Faith in the Public Sphere

Last Thursday, I had the honor of hosting a roundtable discussion for America’s Future Foundation on the topic of religion and liberty.

In addition to the honor of moderating the event, I was privileged to meet a number of Values & Capitalism readers. It is always great to meet members of our community in person. For those of you who were not able to join us, you’ll see me in the video below. Please say hello if you find me at an event in the future!

This event featured Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, a Muslim libertarian and president of the Minaret of Freedom Institute, Ed Hudgins, an atheist objectivist libertarian serving as director of advocacy for The Atlas Society, and Hugh Whelchel, a Christian conservative and executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics. The below video is of the first two questions in the discussion, and you can see what a fascinating event this was.

A few thoughts of my own on faith in the public sphere:

For those who did not watch the video, or who did not make it to the end, Dean Ahmad closes with a very interesting argument defining the term “faith.” He makes the point that faith is not limited to those who openly participate in a religion, but that scientists and those atheists who rely on science also have a great deal of faith. He says that scientists “have a faith in the ability to know the truth,” believing that truth exists, and that we possess the ability to one day find it out. Dean Ahmad, who himself holds a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics and worked as a scientists for several decades, explains:

I can give a proof of a mathematical theorem that will convince any rational person smart enough to follow the argument that it is true. But when it comes to the natural sciences, we are not—and I don’t think we will ever be in a state—where we can say we have the grand unified theory of everything and can demonstrate in the way that one demonstrates a mathematical theorem that the universe is in an important sense, explicable.

This statement bore a strong similarity to an argument I recently read in “C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christ: Insights from Reason, Imagination and Faith,” a great book by Dr. Art Lindsley of the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics, written during his time at the C.S. Lewis Institute. In discussing Lewis’s own conversion, Lindsley says:

Proof of a negative statement is difficult to pull off. For example, how would you prove the negative assertion, “There is no gold in Alaska”? You would have to determine the limits of Alaska, its borders and depth and height, then dig up every cubic inch of Alaska. If there was one cubic inch you did not dig, there still might be gold in Alaska. On the other hand, how would you prove the positive assertion, “There is gold in Alaska”? Easy—you need find only one piece.

Similarly, what would you have to know in order to know for sure that there is no God? You would have to know everything. If there was one thing you did not know, that one thing might be God.

These arguments are significant to the discussion of faith in the public sphere because they point out that no one, not even the atheist, is exempt from considering this issue. The atheist may claim to not have faith, but without their knowing everything—in the absence of a grand unified theory that definitively disproves the existence of the supernatural—they must have faith in their assertion that there is no God.

An atheist may say that religion is inherently authoritarian, but one of the take-aways from this event was that non-religion is equally dogmatic. While religions claim that some are better at hearing from God than others, non-religion claims that some are more reasonable than others and we should all acquiesce to their superior reasonableness.

We can see this most clearly in the debates on climate change, but it also rears its head in the daily evidences of liberal pragmatism. Liberals claim to do “what works,” and as Jonah Goldberg discusses at length in his new book, “The Tyranny of Clichés” (which I review here), they don’t think they have an ideology, they just think they have science on their side. To properly discuss faith and the public square, faith in science must also be taken to task.

The pot shouldn’t call the kettle black. We should all be intellectually honest about our faith.

And to make a final point, our faiths shape how we act, think and process information. Therefore we should also bring our faiths to the public sphere, lest we all be hypocrites.

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