American Political Philosopher, Author, and Musician
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Will The Real “Relativist” Please Stand Up    

 

A prominent political commentator recently put forth the opinion that relativists are disrupting the "fabric" of society. Around the same time that week, I had an impromptu discussion with a friend who took issue with my oft-uttered assertion that "faith is a lie by definition”. My right honorable friend suggested to me that "it requires faith to believe that George Washington was the president of the United States", because "I can't prove he was" and that I believe that "only because that's what someone told me", and that "all human beliefs are based in faith".

 

He then shared a sonnet about how God gives us rights as follows:

 

"The animals have instinctive behavior, and we the humans alone can make decisions, have will. God had the will to make us and he made us in his own image to have free will and the ability to think, and that's why we have God-given rights that the other animals cannot have"

 

As fate would have it, O'Reilly and my friend both believe that the first sentence of the Bill of Rights actually means that government is prevented merely from declaring a national religion, rather than an actual separation of Church and State.

 

There are some fundamental questions swirling about in all of these arguments which I'll use to organize the nature of my counter analysis. What is a "relativist" as defined by Bill O'Reilly? What is the scope of faith relative to the things we believe and accept? What is the source of our natural rights? Why is any of this significant?

 

Let’s look at the George Washington assertion: Since I can't produce Washington or any breathing eyewitnesses to his presidency, does it require faith for me to accept that he was the first president of the United States? (Clearly not)   Setting aside who created us for the moment, the fact is that we have been created and if we're lucky we have 5 senses through which we gather information. We each have varying degrees of facility, further, in the storage and comparison of that information. As we grow and experience life as an individual and as a member of a society of individuals, we accept definitions for concepts within the language we use to communicate. All of this culminates in a scope of experience that serves as a body of evidence against which we can determine the relative believability of an object. If one evaluates truthfully that a given concept does not challenge the validity of his natural experience, then that item does not require faith to believe. If a suggested concept is contradicted by that individual's accumulated body of natural reasoning, then the choice to believe that is faithful.

Of course, there is overwhelming natural evidence that George Washington was the first president of the United States. There are countless writings in Washington's own hand and by those who were contemporaries, both by those who loved and those who hated him. There are portraits and treaties and private letters and congressional records. The concept of "George Washington as president" is a rational belief to hold; it is strongly supported by information available to the senses of human beings. On the other hand, if one says that "Jesus is the son of God", that is an assertion that requires faith to believe. We might agree it's plausible and well within the bounds of human reason to accept that someone named Jesus preached in the Middle East and was crucified a couple of thousand years ago, as there is some evidence to that effect and as there is nothing supernatural suggested by those events. That belief doesn't require faith. What requires faith is the belief that Jesus was able to raise the dead. The concept is supernatural; it's contrary to human experience.

 

My friend seemed surprised when I agreed that "if we have been created, which clearly we have, then there must have been a creator". He then assured me that since I accepted the fact "that which has been created has a creator" that I then accepted a creator on faith, because again I couldn't produce evidence of the creator. This error is even more obvious: If one can deduce logically that a human being must have a creator if he in fact has been created, then by definition that belief in a creator is based in reason and not in faith.

 

What requires faith is when human beings believe they have knowledge about the nature of the creator, other than through the quite human analysis of the nature of that creator's creations. For example, when my friend says that God made us in his own image, that assertion requires faith. Does any human being know from natural observation whether a single being created the Universe and human beings intentionally, or whether it was a committee, pure probability or a grand illusion? I consider it to be self evident that the answer is no. It requires faith to believe one knows the creator except through the experiences we have within and as a creation.

What about the source of our human rights? It's been argued by my friend and others that we have rights because God gives us rights- rights are a gift from God. We have some context -further- from the Declaration of Independence on this topic:

 

"We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal and that they endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

 

Let's look at this very closely:

To view the Declaration of Independence as a faithful document is to overlook the brilliance of the logic and the actual source of rights. First one must ask what it is about our creation that makes us equal. If we know nothing about the creator, how can we know that he made us equal or gave us rights, let alone what they are?  Some of the faithful will assert that God created us in his own image and loves us equally and gave us each rights.

That conclusion not only doesn’t resolve the questions logically, but one glaring flaw erupts: A person of a given faith doesn't necessarily limit the degree of knowledge he accepts as his own regarding the nature of the creator to which he is bound. There is little in the history of religion or dogma to suggest a predilection to the goal of equality among God's human creations. Succinctly, Christians and Muslims and Jews- though they each have a different understanding of the nature of God, each has the "best" understanding of the nature of God.

