TCS Daily

How to Mix Religion and Politics

By Edward Feser - March 29, 2005 12:00 AM

We are constantly told by liberals -- or "progressives," or "the reality-based community," or however it is they are marketing themselves this week -- that religion and politics ought never to be mixed. Religion, it is said, should be confined as far as possible to the private sphere. In the public square, it is secular considerations alone that ought to get a hearing. The problem with these claims is that there is absolutely nothing serious to be said in their defense. We can of course readily concede that the Constitution forbids the establishment of any particular denomination as the official religion of the United States; I know of no one who denies this. But the question is not whether membership in some church or synagogue or other ought to be compulsory. The question is whether religious arguments should have the same standing in public life as secular arguments, and the answer is that there is no good reason they should not.

To be sure, liberal criticism of the influence of religion on politics is largely directed at a straw man in any case. In most of the areas where liberals think they see such an influence, religion plays, or need play, no essential role at all. For example, the main arguments presented by opponents of abortion and same-sex marriage do not rest on religious premises. Some pro-life arguments do indeed make controversial claims about the moral and metaphysical status of the fetus -- just as pro-choice arguments do -- but acceptance of those claims does not necessarily entail belief in God. The influential arguments of Princeton University's Robert P. George, for instance, rest only on some very plausible and modest claims about fetal biology and a few secular moral premises. The arguments of Don Marquis, the author of what is probably the most widely anthologized and cited pro-life article in contemporary philosophy, assume an even less robust and controversial view of the nature of the fetus. Things are no different with same-sex marriage. Philosophers like Roger Scruton and Michael Levin have defended traditional sexual morality in terms of a quasi-Kantian ethics and evolutionary psychology, respectively, rather than by appeal to any religious tradition or authority.

Suppose, however, that someone did defend a view about abortion, same-sex marriage, or some other contentious matter by appealing to religious considerations. Why should this be considered unacceptable? The problem, in the view of many liberals, is that religious considerations are matters of faith, where "faith" connotes in their minds a kind of groundless commitment, a will to believe that for which there is no objective evidence. Opinions on matters of public policy, they would say, can only appropriately be arrived at via methods of argument assessable by all members of the political community, not by reference to the idiosyncratic and subjective feelings of a minority.

If religious arguments were in general really like this, then I would agree with the liberal that they ought to be kept out of the public square. But in fact this liberal depiction of religion is a ludicrous caricature, and manifests just the sort of ignorance and bigotry of which liberals frequently accuse others. Thomas Aquinas, for example, would have found it unrecognizable, committed as he was to the proposition that the foundational truths of religion could be demonstrated through reason alone. To have faith, in his view, is not to believe without evidence; it is rather to trust in the veracity of a God for whose existence one can have overwhelming evidence, and whose will can be known (at least in part) through a study of the ends and purposes inherent in nature. Indeed, the mainstream view in Western religious thought was for centuries (and still is within Catholicism and among some Protestants) that religion can and must be given a foundation in reason. This traditional view also holds that the allegedly religiously neutral premises of scientific and philosophical inquiry themselves point inescapably to the existence of a divine Author of nature and of reason.

Rational Theism

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.

Both of these kinds of teleological argument are in principle consistent with evolution -- they are decidedly not "God of the gaps" arguments of the sort associated with "Intelligent Design" theorists -- and their contemporary defenders would suggest that modern biology poses no challenge to the main thrust of either one. Some defenders of the first, Paley-style teleological argument would argue that even if it is allowed that natural selection can account for all biological phenomena, neither Darwinism nor any other scientific theory can in principle account for the most basic laws of nature, the laws on which evolutionary biology itself rests. Once science has traced its explanations down to the fundamental laws of physics, it has said all that it can possibly say, and to explain those laws themselves, one must appeal to philosophical reasoning -- reasoning which will lead one to posit a cosmic designer.

One way to understand the Aquinas-style teleological argument is in terms of the idea that a purely materialistic interpretation of evolutionary theory is necessarily committed to denying that biological phenomena really have any purposes or functions at all. On a strictly materialistic view, that is to say, things have only the appearance of purpose or function, but are, in fact and literally speaking, without any purpose, function, or meaning whatsoever. Talk of "functions" and "purposes" ends up being at best a recourse to convenient fictions, a shorthand for complex but purposeless causal processes. Precisely because function and purpose, understood literally, necessarily presuppose a designing mind, such notions must be banished from a consistently materialistic interpretation of biology. And taken to its logical conclusion, this entails a denial of the very existence of mind even in human beings, since mind is inherently meaningful and purposive and materialistic causal processes are inherently meaningless and purposeless. It entails, that is, a view known among philosophers as "eliminative materialism," so-called because it advocates eliminating the concept of mind from our scientific and philosophical vocabulary. Materialistic Darwinism, on this view, is, when properly understood, thus committed to a radically counterintuitive, and even incoherent, metaphysical picture of the world -- whether or not Darwinian materialists themselves generally realize this. It follows that evolution can only coherently be understood if interpreted within a broadly theistic worldview.

