Saturday, February 25, 2012

Nature and Contraception

In 1963, the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control was established to study the possibility of an alteration in the Church's teachings on contraception. By the time its work was done, 68 of the 72 members had drafted a report supporting an alteration in the Church's teachings. This report, titled "Responsible Parenthood," concluded that contraception could not be considered intrinsically evil, and that it was incoherent to accept the legitimacy of the rhythm method while excluding artificial contraception. This majority report in no way meant to strip away the connection between sexuality and procreation, but merely made the argument that within a productive and fertile life it should be perfectly acceptable to use artificial means to control the rate of birth, to space births out, and to ensure better provisions for offspring.

However, in writing Humanae Vitae, the Pope rejected the majority consensus of his Pontifical Commission, instead opting to enshrine the minority opinion - signed by only 4 of the commission's members - in his encyclical. While reaffirming the common and traditional natural law arguments against birth control, the primary concern of this minority report seems to be less theological or philosophical in nature and more a worry about the Church saving face - that is, the worry that the Pontiff may have to admit that his predecessors were in error. In the report, which is far more lengthy and pedantic than the majority report, the basic form of argument is that since the Church has consistently rejected the use of contraception as evil, the use of contraception must be evil; and, interestingly, the Church has consistently rejected the use of contraception as evil because the use of contraception is evil.

The circularity of this argument cannot be denied; however, I am less concerned about the circular rationale of the minority report as I am in a very interesting point made by the majority report:

" The tradition has always rejected seeking this separation with a contraceptive intention for motives spoiled by egoism and hedonism, and such seeking can never be admitted. The true opposition is not to be sought between some material conformity to the physiological processes of nature and some artificial intervention. For it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature. The opposition is really to be sought between one way of acting which is contraceptive and opposed to a prudent and generous fruitfulness, and another way which is, in an ordered relationship to responsible fruitfulness and which has a concern for education and all the essential, human and Christian values."

The report calls into question the definition of "natural" used by the opponents of contraception. After all, the argument from natural law indicates that man's artificial control of his reproductive faculties is intrinsically evil, in the sense of being intrinsically unnatural. Yet this argument is found nowhere else in the tradition, and in no other situation is the artificial intervention of the works of the human intellect into natural or physiological processes considered intrinsically evil. Man can take medicine which halts or hampers his natural bodily processes, he can turn aside great rivers, manipulate genetic structures, govern the breeding of other animals, use artificial insemination to breed those animals, cross-breed them, dig up minerals from the bowels of the earth, purposely alter his own bodily chemistry for various therapeutic and non-therapeutic effects, so forth and so on - and in these cases, it is strictly the intentionality, not the means, of the act that governs the morality of the act. However, in the case of artificial contraception, it is argued that simply the artificiality of the act - that is, the means itself, understood as an intentional and artificial control over the reproductive organs - is evil, regardless of intention. A couple who has licit reasons for avoiding pregnancy under Church rules, and whose intentions are in line with these rules, would fall into a state of mortal sin or not depending upon whether they have sex with artificial contraception or using natural family planning - even if their intention is identical, namely, to have sexual relations without intending to procreate.

The majority opinion reveals the absurdity of this position, and questions why rhythm should be allowed but artificial contraception condemned. Nature should include the works of the human mind, and God's command to go forth and multiply is understood within the grand context of man using his intellect to become a master of nature - both his environment and himself. The report is firm in its reaffirmation of the intrinsic connection between sexuality and reproduction, but it shifts the moral gravity of contraception away from the intrinsic means of contraception to the intentionality of contraception. Clearly, the majority report would have us realize, it is possible for a couple to exercise a fruitful sexuality - that is, a sexuality that yields children - even if not every sexual act is itself fruitful. A couple who uses contraception to regulate rather than complete nullify this connection is indeed acting well within the boundaries of natural law under this view, and the commission still coherently rejects the use of contraception solely for the purposes of having a fruitless, hedonistic sexual life.

