« Thirteenth-Century Flower Child | Main | The Catholic View on Religious Freedom »

May 01, 2008


Joyless Moralist

Nathan, I think you are very frankly honest when you say this:

"I accept the Cartesian challenge to doubt settled opinions and seek the true grounds of belief. I do so in all humility, in deference to four centuries of philosophical tradition, as a man of my own times, my own civilization, my own place in the world, following the example of dozens of great minds wiser than myself. In defending religious freedom, I am supporting deep American traditions rooted in the Mayflower and the Constitution and the First Amendment, and in the gratitude of twenty generations of Americans for the blessings of freedom that God has bestowed upon this country. In defending the idea of rights, I am following my own moral intuitions and reasonings to some extent, but I have a strong prejudice in favor of lines of arguments that affirm rights, because they are so important a part of American and British tradition and now of political and moral discourse worldwide, that a denial that rights exist, a la MacIntyre, is too radical, a rejection of too much wisdom, of too much of the opinions of the broad majority of mankind. Thus I am something of a traditionalist Cartesian."

That does seem to be an accurate description of some of your deep commitments. But what if those commitments were at their root incompatible with Christianity? Then what would you do? I am not "isolated on an island" and I wouldn't affirm all the statements that you suggestively attribute to me. But it's true that I try to let my beliefs, and my life, be formed first and foremost by the *Church*, to which I have actually (formally, even!) committed myself, and not to whatever political ideas happen to be current in the era in which I was born. That doesn't put me on an island; it puts me in good company. And I think you may really need, at some point, to evaluate where your deepest loyalties lie.

Unfortunately I'm leaving on a plane in a few hours and I don't have time to discuss epistemology at this moment. (I may not for a few days, sadly.) I should note that my first quotation is taken out of context -- I was following out the example of the physics student, trying to pursue the question of whether or not people are regularly expected to submit themselves to "orthodoxies" of various kinds. You should not take it in isolation as my best recommendation for the heretic -- that wasn't the subject we were discussing at the time.

As a final general note, I think you have far too simplistic a notion of how beliefs are formed. This is a deep question that would need to be plumbed before we could make much progress with this debate.

Nathan Smith

"That does seem to be an accurate description of some of your deep commitments. But what if those commitments were at their root incompatible with Christianity? Then what would you do?... And I think you may really need, at some point, to evaluate where your deepest loyalties lie."

Fortunately, my "deep commitments" are not "at their root incompatible with Christianity." The idea of using coercion against heretics, however, is.


Who gets to define what's compatible with "Christianity" and what isn't? The church? Well, how does the church do that? Ah yes, divine revelation. But who has access to divine revelation? A privileged few? If only a few, how are other people supposed to believe them? Ah yes, faith. But why have faith in something that hasn't been personally revealed to you? And how can you tell the difference between someone who has really had a revelation and someone who only claims to have had one? Isn't divine revelation also needed for that discernment? If divine revelation isn't privileged, then who gets to define "Christianity" again?

Nathan Smith

A Catholic would say that the pope gets to define what's incompatible with Christianity; an Orthodox, that a Church Council does (though there hasn't been a full-fledged council of the Church for over a thousand years). Protestants might say that the Bible does, though they would vary. In any case, if you try to set up Authority X as the arbiter, that opens up questions of how to interpret Authority X. So it's difficult... but the strange thing is that the Christian message shines through despite organizational divisions. You kind of "know it when you see it." Thus, Catholics can recognize a powerful Christian voice in C.S. Lewis, and evangelicals can rejoice in Dostoyevsky. The following is something you can only know "from the inside," if you will, and I am less inside than many, so even for me it's sort of an extrapolation or hypothesis, perhaps in that sense a "leap of faith," but I'll say it anyway without expecting you to feel compelled to believe it: It is this constancy, this ability of a message to last century after century, through turmoil and evolution, changing its philosophical clothes perhaps but having the same exhilarating, overwhelming, pure and simple and beautiful and perfect essence, so that a 20th-century Christian can read a 4th-century saint and feel, mingled with the strangeness, a sense of coming home, that distinguishes Christianity from all human philosophies. As Jesus said, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away."

Nathan Smith

A couple of loose ends:

On the physics student, there is no parallel between the physics exam and the Inquisition, because (a) as I said before, the Church cares about real belief, whereas the physics professor ultimately only cares about technical skill, and (b) the physics professor will certainly not violate the student's rights or retaliate with violence, but will simply decline to certify that the student knows physics. There may be a weak parallel to a non-coercive church body with powers to excommunicate heretics, but no parallel whatsoever with a coercive apparatus. And no one demands that the physics student recant. He is free to cling to his wrong answer and walk away unscathed.

On spanking a child for blasphemy, this may be justifiable-- though I think it would probably be a bad idea, if only because some version of the "silent treatment" would better convey the moral seriousness of the offense-- but to the extent that it is, it is because the parent is punishing *saying something offensive to people*, including to the parent him- or herself, and not punishing the belief and its expression *per se*. If a child were to start shouting "God sucks!" in a sort of pseudo-innocent merriment, a spanking might be appropriate. An atheism might reasonably spank his child for blasphemy in public. But if a child said "I don't believe in God" as an expression of a serious and thoughtfully arrived at conviction of atheism, to attempt to purge him of that belief by force would be a grave misjudgment. Of course, one or two spankings might be judicious if the parent thought the child was just saying it to be annoying, or forgivable if done in anger. But a resolute, calculated attempt by a parent to compel a child to abandon atheism through sheer force-- e.g. through repeated spankings or beatings, through deprivation of food or other necessities-- would be a breach of parental responsibility of a rather severe kind. A child in such a situation might be justified in running away. I would be interested to know whether the state would regard such an action as child abuse and grounds for depriving a parent of legal custody. It would certainly be a defensible attitude.


