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Monday, October 22, 2012

Informed by Faith

In the Vice Presidential debate, Paul Ryan was asked about the role of his faith in his thinking. When John F. Kennedy was asked, he assured the American public that faith was private and public service was public and each was distinct. Ryan, on the other hand, did not. "I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do."

This, of course, is outrageous today. Adam Gopnik in a piece for The New Yorker considered it "genuinely disturbing and scary". He considered it "a mullah's answer". And that, of course, couldn't be more disturbing or scary. All who answer to a higher power with any real force of obedience and submission are as terrifying as the suicide bomber. You're entitled to believe, but not in public. (Note, by the way, that Ryan's answer differed largely from that of a mullah. Ryan's answer said that faith "informs us in everything we do", not "directs us".)

I started, in my own imagination, a thought experiment. Given an atheist and a Christian and, say, a Buddhist as president, how would it look in decision making? Obviously I would stylize and generalize, but the goal is to examine how one's frame of reference -- one's faith -- would affect public decisions. Take, for instance, the question of abortion.

The Atheist: "Well, there is no fundamental 'human worth' to consider. The only rational determination of what is or isn't good would be what the individual perceives is good. Therefore, if a woman perceives that it is good to end the life of her unborn child for whatever reasons she sees fit, it's good."

The Buddhist: "It's wrong to destroy life so generally I'd think it was wrong to abort an unborn baby. However, since I'm quite sure that the next step for that child would be rebirth as another child, it's not cut and dried. If the pregnancy would produce a child with adverse medical conditions, suffering is bad and terminating that child's life would be good."

The Christian: "Humans are designed in the image of God. They are assigned, by God, the value of being in His image. Therefore, all human life has value and, generally speaking, intentionally terminating that life at any point in the continuum of life from conception to death would be wrong. Abortion, then, would necessarily be wrong."

Or how about questions about sexual morality?

The Atheist: "Really, morality is whatever you think is good. There is no overarching, all-encompassing moral code. Therefore, engaging in sexual activity when you want to is a good idea if you want to do it. Contraception, premarital sex, adultery, or whatever other issues you might consider are all a matter of individual preference. Now, about that 'gay marriage' question ... what was the question? Like all other questions, if it feels good, do it."

The Buddhist: "While Buddhism does not teach that reproduction is a high priority, we do favor sex in marriage. We don't consider having children a religious duty. We oppose contraception that terminates a life because we opposed killing, but contraception that prevents life in the first place is fine. We are not in favor of pursuing pleasure, though, so sex for pleasure isn't particularly moral in our way of thinking. Indeed, to be the best you can be, loss of all sexual desire would be a good thing. On the 'gay marriage' question, marriage is a social institution and should align with whatever the social institutions desire. Besides, we don't actually believe in anything like 'sin'. There is 'wholesome' and 'unwholesome', but we have no god to whom we must answer. Buddha, actually, didn't seem to oppose any sexual relations including bestiality, necrophilia, or pedophilia. They may not all be equally wholesome and the ultimate goal is to eliminate all desire, but they aren't classified as sin."

The Christian: "God designed marriage and sex for reproduction. In doing so, He designed it to be pleasurable. When sex is outside of the marriage covenant, it is not a beautiful thing and should be avoided. When sex is included as part of marriage, it is a beautiful thing to be thoroughly enjoyed by husband and wife, generally with an eye toward reproduction. Oh, and I think that clearly answers the 'gay marriage' question as well."

A couple of examples of how one's faith "informs us in everything we do." It doesn't matter what your "faith" is. The real question, then, is "What is your faith?", not "Can you separate your faith from your public life?" The ridiculous notion that one's faith can be set aside in matters of public service is nonsense and even detrimental. Our faith or even the lack thereof informs the kind of person that we are. Or, to put it another way, you always act on what you truly believe. Conversely, then, if you are able to separate faith and practice in public or private life, you don't actually believe.

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