Some time ago, I commented favorably on an essay by philosopher Richard Rorty titled Religion as Conversation-stopper. In his essay, he responds to another essay by Stephen Carter in which the latter said, “One good way to end a conversation — or to start an argument — is to tell a group of well-educated professionals that you hold a political position (preferably a controversial one, such as being against abortion or pornography) because it is required by your understanding of God’s will.”
Carter says that one consequence of this is that it is considered bad form, at least in intellectual circles, to bring in religion-based arguments on matters of public policy. He thinks that banishing religion-based discourse from the public sphere is a bad thing but Rorty disagrees, saying that allowing it privileges religion in unjustifiable ways. As Rorty says, “Carter seems to think that religious believers’ moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs. He seems unwilling to admit that the role of the Enlightenment ideology in giving meaning to the lives of atheists is just as great as Christianity’s role giving meaning to his own life.”
If a religious person is allowed to use statements of the form “I base my views on my religious beliefs” as an argument on matters of public policy, then it should be perfectly appropriate for others to respond that “I base my views on Enlightenment values” as a counter-argument, and we immediately reach an impasse. There is no way to resolve this issue other than by voting or by force.
In arguing with religious people about the existence of their god, I have found that they invoke two things that can be called ‘argument-stoppers’ that are the equivalent of Rorty’s conversation-stoppers. The two statements are:
- God can do anything
- God’s ways are inscrutable to us
For example, as I wrote earlier, the idea that Jesus rose from the dead in his physical body and ‘ascended into heaven’ poses some problems as to what happened subsequently to the body. Is it still floating in space? Or is Jesus the only person in heaven with a physical body? Wouldn’t that be awkward?