For the past several days, Ramesh Ponnuru and John Podhoretz have been debating stem cell policy, abortion, humanity at the Corner at NRO. In today’s (final?) post, Podhorezt says,
I am going to make one final point, and I mean final. What astonishes me in the course of this discussion (to judge from the blizzards of e-mails and other blog items done on this debate) is that I, a relatively secular person, am arguing the position that we cannot understand the mystery of life without faith — and that a great many pro-llfers, whose commitment to life is religious in nature and whose religion plays a far more central role in their lives than it does in mine, are arguing with me on the grounds that the whole business can be discerned entirely through reason and science.
Podhoretz finds this apparent inversion – a secularist arguing for faith and religionists arguing for science and reason. I do not. What he does not recognize – or acknowledge – is the relative rhetorical force of each kind of argument in the last couple of generations. Because of the dominant epistemologies (theories of knowledge) in the past couple of centuries, science and reason – conceived monolithically – have been seen as the arbiters of truth, while religion and faith have been judged to represent opinion (at best) or illusion and delusion (at worst). The modern world has taught Christians that if they want to argue for something, they need to do so purely on the basis of reason – particulary a reason that is universal. Since the public either does not value or completely excludes arguments based on faith (people talk about a First Amendment?), Christians must argue on the basis of something else, and in this case, as in others, a secular and universal Reason is close to hand.
But it doesn’t work. Why? The game is stacked against them. Reason masquerades as a single entity out there doing good to all of humanity. Reason isn’t just one thing; there isn’t just one system of rationality; it’s not just the neutral application of clear thinking. Every system identified with Reason comes attached to certain substantive positions. Christians – and likely others who seek to live a life of faith – suffer when they try to play the games of modern Reason. The deck is stacked against them.
What’s the alternative? A supposed “postmodern” retreat from Reason into irrationality? Some make take this route, but I think the better strategy is to tell the truth about Reason. Recognize that Reason always comes attached to substantive positions. Bring those substantive commitments and convictions to light. Talk about them. Let Reason confront Reason as their commitments (faiths) are laid bare. The price will be admitting there are no universal principles that “all right thinking, rational, moral people of courage” will admit to and stand for. But that’s ok.