There is a facile enthusiasm about “believing” that is manifest every Christmas season and often enough in-between. Sentimental movies like “The Polar Express” and “The Miracle on 34th Street” chime in with their paeans to believing, and even works like “The Life of Pi” suggest that it is proper and even admirable to accept as true “the better story” even when it is the unlikeliest story imaginable.
At the front end, let me admit that there is a kernel of truth in these expressions. But there is also great danger is assuming that optimism can or should trump reason, and that belief in the truth of whatever appears good or lovely is itself necessarily good.
At least in questions where the relevant evidence is capable of being comprehensively considered, the proper formula is very simple: belief should be according to the evidence. Continue reading →
In parts one and two (to summarize), I argued that until the last few hundred years, it was not practically possible, nor was it considered desirable, for any state or any people to refuse to establish a religion. Individual religious liberty has occasionally been tolerated, but it has always existed alongside an official religion. For the vast majority (roughly 99.85%) of human history, during most of which we lived as tribes, each people has considered it necessary to enjoy the “thick” belonging that comes from common beliefs, common rituals, and a common sense of the sacred, divine, or ultimate. Continue reading →
The ultimate foundation of a free society is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment. Such a sentiment is fostered by all those agencies of the mind and spirit which may serve to gather up the traditions of a people, transmit them from generation to generation, and thereby create that continuity of a treasured common life which constitutes a civilization. ‘We live by symbols.’ -Justice Frankfurter in Gobitis.
I began this series with a brief history of religious freedom, emphasizing the shift from “thick” to “thin” societies from prehistorical days through the founding of America. I concluded by asserting that the establishment clause was a radical new experiment: never before had a nation forsworn any religious ties. Nor was it certain whether a nation could survive in the long term without the kind of civic belonging and shared beliefs that a common religion fosters perhaps better than anything else. The experiment, while neither so radical nor so new as it was in 1789, is ongoing, and its success is not yet assured: for as we have less and less in common regarding our most fundamental beliefs and commitments, we seem to experience a shallower and shallower sense of civic belonging.
Conditions of the Experiment’s Success
Under what conditions is liberalism’s experiment most likely to succeed? How can plurality as to comprehensive doctrine be reconciled with a sufficient degree of unity to preserve the nation? First and foremost, as John Rawls suggests, a certain degree of “overlapping consensus” is necessary. We may not agree on all things but we must agree on some things. A society united by nothing other than the accident of existing together under the same government—not by a general approbation of the form of government and its laws; not by common values and traditions; not by a commitment to seeking and pursuing a common vision of the good—is a society that is doomed to disintegrate, for it is incapable of inspiring loyalty and sacrifice, or even maintaining law and order. Continue reading →
This is the first in a series of essays in which I hope to examine the history of American religious liberty—in particular, the backstory, interpretations, and shifting moral valence of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the Constitution.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The immediate historical backstory against which the Establishment Clause is set is the institution of the European state churches that impelled many colonists to leave Europe in pursuit of religious freedom. Most historical accounts of the Establishment Clause begin and end here. But the background of European state churches is the Peace of Westphalia, the religio-political wars that preceded it, and the Reformation. Some historical accounts reach this far back. But to thoroughly understand the significance of the Establishment Clause I think we need to reach further—all the way back to pre-history. Continue reading →
Today, there are two main economies of sexuality. By “economy,” I mean a complex and dynamic system that centers on some “currency” that the members of the economy seek–something that can be intentionally given, taken, and sought. Economies transform themselves, depending on what is sought and how: the economy “grows,” “shrinks,” or “moves” to a different currency. Economies exist in nature as well as in human society–water economies, economies of reproduction, economies of light: pick your resource.
The currency of one of the economies of sexuality is desire; the currency of the other is meaning. Continue reading →
In my last “Against Chronological Snobbery” essay I introduced the debate between the “progressive” view of American history (that America’s history has been one of clear moral progress) and the “non-progressive” view (that it hasn’t—i.e., that the question is at least subject to debate). I endorsed the latter position. Representing the “progressive view” was Justice Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion, together with Justice Marshall’s assertion that the founders lacked any remarkable degree of wisdom, and that the greatness of the Constitution is its more recent embrace of equality and individual rights. Representing the “non-progressive” view was Justice Robert’s dissent in Obergefell and Justice Scalia’s dissent in U.S. v. Virginia, both of which included a scathing rebuke of the majorities’ chronological snobbery.
In this essay, I hope to continue my attack on the “progressive” view by assaulting one of its citadels—the self-satisfaction of contemporary mainstream culture with regard to its own value system.