In July and on Independence Day it is natural to reflect on the Declaration of Independence. The most famous line from that document tells us about the grounding for human equality. Humans are created equal and endowed by their Creator with rights. Here we have what some might say is a very religious statement playing the defining role in that foundational government document. Religious beliefs answer basic questions about authority, reality, and value that are foundational to the rest of thought.
The right to religious liberty provides us with the freedom to form beliefs about what is most meaningful—and to practice these beliefs. But it also carries with it an obligation to provide rational justification for these beliefs. Such justification is not only for others in the public sphere; it is first for each of us in thinking about our own beliefs. What is the meaning of religious belief and why should anyone hold them? And what is the source of common ground between religious groups or even between humans more generally? These questions press us to not only argue in favor of liberty but also to understand the unique nature of religious belief and why it is necessary that beliefs retain meaning through critical analysis. Critical thinking is the responsibility that comes with religious liberty. If we can agree on common ground as necessary for thought and discourse and on what is clear for morality and meaning we can begin to make progress on what has brought division in religion.
Finding common ground begins in affirming that some things are clear to reason. The alternative is that nothing is clear (nihilism). What is clear is the starting point, that we may all use reason to form beliefs, critically analyze beliefs, interpret experiences, and construct systems of thought. We can compare this to the Declaration of Independence’s claim that some things are self-evident. What is self-evident is that humans are created equal (and therefore also that humans are created). This is laying the basis of common ground for the rest of the argument given in the Declaration of Independence. In a similar way, we need to identify common ground on which to build an argument that can lead to agreement. It could be that if those truths identified in this famous sentence from the Declaration did not get to what is actually common ground, they did not get back to the basics and therefore left room for disagreement, then we can expect continuing strife that could lead to division.
Skepticism and Fideism
One of the most enduring reputations of religious disputes is that they are interminable. Religious liberty is sometimes thought to require on-going religious dispute because there is no way to resolve these disputes. Religious disagreements have been allowed to persist in the context of skepticism about religious knowledge. One popular view posits that the religious hold their beliefs without proof (fideism) and the another argues that government should leave them to it because there is no way to come to a knowledge of the matter (skepticism). There is wisdom in avoiding foolish arguments. Having common ground is necessary to avoid foolish arguments. This would also restore the reputation of religion, or theology, as a branch of knowledge.
When religion is in disarray, we can safely assume that there is division about basic things. A religious believer’s fideism shares the same presupposition as the non-believing skeptic: knowledge is not possible. The skeptic presupposes that knowledge is not possible and argues that we should not believe. The fideist also presupposes that knowledge is not possible but argues that we must believe something. The alternative to both is to critically analyze the presupposition that knowledge is not possible. As we have seen in the history of American religious life, fideism begets fideism: the multiplication of fideistic groups, each claiming to have a revelation or the correct understanding of revelation but without knowledge.
Fideism places a stumbling block in the path of others and hinders the fideist from entering as well. It strengthens the position of the skeptic, the naturalist (material monist), and the deist in their confidence that either there is no God or God does not act in human and natural history. This view is in turn strengthened by the confusion among religions about God’s activities and especially the problem of evil. This stumbling block can also affect the civil realm by increasing tension and disturbing good order. The alternative is to prepare the way, remove stumbling blocks in the form of objections, by showing that basic things are clear to reason. This requires identifying the basic things and then showing what can be known about them. Basic things include concepts about God and creation, good and evil. We need not accept a narrow definition of religion. Religion is a human activity aimed at finding meaning. Nor must we accept pragmatic and pluralist solutions as final solutions. These are at best a means to an end. And that end is the same in religion as in any other human discipline: to come to have knowledge that provides unity and agreement. This knowledge begins with the kinds of questions asked in the field of natural religion. There are ways in which pluralism might be enforced that are essentially attempts at coercion of religious beliefs.
One application of common ground, of presuppositional thinking, is to notice the relationship between revealed religion and natural religion. The United States was founded on natural religion. The grievances justifying independence rest on the claim that there are some things self-evident about God and human nature and from these come human rights and the structure of human government. Specifically, the Declaration of Independence claims it is self-evident that there is a creator and that humans are created. Human equality and rights rest on this claim about creation. The eventual Constitution and Bill of Rights are further examples of the development of general revelation into the political and social realms as opposed to appeals to divine origination or special revelation. The exact quote is so well known it hardly needs repeating, but we can benefit from thinking about its structure: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights.” We can discern three parts here: epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. There is the epistemological claim, or a claim about knowledge, that some things are self-evident. There is the metaphysical claim about what is real: God the Creator and human nature. And there is the ethical claim about equality and rights.
The First Amendment has a practical application simply because people disagree about religion. And indeed, disagreement about religious opinions is sometimes taken as a trademark of religion. But religious knowledge is like knowledge in any field. It has as its goal not merely true belief (opinion) but a true justified belief. And when we have this we can have agreement among all. Disagreements about revealed religion are grounded in disagreements about natural religion. What has existed from eternity? What is God? What is it to be a human? What is good for a human? These questions are basic questions answered in natural religion.