The Catholic Church needs to reevaluate (or rather, pay attention to the already extant reevaluation) its stance on birth control, leaving completely aside the rather pathetic concern that it may have to admit it was mistaken. However, interestingly enough, the majority report shows that it would be entirely plausible to alter the teaching and remain firmly within the tradition, since it is the tradition itself that recognizes the dignity of man and the natural goodness of his intellect's power to understand and manipulate himself and the world around him. It would be unnecessary to reject the Church's teaching that marriage, sexuality, and procreation all have an indelible link; one would merely have to affirm that the exercise of that sexuality, like the exercise of any other natural function, can rightfully be responsibly controlled by the art and knowledge of the human mind.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Three Points of Agreement in the Contraception Debate

Contraception has taken on a strange quality in Catholicism. It is a litmus test, and many treat it as an easy way to categorize your particular "brand" of Catholicism. Use contraception and think it is no deal? You are labeled a liberal Catholic, or maybe simply a "cafeteria Catholic" or an "American Catholic," where "American Catholic" is used as a pejorative. On the other hand, condemnation of contraception is seen as not only a sign of one's commitment to the Magisterium, but certainly one's membership in the ranks of the conservative Catholics - the self styled "traditionalists."

Certainly, the battle of words and ideas between these two forces within the Church is nothing new, but the use of this particular issue seems to have only heated up in the last fifty to sixty years - and, in some ways, the generations of Catholics in American growing up in the long shadows of the Second Vatican Council have inherited this litmus test as a given (well, at least any who give more than a passing moment's worth of thought to the matter).

As usual, the polarization has not only increased each side's zeal, but has decreased each side's ability to make compelling arguments. On the one hand, conservatives push two issues: the declarations of the Magisterium and their arguments from natural law. I have elsewhere discussed my critique of natural law, but the insistence that the immorality of contraception is a universally applicable (and, indeed, rationally demonstrable) ethical principle has only served to alienate the conservative Catholic voice; it may be that some set of arguments, carefully poised and hashed out with the right set of assumptions, could make a valid case against contraception, but more often these arguments consist of tired catch-phrases and begging the question (after all, if I begin with the assumption that it is immoral to separate the exercise of a bodily function from its natural purpose, I've already formed my conclusion that contraception is immoral - it is contained in the assumption).

Similarly, the "liberal Catholic" crowd seems to have attempted to move on from the debate entirely, no longer spending much time at all critically considering issues of contraception and its moral implications (except when those implications happen to coincide with certain left-leaning talking points, such as the environment - a liberal Catholic who would not even bother with you if you say contraception is a sin would probably become quite talkative if you mention that birth control pills might be permanently damaging the ecosystem).

Amidst all this, a more reasoned analysis of contraception seems improbable. But there are some common points that both sides tend to share, common assumptions that could form the basis of a more fruitful dialogue (and, perhaps, more fruitful compromises). Allow me to share what I believe to be the common concepts of both conservative and liberal Catholic appraisals of the contraception issue.

1. Contraceptive practices have grave social consequences.

Both sides accept the public, social nature of sexual practices. Though members of both sides (more likely, the liberal side) may plead the "private" character of what goes on in the bedroom, reproduction is a public issue. The creation of new citizens, who may potentially become either productive or parasitical and whose upbringing will be a strong determining factor in his future, bears with it a social responsibility. As such, there are grounds for the ethical treatment of contraception. Of course, this common belief is diverted by the question of in which direction social responsibility lies: are couples' primary duty to procreate (at a reasonable, but consistent, pace), thus providing society with new members and conforming with the natural function of sex, or is the primary duty to carefully withhold this procreative power in the light of increasing awareness of social and global problems related to population growth?

However, I claim that these two responsibilities are not ultimately contradictory, but are rather rendered so by the unnecessary dichotomizing of procreation and contraception. Pope John VI asks in the beginning of Humanae Vitae, "could it not be admitted that the intention of a less abundant but more rationalized fecundity might transform a materially sterilizing intervention into a licit and wise control of birth?" Of course, against the advice of the majority of his own commission on the subject, the Pontiff would go on to answer with a resounding "no." Yet the question seems to combine the concerns of both parties: a view of contraception as part of an overall fertile marriage, rather than a view of it as simply contrary to fertility. Perhaps revisiting this question could provide a source of common discussion on both sides, as long as conservatives are truly willing to consider that the use of contraception is not equivalent to a complete rejection of procreation and the liberals are willing to admit that a purely contraceptive sexual lifestyle may represent a kind of unsupportable turning against the functions of the body.

