Notes From Babel

The New Science and the Abolition of Objective, and Especially Religious, Morality

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I came across this new batch of stats, linked from Howard Friedman’s blog, declaring that religion’s messages about homosexuality is “negative.”

The PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, found that more than 4-in-10 Americans gave religious organizations a “D” (18%) or an “F” (24%). The number of Americans giving places of worship low marks is more than twice as many as give them high marks; Only 5% of Americans give them an “A,” and only 11% give them a “B.”

A plurality (43%) of Americans say the messages coming from places of worship are negative, and 4-in-10 Americans believe that these messages contribute “a lot” to negative perceptions of gay and lesbian people. One-third (33%) of the public also believe that messages from religious bodies are contributing “a lot” to higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth, and another third (32%) say these message contribute “a little;” only 21% say they do not contribute at all.

There is a bunch more percentages and numerators and denominators in the original article.  Thinking about it, the whole thing is frightening.  Notice that the emphasis of the poll is whether church messages about homosexuality are “positive” or “negative.”  What might that mean?  The only metric suggested is whether these messages are “contributing ‘a lot'” or “‘a little'” to higher rates of suicide.”  There is no methodology set out that would explain why there is any merit to this correlation.  And one wonders whether the recent and widely publicized suicide of a young homosexual student colored the perception of the poll’s respondents.

Getting to the point, no account is taken of the difference in values among the poll’s respondents, other than to refer to the fact that church-going respondents are likely to give their own churches higher marks, and to suggest younger respondents were harsher on religion than older ones.  Do the respondents believe homosexuality is good?  Bad?  Indifferent?  What proportion of the respondents hold these respective values?  Were they asked to consider their values when responding to the poll?  To disregard their views?

This is the point, of course.  Values are not merely besides the point of this study.  They are the enemy of it.  First, consider this short passage from Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics about our modern/post-modern/post-post-modern/whatever era and its steady march in the agglomeration of ever more facts, studies, polls, and data.

The use of method as the criterion of science abolishes theoretical relevance.  As a consequence, all propositions concerning facts will be promoted to the dignity of science, regardless of their relevance, as long as they result from a correct use of method.  Since the ocean of facts is infinite, a prodigious expansion of science in the sociological sense becomes possible, giving employment to scientistic technicians and leading to the fantastic accumulation of irrelevant knowledge through huge “research projects” whose most interesting feature is the quantifiable expense that has gone into their production.

Now consider the focal point of the contemporary discussion about values.  Mainstream Christianity, as well as Judaism and Islam, take morality to be objective, that actions and things in nature have values in themselves.  The relativist strain of normative thought, in contrast, teaches that morals are not “out there,” but that they are instead subjective, personal assessments.  Thus, the moral objectivist looks at a waterfall and says “that is sublime,” whereas a moral relativist looks at the same scene and says, “no, the waterfall has no such content in itself.  Rather, by looking at it, I have sublime feelings.”

As C.S. Lewis put it in The Abolition of Man:

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt. . . . The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions.  But for this claim there would be nothing to agree or disagree about.

. . . .

[On the other hand, in the relativist view in which value statements refer only to emotion], the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and no rapprochement is possible.

It is not hard to see in which camp belong the pollsters who conducted the above study.  To focus only on how the respondents “felt” about the respective churches’ messages, without regard to whether the messages themselves are right or wrong, good or bad, strips the values expressed in those messages of any association with things in the world.  No longer are values about homosexuality actually about homosexuality—they are simply about how the declarant happens to feel about homosexuality.  And, as NPR’s CEO put it, feelings are between the man and his psychiatrist.  Once we’ve isolated the issue to the mind of the speaker, all that’s left is to call the speaker a bigot, escort him out of the public arena, and the issue is won.


Written by Tim Kowal

October 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm

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