Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Charity for Romney

I've been thinking about Mitt Romney's claim from his religion speech the other day, "Religion needs freedom and freedom needs religion." It has been largely written off as a sop to the religious right, a slap to secularism designed to do nothing more than shift the focus of evangelical hatred from the Mormons to the atheists, a not so subtle, "it's ok, I'm one of you, I hate them too."

In logic, however, we have the principle of charity which demands that one interpret an argument in the strongest possible formulation. While I will grant that the standard interpretation is far and away the most likely intended meaning, is there a way that the claim could be understood in which it isn't blatantly false in either direction?

Let's take the two propositions one at a time. "Religion needs freedom." If by "freedom" he means the freedom of religion, then the fact that the notion is an Enlightenment concept derived in the last couple hundred years might mean there's a little concern there. Additionally, I don't think Christianity was suffering during the Inquisition, or the Crusades, or the pogroms, or the forced indoctrination of Native American children, or, or, or... Islam seems to be doing ok in Saudi Arabia. So, it doesn't seem that religion does need freedom in the standard sense.

So what else might be meant by this claim? The word "religion" is a multiply ambiguous term, it means many, many things. It refers to social institutions, that is we use the word "religion" to mean The Church as an entity. We use "religion" to mean a theological doctrine including an anthropomorphic deity. This is the sense people employ when they say things like "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual." The word "religion" is used to express a sense of awe and wonder at the majesty of the universe as a whole and the connections of the things within it. This is the sense that we get from Spinoza, Einstein, and in Christian theologian John Haught. Even Richard Dawkins says that he can buy into this stripped down version of the concept. Finally, there's another way that Einstein uses it that is a bit unusual, he uses the word "religion" at times to refer to the value side of the fact/value distinction. Religion in this sense is anything value-laden.

So, do any of these senses of religion require freedom? The institution often thrives as we pointed out above when there is a lack of freedom, especially when it is religion that is constraining the freedom.

Similarly, adherence to a monotheistic dogma doesn't seem to require freedom, unless of course, the monotheistic doctrine you want to believe in is not officially sanctioned. This is likely what was meant by this part of Romney's quotation. It was a reference to Communism and the Soviet ban on religion, a rekindling of the Cold War, 'merka is a Christian nation standing up to those Godless commies. Of course, this is a post-Constantine Christian view. Jews, for example, have an entire theology based on being a persecuted minority. So, if we take "religion" to be officially sanctioned Christianity, then, yeah, it's true, but tautologous. The same treatment seems relevant to the last version, ethics doesn't seem to require political freedom. One could still be kind even if one lives in a brutal dictatorship.

That leaves us with religion as a sense wonder at the vastness, complexity, and interrelatedness of reality. Does this require freedom? Well, if one lives under repressive conditions, one may have more pragmatic concerns and therefore less time to truly revel in the glory of the world. Scientific results which enlighten us to the structure and the deep interconnections between all things would be censored or curtailed. Relativity theory, evolution, science of all sorts that differ with officially dictated doctrines would make it more difficult to feel that sense of awe and joy that comes with approaching the intricate unity of all things. In this sense, then, perhaps, religion does need freedom.

What about the converse? Does freedom need religion? Again, this is likely in part an attempt to vilify those horrible, evil atheists (scary, scary) and in part to try to tie them to the Soviet menace making them (read, us) anti-'Merkan. But, in the spirit of charity, is there an interpretation of this sentence that is more reasonable, that might actually be true?

It depends upon what we mean by "freedom," of course. If he means freedom in the metaphysical sense, of the lack of deterministic factors forcing us to act certain ways, then surely human beliefs, attitudes, or institutions would be irrelevant because they, too, would be predetermined. If he means freedom of religion, then, yeah, I'll grant you that freedom of religion requires religion or else it's not freedom of anything. But surely, he means more than that. If he means political freedom writ large, that seems empirically false. There are plenty places much less religious than the US in Europe who have more civil liberties than we do, especially after the last several years.

So, what sort of freedom would require what sort of religion? Perhaps, he means freedom of thought, the ability to undermine cultural preconceptions, the ability to have a truly open-mind without the constraints and biases that are stuck into our minds by the historical context we live in. Does that need religion? If we take religion in the sense we used above, it seems true. The ability to be free thinkers is certainly facilitated by a sense a wonder and awe at the interconnectedness of nature. A love and appreciation of science and the workings of the natural world, especially when we look at quantum mechanics, natural selection, plate tectonics, big bang cosmology, and other advances that are far from intuitive, but for which there is overwhelming evidence, we do find that the freedom of thought really does need this religious inspiration we get from the world.

So, in the end, I whole-heartedly agree with Mitt Romney. Religion does need freedom and freedom does require religion. For this reason, I am sure that Romney will support rethinking our old biases against gays and lesbians and granting them the freedom to marry. In light of this wise sentiment he has expressed, I'm sure he'll find the teaching of science and science alone to be appropriate for science classrooms. He's right and surely now he'll repudiate the policies of the last several years that have so horribly undermined both freedom and religion.