A Philosopher’s Defense of the Reasoning Believer


An excellent new book, written with admirable clarity, demonstrates the compatibility—indeed the happy and mutually fulfilling companionship—of faith and reason, even and especially in matters of public life.

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Some years ago, an expert on communication between the sexes published a book titled Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. In the escalating conflict between religious faith and secular political principles, everyone seems to think that Believers Are from Jerusalem, Nonbelievers Are from Athens. Judges, educators, scientists, academic philosophers and legal scholars, perhaps even many religious leaders themselves—all espouse some version of the view that religious beliefs are grounded on unreasoning faith alone, inhabiting a domain wholly apart from the dispensations of reason. The mental image is of a Venn diagram in which the two circles—labelled Faith and Reason—do not overlap at all.

Francis J. Beckwith’s new book, Taking Rites Seriously, sets out to correct this intellectual error. His subtitle touches on the domains he discusses: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith. Beckwith, a professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University, is also a legal scholar, theologian, and believing Christian. Thus, he possesses a formidable set of intellectual resources for the work he sets himself. His title, echoing that of Ronald Dworkin’s most famous book, is clever but a bit misleading. If by religious “rites” we mean those solemn acts of worship, prayer, sacrifice, or propitiation that have always been at the core of human beings’ relationship to the divine, then this book is not about taking those seriously, for they never enter into the discussion. It is about taking seriously the people who take rites seriously, by not dismissing their views as irrational.

More precisely, Beckwith defends, as legitimate contributions to public discourse, and legitimate foundations of law and policy, “those moral and philosophical beliefs that are tightly tethered to a variety of religious traditions and that are in most cases thought defensible by their adherents apart from the religious tradition from which these beliefs and believers herald.” The trouble with religion’s secularist critics is that they “seem to confuse a position that is tightly tethered to a theological position with a position incapable of being supported by rational argument.”

The sentences just quoted, appearing about a hundred pages apart in the book but sounding a theme often repeated in other ways, raise the interesting question of what it means for a belief, position, or argument to be “tightly tethered” to a religious belief, tradition, or theological principle. And the question whether we would say “and yet” or “and also” such views are rationally defensible. In other words, is the fact that some views can be held on both religious grounds and non-religious rational grounds an entirely serendipitous state of affairs? Or is that overlap meaningful in some sense, expressive of a real relationship between faith and reason? Could it be that the teachings of religious faith—or at least of some religious faiths—make people better reasoners about what is true and good?

Beckwith does not venture an answer to this last question, nor even address it. But the evidence of his book is that it may well be so. For at every turn Beckwith, a believing reasoner, shows that unbelieving reasoners, whenever they argue that faith and reason are strangers to one another, are guilty of circular reasoning, question-begging, non sequiturs, and various other errors.

The Errors of "Secular Rationalism"

In its strong form, “secular rationalism” holds that “faith is by its very nature incompatible with reason.” Beckwith deftly and calmly demonstrates the folly of this view as it is advanced by philosophers like Brian Leiter, patiently explaining that religion is not uninterested in proof, allergic to facts, or insulated from scientific or other forms of reasoning. Indeed, it seems the shoe is on the other foot: it is apostles of secular rationalism who assume facts not in evidence, uncritically adopt “scientism,” and often seem innocent of “first philosophy,” the inquiry into “first principles of rational thought” that form the basis of all our other reasoning. In the process of his debunking, Beckwith concisely sketches some of the contours of natural theology, a course of reasoning that, without reliance on any claims of special revelation or eyewitness to miracles, leads an unprejudiced mind to theism, a rational belief in a divine creator. As philosophy, such a course of reasoning must be met philosophically, not with a reflexive aversion to its conclusion.

Beckwith goes on to explain how a kind of bovine acceptance of secular rationalism leads judges to make crashingly illogical decisions, holding that laws supported by legislators or citizens with religious motives for their passage are unconstitutional “establishments” of religion in public policy. Neatly disentangling the motives of a law’s supporters from the purposes of the law itself, he goes so far as to argue that judicial decisions along these lines violate the spirit of the “no religious test” clause of Article VI of the Constitution. In deploying a “religious motive analysis” in the assessment of laws challenged on establishment clause grounds, Beckwith argues, the courts have created “a de facto religious test,” with the secondary effect of giving some citizens “an incentive . . . to publicly pretend as if they do not have the motives they in fact have.”

In some cases, “the First Amendment has been completely turned on its head,” with a “reasonable observer”—ironically God-like in his perceptions yet as hostile to religion as a guard in a watchtower spying the enemy’s approach—being enlisted to analyze motives and the suspicions of motives. If this nonexistent observer, a construct in a judge’s mind, can be supposed to tell that secular citizens are reasonably likely to view their neighbors as religiously motivated, then that is enough for some judges to strike down a challenged law or policy. Thus does a nonexistent constitutional “right”—not to be governed by others’ preferences if they happen to be religious in origin—trump an actual one, the free exercise of religion.

A Precisely Focused Mind

The reader may already detect that one of the delights of Beckwith’s book is its display of a precisely focused mind at work. When he turns his attention to the fallacies and equivocations of Steven Pinker’s assault on the idea of human dignity, one almost feels sorry for Pinker. But only almost.

