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May 24, 2004

Watch Maker and Gatekeeper

Marc Comtois quotes from a review of a book about American secularism:

For the past few years a friend of mine in the Midwest has been engaged in a war of words in the columns of a local newspaper. Every so often someone writes a letter to the editor claiming that the United States is a Christian nation and that, as the formula goes, "freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion." In response, my friend writes a letter pointing out that the Founding Fathers tended to be deists, not Christians. They saw God as, essentially, a watchmaker. He created the universe, wound it up and then stood back to let it run. If Franklin, Washington, Jefferson and Paine had a religion, it was a faith in reason, not in the Bible.

Marc (an historian himself) agrees, for the most part, but insists:

...the true intent of the 'separation of church and state' was to permit citizens to practice their religion freely without fear of governmental prosecution. Implicit in this is the right to not practice any form of religion. The effort to divorce ourselves from the importance of religion to our national heritage may indeed point to the secularization of our society. . . Our Founding Fathers, whether they be Deists, Congregationalists or Catholics, would have never imagined that the clause 'separation of church and state' would have been perverted in such a way. Not in their wildest dreams.

To some extent, I think the sides in this dispute are talking to each other from separate boxes. I think I've done more reading and thinking than writing on this (see the end of this piece for some of the writing), but it has seemed to me that secularists cut out the half of the American deists' beliefs that is more directly relevant to our society today. Whatever their beliefs about God's involvement in this world, they largely seemed to believe in judgment and in soul, from whence derived morality and the presumption of an ethical foundation on which to place freedom.

In a sense, God was not just a watch maker, but also a gatekeeper. What modern secularists have done is to add to the idea that God doesn't meddle in our affairs the completely distinct and insidious notion that He doesn't care what we do.

Posted by Justin Katz at May 24, 2004 7:32 AM

Well put, Justin.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at May 24, 2004 8:01 AM

they [the Deists] largely seemed to believe in judgment and in soul, from whence derived morality and the presumption of an ethical foundation on which to place freedom.

Many of us non-believers do "believe in judgement and in soul" but the judgement is human and the soul is the core of a person's beliefs (not a connection to God).

People have to be taught how to think. Rational thinking is not automatic. Thinking is not simply the thousands of images that flow through our brains at any given moment, it's a voluntary action to solve a problem or clarify an issue.

The denial that thinking must be taught to children is the cause of our educational system's apparent breakdown.

Non-religious people believe that, properly taught, we will all arrive at the same moral conclusions as the religious with few exceptions.

It isn't so much that atheists or deists are causing our problems, it's that radical leftist post-modernists who eschew reason as a male-European "power-construct" are causing our problems.

And, P.S. I came across your blog from a link, liked it, and immediately added it to my "Favorites". Check it every night.

Posted by: Craig Howard at May 25, 2004 2:57 AM

Good point about the post-modern influence. It is important to make a distinction between those who are atheistic (humanistic may be a more appropriate term?) and those who have taken post-modern theory to illogical extremes. While the religious look to a higher power as the center of morality, or at least as a guide, humanists rely on reason and awareness of the rights of others to arrive at moral ideology. This is not to say that reason plays no role in formulating the moral tenets of a faith. It is just that those without a faith rely soley on reason while reason is only part of the picture, in varying degrees, when it comes to religion-based morality. For post-modern thought, it really is all relative, but only insofar as what has been usually considered "traditional" moral thought is considered invalid because it has been foisted upon the masses by the "white men" to whom you alluded.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at May 25, 2004 7:24 AM


I'm glad to have you reading. And I hate to open disagreement so early on, but...

For this limited point, let's put aside all questions of whether God and soul are real and ought to be acknowledged for reasons only tangentially related to the practical consideration of ethics. It has been my experience, and therefore my conclusion, that purely reason-based ethics have a generational half-life.

You point to the intellectual problem when you write, "People have to be taught how to think." What you seem to be saying is that people have to be "properly taught" how to think in the way that will lead to moral conclusions. This is essentially what religious morality does, as well. The difference is that, when the imparted dogma grows entirely from the impulse toward rational thinking, its stopping point is at odds with its motivation.

Put differently, unless the thought processes are founded in an irrationally imparted sense of right and wrong, the basis for the belief will come into question. Put still differently, faith in the conclusions to which thinking defined by the absence of faith will lead is inherently risky and, given human nature, fatally flawed.

Even "our educational system's apparent breakdown" implies the impossibility of your moral strategy. The sort of thought of which you speak is too subtle and too easily perverted to be confidently expected from masses of people — not as a matter of ability, but as a matter of inclination. That is why post-modernism is so corrosive. Moreover, although I haven't made a study of it, my impression is that the deterioration of the demand to think and to teach thinking has coincided almost precisely with the deterioration of the demand to have faith and to teach religion.

Contrary to Marc, I don't believe relativism can be so securely declared illogical. Note his recourse to "awareness of the rights of others." What are those rights? Either they become self defined or break down into power constructs of assertions of rights.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 25, 2004 3:44 PM

Just a quick point of clarification. I was attempting to make a poor joke when I said that "For post-modern thought, it really is all relative". While there is a linkage between moral relativism and post-modernism, I think I may have conflated the two a bit. It is the latter which is being shown to be logically untenable, at least in the field of history. For instance, according to Charles Murray "By contemporary intellectual fashion, I am referring to the constellation of views that come to mind when one hears the words multicultural, gender, deconstruct, politically correct, and Dead White Males. In a broader sense, contemporary intellectual fashion encompasses as well the widespread disdain in certain circles for technology and the scientific method. Embedded in this mind-set is hostility to the idea that discriminating judgments are appropriate in assessing art and literature, to the idea that hierarchies of value exist, hostility to the idea that an objective truth exists. Postmodernism is the overarching label that is attached to this perspective." It is postmodernisms hostility to an objective truth which negates itself. If there is no objective truth, than how can we know that postmodernism is correct? Ok, enough of the tangential subject matter, I'll leave you be.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at May 25, 2004 4:14 PM