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The Bill of Rights: “We hold these truths…”

Vic Reppert (Christian philosopher and author)

and

Ed Babinski (former Christian and author)

A Discussion about Thomas Jeffersonʼs lines in the Declaration of Independence (leading into a discussion of the basis of ethics)


Vic: So Jefferson didnʼt mean what he said when he said the rights were endowed by the creator? I find that hard to believe, and if it is true, we need evidence you donʼt provide here.
Thomas Jefferson

Edward: Endowed by a creator, or dictated a king, or by the people, or by your neighbor, or your Dad. Authoritarianism is still authoritarianism. Believing you have an authoritarian basis for how you ought to behave does not explain why or how such a basis functions, except on the basis of an authoritarian, ask no questions, functioning.

And speaking of the American revolution, many still believed in a “creator” who “endowed” “kings” with a divine right to rule, including king George in England. (“For the powers that be are placed their by God and do not wield the sword in vain.”) If both Jefferson and King George believed in a creator, what made Jeffersonʼs refusal to want to pay taxes to “kings” the more “divine” proposal?


Vic: OK Ed. Do we, on your view, have inalienable rights? Or not?

Edward: Again, how do you philosophically prove such a thing as “inalienable rights?” And what about legal rights based on “common sense” instead of “inalienability?” Questions of philosophy, in this case, moral philosophy, are ones that begin with questions we each ask ourselves. Like you ask yourself how you would react in a similar situation, and how you think others would react to your own reaction. The fact that some reactions have been so widespread among higher civilizations and elevated to the point of being written down in various “books” and declared “holy,” as in the Book of the Dead and in the laws of Hammurabi (which preceded the Ten Commandments), only means that they were written down. But prior to being written down, people asked questions: “How would I react in a similar situation, and how do I think others would react to my reaction?” You do know that the Babylonians portrayed Hammurabi receiving his laws directly from the sun god Shamash? Moses is portrayed receiving his laws directly from Yahweh. But proof remains lacking in both cases. Heck, just look at the laws of Hammurabi compared with the later laws of Moses, and you see changes, an evolution. And look at the laws of Moses compared with Americaʼs Bill of Rights, and you see further changes, an evolution. I am not saying anything about the existence or non-existence of a creator. I am merely pointing out where I think the line is most plainly drawn concerning what both you and I know and donʼt know about such questions.

Now tell me exactly what you are trying to argue? Lewisʼ “Tao?” Are you trying to argue that without absolutely pure laws directly from some supernatural source, mankind will live in chaos? Well, even naturalists have a “source,” namely the entire cosmos, and entire history of the evolution of social species. And all such “sources” aside, disagreements concerning laws, and their penalties, remain.

Believers in a “creator” turned central Europe into a wasteland following the dawn of the Reformation. And even today, you have Catholic and Protestant ethicists in disagreement on matters ranging from questions of a “just war,” to the “death penalty,” and even “condom use.”

Whatever “philosophical basis” you posit for ethical laws, the real question is how you get people to agree on the laws themselves, regardless of what “philosophical basis” each person may propose. Can we get supernaturalists and naturalists to agree on specific laws? That is the challenge of an open society. Also, when arguing based on authoritarianism which laws from what “authoritative sources” are you arguing in favor of? Is the Bible or Koran your source? If the Bible, then which parts of the Bible for which laws? Letʼs pick the law, “Thou shalt not kill.” Killing another human being seems like a good one to make authoritatively unquestionable, but Moses even instructed “brother to kill brother” after he came down from the mountain (and saw people worshiping the golden calf), and ordered fathers to stone and kill their own children if they even “tempt them” to “follow other gods,” and later Moses ordered the slaughter of women and male children (Numb. 31), so killing even defenseless women and children is just fine whenever itʼs “godly” enough. I could add God commanding Joshua to kill entire cities. I guess if you believe a creator “god” is behind your actions, your actions are O.K.

Perhaps also, you have not studied the ways theology has interacted with the history of lawmaking in Europe? The trouble, as theologians saw it from Constantine to Lutherʼs day was that Jesus never laid down laws for society or said what penalties ought to be enforced for breaking them. He just told people to save their own individual souls. Popes and Protestants pointed out that trying to encourage people to turn to God and save their souls, and letting heretics run loose polluting peopleʼs souls with false beliefs, was counterproductive, as even pointed out in Mosaic law. In fact, the Bible speaks of God damning entire nations if the majority of people donʼt worship him or act godly enough. So letting heretics run loose is a threat to the state, not just to individualʼs eternal souls. And a father could kill a man who was threatening the life of his child. How much more a heretic threatening the eternal life of his child? You must perhaps read Calvinʼs and Bezaʼs works on the necessity of killing heretics. Then read Castellioʼs counterʼs to Calvinʼs arguments. In the end, there are arguments on both sides that remain. Today we even have Christians who still advocate stoning disobedient children to death. And we have Christians who are against the death penalty for any reason.


