Rewriting Nature’s Law

In February, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed Senate Bill 1062, a piece of legislation designed to strengthen protection of religious freedom. Passed by a Republican legislature, it was a bill her staff (she is a Republican as well) had helped to craft some weeks before. But her support turned to opposition after an extraordinarily well-orchestrated campaign by gay rights groups turned almost the entire American establishment against the bill. What began as a legislative attempt to define more precisely the line ­between the proper rights of religious conscience and the necessary power of society to coerce became a referendum on “bigotry.” This transformation is remarkable—and troubling.

The Arizona legislature passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a law enacted in many states to clarify the full scope of religious freedom in light of recent Supreme Court decisions) in 1999. Since that time, the gay rights movement has been trying to reshape the legal landscape—and is largely succeeding. A baker in Colorado was hauled into court for refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding reception. In Oregon, it was a florist. The New Mexico Supreme Court decided that a photographer who wouldn’t take pictures of a lesbian commitment ceremony had violated that state’s anti-discrimination laws.

These developments prompted the Arizona bill, which featured two main points. The first stipulated that individuals and their businesses have protected religious interests. The second made it clear that a defendant could appeal to Arizona’s religious freedom “regardless of whether the government is a party to the proceeding.” With these changes, the Arizona legislature hoped to make sure religious consciences have some protection in social and economic relations governed by anti-discrimination laws—the issue at stake in Colorado, Oregon, and New Mexico.

It’s important to recognize the limited purpose of SB 1062. It did not seek to use religious freedom to rule out the expansion of gay rights in Arizona. Same-sex marriage is presently not permitted there. Nothing in the bill would prevent changing that, nor would it impede other gay rights legislation. On the contrary, SB 1062 was crafted under the assumption that gay rights will be expanded and same-sex marriage legalized. The law’s purpose was, therefore, entirely defensive: to make clear a quite minimal limit on the coming gay rights regime. Judges and legislators must recognize the rights of religious conscience.

That’s not how the media reported it, however. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was treated as B-I-G-O-T-R-Y, a ruthless, heartless, large-scale attack on gay rights. Although I doubt any gay or lesbian person in Arizona has been denied service at a restaurant or access to a hotel room for a generation, if not longer, we were told that SB 1062 would lead to a new Jim Crow. Elton John would be prohibited from playing pianos in Tuscon! Jason Collins would be told he could not play in the United Airways Arena! Gay-only drinking fountains!

Ross Douthat correctly described the press coverage as “mendacious and hysterical.” And it worked. Pretty soon everybody who is anybody was against the bigotry bill. Seeing reality for what it is—lots of powerful people lining up against the bill and threatening fire and brimstone—Brewer got out her veto pen.

The events in Arizona indicate that we’re entering a new phase in our sexual politics, one that shifts from the long-championed ideal of “diversity” to an aggressive policy of stamping out dissent. What SB 1062 tried to do—define minimal limits to the gay rights regime—will be denounced as bigotry. As Douthat observes, when it comes to gay rights and religious freedom (or any other kind of dissent, for that matter), “Now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.”

In its first phase, the gay rights movement sought to secure public space for unapologetic homosexuality. The Stonewall riots demanded that New York accept the reality of gay bars and gay neighborhoods. This phase matured into legal and political strategies to remove from homosexuality any liabilities, whether in employment or partner benefits, and now in the limitation of marriage to the union of one man with one woman.

The second phase is different, as the all-out push to defeat SB 1062 indicates. In this phase, the goal is to promote “acceptance,” which means using levers of state power to both re-educate the public and severely punish “homophobia.” Anti-bullying bills of the sort described by Katherine Kersten in this issue (“Legislative Bullying”) provide one avenue. Using “hostile environment” doctrine drawn from civil rights law is another. These strategies will allow gay rights activists to use state power to police what people say and even think.

“Public accommodation” doctrine is another way to use the power of the state to stamp out dissent. Gay rights activists weren’t deceived by the hype that crowed Jim Crow. They knew that the fight over SB 1062 was about the scope of public accommodation doctrine. They want to retain the capacity to compel small businesses—wedding photographers and planners, florists, and specialty bakers. Even if you’re self-employed, you get swept up into the compulsory regime of gay rights. The same public accommodation doctrine will be used to require any church that allows non-members to use its sanctuary to allow gay couples also to marry there.

There are many reasons to be pessimistic, at least about the near term. First, in contrast to the situation of black Americans in 1965, there are plenty of rich and powerful gays and lesbians. And, again unlike in 1965, the most powerful corporations and other establishment institutions—aside from the churches—are on board. Finally, as I learned in my years as an Episcopalian, homosexuality plays a very important symbolic role in the moral imaginations of heterosexuals. When it comes to sex and transgression, their freedom from moral censure guarantees ours. Which is why gay rights are so very popular among American elites who can’t imagine themselves anything other than good people.

But the most significant reason to be pessimistic about what’s coming is also the deepest reason to be optimistic in the long term. “The law is written on their hearts,” ?St. Paul tells us. Moral truth bubbles up in our souls, even if we outwardly deny it. For this reason, the gay rights movement will come up against limits that stimulate resentment and redoubled effort. It will seek ruthlessly to suppress dissent—not because discrimination against gays and lesbians remains a persistent problem, but because even the slightest whisper of moral judgment stirs up conscience, including the consciences of the most ardent champions of gay rights.

But exactly this irritating, enraging persistence of moral truth will put a brake on its extremism. That doesn’t mean we’ll return to the old regime of sexual morality anytime soon. Instead, my prediction is that the trajectory will be akin to the campaign for women’s rights, which also ran up against the reality of nature and her laws. It began with the realistic, popular, and successful campaign for political goals of equality, but only too soon inflated itself into a failed cultural campaign against male–female difference across the board. The gay rights campaign to stamp out “homophobia” will also fail, and perhaps sooner, because it’s working against the male–female difference at an even more profound level. You can rewrite the laws of men, but not the laws of nature.