2. There are good reasons not to have children

While conservative Catholics often treat this part of Catholic teaching with a kind of begrudging acceptance, a corollary to the Church's condemnation of artificial contraception was the admission that there are indeed reasons why a couple could engage in sex without intending on procreation (that this admission is used as justification for natural birth control via natural family planning and not for artificial birth control seems to be, among other things, a failure in logic). This is actually a point of agreement with liberal Catholics: both groups recognize that the financial, emotional, and physical burdens of raising children are great, and that as such it is not to be taken lightly. The liberal Catholics perhaps have a far more extensive list of acceptable reasons, including concerns for the social aspect of procreation, its strain on global resources, and the impact on the environment (the very sorts of things Paul VI mentions in his introduction to the topic in Humanae Vitae).

Then, if there are valid reasons why a couple should wish to avoid having children, the conservative Catholic may wonder why he condones one means to this end and forbids another; what about the artificiality of contraceptive devices and pharmaceuticals makes them sinful in themselves? I will put to the side the issue of abortifacient contraceptives, concerns about which are of an entirely different nature. Simultaneously, cannot liberal Catholics (and, perhaps, liberals in general) approach the same question from a different angle, in order to concede that the responsibility of procreation (it is, indeed, an important duty of a species to reproduce, even if we have reason to moderate that activity) renders certain types of excuses invalid, and that couples with ample resources and time should seriously consider engaging in the same act without which they would not exist? After all, who hasn't seen the utter waste of a three-thousand plus square foot home, two middle class wage earners, two cars, children.

3. Teenage pregnancies, abortions, unwanted children, and STD's are all indicative of social ills that need to be addressed

Conservative Catholics often blame contraception and the Sexual Revolution for these social ills, pointing their finger squarely in the faces of the liberal Catholics as being the ones whose imprudent endorsement of birth control and feminism are responsible for what can generally be called the overall smuttiness of society today. Liberal Catholics point the finger right back, maintaining that it is actually the stuffy and outdated sexual morals of the conservative forces in America that have prevented a true response to these issues in the form of better sexual education, better access to contraception, and the liberation of women from their role as reproductive vessels.

Both see these issues as bad, either in themselves or as indicators that all is not right in the world. And, yet again, we see a mirror image in their accusations. But if the truth is in the middle, the acknowledgement of these social ills and studies as to their causes and relationship to contraception and other variables might be a good place to start a more productive dialogue, especially if liberal Catholics will acknowledge that the unpinning of sexuality from procreation and the laissez faire attitude towards casual sexuality may be just as responsible for these issues as are a general lack of a sense of social sexual responsibility in society. Conservative Catholics can acknowledge that part of taking responsibility might come in the form of birth control as well as abstinence - an admission that merely needs history, even Catholic history, to back up the truth that many people will have sex with each other no matter how persuasively you might point out its immorality.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Power of Names: A Critique of Realism

In Plato's Cratylus, Socrates rejects the notion that the names of things have a divine origin. Language, as sign, is inferior to the thing signified. This imperfection could be used to account for the variety of languages, the multiplicity of systems of signification used to talk about, assumedly, one reality. Yet such a position suggests that our names are derivative of things - or, to put it another way, that the singular reality which we experience, filled with a variety of phenomena which we ostensibly share with others, provides a kind of prototype from which language is drawn. There is, however, another theory about language and its connection with the things around us: that the language we use actually shapes our phenomenal world, and that the words we use have the power to alter our perception of reality. To some degree it may even be arguable that the use of a particular language - or even the use of a particular vocabulary or dialect within a language - can actually define the phenomenal contents of our world. I believe that the way in which language shapes, directs, and forms our thoughts and our perception of the world suggests that realism - which would attempt to tie our words and associated conceptions to universal, unchanging forms or essences - overestimates the universality of human concepts and underestimates the power of names to shape our reality.

Realism's variety and tradition is far too diverse and expansive to receive a full treatment. Indeed, there are many subtle varieties of realism that may avoid the criticism which I will present. For my purposes, however, I will define realism as consisting primarily in the belief that things are what they are because of their ontological relationship to an eternal, unchanging reality called an essence. This ontological relationship is described in many ways, but the main vocabulary I will use is participation. An entity - physical or non-physical - participates in a form, which is eternal and unchanging. When we perceive such an entity, our intellects are able to abstract this form from the particulars of the phenomena around us: we are able to see past certain accidental or non-essential qualities, such as the fact that the thing is sitting in water, is brown, is chewing on a fish, and so forth, and are able to abstract that the entity is, in essence, a duck.

