A blog of politics, law, religion, and the tricky spots where they collide.

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Faith, death, and belief

I recieved an series of anonymous questions a few days back on a set of heavy topics. They aren’t the sort of questions I would generally leave unanswered for an extended period of time—but I didn’t notice it appear. And, because the questions were anonymous, unless the asker is a regular reader, I would guess she or he has moved on. But out of respect for the questions, here it goes.

You are a religious person. Have you ever had a period of strong questioning of your faith?

There is certainly a school of thought that considers faith antithetical to questioning. I guess the thought is that faith goes in the place of (or in the face of) reason. Faith, it is thought, is for those who can’t be bothered to work tough questions out for themselves.

I see faith differently. If we allow our beliefs to be questioned and refined they become stronger. Faith is what we do while questioning. None of us has all the answers—but at some point, we’ve got to make some decisions about how we live our lives. The first few times I jumped from a high dive, I was terrified. Rationally, I knew the water was there, that jumping in the water wasn’t going to hurt, that I knew how to swim, and that even if I forgot how to swim there were lifeguards who would get me out of the pool alive. But knowing what you believe and actually jumping are different things. Jump.

Consider a relationship. After a certain point, you can start to feel secure that no, you’re not hallucinating. Your partner loves you. At least, you’re pretty sure. Can you ever truly know what another person feels? Maybe you’re in some bizarre Truman-show like joke. Or maybe it’s all going to unravel tomorrow. There are always doubts—but you don’t help yourself by dwelling on them when you have a life to live. Love.

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Faith, Reason, and Marriage Equality

SDS, Daniel Holter, and Matthew J. Franck disagree on marriage equality. Franck accuses marriage equality proponents of wanting to “drive a wedge between faith and reason” and to marginalize and anathematize opponents. Holter says we should drive a wedge between faith and reason and anybody who insists on sticking with faith can marginalize themselves. SDS says that marriage is either a social construct—in which case it doesn’t matter because it’s all subjective—or it’s some sort of natural law thing and, by implication, we can’t be blamed for hurtful discrimination. I disagree with all of them.1

Franck is wrong to assume that opponents of marriage equality represent a static group. The primary strategy for marriage equality activists is to engage, educate, and persuade those on the other side. (As always, some people are better at and more earnest about engaging the other side than others.) Step one is to make people aware that the issue is worth considering seriously. “Because the guy on the TV said so” is a perfectly good reason to believe a lot of things. If the weatherman says it’s likely to snow, I’ll generally believe him. If another weatherman says it’s not going to snow, I’ll conclude that there may be a debate—but since I’ll be inside all day, I don’t really care. But once the issue becomes important and personal, I’ll do my own research and my own thinking on it. It’s not an abstract issue. It’s an issue that effects me or those I care about. We to make sure that nobody continues to believe that gay marriage is an issue that only gay people need to care about. It’s an issue about fundamental equality.

Step two is to debunk some myths about same-sex marriage. Some people believe, for example, that a lasting, monogamous relationship between two men is impossible. They’re factually wrong. Some believe that homosexuality is caused by child abuse or bad parenting. They too are wrong. Some believe that homosexuality is simply a “lifestyle choice”. Again, this is debunkable. Some believe some the Bible says some things about homosexuality that it doesn’t actually say. This can all be checked and rationally discussed. Some people believe that same-sex couples aren’t capable of creating a stable environment for children. Again, we have data on those things.

Behind all this is a belief that most people will eventually come out on the right side. Hearts and minds change slowly. But in twenty years, hopefully the vast majority will end up where they ought to end up. And at that point there will still be a few proud people who are too proud to admit they could ever have been wrong about anything. They’re certainly marginal. But have they been marginalized? Or is it just a matter that everybody else left and they’re determined to hang tight and be crushed under the turning wheel of history?

Daniel Holter is wrong on decoupling faith and reason. First two are not opposing forces. Reason is an epistemological tool. Science is another epistemological tool. Faith is (among other things) a third epistemological tool. In the interest of long-suffering brevity, I won’t go too deeply into what faith means here. But I will say this: idolizing reason is folly. If you’ve studied any epistemology at all, you realize the limits of rationalism. Why should we trust reason? Any reasoned answer to that question is inherently circular. We might as well go with either 1) because God wants us to, or 2) why the heck not? Reason provides its own warning lable: not for exclusive use. But this isn’t the primary problem with treating reason as the end-all-be-all of epistemological tools. The biggest problem is that we suck at reason. People on both sides of the issue consider themselves “reasonable.” Daniel Holter is reasonable. SDS is reasonable. In the current exchange, both have alluded to arguments from reason. Yet they come to shockingly different conclusions.

I have nothing against reason. It’s a great thing. It’s helped me a lot. But I can’t help feeling that we’d be in a better world if every time people said “Be reasonable” to quell the passions or discount the experiences of others they got punched in the nose.2

Finally, SDS is wrong to suggest that if marriage is a social construct nothing about it matters any more than the choice between two flavors of ice cream. Because something fluctuates and changes over time does not mean that it is meaninglessly fluid. There was a time, for example, that the continents were not in the shape and arrangement they’re in now. There will be a time—in the very, very distant future—when they’ve changed arrangement again. This does not mean that North America does not exist.

The most undebatably constructed of social constructs I can think of off hand were the “two bite club” and “the clean plate club” in Kindergarten. These “clubs” promoted 1) trying at least two bites of all food before declaring that you don’t like them, and 2) eating all the food on your plate to avoid waste and (more importantly) to avoid you complaining that you’re hungry again in fifteen minutes. They weren’t even real clubs. They were meant to instill very simple virtues in very young people. And they worked. Because we all wanted to be in “the club” even if we rationally knew the club was stupid. They were social constructs—but that did not mean they had no value, they had no rules, or that any nonsense could be said about them. You couldn’t be in the two bite club if you refused to eat something, unless you had allergies or it became so much of an issue that it was disrupting everything and then you could have an honorary membership if you would just shut up about it already and take half a bite.

With marriage, the stakes are a whole lot higher than they are with the two bite club. But marriage does not need to be something that predates civilization to be valuable and worth discussing. We can discuss what marriage has historically been. We can also discuss what it should be. It is not simply a matter of opinion. Real lives and real people are at stake.

For that reason, I think we should talk about marriage as an institution that is relevant to and changing in response to today’s society. Those who oppose marriage equality may find the natural law approach where marriage is deduced from some conveniently chosen first principles comfortable. After all, it allows them to say, “Hey! It’s not my fault I’m voting for policies that hurt you and the ones you love. It’s just that I’m ruled by reason, unlike you flopsy post-modernists (who are probably also gay gay gay). I’ve used my reason to deduce that it turns out I was right about everything I believed all along. Don’t call me prejudiced. Call me brilliant!”

In conclusion, you’re all wrong—and get off my lawn.

  1. As always, I would encourage you to read all of their posts in full. I attempt not to be terribly unfair in my characterization of others posts—but it’s really better to let them speak for themselves. Besides—these are three very intelligent people who state their positions eloquently and intelligently. 

  2. I worry that if they let me design the world, there would be a lot of violence. It’s not that you get to punch somebody in the nose who tells you to “be reasonable.” After all, they might have had a good point. It’s just that somebody jumps out of a tree, punches them, then runs off. After a decade of this, perhaps people will start getting anxious after telling somebody to be reasonable, look around, panic a bit, then punch themselves int he nose to end the suspense. Also in this world, you get your ear cut off if you ever claim that “reason” belongs primarily to any one group of people. Since this is a cool futuristic world, there’s hopefully some way to regrow those ears in a week or two. 

(via sds)