The United States was not so loosely founded. Let's set the faithful view aside and look at it logically (since the Declaration of Independence is a logical argument presented "to the opinions of mankind"). If one admits that he has no knowledge of the Creator directly- as would a Deist such as Thomas Jefferson- then one can plainly see that the right-granting property of our equality- having been created- is that we DON'T know the nature of the creator directly. It is the fact that individual "A" accepts as self-evident that individual "B" knows exactly 0% more about the nature of the creator directly that gives individual "A" the right to DEFEND himself against individual "B" asserting a greater right to life or liberty. If group "B" were able to assert that God had spoken directly to them and that they would be allowed- in fact mandated- to enslave and torture group "A", then what would be group "A"'s set of options in response? If group "A" were to accept the beliefs of group "B", then they have no right to defense. It is only through the refusal to accept that ANY group of individuals has a more direct relationship with the creator than another that a person can assert the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable. Rights, therefore, don't come from what we know about God, but from a faithless acceptance of what we collectively DON'T know about God. If it can be said that God gave us rights, it is more precise to say that is what He has left us with.

 

Let's move forward into the controversy surrounding the first sentence of our Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion". Many will forcefully say this means only that the federal government cannot form a national religion. They will say things like "The First Amendment is designed to keep government out of religion, not religion out of government". When I challenged that view, my friend first said I "have to consider the views of the people who founded the nation". To that I put forth that Jefferson used the phrase "a wall of separation between church and state" as his direct interpretation of "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion". My friend asserts that the famous Danbury Baptist association letter shows this quote is "taken out of context". That's a standard but absurd defense. There is nothing ambiguous about Jefferson's interpretation of the first Amendment in the letter, and in fact the context emphasizes it.

When I further point out that the Amendment's author- James Madison-  is on the record numerous times stating that "Religion is exempt from the cognizance of the Institutions of Civil Society" (which certainly isn't ambiguous, is it?), my debater switched to the "the constitution is not a living breathing document, it means exactly what it says" argument.

 

I simply focus the logic accordingly:

 

I agreed that the constitution is solid, and that it means what it says. That fact is fatal to his argument.  What it says is that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of Religion". In order for human beings to accept that it means what it says, me must analyze the meanings of those 10 words, associate those meanings using the rules of grammar, and derive the total meaning from the full scope of possible meanings given the words in the order provided by Madison and signed into the law of the land.

 

Let's consider this graphically: Below I place each word at the head of a column depicting a hypothetical number of individual dictionary entries associated with each:

 

 

 

 

 

If we are to take a phrase literally, as a good constructionist should, would we not be bound to objectively derive our understanding of the law from the full scope of meanings among the words of that law?  (as follows):

 

 

 

 

Or is it ok for one group to choose to pick their favorite dictionary entries out of the list for each word and assemble a "specialized" version of the law (as follows)?

 

 

 

Let’s take a closer look at some of these words from dictionary.com:

 

es·tab·lish    Audio pronunciation of "establish" ( P )  Pronunciation Key  ( -st b l sh)
tr.v. es·tab·lished, es·tab·lish·ing, es·tab·lish·es

 

To set up; found. See Synonyms at found1.

To bring about; generate: establish goodwill in the neighborhood.

 

To place or settle in a secure position or condition; install: They established me in my own business.

To make firm or secure.

To cause to be recognized and accepted: a discovery that established his reputation.

To introduce and put (a law, for example) into force.

To prove the validity or truth of: The defense attorneys established the innocence of the accused.

To make a state institution of (a church).

 

 

It’s pretty easy to see that entry number 6 is relevant a common view of what the First Amendment is about. Bill O’Reilly, my friend, and many others have opined that the First Amendment was designed to prevent congress from establishing the state institution of a national religion. Things get more complex if one realizes there are five additional entries that are at least equally as valid when one objectively attempts to derive the meaning of the word. Let’s consider, for example, entry number “3”.

 

Any entity that causes another entity to be recognized and accepted has by definition “established” that second entity.

 

If we look at an entry for the word “establishment” as well:

 

es·tab·lish·ment    Audio pronunciation of "establishment" ( P )  Pronunciation Key  ( -st b l sh-m nt)
n.

 

The act of establishing.

The condition or fact of being established.

Something established, as:

An arranged order or system, especially a legal code.

 

We must deduce that an entity that has become recognized and accept due to another entity is a “something established”, and is in fact an “establishment”.

 

 

Let’s look at that very first dictionary entry for the word “of” :

 

of    Audio pronunciation of "of" ( P )  Pronunciation Key  ( v, v; v when unstressed)
prep.

Derived or coming from; originating at or from: customs of the South.

