Stanley Fish wrote a profound piece for the NY Times’ Opinionator Blog last Monday, “Are There Secular Reasons?” He’s addressing the Classic Liberal doctrine that public policy should always be decided on the basis of secular reasons, not religious ones; and in the end, he doubts there are any actually secular reasons. I read his article a couple days ago with the sort of disappointment only a blogger could know: he had said it so well, I couldn’t think of anything to add.
In terms of cultural proportionality, Fish’s piece is considerably more important than what I’m writing here. (Use your time wisely: read his article first.) He is speaking of a widespread social phenomenon; my topic relates to a small but terribly vocal minority.
One member of that minority is Jerry Coyne. Coyne is a professor of biology at the University of Chicago who has complained loudly about Francis Collins being selected as the head of the National Institutes of Health. Why the complaint? It’s not because Collins lacks scientific credentials; first a physician, later he was head of the Human Genome Project. No, it’s because Collins believes in Jesus Christ, Never mind his having headed up one of the most complex and significant scientific projects of the past two decades—Craig Venter notwithstanding—if he’s a Christian, he must be a blithering idiot.
It was David Heddle who reminded me of Coyne this week by drawing attention to his further complaints. Coyne said this week that Collins’s Christianity disqualifies him:
Collins gets away with this kind of stuff only because, in America, Christianity is a socially sanctioned superstition. He’s the chief government scientist, but he won’t stop conflating science and faith. He had his chance, and he blew it. He should step down.
David dealt with Coyne nicely enough; I don’t need to add to his piece, either.
Recall now that Fish was talking about whether religion ought to be allowed into public discourse. He cites two forms the objection against it takes:
A somewhat less stringent version of the argument permits religious reasons to be voiced in contexts of public decision-making so long as they have a secular counterpart: thus, citing the prohibition against stealing in the Ten Commandments is all right because there is a secular version of the prohibition rooted in the law of property rights rather than in a biblical command. In a more severe version of the argument, on the other hand, you are not supposed even to have religious thoughts when reflecting on the wisdom or folly of a piece of policy. Not only should you act secularly when you enter the public sphere; you should also think secularly.
Whether the argument appears in its softer or harder versions, behind it is a form of intellectual/political apartheid known as the private/public distinction: matters that pertain to the spirit and to salvation are the province of religion and are to be settled by religious reasons; matters that pertain to the good order and prosperity of civil society are the province of democratically elected representatives and are to be settled by secular reasons.
This “intellectual/political apartheid,” this “private/public distinction” is a real phenomenon. Francis Schaeffer was the first I know of to write on it; more recently there has been Nancy Pearcey. I don’t disagree with it. But it is no longer true, as it once may have been, that it is the one factor behind attempts to eject religion from the public square. The New Atheist line (and there are other examples) says those who believe in religion have committed intellectual suicide. Only secular rationalists are smart enough to lead.
The public/private distinction is powerful in our culture. It’s the way Western religion-deniers try to push faith underground. It’s not the only force in the debate any more, though. There’s a new prejudice out there gaining voice along with it: religious people are doofuses and on that basis alone, they shouldn’t be allowed to lead.
Coyne doesn’t propose a religious litmus test for public office. He knows that would be unconstitutional. Well, good for him. All he’s saying is that religious people, just because they are believers in God, are therefore too stupid to hold certain offices. That’s not as bad, is it?