prof Emeritus   of Philosophy & Religion