 

What I find of particular interest is the example “customs of the South.”  Notice the direction- the “customs” are coming from the “South” in the example of the proper usage of “of”.

We must consider that conceptual direction with the phrase “an establishment of Religion”.   To accept valid dictionary entries as the foundation of one’s understanding of “an establishment of Religion”, one must understand it to refer both to “The establishment of a national religion” AND “all of those entities which have become recognized and accepted through Religion”.

 

Naturally, we have to take a look at what religion means:

 

re·li·gion    Audio pronunciation of "religion" ( P )  Pronunciation Key  (r -l j n)
n.

 

Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.

A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.

The life or condition of a person in a religious order.

A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.

A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

 

One of those entries refers to beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.

 

Let’s have a look at “spiritual”:

 

spir·i·tu·al    Audio pronunciation of "spiritual" ( P )  Pronunciation Key  (sp r -ch - l)
adj.

Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material. See Synonyms at immaterial.

 

So among the valid views of what “religion” means according to the definition of the word is the following:

 

Religion: a set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a leader who bases his teachings on that which is not tangible or material.

 

 

Therefore, regardless of the angle my opponents choose to argue on First Amendment meaning, the "complete" interpretation of The First Amendment is the much stronger position. If you argue context, then you have to deal with Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Paine at least. If you argue along the strict constructionist view, then you have to deal with the dictionary.

But why is this important?

The First Amendment interpreted according to Bill O’Reilly and my friend is so narrow as to be meaningless. Would the opening phrase of the bill of rights of individuals who make up the first nation in history based on human freedom be a narrow footnote, or would it be something profound?

  When it is interpreted in the spirit of Jefferson and Madison, it becomes the most important sentence fragment in the history of human civilization. Interpreted according to the dictionary it means something very fundamental:

Government is prohibited from making laws that aren’t based in reason. In real terms, that short phrase is the only thing between American citizens (and those of the world, for that matter) and a King with unquestionable power over us. What it means is that a human being has the right to question a law, and that the government must justify that law using reason.

Let’s see how this fits into the context of world events such as . . . well for sake of example the bloody struggle between civilizations which claim to respect human rights and those who don’t really give much of a flip about human rights. In “Islamic” nations such as Iran, for example, the laws are provided by those who believe they have the best understanding of what their God has demanded their laws should be. It is their deep understanding of the nature of their God which justifies the control they claim over the lives of their citizens. Further, their deep understanding of the nature of their God dictates that they not only have dominion over those who live within their borders, but they have been granted dominion over the rest of us as well due to our refusal to accept that they know God X% better than we do. If we fall under the control of such a militant theocracy, we will pray Y times a day or die. If you are a woman, you will live your life within the limits they have imagined to be their God’s will for you and/or die. In that kind of State, the idea that an individual could actually question a law and suggest that the particular law in question might actually not be reasonable is laughable.

It’s important to our defense against those who know violently more about their God than we give them credit that we crisply distinguish the values that we hold as American values from those which threaten us. What separates us fundamentally from our enemies? We have a Declaration of Independence which reveals the deduction that we are created equal with natural human rights that we enjoy as individuals. That deduction depends on an acceptance of what we as a species do not know (the nature of God).  Secondly, we have a Bill of Rights which begins with our most basic protection: that we require the laws that police our relationship with government to be based in reason, rather than in faith. When Bill O’Reilly asserts that “relativists don’t want the government to make moral judgments whatever”, I say that a relativist is someone who chooses to believe that The First Amendment means what they want it to mean, rather than what it says and rather than what it’s author meant it to mean, and therefore subjects the individual to the whim of the majority. A relativist is someone who doesn’t perceive a distinction between reason and faith.

 Ultimately- that principle in the Declaration of Independence and the amendment that expresses and enforces it are prerequisites to the degree of human freedom necessary to generate the technological advancements that have brought about the most powerful nation in history. That freedom is what allowed us to save the world in World War II; it’s why Einstein worked for us instead of Hitler.

That advantage is only as good as our objective understanding of the First Amendment, and that understanding has clearly eroded. We have laws on top of laws that amount to what The Declaration of Independence would refer to as “a long train of abuses and usurpations”. We have laws that are becoming increasingly insufferable, and they are reducing our freedom and therefore our creativity. We have laws that respect establishments of religion, and those laws are costing us dearly. The detail of that is the topic of The Answers to All the World’s Problems, so I’ll leave it there. Our enemies can’t ascend to the potential of the United States of America because they can’t match the potential of free individuals in capitalist society. The question remains: Will we abandon the logic of our First Amendment and forfeit our own potential? Will we descend far enough to allow our enemies to catch up?  If that happens, it’s anybody’s world.

 


 

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