Words, then, are conceived of as socially agreed upon utterances signifying these essential concepts. Whatever variety there is in language does not change the fundamental content of these universal concepts: a man speaking Mandarin Chinese would possess the knowledge of the same form, "duckness," as an English speaker, even if the utterances used to signify that concept differ.

Language, on the realist's account, is always primarily derivative, in the sense that the content of our mental concepts shapes our language rather than vice versa. This theory nicely fits with any philosophy that requires the universality of certain sorts of concept: for example, natural law, among others.

However, if language is not primarily derivative, and if instead the utterances we use actually alter the content of our mental concepts - that is, if language changes the way in which we perceive the world - then realism's claims that humans have access to universally uniform mental concepts in the form of essences is doubtful.

Indeed, research on this subject is emerging which reveals that language shapes the content of our mental concepts as well as our phenomenal world. Take, for example, the experiments conducted by Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University. Comparing the speakers of a language like Kuuk Thayorre, a language that insists so much on absolute frames of reference that it lacks concepts such as "left" and "right" and instead requires all statements to be made in terms of the cardinal directions, to speakers of a language like English, which tends to use more relative spatial terms, Boroditsky found that the language spoken by the individual had profound effects on his spatial and temporal perceptions. Kuuk Thayorre possess a nearly perfect sense of direction in any environment, even indoors, and tend to see temporality in terms of cardinal direction, especially east to west. When asked to arrange photographs in temporal order, Kuuk Thayorre speakers place the cards in line from east to west; English speakers, not surprisingly, will place the cards in order from left to right, while possessing none of the unique spacial perceptive abilities of the Kuuk Thayorre speakers.

Furthermore, her research revealed that the choice of conceptual metaphors and idioms - especially temporal idioms - alters a speaker's perception of the passing of time. English speakers, who tend to use idioms of length to speak about the passage of time, actually perceive the passage of time differently when thinking about distances than when not thinking about distances, while Spanish speakers, who tend to think of time in terms of quantity or size, perceive the passage of time as longer when thinking about quantity and size.

These differences in language - and the resulting differences in how we actually perceive the world - go on and on. Speakers of languages with a greater number and variety of words for color are actually better able to distinguish different shades of colors; the different genders of words in different languages results in differences in speakers' perceptions of those objects; the same object will be described by vastly different terms in different languages; and so forth. What is, in a sense, another important distinction is that these differences in perception will carry over even if a speaker is speaking in a different language: that is, a native Spanish speaker speaking English and a native German speaker speaking English will use an entirely different English vocabulary - and, sometimes, even contradictory vocabulary - to describe the same object based upon the gender biases of their native language.

These findings all serve to support the conclusion that language is not merely derivative in nature: that, rather than our utterances being simply socially determined representatives of otherwise uniform mental concepts, the particular characteristics of our language serves to inform and determine the content of our mental concepts. Of course, this does not mean that our concepts are wholly products of language - we know that animals without complex languages, such as monkeys, are able to perform tasks that demonstrate the use of mental concepts, including number. However, in studies of various people groups in South America who lack numeral language, researchers have discovered that the lack of numbers in their spoken language correlates to numerical imprecision: that is, when asked to do rudimentary numeric exercises such as identifying how many of something there were or in the performance of basic arithmetic, these people groups were consistently unable to provide exact numbers, even if their estimates demonstrated an ability to handle numerical concepts in a rough or ready way. This latter experiment suggests that even if language does not play the sole role in shaping our mental concepts, it does play a role in refining those concepts; when combined with the earlier experiments, I believe it is possible to see that the content and precision of our mental concepts is not indifferent to the utterances used to describe them.

If, then, the content and precision of mental concepts is partially derived from language, we have reason to at least refine the realist notion that utterances are merely social constructs depicting otherwise uniform, universal, or eternal concepts. It is noteworthy that nominalism would not suffer the same weakness from this finding: indeed, the nominalist account of utterances (or names) as sets of similar phenomena described under common words can very readily accept that the act of naming is itself a variable determining the content and precision of the mental concepts which we name. On a broader scope, this also suggests that attempts at formulating universal definitions or universal systems - that is, any attempt to describe a set of universal human concepts - must account for the linguistically (and, we might add, culturally, socially, and historically) conditioned nature of these concepts.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Proposal for a New Christian Synthesis

A new synthesis of the Christian religion with modern and postmodern bodies of secular knowledge must be built on the principle of mutual respect, mutual charity, and mutual honesty. In practical terms, this means that Christian theology may not dismiss scientific knowledge (or its broader implications) nor deform its conclusions to fit its own preconceived schema. It also means that the scientific method cannot be applied, nor used as grounds for viewing empirically unfalsifiable statements with undue suspicion (after all, as I have mentioned previously, such an undue level of suspicion would render the vast majority of human beliefs – religious as well as secular – subject to uncalled for doubt.

