There is a recent New Yorker article titled “Of Babies and Beans: Paul Ryan on Abortion.” The author, Adam Gopnik, is agitated over something said by Paul Ryan at the recent vice-presidential ‘debate’ (I still can’t bring myself to say that those things are really debates). Here is what shocked Adam Gopnik:
Paul Ryan did not say, as John Kennedy had said before him, that faith was faith and public service, public service, each to be honored and kept separate from the other. No, he said instead “I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do.” That’s a shocking answer—a mullah’s answer, what those scary Iranian “Ayatollahs” he kept referring to when talking about Iran would say as well. Ryan was rejecting secularism itself, casually insisting, as the Roman Catholic Andrew Sullivan put it, that “the usual necessary distinction between politics and religion, between state and church, cannot and should not exist.”
Pause to note something significant in the sub-quote above from Andrew Sullivan: the assumption that “politics and religion” is parallel to “state and church.” State and church are institutions. Politics and religion are (here at least) concepts. The mere fact that we see wisdom in separating two institutions does not require that we agree that these two concepts can be separated. Keep that in mind as we proceed.
Gopnik is especially disturbed with one place Ryan took this: his opposition to abortion. As Gopnik went on to say:
Ryan talked facilely of what “science” says in this case. But what real science has to tell us, of course, very different; it says that life has no neat on and off, that while life may in some sense begin at conception, the moment when the formed consciousness that distinguishes human life from bean life arises is a very different question, not reducible to a dogma or a simple claim. A bean isn’t a baby; a baby was once a bean, and between those two truths it is, or ought to be, every woman for herself.
Albert Mohler wrote a response to Gopnik. I often like what Mohler has to say about such things. Mohler emphasized Gopnik’s insistence that an early-stage baby is nothing more than a bean, and where such a view inevitably leads us. But it was interesting that Mohler did not mention what is really a key point is this, and many related, debates.
Gopnik naively assumes that his assumptions and conclusions in this case are not religious. By ‘religious’ here I obviously don’t necessarily mean ‘Christian’ (or any other religion in that sense). What I do mean by ‘religious’ is something like this: necessarily involving assumptions that cannot be directly empirically tested.
Secularists do this constantly, and they should just as frequently be called on it. Science itself involves this kind of religious assumption. Such assumptions, and the conclusions to which they lead, are not necessarily extra-rational. But they are, in an important sense, religious. The conclusion that there is no God, that there is a God but we can’t be too sure we know much about God, and all sorts of views like this, are religious. Secularism itself is a religious idea in this important sense.
And very much so also is Gopnik’s idea that “consciousness distinguishes human life.” This is an utterly religious idea, and Gopnik should know it, but seems oblivious to the obvious here. When Gopnik brings this idea into his political views, he is guilty of exactly the same thing he condemns in Ryan.
I don’t begrudge Gopnik his religious ideas, nor do I think he can avoid bringing them into this kind of debate. But he, like many secularists, need to realize that it is not a matter of mixing politics and religion – that is unavoidable. The only real question is: which religious ideas will you bring to your politics?
We get bad politics not because we rely on religious ideas to form our political ideas, but because we use the wrong religious ideas to form our political ideas. Those dreaded ‘mullahs’ do not have horrible governments because they are religious. They have horrible governments because they have wrong religious ideas.
This conclusion is exactly what a Gopnik-style secularist is desperately seeking to avoid. But such avoidance is impossible – utterly impossible. Religious views are everywhere, including every conceivable political position. Everyone has them; no one can avoid them. We need to make the Gopniks of the world face up to that.