Vic: The creator of the universe, a being omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.

Edward: Define “good” using all the examples of Godʼs actions in the Bible. And also help me understand why portraying “God” as the author of such things as “forbidding” a piece of fruit” (or you must die and all your descendants carry your stain); Flooding the whole earth; demanding the slaughter of women, babes, cities; sending plagues and famines and foreign armies; and “casting people into a lake of fire whose smoke rises for eternity;” is acting “good.” If a devil did all of the things I just mentioned, imagine how such activities would stain that devilʼs reputation.


Vic: 2) How can you get people to agree concerning “God?”You canʼt. Some people, like you, are bound to get it wrong.

Edward: Citing me for “getting it wrong,” isnʼt an argument. I think I have gotten more things “right,” than when I used to believe in inspired books and Christian theological doctrines that raised as least as many questions as answers.


Vic: 3) Exactly how does “God” “grant” or maintain “rights?” By creating people and loving them.

Edward: Then why not define and give specific examples of “the love of God” so that we may discuss them further—leaving out of course the tautology that mere existence is an example of the love of God. Mere existence may be many things, including a mystery, but it is not an example of anything in particular. The cosmos is filled with things that exist, but it does not appear to be filled with “love.” Show me love, besides of course the love we both know about, mother love, family love, romantic love, love between friends, and charity between strangers (which even atheists contribute to in many countries on earth).


Edward: 4) Exactly what “rights” does “God” grant?
Vic: Anytime God commands someone not to do something to someone else, God grants the potential victim the right not to have that done to them.

Edward: Depends on the theologian you talk to. Open theology, or Arminianism, for example, is not Calvinism.

And the question has always remained whether Godʼs knowing everything is tantamount to everything being “set,” and hence no “potentialities.”


Edward: 5) If you are speaking of the “God of the Bible,” what rights did “God” “grant” in the Old Testament and in the New Testament?
Vic: For starters, the right to life, when he commanded “Thou Shalt not Kill.”

Edward: See above. I already discussed that one.


Edward:6) How do such “rights” agree or disagree with one another from one Testament to the other?
7) Are any rights from the Old Testament still valid today, or, are any no longer valid today? On what basis?
8) Are any “Biblical rights” different from Americaʼs “Bill of Rights?”
Please explain which ones and why or why not.

Vic: There can be disagreement on these question, while at the same time agreement on the basic point that is makes sense to talk about God creating people and telling people that there are some things you canʼt do to them, hence granting them rights, while I have trouble seeing the evolutionary process granting those same rights.

Edward: I have trouble seeing any theological or philosophical viewpoint “granting” anyone anything. Theological and philosophical viewpoints come and go, get challenged, foment disagreements of and by themselves, until all sides canʼt even conceive of how the world can dare to go right on “working” without everyone agreeing to one fellow or the otherʼs “theological and philosophical basis.” Reminds me of the story about Bishop Berkeley who was totally convinced that “matter” did not exist, only “spirit” existed. Big difference, he fell off his horse and his head on a rock and perished afterwards. Did it matter that it was a “rock conceived in Godʼs spiritual mind” as Berkeley believed? I tend to leave the mysteries where they are, the inexpressibility of each moment, because most people should be able to learn (if they ask enough questions, instead of settling for authoritarian answers) where the line lay between what they know, and what they only think they know, or believe, or hope.

I think perhaps that youʼve been hanging out too much with Christian philosophers who can multiply arguments ad infinitum (as in a recent comment at your blog) until you think youʼve got a huge corral of “proofs” instead of mere variations of the same questionable or ambiguous premises, and confusion about the hypnotic power of big philosophical terms.

Have you read Smullyan? Raymond M. Smullyan (mathematician, logician, philosopher)

Raymond M. Smullyan, Is God A Taoist? A fascinating conversation between a “Mortal” and “God,” that raises a host of interesting logical and philosophical questions.

Is God A Taoist?

What about Pickover?

“Dr. Cliff Pickover has published nearly a book a year in which he stretches the limits of computers [mathematics, physics], art, and thought.” - Los Angeles Times

sprott.physics.wisc.edu

There is delight in asking questions.

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