Thursday, March 25, 2021

Laws promoting theism do not enable us to be free

 By Mathew Goldstein

Monika Jablonska is a lawyer and the author of “Wind from Heaven: John Paul II, The Poet Who Became Pope.” This is a response to her article History and Tradition Teaches We Are Free Because of Our Faith in God” that was published in Newsmax.

To be a meaningfully distinct concept from a non-divine alien, or a fictional character, a god needs to be a supernatural being. The question of whether or not we inhabit a universe that operates strictly within the the constraints of naturalism is a question about how the universe operates. The only reliable method to answer such questions is best fit with the available empirical evidence. Our knowledge of how the universe operates increases with time as we accumulate additional empirical evidence. History and tradition are focused on the past. A prioritization of the past promotes a freezing in place our understandings of how the universe operates that have since become obsolete. When combined with a reliance on faith to buttress that historical and traditional conclusion about how the universe operates, such an approach can result in a mind that is not only residing in the past but is also closed to the recent and new. This circular closure is then reinforced by claiming that the particular conclusion about how the universe operates which is rooted in past history and tradition and sustained by faith is essential to highly valued assets such as national success and individual liberty. 

To escape from this mental trap we should instead prioritize what the universe itself communicates to us about how it operates. We should start by recognizing that empirical evidence is what everyone relies on to determine how to survive and prosper on a minute by minute by basis. Throw out other considerations because they obstruct our ability to distinguish fact from fiction. History and tradition have a role in the sense that we are collectively accumulating empirical evidence over time as we experience what succeeds and what fails. Faith has a role here in the sense that we ultimately have limited and incomplete information and must make decisions based on probabilities, not based on certainties. But neither history and tradition, nor faith, should substitute for, or displace, an ongoing and dynamic reliance on a best fit with the overall available empirical evidence method for reaching conclusions about how the universe operates. Our understanding of how the universe operates has grown considerably over the past two hundred years and the changes in our understanding are relevant to addressing the question of whether or not our universe operates supernaturally or naturally. So quoting people from two hundred years ago is an impoverished and unproductive approach to resolving this question.

Obviously, not everyone agrees that ontological naturalism is the best fit with the available empirical evidence conclusion regarding how the universe operates. But arguments that ontological naturalism, regardless of whether or not it is true, must be rejected and be actively discouraged by our laws because it is incompatible with national success or individual liberty are inevitably overreaching. National success depends in part on us and in part on luck, it is not defended by undermining respect for a defensible modern understanding of how the universe operates. And individual liberty is upheld, not sacrificed, by government laws that facilitate open, multi-way, discussion on questions regarding how the universe operates. Individual liberty is not being defended or promoted by arguments that our laws should instead be instructing people that ontological supernaturalism is the correct conclusion.

The Newsmax article conflates the beliefs about divinity of individuals who contributed to the founding of this country with their views on the limits that should apply to the reach of the laws with respect to their interfering with freedom of conscience and expression. Thomas Jefferson in particular appears to have recognized a distinction between what he thought individuals should believe regarding deity on the one hand and what government laws should say regarding deity on the other hand. This is probably why the Declaration of Independence, which does not establish our laws, has a reference to “divine Providence”, while our constitution which establishes our laws does not speak of divine Providence. Our constitution instead calls for no religious test oaths, freedom of religion, and no government establishment of religion. 

During the 1800 campaign for president the Federalists revealed their narrow minded and arrogant intolerance by labeling candidate Thomas Jefferson “a howling atheist” and an “infidel”. As Thomas Jefferson correctly observed “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.“ Thomas Jefferson was not an anti-intellectual as reflected in this quote: “Fix Reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason then of blindfolded fear. ... Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you.” Not surprisingly some of his best quotes are found in his unfiltered private letters where he was less constrained in order to protect his public image by accommodating popular sentiments.

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