Reply to a Reader

Recently a gentleman left a couple comments in response to a post here, and I don’t think I did justice to his remarks. In this post I would like to rectify that situation.

He begins with this:

Unfortunately, it seems that a variety of people claim to speak for God. A fundamentalist Muslim may believe that women have no right to show their face in public, and requires them to wear a burka.

It is true that many people claim to speak for God. It would be an invalid inference, however, to conclude from this fact that none of them actually do speak for God. It would be an even less valid inference to conclude from this fact that God does not exist. The question of identifying who (if anyone) genuinely speaks with divine authorization is a distinct one from the question of whether God exists. Furthermore, it appears that Mr. Edwards intends his appeal to the Muslim customs surrounding the burka as a kind of reductio ad absurdum. If so, then it seems to me that the reductio does not accomplish what he hopes. First, not even all Muslims adhere to those customs. Secondly, it seems as though he expects the Western reader to reckon those customs to be extreme. He is quite likely correct about most Westerners, but clearly our objection to those customs by itself demonstrates nothing whatsoever about the truth of those claims. That is a completely separate question, and although I suspect that he and I are in agreement about it at least to some extent, it should be pointed out that Western objections to the burka do not disprove Islam and certainly do not disprove theism in its entirety.

Mr. Edwards continues:

Basically there two kinds of rights: “rhetorical” and “practical”. Those who invoke God or Nature are speaking rhetorically.

Given that “rhetorical” usually refers to either the art of persuasion or to the invocation of a question as a statement, I am not sure what Mr. Edwards means by rhetorical rights. Presumably he means something to the effect that such rights are nothing more than declarations without substance. If this is so, then it seems to me that he has done nothing more than issue a declaration himself. Unless he has some special sense of rhetorical in mind, the number of people who invoke God as a source of human rights merely for rhetorical effect is a vanishingly small percentage of all theists.

He goes on:

To show that it is more than rhetoric Jefferson would have to arrange for God to come down here and speak for Himself. And, who knows, He might say women need to wear burkas.

This claim assumes that the only way for us to know that God exists is for Him to show Himself to us. This is a false assumption, effectively disproved by Aristotle 2300 years ago and again by Aquinas 700 years ago. Aquinas offers multiple arguments in defense of the thesis that God exists in his Summa contra Gentiles, including the few that he repeats in the Summa Theologiae. Frankly I think his arguments are effectively airtight. At the very least they certainly belie the notion that the only proof of God’s existence must be oriented to our senses. Man is an intellectual creature, able to draw more conclusions about reality than what he can see or touch or hear.

Mr. Edwards also says this:

A practical right is one that we have agreed to respect and protect for each other. We reach agreement through a legislature made of people we elect. They pass laws against behavior that violates a right. … All practical rights arise by agreement.

If this was true, then our rights dangle from the most precarious of precipices: that of majority rule. Job had it wrong on Edwards’ view: the majority giveth, and the majority taketh away. Blessed be the name of the majority.

Obviously this is absurd, and I seriously doubt that he would agree with it himself if we asked him. But it is the inescapable outcome of his view that “practical rights arise by agreement.” It means that the only rights we have are those that some majority decides to give us. A different majority might take away those same rights. What he has effectively done is deny that human beings have any rights until they are granted by those around us, and this is clearly absurd. It is also dangerous, as when majorities decide to take away or deny the rights of various minorities. On Edwards’ view we cannot say that slavery was (and is) an evil thing; the very most we can say about the US Civil War is that it represented a shift in the opinion of the majority about the status of Africans as the equals of their European-descended owners. I think we can do better than that, and so did Jefferson (though a slave owner) when he wrote that we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. No one can justly take them away, and those who do take away any of those inalienable rights have acted unjustly — whether they be a majority or a tyrant. I believe that we can do better than to relinquish our hopes of freedom to the whims of the 50% + 1.

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Posted in Apologetics, Aquinas - Philosophy, Aquinas - Theology, Natural Law, Summa Contra Gentiles, Summa Theologiae

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