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October 1, 2008

Painted into a Corner

Recently, a man traveling on the same train with me tried to convince me, as we sped past the strange glow of northern New Jersey, that determining once and for all when life begins is the most important political issue of our time. He spoke passionately about how the law of the land must be consistently applied, and the hateful murderers of pregnant women should be charged with two crimes, since in his (Christian) view two lives were lost. He also talked at length about the Illinois "Born Alive" bill, and the growing threat of hospitals not caring for aborted fetuses who survive the process.

Years ago Michael Dukakis was famously asked in a debate about what his response would be if his wife were raped; Katie Couric just asked Sarah Palin about her (Christian) stand on abortion via a question about a girl being raped by the girl's own father. Palin replied, in her way, that she was unequivocally pro-life. In South Dakota, State Senator Bill Napoli said in 2006 that his support of SD's anti-abortion bill was solid, but he allowed for one (Christian) exception: "A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life."

Passionate arguments about virgins and rape and incest? About what moment life begins? This is what matters right now?

Richard Rorty's book Philosophy and Social Hope contains a chapter called "Religion as Conversation-stopper" where he discusses, among other things, the distinction between 'moral knowledge' and 'moral beliefs'. Palin, Napoli, and my train companion give examples in conversation of their moral knowledge, sourced from Christianity. But Rorty points out that moral knowledge can't really be clearly or consistently sourced, in the manner one would source a quote or content for a story in a newspaper. Moreover, he points out that the "test of a political proposal is its ability to gain assent from people who retain radically diverse ideas about the point and meaning of human life, about the path to private perfection"...which often means de-emphasizing religion in public arguments, precisely for the sake of protecting the freedom to believe what one will.

But Rorty's best point in the chapter comes at its conclusion. Here, in response to the argument that "religious believers' moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs", Rorty points out that self-identity based on Enlightenment ideology results in a life of meaning for that person, just as Christian theology offers a life of meaning to its adherents, but atheists are tagged with spiritual shallowness...which leads then to the question of "why a speaker's depth of spirituality is more relevant to her participation in public debate that her hobby or her hair color."

Apt, considering everything is up for public debate at the moment, particularly candidates' depth of spirituality and commitment to 'moral knowledge'. And lipstick color. I recall a devoutly Catholic friend saying to me once, "I don't get how you have morals since you don't have faith." She also was annoyed that she could not "put her finger on me" and say in one phrase what exactly I was. Other than human, I guess. And one can see her same annoyance writ large in an election year.

When I am exhausted by the subject, or when stuck across the aisle from it on Amtrak, in my mind I move right beyond Rorty's coherent pragmatism. After hearing many people who devoutly believe in their religion unavoidably come around (in public conversation no less!) to rants about virginity, rape, abortion and incest, I wind up agreeing with cranky old Bertrand Russell: "The three human impulses embodied in religion are fear, conceit, and hatred. The purpose of religion, one may say, is to give an air of respectability to those passions, providing they run in certain channels."

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