The Theocratic Mindset of James Dobson

As something of a Rawlsian about public discourse, I have no problem with religious people arguing in government for application of ideals that they personally discovered through their religion or their sacred texts, their religious institutions, etc. as long as they respect the need to give reasons that are publicly accessible, reasons that do not cite religious authority as though it were binding upon all rational people to take into account. As long as your religiously derived view is also defensible in terms of reason, you should feel free to argue for it.

This principle is what prevents us from having laws rooted in religious intuitions that are purely arbitrary and incapable of rational justification. If anyone can just “feel” God’s voice telling them that God wants x or God wants y and if they are able to persuade others that they had this insight straight from God, then there are no limits on theological claims made by the fiat of “Scriptural” authors or contemporaries who claim prophetic abilities that can be made into laws. There is no limit to stop those who think God indicates to them that slavery is okay or that God demands a genocide (as the Bible claims he has repeatedly before for example) from making such insistences in arguments about public policy and law. We could wind up with arguments that all Americans must be baptized for the good of their souls, that there should be no separation from church and state, etc. Any argument must be considered when it needs no further justification when it is rooted in premises chosen to be believed purely by groundless “faith.”

And that’s why Obama is extremely right in his manner of trying to explain to his fellow Christians how they should conceive of their incorporation of their religious beliefs (if they must) into their public policy suggestions. And it’s why Dobson is extremely upsetting:

Dobson reserved some of his harshest criticism for Obama’s argument that the religiously motivated must frame debates over issues like abortion not just in their own religion’s terms but in arguments accessible to all people.

He said Obama, who supports abortion rights, is trying to govern by the “lowest common denominator of morality,” labeling it “a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.”

“Am I required in a democracy to conform my efforts in the political arena to his bloody notion of what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies?” Dobson said. “What he’s trying to say here is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe.”

Dobson’s either obtuse or a liar to interpret Obama as saying that “unless everybody agrees” he has no right to fight for his beliefs. What Obama is saying is that your arguments must be of the type that could persuade those that disagree with you on the common terms of rational debate that we all share: appeals to logic, history, repeatable or universally had types of experiences, science, anecdotal evidence, etc. Obama’s not saying the ridiculous thing that unless everyone already agrees with you you cannot make an argument. He’s saying you cannot make an argument from premises that are simply idiosyncratic to you and your dogmatic faith tradition with its bald assertions that subject themselves to no thorough rational questioning but instead insist on “faith” to make up a key role in their assenting.

Unless Dobson really (and rather stupefyingly) thinks that he has no reasons to argue against abortion that do not come from the claims of “special revelation” from God, what in the world is wrong with demanding he use arguments that do not appeal to leaps of faith but actually are persuasive to “reason alone?” And if he thinks abortion is only refutable for religious reasons, because of his self-conscious, rationally uncompelled choice to believe (which is what faith is, a choice to believe) , then how dare he insist others who do not make a similarly rationally uncompelled choice to believe as a matter of law? How dare he derive laws from those beliefs he knows he chose even though they weren’t nearly conclusively proven to him? How does he not see the arbitrariness, unfairness, and theocracy in that? Is he just that unwilling to view things from the perspective of others who disagree with him? Does he have that little respect for them?

The irony of Dobson’s anger and contempt for Obama is that he goes right ahead and in defense of his right to argue on religious terms makes an explicit appeal that is accessible to all people after all—-he appeals to “what is right with regard to the lives of tiny babies.” One does not have to be religious to have an interest in the well being of “tiny babies.” That he thinks you must is just religious arrogance. That’s not to say of course that all irreligious people accept his views on what is or is not a “tiny baby” or what is right or wrong with regard to them. But neither do all religious people agree with him. The issue can be debated among reasonable people on rational and reasonable terms without appeals to religious authority and without the assumption that only religious people can have the most robust senses of goodness possible.

It is Dobson’s pure arrogance that his religion makes his moral intuitions and moral insights superior and that arrogance translates in an unflinching willingness to theocratically impose his moral intuitions on people by appeal to reasons they could not even theoretically assent to as long as they are not adherents to his theology.

That’s obnoxious, that’s authoritarian, that’s anti-rational, and that’s flat-out regressive.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • smadavid

    Great post.

    This is unrelated, but your paranthetical “which is what faith is, a choice to believe” got me thinking. I’ve strugged for a long time with what faith actually is, and how it relates to the concept of belief.

    I like to define belief as simply being convinced that an idea is true. A person may have many reasons for being convinced of something – emotional, philisophical, scientific, etc. And it might be tempting to add faith to that list, but I’m not so sure. In my experience people of faith, when pressed, will give rational (however ill-informed they may be) reasons as to why they believe.

    They may believe because they can’t conceive of a universe capable of evolving intelligent life, or because they’ve benefited spiritually from truths found in religion, or because they were indoctrinated at such a young age that anything else runs contrary to everything they know.

    Our brains are excellent at rationalizing newly aquired information to fit existing, long-held patterns of belief. We’re wired to eliminate cognitive dissonance whenever possible, which makes it difficult to fairly consider new evidence. I’m reading Robert Burton’s book “On Being Certain,” which discusses cognition and how the feeling of certainty is the same regardless of whether you’re objectively right or wrong.

    So are there people who believe simply because they want to? Or are these people using the same rational faculties as the agnostic or athiest, but against a vastly different set of knowledge and experience, resulting in different answers to the same questions?


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