Religion and Meaning
The universality of religion is in its connection to meaning. Religion is uniquely connected to how a person attempts to find meaning, and it is not strange to say that how a person finds meaning is through their religion. The beliefs we use to find meaning and interpret our experiences are basic beliefs—foundational to the rest of our belief system. An objection to this is that it makes religion too common. Indeed, this could mean that activities like sports or hobbies are religions. In such cases we use the adverb religiously (as in, he pursues baseball religiously). This makes sense precisely because of how religion relates to meaning, while also noting that such cases are instances of pursuing a hobby like a religion without it actually being a religion. As such, it is not a sufficient objection but instead helps illustrate the role of religion in the search for meaning.
This also explains why we are looking at natural religion. Not all religions involve scripture (revealed religion), and revealed religion presupposes natural religion. While it is true that religion involves practices (rituals), it is also true that these cannot be separated from the beliefs and meaning attached to them. The non-cognitive “sense of the divine” is empty until the terms are given cognitive meaning.
All religions make claims about natural religion. Religious liberty begins in our freedom to form beliefs about authority, reality, and value that are parts of natural religion. This will also help us understand how religion and reason are related. The liberties protected by the First Amendment are for all persons. An example of an application of this is that religious beliefs cannot be separated from the public square because religion (at least in this universal form as natural religion) permeates the public square and all discussions.
The Trial of Socrates as a Religious Trial
We can use Socrates as a paradigmatic example of a religious trial. This trial involves both revealed and natural religion. Socrates is responding to the Oracle’s claim that he is the wisest. He has a hard time believing this and sees it as a kind of religious duty to discover if it is true. After examining those persons society considers wise, and finding that they think they know, but they do not know what wisdom is, he concludes that the oracle spoke about Socrates as a type, “[H]e is wisest who, like Socrates, knows when he does not know.” When he is asked by the court to stop his questioning, he points out that this would involve breaking his religious duties. His questioning also involves a kind of natural religion in that he is asking those who are considered wise to explain what it is to know and what is good. Their inability to do this is a matter of natural religion.
Socrates summarizes the charges against him as follows: “What do they say? Something of this sort: – That Socrates is a doer of evil, and corrupter of the youth, and he does not believe in the gods of the state and has other new divinities of his own.” Socrates responds to these accusations showing that he is the last person who society could accuse of corrupting the youth and that they cannot call him an atheist since he is in this difficulty from his commitment to the words of the Oracle.
By questioning those who society considers wise, Socrates finds that, while people consider themselves wise, they are not actually wise and cannot give an account of their lives. This is a kind of self-deception. When Socrates questions them, and discovers their lack of wisdom, they engage in self-justification. This self-justification carries itself to the point of a trial and eventual death penalty for Socrates. Although Socrates uses arguments to support his beliefs, he does not persuade his opponents. This raises a problem: How can it be that humans have the capacity for reason and yet do not use it? A sound argument will not persuade those who are not making use of reason, neither will it move them from not using reason to the use thereof.
Was Socrates engaged in a fool’s errand? We need not conclude so. His arguments moved the hearers into greater misunderstanding, and this in itself is a revelation of something worth knowing. This process reveals the fool and the simpleton. The fool is the one who thinks he knows when he does not know. The simpleton is the one who does not care to know. Neither appreciates the Socratic method of questioning nor are they engaged in leading an examined life. Neither can show what is clear to reason.
Nevertheless, the court finds Socrates guilty. His liberty will be taken away either by his agreeing to remain silent or by his death. The opposition asks for the death penalty. Socrates initially proposes that he should be rewarded for his endeavors since he tirelessly sought the betterment of others. But he admits this is unlikely and considers what other possible penalties are available:
Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living – that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you.
The unexamined life is not worth living. The liberty to dialogue in the pursuit of wisdom is necessary for the greatest good. To ask Socrates to stop doing this is to ask him to live as less than a human. He is responding to the divine command of the Oracle, but he is also doing what falls under the heading of natural religion. Without the Oracle at Delphi, we could know from general revelation that the unexamined life is not worth living; we could know that wisdom is the highest good.
The general neglect of natural religion and its questions is not surprising. And this neglect is behind many of the disagreements that arise in society. Conflicts reflect competing values that are grounded in contradictory beliefs about what is real. To continue to operate together requires common ground about what is real, about what is good, about reason, and about thinking. If we can agree that common ground is necessary for thought and discourse, and that some things are clear to reason is necessary for meaning and morality, we can begin to make progress in resolving differences about religion and value.
Owen Anderson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Arizona State University and author of several books including “The Declaration of Independence and God: Self-Evident Truths in American Law.” This essay is an adaptation of “The First Amendment and Natural Religion,” first published in The Cambridge Companion to the First Amendment and Religious Liberty, edited by Michael D. Breidenbach and Owen Anderson, Copyright © 2020 Cambridge University Press.