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It seems that every time an election comes around, the vitriol surrounding church-state separation intensifies.  For 2010, I think this is best captured by the O’Donnell-Coons debate.  Both candidates are vying for the seat from Delaware being vacated by Sen. Kaufman.  In the debate, Ms. O’Donnell challenged her opponent on where in the Constitution it states that there is a separation of church and state.  Mr.  Coons, of course, turned to the establishment clause in the First Amendment and ended up getting the best of her.  However, does the First Amendment really place a wall of separation between the church and state?  Dr. Daniel Dreisbach, Professor of Justice, Law, and Society at the American University in Washington, D.C., has written an excellent critique of this point of view.  He clearly demonstrates the current understanding of the “wall of separation between church and state” is NOT what Jefferson intended.  Instead, the current understanding is essentially 60 years old, having been formulated as it currently stands by Justice Black in the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education.  Furthermore, Dr. Dreisbach argues the wall of separation metaphor, as it is construed, results in intolerance toward people of faith and hinders the rights of religious individuals to express their faith in the public square.  I highly recommend the article as a good introduction to the problems inherent to the modern church-state separation in the United States of America.

I ran across an argument against Christianity that I don’t feel like I can ignore.  The core of the criticism is that if the Bible is an inspired work of God, then it should transcend its culture.  It is claimed, however, the Bible does not transcend the culture (or more aptly cultures) under which it was written.  Thus, the Bible is not an inspired work of God.  Instead, we find in the Bible exactly what we would expect from a group of people living in the ancient Near East.  If God was involved in the writing of the text, then we should find clear evidence of this in the text itself.  For example, we should see the theory of germs clearly displayed in Genesis.

The argument fails for several reasons.  First, the reasoning simply misunderstands the method God used to transmit His word.  Rather than dictating text, most Biblical scholars recognize that God inspired the Biblical authors to write within their own culture.  God is certainly able to communicate that which he wishes through the context of a culture.  This brings us to the second major problem with the argument.  The Bible is written with a specific purpose: to reveal aspects of who God is and how man may be redeemed.  We have no guarantee of full revelation of God nor detailed explanations for the inner workings of our universe.  To assume otherwise is to place a standard beyond the intent of the intended message.  Thus, when we turn to criticisms such as, the lack of the theory of germs with regard to disease in Genesis, we immediately recognize that those topics are simply not germane to the core issue at hand.  Furthermore, we must remember that God is communicating with us.  There is no communication if the means He uses are foreign to the audience He is communicating with.  Let me clarify this with an example.  In graduate school, I took a number of courses on quantum mechanics and statistical thermodynamics.  Those courses are highly specialized and are not well understood by most people outside of my narrow discipline.  Now, suppose I am discussing some of the more interesting aspects of quantum mechanics with several friends who have either no background of science or very limited exposure.  How meaningful is it if I provide them with information on par with my graduate school texts, replete with the respective mathematical formulas and derivations?  In this case, communication ceases, and my goal of transmitting information is obfuscated by their lack of knowledge.  This is comparable to God communicating His word through people within their culture.  The germ theory of disease for example, or any other modern scientific theory for that matter, would only muddy the water by introducing irrelevant ancillary topics.  To be sure, it is not necessary for man to have a good grasp of germ theory for salvation, but it is critically important for man to understand who God is, what the true state of man is, and how man is going to be reconciled to God.   Could God have included these things via direct special revelation?  I believe that He could, but I do not see any compulsion for Him to do so given the overall thrust of the Bible to communicate truth about Himself.

Back in March, I had a very nice debate with someone named Paul C over at my good friend’s blog. The context of the debate was morality, specifically abortion. Paul C is a moral skeptic. He presented a view that an ethical code must maximize individual autonomy. Based on my interactions, this seemed to be his overarching guide in these sorts of things. It was my first exposure to the argument, and I have been thinking about this off and on since the debate ended. I decided to gather my responses here, mostly so I have access to them when I need them again. They are getting buried deep in the nether-reaches of Rhoblogy.

In the discussion, Paul C defined autonomy as “the free exercise of choice.” Furthermore, “maximizing autonomy means giving people a) a wider range of options for their decisions and b) more information on which to base their decisions.” The argument was then made that maximizing autonomy will increase well-being, both personally and corporately. However, Paul C contradicted this, “my goal is to maximize autonomy, not well-being, and for everybody, not personally.” In my opinion, the point of an autonomy-based ethic would be to increase well-being. If not, why pursue such an ethic? At any rate, I argue that an autonomy-based ethic fails for the following reasons:

  1. There no reason to accept that having more autonomy will provide more information for decision-making. Increasing the range of options available does not mean that information is increased as well.
  2. The idea that increasing choices will increase well-being is flawed.
  3. Maximizing autonomy for one individual affects the autonomy of others, by changing the range of options available to other people. In this sense, the goal of maximizing autonomy paralyzes decision-making because we do not have appropriate knowledge of the contingencies involved nor are we able to realistically determine whether or not one autonomous decision increases the autonomy of the whole. It is important to note that the summation is required to apply an autonomy-based ethic to a group of people. Ignoring this problem because we do not have the information or are the calculations are too cumbersome to evaluate is shortsighted because we may be making decisions that actually reduce overall autonomy.
  4. Long-term consequences must be known to effectively use an autonomy-based ethic. I argue that if we are in the business of maximizing autonomy, specifically to increase well-being, then it should be over the long haul. The fact that we can’t actually make this assessment counts against this methodology.