Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Maxim, The Law, And The State Of Religion

This post of last year has become one of the most visited and most frequently cited pieces here at Liberty's Torch. Just yesterday it was linked at Battlefield USA, one of my daily stops. The frequency with which this occurs suggests that the logic of the thing, coupled to the resentment so many Americans feel at our over-legislated, over-regulated state, sounds a deep chord in a great many souls.

In pondering that phenomenon, it occurred to me that the bedrock upon which the essay rests -- the existence of an invariant and unbreakable natural law -- is a proposition to which a declining number of persons, here and elsewhere, are willing to accept as a premise. Yet natural law is one of the core premises of the Christian faith, and 74% of Americans, according to the most recent census data, still self-designate as Christians. Indeed, one cannot validly claim to be a Christian if one denies the existence of natural law or rejects its implications for the conduct of men. The clash between those two observations is at the heart of today's exercise in futility.


It's often said that ours is a "secular age," and that the wisdoms and strictures of earlier, more religious eras have ceased to apply. Certainly, a great many Americans, and an even greater number of non-Americans, behave as if they believed exactly that. (No, I'm not talking about sex; that's a subject that deserves its own rant and will get one by and by.) One of the consequences of that stance is the increasing acceptance of the notion that for a law to be reasonable and morally binding, all that's required is that it win majorities in both houses of Congress and be signed by whatever clown happens to be president at that time.

I shan't bother repeating my earlier argument against that canard. But I will note that one house of a state legislature really did consider a bill to decree that Pi shall henceforth equal exactly three. Fortunately, the bill died long before it could command the attention of the governor, but all the same: that's what you get when people reject the concept of natural law.

I will allow that there's no direct, inescapable implication from natural law to a natural Lawgiver, whose decrees cannot be repealed nor modified. Nevertheless, that's been the belief of the overwhelming majority of Americans and Europeans throughout the Anno Domini era. Moreover, those outside the Judeo-Christian tradition do not include natural law among the precepts of their faiths. Islam is explicit on the subject: in the Islamic view, Allah can and does tinker with reality continuously, entirely according to its whim, such that no item of human knowledge or belief can be regarded as accurate at all places and times.

If it doesn't pain you to do so, ponder the implications of a belief system without invariant natural law beneath it, specifically as it would pertain to human conduct. The attempt gives me a headache.


If I may repeat a quote from the earlier essay:

Nevertheless, in the inexplicable universal votings and debatings of these Ages, an idea or rather a dumb presumption to the contrary has gone idly abroad, and at this day, over extensive tracts of the world, poor human beings are to be found, whose practical belief it is that if we "vote" this or that, so this or that will thenceforth be. Practically men have come to imagine that the Laws of this Universe, like the laws of constitutional countries, are decided by voting. It is an idle fancy. The Laws of this Universe, of which if the Laws of England are not an exact transcript, they should passionately study to become, are fixed by the everlasting congruity of things, and are not fixable or changeable by voting!

If one disbelieves in "the everlasting congruity of things," it becomes possible to allow that natural law doesn't exist -- alternately, that it can be finessed. Some persons will claim that "science" -- yet another habitually abused concept -- is essentially the enterprise of finding ways to finesse natural law. The notion calls to mind Chief Engineer Scott saying to Captain Kirk: "I canna change the laws of physics, Captain, but I can find ye a loophole." But this is far from the actual case. There are no loopholes in the laws of nature; there are only domains of applicability of the descriptions of the laws we think we've deduced from the patterns we have observed so far.

Let it be stipulated that one of the laws of nature pertinent to Man is that a society that tolerates violence against the innocent degrades its prospects for extended survival. In the Judeo-Christian formulation, this is rendered as Thou shalt not murder. Individuals can and sometimes do say to themselves: "I can get away with it." And indeed, some murderers do "get away with it," in the sense that they go forever unpunished by the justice systems of their societies. That doesn't impact the natural law itself, as long as the society in question incorporates absolute intolerance of violence against the innocent in its resolutions and the judicial institutions built upon them. But should that society's legislators pass a bill that legalizes murder, conditions would become radically different.

That's a fairly blunt example, so let's have another of greater subtlety. Let's stipulate that another of the laws of nature pertinent to Man is that to defend oneself or innocent others against criminal predation is inherently right and just. The United Kingdom has recently enacted laws that make forcible resistance to a crime -- i.e., violence used in defense -- a punishable offense. Such laws clearly put the well-being of the aggressive criminal on a plane above the rights and well-being of his victim: a clear attempt to set aside the law of nature in favor of a legislated law.

It's not working out well for our English cousins. Crime rates, particularly property crime rates, have been rising steadily there. If any thought has been given to the repeal of the no-defensive-violence statutes, I'm unaware of it.

The extension of the logic of the latter case to laws that forbid peaceable citizens to carry weapons, and the consequences for those American states and cities that have enacted them, should be too obvious to require extensive discussion.


He who doesn't have enough insight or mental horsepower to concede the existence of natural law, and to grasp the implied bounds upon those who would legislate for Man, could still "get there" from a suitable (i.e., Jewish or Christian) religious foundation. Once the premise of natural law is accepted, the proper limits on human legislatures become inescapable. But in the absence of either sufficient intellect or an appropriate religious faith, we enter forbidding waters, where no fact is beyond question and no chart can be trusted to lead us home.

It takes quite a lot more percipience and intellect than most persons possess to establish the critical premise without the assistance of a proper religious faith.

The increasing disaffiliation of Westerners from the faiths that underpinned the West's rise to world pre-eminence correlates absolutely with the bursting of the bonds, whether expressly set out in constitutions or implied by longstanding traditions, that confined Western legislatures to their proper spheres. In shedding our faiths -- the Christendom that was once the light of Europe, and the fervor that once animated American religiosity -- we've lost far more than we've gained.

This is not to say that those earlier, more religious times had no unjust or unpleasant features. There was much intolerance of persons and practices that could not be justified by any preachment of Christ. The Church itself committed many usurpations of authority for which there is no substantiation in the Gospels. All the same, beneath all the trappings was always the doctrine of natural law -- that which operates despite Man's denial or dissent -- to keep the powers of the earth properly in check. In turning away from that premise -- in assuming that "if we 'vote' this or that, so this or that will thenceforth be," -- we've endangered all our forebears have left to us.

Possibly our immortal souls, as well.

1 comment:

josephpmartino said...

"Islam is explicit on the subject: in the Islamic view, Allah can and does tinker with reality continuously, entirely according to its whim, such that no item of human knowledge or belief can be regarded as accurate at all places and times."

I spent 2 semesters as a visiting professor in the School of Engineering at Marmara Univ., Istanbul. It still puzzles me how my Turkish students, all Muslims, could accept not only the statement above, but also what I was teaching them about engineering statistics. I still wonder about the extent to which a Muslim learning science or engineering is undermining his own faith in Islam. Central to all science and engineering is the idea that there are laws of nature. As a Catholic, I believe that while God sustains the universe, He sustains it in its integrity. He doesn't keep changing it around, as Allah is supposed to do. There are secondary causes in nature; we can learn what they are; we can use them for our purposes. But at rock bottom, there are laws because the universe was created by a rational God.