Now it is important to make clear that I haven't actually presented any of these arguments here -- the arguments are far too complex to present and defend even one of them adequately in a short article. What I have done is merely to give a sketch of the strategy deployed by several theistic arguments, and the point is to indicate that they are serious and sophisticated attempts to deal with philosophical issues of the very greatest depth and controversy. Quite obviously, these arguments are anything but appeals to "faith." They are instead nothing less than attempts to show that reason itself leads inexorably to an affirmation of theism.

Versions of these arguments were defended by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, and Newton, and their defense had absolutely nothing to do with ignorance of modern science -- indeed, some of these thinkers were among the founders of modern science -- because the arguments do not ultimately stand or fall with any scientific results in the first place. The arguments are rather philosophical or metaphysical in nature -- they begin where science leaves off, and offer rational explanations of what science cannot in principle explain because all scientific inquiry necessarily presupposes it, viz. the existence of an intelligible and orderly cosmos. They can, accordingly, only properly be understood and evaluated by persons with philosophical training (something few contemporary scientists have, judging from the shallow understanding of philosophy many of them exhibit when they depart from purely scientific questions and wax metaphysical). Among the contemporary defenders of the arguments are writers like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, John J. Haldane, James F. Ross, Richard Taylor, William Lane Craig, David S. Oderberg, David Braine, Barry Miller, Robert Koons, Charles Taliaferro and many others -- analytic philosophers highly respected within the field and applying the most rigorous methods of analysis and argumentation.

Suppose, then, that someone is convinced that the mainstream Western tradition of rational theism is correct, and that the arguments supporting it are superior to those supporting any rival point of view. Suppose too that he is convinced of the soundness of a rational system of morality -- the natural law theory of Aquinas and his successors, say -- which has its foundation in the sorts of natural purposes and functions appealed to by some of the theistic arguments just described. What reason could there possibly be for him not to allow these entirely objective and rationally defensible considerations to influence his views about politics and public policy?

The Rhetoric of Secularism

It is true, of course, that there are many philosophers who do not accept the arguments described above. So what? What that shows is that arguments for the existence of God are no different from every other argument in philosophy, including arguments for atheism, or arguments for abortion and same-sex marriage for that matter: they are controversial, matters about which intelligent people can and do disagree. Do secularists demand that those in favor of legalized abortion and same-sex marriage refrain from advocating their positions in the public square simply because their arguments are nowhere near universally accepted? Of course not, nor should they. So why do they demand that religion and politics be separated not just in the constitutional sense that no one ought to be forced to belong to a particular denomination or to accept a particular creed, but also in the stronger sense that religious considerations, however well supported by rational arguments, ought to get no hearing in the public square and have no influence on public policy? Why the constant harping on about the "separation of church and state," but not, say, the "separation of naturalistic metaphysics and state," the "separation of feminist theory and state," or "the separation of Rawlsian liberalism and state"?

There is a peculiar tendency for contemporary intellectuals to apply to arguments for theism a standard they do not apply to other controversial arguments. This is, I am sorry to say, no less true of philosophers (at least if they are not specialists in the philosophy of religion) than it is of other intellectuals. A secularist can argue for the most offensive and intuitively preposterous conclusions -- that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with bestiality, necrophilia, or infanticide, say, as Peter Singer suggests -- and even philosophers who disagree with those conclusions are prepared to treat them with the very greatest seriousness, insisting that such views must, however prima facie implausible, at least get a respectful hearing. This attitude is, more defensibly (and in my view entirely appropriately), even more common where less inflammatory topics are concerned -- the nature of causation, say, or of knowledge, mathematical truth, the relationship between mind and body, and countless other well-known objects of philosophical inquiry. In every other area of controversy, virtually no argument is ever considered decisively refuted: the common attitude is that there is always some way a defender of a particular position might reply to the standard objections, so that the position must be considered "still on the table." Yet the classical arguments for the existence of God are, almost alone among philosophical arguments, commonly held (again, at least by philosophers who do not specialize in the philosophy of religion) somehow to have been decisively "refuted" long ago.

That this attitude is rationally unfounded is not the view of theistic philosophers alone. The prominent atheist philosopher Quentin Smith has lamented the smug ignorance so many of his fellow atheist and naturalist philosophers exhibit where matters of religion are concerned. Indeed, he has gone so far as to argue that apart from those atheists and naturalists who specialize in the philosophy of religion, "the great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false." The reason is that they typically make no serious attempt to familiarize themselves with the actual writings of the classical theistic philosophers or with the work that is being done today in defense of the classical arguments. Their naturalism tends instead to be merely an unreflective adoption of current philosophical fashion.

