Are there Purely Secular Reasons for Moral Laws?
William Raspberry has written a rather remarkable article entitled Religion Vs. Unity: Compromise Seen as Retreat From Core Values (note: you must register with the Washington Post to read it). The main thesis concerns the fact that many Americans (most largely in evangelical circles) see compromise on certain religious issues as a "retreat from core values." He says:
What, in my view, threatens to test the American tradition of working things out are issues closely tied to religious faith: abortion, homosexual marriage, the teaching of evolution.
While I could take exception to what he says, this is passable since there is certainly no doubt that these issues are issues that are important to and effect Evangelical thinking. But what surprises me in his article is a really nonsensical statement he makes later.
Public officials who think it's a sin to have an abortion, support gay marriage or work on the Sabbath should try to avoid those things. But they shouldn't, on the basis of their religious belief, deny your right to any of them.(Emphasis added.)
Ah, but aren't murder and theft forbidden by the Ten Commandments? Wouldn't the distinction I'm urging make it impossible to outlaw killing and stealing?
Well, no. There are ample secular grounds for legislating the protection of life and property. Religion needn't enter into it. You might throw me in jail on a perjury count if I bore false witness in court, but surely your only secular concern for my making graven images is if I were into counterfeiting.
But no matter how clear and reasonable these distinctions seem to me, everyone sees them that way.
There are "ample secular grounds for legislating the protection of life and property"? Can he name one that isn't morality based? After all, it is really pretty clear that the reason we outlaw murder is because we think it is wrong to kill another person, i.e., it violates morality. That is morality, Mr. Raspberry. I am certain that it would not sit well with you if we were to say that public officials who think it's a sin to commit murder, steal or grant equal protection to all people should try to avoid those things; but they shouldn't, on the basis of their religious belief, deny your right to any of them.
Perhaps Mr. Raspberry went to school in California where at least one certain school board has tried to prevent a teacher from telling students that the very basis of our Constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness arises because the founding fathers believed that we were endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. There is no doubt that our American "secular" belief that murder is wrong arises from morality--and Biblically based morality at that.
You see, he is appealing not to any real secular standard, but just a generalized belief he has that things such as murder and theft can be somehow classified as secular wrongs, while things like abortion and same sex marriage are not. But how? Really, this is not a ivory tower discussion. It is meaningful and important to determine the proper basis for legislation. If he can name one secular basis for outlawing murder and theft that is not morality based, I would like to hear it. Just one, please.
Even his example of the counterfeiter is an example of morality. He suggests that the reason we might find counterfeiting wrong is that it violates the proscription against making graven images. First, the only graven image the Bible says we ought not make (moral rule) is an image of God. Thus, making images of George Washington or other Presidents and Treasury Secretaries is hardly a law which violates the ten commandments. Second, and more importantly, the reason we say counterfeiting is wrong is because it is a form of stealing, and we know that we ought not steal because it violates morality, i.e., religious beliefs. We are right back to a religious reason for opposing counterfeiting.
But more than that, he is assuming that there are no valid "secular" reasons for standing against abortion, homosexual marriage and working on the sabbath. For the sake of argument, let's call anything that can be opposed without resort to the Bible a "secular" reason for legislating against them. Can I think of any "secular" reasons for opposing abortion, for example? Of course. We value, in this country, the lives of all human beings--the same secular reason that we outlaw murder. We know that we are killing something when an abortion is performed, and we have to ask "what is it?" If it isn't a human being, then no excuse for abortion is needed. If, however, the infant is a human being, no excuse is sufficient to justify the killing. So it boils down to whether the "fetus" is a living human being. This is not a question of theology, but of science. The law of biogenesis says that two human beings can only produce through sexual union another human being. The "fetus" is living, it is growing and it is a human being. End of argument.
Am I being difficult or silly if I refuse to compromise my position that the killing of an innocent human being should be outlawed even if it occurs while the human being is in a development stage of life? I hardly think so, and I have done so without one reference to the Bible. I can also defend traditional marriage and blue laws without a single reference to the Bible, so I guess that I can defend them on secular grounds, if I am correct in my understanding of Mr. Raspberry's definition of secular.
You see, regardless how clear he thinks himself to be, Mr. Raspberry is engaging in fuzzy thinking. He assumes that there is such an animal as a purely "secular" reason for creating rules that govern morality. If such an animal exists, I have yet to see it.