At the very center of Pinker’s argument lies an inability to separate two different meanings of the word “dignity.” The first is the meaning we hear in the sentence “he felt his dignity slip away as the seat of his pants tore open.” The second meaning we hear in the sentence “human beings are the possessors of an inherent dignity that we can disrespect but never destroy.” Does Pinker merely pretend not to know the difference, or really just not get it? Either way, he is apparently driven by a strongly felt sense that “dignity” is inseparable from a religious perspective on the world. About this, he may be right. But when Pinker attempts to substitute autonomy for dignity as a central principle in our treatment of our fellows, Beckwith demonstrates how poor a substitute it is, even by Pinker’s own standard.

Likewise, Beckwith gets the better of the defenders of abortion and embryonic stem cell research who dismiss the moral claims of the unborn as unintelligible apart from theological claims. These defenders, including some eminent moral philosophers, fail to grasp that human beings—like all other living beings—are “substances . . . ontologically prior to their parts,” with continuous identity, organic integrity, and species-typical development. Such substances have intrinsic capacities by their nature, and their healthy development is the perfection of their nature. Yet even when such development is incomplete, the radical capacity subsists because the substance retains its integral nature. Hence, the unborn, from their earliest moments, are beings lacking nothing that would qualify them for the same protections of their lives as any other human being walking around among us and spouting opinions.

The refusal to credit the unborn’s moral claim on us stems from a failure to grasp this “substance view,” Beckwith argues. In some cases, he writes, it also stems from a “crude physicalism that treats organisms as if they were artifacts rather than living substances.” Beckwith shows that recognition of this moral claim does not simply rest on blind faith or unquestioning obedience to a religious tradition but is fully supportable on rational grounds.

In similar fashion, Beckwith deals with the marriage debate that has raged in American public life in recent years. Followers of John Rawls’s “justificatory liberalism” would have us believe that the opinion that marriage can subsist only between a man and a woman is the product of a “comprehensive doctrine” that is religious in its basis, and therefore incapable of presenting itself at the tribunal of “public reason,” on the basis of which public policy can be made. Yet following the logical strictures of Rawlsian liberalism’s principles, Beckwith shows that illiberal consequences are practically guaranteed to follow the adoption of same-sex marriage.

Because marriage is an institution so interwoven with public duties, commercial transactions, employment, education, law, and social services, those who persist in their conscientious attachment to the traditional understanding of marriage—an understanding that Rawlsian liberalism on its own terms must concede is reasonable— are highly likely to be treated as outcasts and strangers whose views are intolerable and whose conduct must be coerced by laws and public institutions. Thus does religious liberty become “a dead letter.” Beckwith carries on this stage of his argument entirely within the boundaries of the Rawlsian liberal school, but his conclusions are enough to make the reader ponder whether the entire school ought not be burned down.

Intelligent Design and the Existence of Chance

The only part of this book about which I have even slight reservations is Beckwith’s chapter on the debate between evolutionary Darwinists and advocates of Intelligent Design (ID). Beckwith is quite right that there are no discoveries or conclusions in the sciences regarding the laws that govern the natural world that can award an intellectual victory to atheistic materialism, providing one has an adequate metaphysics. And he offers a sketch of such a metaphysics here, calling it “Thomistic Design”—in other words, the view that the universe was brought into being by the Creator and is every moment sustained by him, in all its order, all its laws, all its interacting chance and necessity.

According to Beckwith, “the ID advocate tries to detect instances of design in nature by eliminating chance and necessity (or scientific law),” showing irreducibly complex biological structures for which random mutation and natural selection appear unable to account and saying that an intelligent designer must be responsible for them. But a more metaphysically sound statement would be that such a designer was responsible for the simple as well as the complex, the lawlike processes as well as the inexplicable ones, the whole universe and not simply the piecemeal design of this or that part of it. For Beckwith, the intellectual error of the ID theorists is that they treat their designer as in the world, acting on some of the matter in it, rather than prior to the world, acting to bring it all into being. Even if evolutionary theory were irrefutable, Thomistic Design would be unshaken, encompassing the theory as an account of the universe the creator made.

My reservation, which I offer tentatively as one less conversant in this debate, is this: It does not logically follow that because a man thinks the bacterial flagellum is too intricate a device to have evolved by chance and selection, and that thus an intelligence must be responsible for its design, therefore such a man must also think that everything that can be accounted for by chance and selection owes nothing to that same intelligence. It may well be that ID advocates have given their readers, including Beckwith and others whom he quotes, good reason to believe they do hold the second view just mentioned. Whether the giving of such an impression flows from a residual scientific immodesty trained into them, or from an intellectual modesty that seeks to offer no opinion on metaphysical questions, or just from a clumsiness on the part of metaphysical tyros—whatever the cause, it would be a genuine mistake, and Beckwith is right to point it out. But it is not a necessary mistake, inseparable from their enterprise. If ID theorists stuck simply to pointing out what Darwinism cannot account for—which is plenty, even for an atheist who holds no brief for a design thesis—and on the metaphysical side got right with Beckwith’s Thomistic Design, there is probably little else they would have to change about their project.

But this is a small reservation about an excellent book, written with admirable clarity, and amply demonstrating the compatibility—indeed the happy and mutually fulfilling companionship—of faith and reason, even and especially in matters of public life.

Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.

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