A similar ignorance prevails among intellectuals where religiously based arguments in ethics and politics are concerned. As the political philosopher Jeremy Waldron (who is not exactly a member of the "religious right") has written:

        "Secular theorists often assume they know what a religious argument is 
        like: they present it as a crude prescription from God, backed up with threat 
        of hellfire, derived from general or particular revelation, and they contrast it 
        with the elegant complexity of a philosophical argument by Rawls (say) or 
        Dworkin. With this image in mind, they think it obvious that religious 
        argument should be excluded from public life... But those who have bothered 
        to make themselves familiar with existing religious-based arguments 
        in modern political theory know that this is mostly a travesty..." 
        (God, Locke, and Equality, p. 20)

No one familiar with the style of argument presented in a religiously-oriented journal of politics and social affairs like First Things, say, or the Journal of Markets and Morality, could reasonably deny that religious considerations can have a rational bearing on social policy. Nor can anyone familiar with the classical and contemporary literature on philosophical theology deny that the arguments for the theistic worldview mentioned above are every bit as defensible today as any other philosophical argument. In any event, if you think that it suffices to refute such arguments to ask "Well, what caused God, then?" or "How do we know the first cause is still around?" or "How do we know that the first cause is God?" then you haven't even begun to understand how the arguments are supposed to work. If you are an intellectual, especially a professional philosopher, who is prone glibly to dismiss the classical arguments of Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. on the basis of such objections, and do not realize that they are directed at journalistic simplifications and silly caricatures of the arguments and have no force whatsoever against the arguments as properly formulated, then you should be embarrassed. There are several good books that might help you fill the gaps in your education -- J.J.C. Smart and John J. Haldane's Atheism and Theism is one, William Lane Craig's The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz is another, and Christopher Martin's Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations is a third, and the works of any of the contemporary authors named above would also be helpful. You might want to read one of them before accusing religious believers of not knowing what they are talking about where matters of the intellect are concerned.

A Double Standard

Now, some liberals might object that it is one thing for religious intellectuals to weigh in on matters of public policy, but quite another for redneck Bible thumpers to do so. Yet why should the educational level of a person supporting a particular policy matter to the evaluation of the policy itself? If a policy can be supported with serious arguments made by serious thinkers, what does it matter whether someone who is uneducated also supports it for less sophisticated reasons? Do liberals and secularists think twice about supporting their own favored policies simply because some uninformed and inarticulate rock star or Hollywood starlet might favor them too? Why does the liberal always judge his own creed in terms of its most sophisticated representatives, and yet insist on judging rival creeds -- conservatism and traditional religious belief, for example -- in terms of their least sophisticated representatives?

It will not do either to try to justify the liberal double standard concerning religion by regurgitating tired and tiresome clichés about religion's tendency to lead to wars, persecution, Inquisitions, Crusades, Galileo's house arrest, etc. For one thing, most of those who appeal to such clichés know very little about the actual history of the Inquisition, the Crusades, or the Galileo episode, and about how beholden the simpleminded popular image of these events is to Reformation and Enlightenment era polemics rather than to serious and objective historical inquiry. For another thing, the body count generated by such committed metaphysical naturalists and secularists as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and other acolytes of the Marxist counter-religion is far higher than anything even the most fanatical jihadist has been capable of.

Finally, it is no good either to suggest that since we live in a pluralistic society, religious believers ought to keep their convictions off the table where public policy is concerned. For this point cuts both ways. Traditional religious believers have far more in common with each other, after all -- at least on questions concerning abortion, euthanasia, sexual morality, and the like -- than they do with secularists, and they are more numerous then secularists, at least in the United States. So why, if we are going to play the "pluralism" card in the first place, shouldn't the secularists be the ones required to keep their deepest convictions to themselves and out of the public square? And if it is legitimate to mix secularism and politics, pluralism notwithstanding, how can it be any less legitimate to mix religion and politics?

This is not to deny that the fact of pluralism poses a serious political problem: it does, and I frankly confess that I have no idea how to solve it. But then, neither does the liberal, whose favored "solution," as I have argued elsewhere, basically amounts to the proposition that all views in a pluralistic society can be tolerated only so long as they submit themselves to the liberal's own idiosyncratic and highly contestable conception of justice. That this peculiar brand of liberal intolerance ought to be regarded as superior to the religious variety is a proposition the liberal seems strangely uninterested in trying to justify. Perhaps he bases it on faith.

Edward Feser ( is the author of On Nozick and the forthcoming Philosophy of Mind: A Short Introduction. He is a regular contributor to The Conservative Philosopher and Right Reason.


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