Still on BlackBerry so can't say much. But yes, of course the student is punished for refusing to give the right answers -- with failing grades which could (especially if there are many) severely curtail his future possibilities. That is obviously a kind of coercion, especially given the weight our society puts on education.

And as for the "don't have to believe it in your heart of hearts" claim, that is exactly what prompted the quote that so deeply offended you. So in essence the teacher should tell the student, "you may privately believe whatever you wish, but please show all outward signs of accepting our conventions when taking tests, when called to give answers in class, and when completing class projects?" Sounds to me a lot like the view that so disturbed you.

Orthodoxies are part of life. There is no way around it. You cannot leave people free to express whatever view they may have without consequence.

Nathan Smith

"But yes, of course the student is punished for refusing to give the right answers -- with failing grades which could (especially if there are many) severely curtail his future possibilities. That is obviously a kind of coercion..."

It is certainly not "obviously" a kind of coercion; and I am rather inclined to think it is obviously *not* a kind of coercion.

"You cannot leave people free to express whatever view they may have without consequence."

No, but you can, and ultimately a truly moral society must, leave people free to believe as their own reason and conscience guide them, without attempting to break their moral will from outside. That is a test that American society today passes, and which societies in which the Holy Inquisition burned people at the stake failed to pass. Which is why American society today is better than those societies.

And at the risk of hair-splitting, the teacher does not demand that the student "show all outward signs of accepting our conventions." A student can write, "I think this is all baloney, but here's the usual answer..." and if his answer is correct, he deserves a good grade, and will have suffered injustice if he doesn't get it. There is absolutely no need for anything like lying to occur.


When a physics student fails her tests, she cannot be a physicist, but otherwise she's free to believe and do whatever she wants (she could even practice unorthodox physics on her own if she wanted). When any person espouses an unorthodox view in a highly coercive religious society, that person's life is ruined if not forfeit. The two are hardly equivalent.

Also, physics orthodoxy is not determined by a central authority, it is determined through a democratic process of corroboration. If that's how the church determined their orthodox principles, I would have a more favorable opinion of the church.


Sorry for popping in and out so occasionally... I've been traveling (still am, in fact) and haven't had regular internet connections.

Anyway... when Tom says: "When a physics student fails her tests, she cannot be a physicist, but otherwise she's free to believe and do whatever she wants..."

it seems to me that he's saying something quite naive. Our society is structured so as to reward people who do well in their broad-based liberal education with further opportunities, and to greatly limit the options of those who don't do well. One failing grade wouldn't be enough to blight your whole future (though even one would keep you out of a top university in all likelihood) but multiple failing grades would seriously limit your possibilities. A person who failed every physics, chemistry, or math class he was required to take would probably not be able to become a reputable lawyer, even though these subjects have no strong relation to the practice of law. If you define "coercion" so as to include *only* physical pressures, then no, our society is generally not coercive, but very substantial pressure is often, very often, put on people to accept a particular way of understanding the world. It cannot be otherwise if we are to have a remotely functional society.

As for Nathan's putative solution, it seems to me in no way significantly different from the Galileo who says the expected thing and then whispers "just kidding" under his breath, or the heretic who agrees to formally retract his work with the private understanding that he does not actually, in his own mind, believe himself to be wrong. There is nothing hypothetical about the way the class is set up, nothing hypothetical about the way tests are administered or experiments done. Yes, the student can write a disclaimer at the bottom of his paper, but the main reason this will be accepted is because (as with the heretic's insincere retraction) the student has in every practical sense submitted already. He is willing to learn the offered theories, to repeat them, to reason with them, to explain them publicly when asked questions in class. That victory is sufficiently complete for the sake of a class; if the student goes on to attempt to become a professional, he might be expected to live up to an even higher standard (for example, if he writes things outside of a professional context that seem to conflict with the common assumptions of the field, this may damage his career even if his work, judged purely by the standards of the profession, is excellent.)

Go back to what I said before: orthodoxy and orthopraxy are closely linked. If you live a lie -- even with occasional token murmurs of protest! -- you are effectively accepting it as a truth.

It occurs to me that it might be helpful to highlight once again that, while a great many of the Doctors of the Church (among them Sts. Thomas and Augustine, the two giants of Catholic philosophy) condoned the use of physical force to punish/correct heretics under some circumstances, this was only approved as a means for punishing *heretics*. Pagans, as I've said before, were not to be coerced into conversion. The difference is substantial; a pagan simply has not yet been converted, but a heretic is a traitor and a breaker of promises. He is breaking commitments of fidelity that he made upon his original conversion. The subject of how children could be included in this is a complicated one, so for the moment just consider adult converts. Upon their baptism they accept the Church's teachings, and submit themselves to the authority of the Church. Promulgating heresy is somewhat akin to a knight deserting his liege after taking solemn vows that he will protect him to the death. It is a kind of treason. Now, we could argue separately the question of whether physical punishments should be used *at all*, and the question of whether physical punishments should be used for non-physical crimes. But many countries -- the United States included, I believe -- allow for the execution of those guilty of high treason. In the Doctors' understanding, executing a heretic would be in a similar vein.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

Only use a payday cash advance as a last resort.


Blog powered by Typepad