As corollaries to this first principle, I offer the following principles as a tentative proposal for the guiding principles of a new synthesis.

I. Each claim or belief must be evaluated according to its nature.

While there are a variety of different sorts of claims made in the sciences, they are more or less united with the common theme: they are subject to falsification through observation. Of course, this is practically much more difficult in some cases than in others. Confirming that objects of different masses nevertheless fall to earth with the same acceleration is somewhat easier than confirming the predictions of Einstein’s relativity. Nevertheless, admitting the difficulty with which truly controlled and valid observations are sometimes made, it is conceivable that an observation could really falsify a scientific claim.

This is not the same with the variety of religious claims. In general, religions tend to make a variety of claims: mythological, moral, historical, philosophical, and theological. These claims may encompass a wide variety of fields of study, and may include claims of a biological, anthropological, social, psychological, or other nature.

In an attempt to synthesize Christian beliefs with contemporary knowledge and practice, it is necessary to admit that each of its claims must be subject to a level of proof consonant with non-religious claims of the same type. For example, a claim about the physical nature of the universe made by a religious source should require the same level of confirmation – and be open to the same sort of falsification – of a similar claim made by a secular source. We may use the famous Galileo case as an example: a certain religious body made the statement:

“We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the above-mentioned Galileo, because of the things deduced in the trial and confessed by you as above, have rendered yourself according to this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture: that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and the earth moves and is not the center of the world, and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture.”

Whatever else may be said about this statement, it is clearly a statement with physical implications and, like any similar statement, needs to conform to the standards of evidence of the physical sciences. Many notable Catholics have defended the Inquisition of Galileo by pointing out that Galileo was technically wrong: the sun is no more the absolute immobile center of the universe than the earth is. Very well. But the Inquisition was not condemning Galileo because Galileo didn’t realize the ultimate relativity of physical frames of reference: they were condemning him because they believed the Bible, and therefore the Catholic faith, taught that the earth was the immobile center of the Earth. Time has proven that, despite his own errors, Galileo was making a very important leap in our understanding of the physical universe simply by recognizing that a heliocentric model corresponds better to observation than the increasingly cumbersome Ptolemaic system.

So, then, whatever claims are made by Christianity regarding the physical nature of the universe should be confirmed or falsified by empirical means. Similarly, anthropological claims should be subject to the standards of evidence used in the study of anthropology. Obviously, such claims are not held to the same standards has physical scientific claims; however, this does not mean that such claims are free from empirical scrutiny. Consider, as I have mentioned before, such a broad, sweeping theory as natural law, a theory whose truth would have empirically observable effects on the universal development of human cultures. Now, a theory like natural law is quite broad itself, and not all of its claims can be studied using such methods: again, according to Principle 1, each claim should be confirmed or falsified according to its own evidence. Even if natural law’s universality claim were falsified, we would not need to jettison the entire theory of natural law: instead, the theory could conceivably be modified to take into account the way the world actually is, inasmuch as we can observe how it actually is, and would be all the better for it.

Historical claims should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other historical claim made by any other institution or piece of literature. When dealing specifically with literature, effort must be made to ascertain whether a passage is intended historically; and, when it is, its historicity is open to falsification or confirmation through archaeological, literary, and other similar historical tools.

Moral and philosophical claims made by religion – that is, those claims of such a quality that they cannot be falsified by direct observation, such as “abortion is a moral wrong” – are still subject to standards of logic, consistency, and coherence. As it happens, much of Christianity’s philosophy has been the subject of continual and rather rigorous logical scrutiny and careful refinement, yielding a body of Christian philosophy that is quite self-consistent. However, even if such claims are not directly falsifiable, I would argue that the implications of many of these theories is still subject to scientific scrutiny – or, at least, scientific observation, theory, and knowledge is not inconsequential to Christian philosophy. To use abortion as a prime example, while “abortion is a moral wrong” is not directly falsifiable; it carries with it a number of implications. For example, the reason that abortion is a moral wrong is that the developing human being is at all stages of its development considered an ensouled human person. However, the claim that a zygote is an ensouled human person requires that I put forward a coherent and consistent definition of what counts as an ensouled human person that does not have unintended side effects – a problem that can only be solved by reference to our vast body of human biological knowledge.

