Given the rather startling popularity of yesterday’s posting of Mortimer Adler’s appearance on Firing Line and his grilling by William F. Buckley, we decided today to answer the question that Buckley asked Adler, but which Adler was not able to answer completely. This was not because Adler could not answer, but because Buckley tried to get Adler to say what he, Buckley, wanted Adler to say, rather than what Adler needed to say.
|Mortimer J. Adler|
The specific question (which Buckley turned to other matters) was whether all religions are equally true, to which the common sense reply is, “No, for they all say different things.” The more nuanced reply (that Adler started to give) is, “Yes — and no.”
As Adler started to explain, there are true elements in all faiths and philosophies. These elements are those based on reason, that is, by applying the human intellect to empirical evidence and drawing logical conclusions. The common truth in all faiths and philosophies that are based in any degree on reason is twofold. One, there is a God (what Aristotle called “the God of the philosophers”), and, two, there is a general code of human behavior, the natural law.
There are thus absolutes in different religions that all acknowledge, what C.S. Lewis called “the Tao” in his book, The Abolition of Man (1943). Principally, this is the Golden Rule, which every faith and philosophy that acknowledges reason admits as valid: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. There is often a problem in how people define “other,” but the principle itself remains the same.
Adler then began answering the “no’ part of the question, which is when Buckley effectively derailed the discussion. It remained interesting and insightful, but it didn’t answer the original question.
What Adler started to say is that where the different religions differ is in their “poetic” elements, those that are not derived from or based on reason. He got as far as pointing out that where these “poetic” elements contradict reason, they are clearly false, and began getting into the curious bifurcation that separates faith and reason in a number of “eastern” religions and philosophies, what Adler called Averoeism and G.K. Chesterton called Manicheism or “the Double Mind of Man,” which accepts faith and reason as occupying different compartments, so that faith and reason can contradict one another.
Of course, in modern times especially in the West we don’t usually see people holding incompatible truths consciously. Instead, non-theists (“atheist” is too strong a word for most non-believers today, as they’re not willing to accept either theism or atheism entirely, and back off from each, preferring some equivocation such as “spiritual but not religious”), look with condescension on religious believers, all the while admitting some of what theists believe may be true, “but.” Unwilling to take a stand one way or another, non-theists will often join with atheists to prevent public expression of anything they regard as “religion.” Since this inevitably includes fundamental precepts of natural law common to most religions, they end up rejecting both faith and reason, although ostensibly only rejecting faith.
|Msgr. Ronald Knox|
Some theists are in even worse shape, for a non-theist who starts to reason can be brought to realize the illogic of his or her position, and finally be brought to take a stand in order to resolve the contradiction one way or another. The modern theist who rejects or denigrates reason (obviously this is nowhere near all theists, but a vocal minority is still vocal), however — what Msgr. Ronald Knox called the enthusiast or ultrasupernaturalist — already admits the validity of faith and religion. The enthusiast also admits the validity of reason . . . but only up to a point.
The modern enthusiast theist’s error is far more subtle than that afflicting the non-theist. The modern enthusiast theist does not reject reason. He rejects reason that contradicts his predetermined position which he knows is correct because he has discerned God’s Will. (In the category of modern enthusiast theist, of course, we include the secularist and certain equivocal atheists who treat atheism as a religion; “God” can be the People, the State, or even “the Inner Light” of which Chesterton spoke in Orthodoxy.)
Modern enthusiast theists who reject reason thereby appear to be accepting it. They just assign it a lower place or value than faith. Their opinion of God’s Will (or the State’s, the People’s, or whatever) is the final authority, not what can be demonstrated empirically or proven logically. If your reason contradicts their faith, then obviously your reasoning is wrong, not their fidelity.
Thus, for the modern Manichean or Averoist, faith and reason can contradict one another. The modern mind, as Chesterton put it, has been split in two as with a battle ax. When that happens, you have a false religion.
That does not necessarily mean that the faith which someone professes is false, just that the faith of the individual is false, or his or her understanding of that faith is in error. That, however, was not the main point Adler started to make.
No, Adler’s main point was that a religion is false if its official tenets or doctrine contradict reason. That does not include some enemy’s or some disgruntled or poorly educated believer’s statement of a doctrine (which usually turn out to be straw men). No, it means a religion that advocates, say, human sacrifice or theft is a false religion because it contradicts natural law.
But what about a true religion whose tenets go beyond but do not contradict reason? For example, Christians believe God is one God in Three Divine Persons. Jews and Muslims believe in one God in One Person. Which belief is true? It cannot be proved by reason that God is One Person or Three, so it must be left to what is crudely termed personal opinion — which is why faith-based religious beliefs (Triune God, Original Sin) cannot be coerced, while reason-based religious beliefs (do not murder, do not steal) can be coerced. (It is a triumph of modern secularism to equate faith-based and reason-based religious beliefs, to everyone’s detriment. Yes, both are true, and true in the same way, but they are still not the same truths.)
|William F. Buckley|
Thus, Adler never got to the main point he wanted to make, which was to give a rational basis for rejecting modern rationalism that claims all religions are equally true — which (as C.S. Lewis pointed out) means exactly the same thing as saying all religions are equally false, which is the mantra of modern secularism. What Adler started to say at one point (and almost finished) is that the danger in the modern Manichean who divides faith from reason, therefore, is that his compartmentalizing faith and reason allows faith and reason to contradict one another, and all without causing a problem because “religion” is in Box A, while “real life” (or whatever) is in Box B.
As Chesterton put it, this allows people to be “good” Christians, Jews, Muslims, or whatever by accepting that what they believe as a religious teaching makes nonsense of science, and when they are being “good” reasoning creatures, to reject all that religion stuff as something for Friday, Saturday, or Sunday (or Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday, or Monday if you happen to worship the Thunderer, the Wanderer, War, or the Moon. . . .), but not something to interfere with real life.
That’s what happens when you have someone like Adler, who is trying to teach, square off against someone like Buckley, who is trying to score points. Of course, it must be admitted that Adler, who was in his 90s when he appeared on Firing Line, was not at the top of his game. He was not as quick as he was formerly to get the discussion back on track, and he paused too often to try and sort out what amounted to non sequiturs by Buckley. Still, a worthwhile discussion, if not what it could and should have been.