Finally, Christianity makes a number of important theological claims, by which I mean that it makes claims based on an assumed authority rather than by means of evidence, such as “God is three persons.” Of course, these claims cannot be confirmed, but as I mentioned before this fact alone is not reason for undue suspicion (nor, of course, does it count as a reason for belief). How, then, are we to evaluate these claims, these specifically and irreducibly religious claims?

2. Specifically religious claims must be evaluated according to indirect or circumstantial evidence; or, rather, they must be analyzed according to the authority of the claimant.

We should evaluate those religious claims which are not subject to direct falsification by means of the same sorts of indirect evidence upon which we base our acceptance or rejection of any other claim presented to us without the possibility of evidence. These types of claims come to us in two forms: claims which evidence is theoretically possible but is ultimately impractical, and claims for which evidence is truly impossible. We encounter these claims in non-religious contexts all the time, and rarely make a fuss about them or throw up our hands that we cannot evaluate them. The truth is, we do have systems of evaluating these sorts of claims, which I will call broadly “claims of authority.”

When we read an article from the Associated Press, we rarely have time or resources to personally investigate the accuracy of its report: in general, however, we accept its accounts of events as being more or less accurate based upon our trust in the Associated Press’ reporting – or, to phrase it in a different way, the level of authority we grant the Associated Press as far as accurately reporting the news. Similarly, in grade school we are commonly presented with various scientific and mathematical claims that we were simply unable to defend or understand based upon evidence but which we nevertheless accepted based upon the authority of our teacher (and, of course, based upon whatever forces of coercion could be turned against us if we refused to accept that authority). These are all examples of claims in which evidence is theoretically possible but practically unavailable.

Other claims do not admit of more or less scientific evidence at all, such as “I will meet you at noon on Wednesday.” The acceptance of such a claim and the subsequent beliefs it engenders is based entirely upon indirect evaluations of that claim: evaluations based on the merits of the claimant rather than the merits of the claim itself. If someone who in a vast number of instances has shown himself to be completely unreliable made this claim, I might place little trust in him: I would grant him no authority on the subject of where he will be and when. On the other hand, my other experiences with him might prove him to be a trustworthy individual who always honored his meetings, I might trust his statement with nearly the same level of certainty that I believe scientific claims. Practically, this type of belief is extraordinarily important, because it comprehends a vast number of beliefs without which social life would be impossible. These are often the beliefs of the community, certain shared assumptions about who will do what, when and how we should respond to each other, what projects we should work on together, what things are of ultimate importance or significance, and so forth. It incorporates elements of mythology, history, and relationships. It is, to use the word in its original sense, a matter of faith, and it is indispensible.

Now, when a religious institution makes such claims, it is clear that they should be evaluated in the same manner: through an indirect analysis of their authority. The analysis of the authority of the claimant, as I mention above, stands in place of the impossible analysis of the truth or falsehood of the statement. This analysis may involve the analysis of claims that are subject to empirical scrutiny, each of which, according to Principle 1, must be evaluated according to its own nature. So, for example, at least part of the professed authority of the Catholic Church lies in its professed historical ties to the person of Jesus; this historical claim, if falsified, would also falsify the claimed authority (or, at the very least, would force a redefinition of the basis of the Church’s authority). Similarly, if confirmed, it would provide some indirect evidence that the Church does have authority – although the confirmation of the historical basis would certainly not be enough evidence on its own.

Which leads one to ask: how much evidence is enough evidence?

3. The amount of evidence required to justify a religious claim should be in proportion to the “magnitude” of the claim.

In practice, we tend to require more evidence for a claim the broader its scope: it is for this reason that we rarely scrutinize a medicine that makes modest claims like “brings down a fever” while we tend to label as snake oil something touted as a “miracle cure.” To a great degree, this practical filter makes sense: if a claim seems more improbable or outlandish to begin with, we need a great deal more indirect evidence about the authority of its claimant in order to accept it. When it comes to religious claims, this also holds true: but so does the fact that simply the unusual or perhaps wondrous nature of a claim does not mean that it is untrue.

Take, for instance, the evaluation of claims of miracles. The evaluation of such a claim rests almost entirely on the evaluation of its claimant or claimants, and except for the especially credulous, or those who have accepted an entire framework which would make the claim more likely from the get-go, such claims would need extraordinary authority consonant with their extraordinary nature. Yet such evidence is possible. For instance, the general trustworthiness or accuracy of a person, persons, or document in describing other, more easily verifiable phenomena might be a good indicator of his likely trustworthiness in describing something miraculous. If a document is filled with historical inaccuracies, false statements about physical reality, or similar errors, this tends to discount its authority with regards to something miraculous, while a document that has verified accuracy with regards to other matters is much more likely to be accurate when describing something miraculous. Similarly, if the claimant is an individual with established credentials in the sorts of phenomena in which the miracle appeared, we would likely give that account more credence: a well-known medical doctor’s account of a seemingly miraculous cure has more authority than a self-reported “miracle cure” by a layman, especially if he can produce artifacts of record that corroborate his story. All this to say that accounts of miracles are subject to a certain sort of evaluation, and that this sort of evaluation is similar to the type of evaluation that must be made of the authority of a religious claimant.

However, it is certainly true that these matters are not subject to the same objective standards of judgment as are more scientific claims. Individuals vary greatly in the degree to which they trust or distrust others, institution, or certain types of claims; these prejudices may be based on good or bad reasons, but even a prejudice with a seemingly good basis can potentially cause the rejection of a true claim. There is indeed a continuum of personalities, from the credulous mind that accepts anything from anyone, to the hardened skeptic who has closed his mind to what cannot be proven – or at least distanced himself from it lest he accidentally believe as true something that is false. Even our evaluation of where someone falls along this continuum is a matter of subjective belief; a credulous person will call the same man a skeptic that a skeptic might call credulous.

Which brings me to the topic of Faith, as a specifically Christian concept. As I believe this framework must include the Christian tradition, it must of course include Faith; but what is Faith? Is it subject to this sort of scrutiny? The tradition has voices that answer both yes and no, and which offer a number of alternative frameworks of Faith’s relationship to rational scrutiny. But in deference to the rest of the framework, I would have to conclude that Faith, as a trust in the authority of a claimant, is at least indirectly subject to empirical examination. This does not mean that there is no virtue to Faith – indeed, I have noted before, a sincere examination of human society reveals that this sort of virtue is imperative to community, and no man, no matter how skeptical, can function without recognizing to some limited degree the authority of others without proof. So, then, it would be only a matter of prejudice to reject specifically religious faith, and if we require more evidence or a closer scrutiny on religious claimants than we do of the nightly news it is because the scope of religious claims is far greater than the weather.

4. All religions must be analyzed on the same footing, and a coherent system of cross-religious evaluation must be used; and, as a corollary to this, a coherent theory of historical, social religious development should be put forward as a means to this end.

Pluralism is perhaps the most difficult topic that a thoughtful religious individual must encounter. A Christian wakes up in the same world with the followers of a thousand different faiths, each of them waking up with a different level of commitment to a different set of beliefs, many of them contradicting the claims of the Christian faith. If my belief is not to be reduced to an accident of my birth (i.e., I am a Christian because I happened to be born to a Christian household, and so forth), I must be able to not only evaluate my own beliefs but evaluate then along with the beliefs of other religions. Now, we must all admit to practicality: I cannot track down every last belief system. Practically speaking, perhaps even theoretically speaking, it is an implausible task to discover and categorize all human religious beliefs, especially if we include all the beliefs from mankind’s long history.

However, if we could take all we can track down and mold it into a single coherent theory of religious development – that is, if we could develop the history of religion into a theory which recognizes the evolution of the idea of God and all the corresponding religious claims – we could create criteria for understanding the place different religions hold within that development. I propose as a blueprint for such a broad, sweeping theory and subsequent criteria the book by Rodney Stark called Discovering God. In the book, he presents a history of religious development and subsequent criteria by which he judges the relationship of various religions to a single, coherent narrative; such a method holds the promise of producing real criteria by which to evaluate different religions while still affirming a certain degree of universal religious validity – or, in other words, a way to understand why one believes what one believes rather than something else that does not boil down to either accident of place or simple bigoted rejection of other religious beliefs.

All this is merely a proposed framework for a project that would be quite immense and which would require the effort of individuals of every type of belief or non-belief and of a variety of scientific and liberal arts backgrounds.