The Charm of Materialism

Humanism is passé. “Man is the measure of all things,” Protagoras said. Today we add, and computers are the measure of all men. So observes David Gelernter in a fierce essay in Commentary (January 2014), “The Closing of the Scientific Mind.” What he has in view is the growing popularity of reductive materialism: Our brains are just meat running software. This is not innocent speculation and sloganeering. “When scientists use this locker-room braggadocio to belittle the human viewpoint, to belittle human life and values and virtues and civilization and moral, spiritual, and religious discoveries, which is all we human beings possess or ever will, they have outrun their empiricism. They are abusing their cultural standing. Science has become an international bully.”

The “master analogy” used by contemporary reductive materialists interprets the mind as software for the computational hardware of our brain’s neural physiology. There’s something right about that analogy. The experiencing, thinking, interpreting, imagining, deciding mind cannot exist without the brain’s hardware, just as software can’t function without the computer’s hardware. But there are many problems with the analogy.

We know where software comes from. It’s created by brilliant computer scientists like David Gelernter. But consciousness? Reductive materialists can’t use the master analogy here; consciousness has to come from the hardware itself rather than a creative “programmer.” As a result, “most computationalists default to the Origins of Gravy theory set forth by Walter Matthau in the film of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Challenged to account for the emergence of gravy, Matthau explains that, when you cook the roast, ‘it comes.’ That is basically how consciousness arises too, according to computationalists. It just comes.” I suppose we can call it an Emergence in the Gaps argument.

There are other dis-analogies that explode the mind-as-software view. We can transfer software from one computer to another, but not minds from one brain to another. We can run different programs on a single computer, “but only one ‘program’ runs, or ever can run, on any one human brain.” Programs are transparent: They can be read, evaluated, and improved by experts. Not so minds, which are opaque and sometimes very resistant to improvement. “Computers can be erased; minds cannot.” “Computers can be made to operate precisely as we choose; minds cannot.” (I thought especially of my children when reading that.)

Gelernter goes still further. Our emotions and experiences and thinking are influenced by our bodies. When a male confronts a dangerous situation, his carotid artery swells. Hormones flood into his brain, saturating his consciousness with endlessly complex layers of emotion that cannot be parsed with a software/computer distinction. All in all, “the whole subjective field of emotions, feelings, and consciousness fits poorly with the ideology of computationalism.”

Gelernter’s many arguments are devastating, reminding me yet again how baffling it is that so many scientists and philosophers affirm reductive materialism. Gelernter has an answer: Our scientific culture has been corrupted. First, there is its academic supereminence. “Power corrupts, and science today is the Catholic Church around the start of the 16th century: used to having its own way and dealing with heretics by excommunication, not argument.”

Then there is the general decay of open-mindedness and the rise of a new dogmatism in academic culture as a whole. “We routinely provide superb technical educations . . . to brilliant undergraduates and doctoral students. But if those same students have been taught since kindergarten that you are not permitted to question the doctrine of man-made global warming, or the line that men and women are interchangeable, or the multiculturalist idea that all cultures and nations are equally good (except for Western nations and cultures, which are worse), how will they ever become reasonable, skeptical scientists?”

True on both counts, to which I would add a third. Reductive materialism makes an alluring promise to healthy, wealthy, powerful people. To teach that there is no soul and no freedom is to preach a gospel of sorts, good news. For it means no consequences and no responsibility: power without accountability, pleasures without penalties, status without duties.

The debate about whether or not we’re computers made of meat is deeply consequential. It concerns our social consensus about who we are and what life is for, which is why Gelernter writes with such ferocity. “When scientists casually toss our human-centered worldview into the trash with the used coffee cups, they are re-smashing the sacred tablets, not in blind rage as Moses did, but in casual, ignorant indifference to the fate of mankind.” And not just ferocity, but urgent purpose: “The world needs a new subjectivist humanism now—not just scattered protests but a growing movement, a cry from the heart.”

The New Fundamentalists

Jonathan Haidt is offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who can change Sam Harris’s mind. For those (happily) unaware, Harris is to atheism what Madonna is to stardom. His recent book, The Moral Landscape, argues that reason and science tell us everything we need to know about how to live. So confident is he (that’s one of his trademarks) that he promised $10,000 to anyone who could convince him that his arguments are wrong—the challenge that inspired Haidt to add to the reward.

Haidt is confident he won’t have to pay up. That’s because, unlike Harris, he happens to have science on his side. His research on moral reasoning strongly suggests that what we really do is adjust our thinking to fit our conclusions. Of course, this is a tendency, not an iron law. Some people do change their moral views after good reasoning slowly seeps into their minds. But we’ve got to be at least a little open-minded for that to happen. When we’re cocksure, it’s not likely that counter arguments will affect us. When I know I’m right, I’m impatient with objections and tend to brush them aside.

So Haidt did a little research into the mind of Sam Harris. He took his book The End of Faith, along with ones by atheists Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and fed them into a text analysis program that counts “certainty words” such as “always,” “never,” “certainly,” “every,” “undeniable.” He did the same with recent popular books by scientists: Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods, and his own, The Righteous Mind. Then he added culture war books from the right: Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil, and Ann Coulter’s Treason.

The results are fascinating. Certainty words make up a bit more than 1 percent of the overall content of Haidt and Bering’s books, which are not shy about drawing conclusions, but reflect a degree of scientific modesty. Meanwhile, books by the supposedly fire-breathing right-wing ideologues Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity actually have fewer certainty words than Bering’s. Beck’s is about the same.

The New Atheists, the self-styled servants of reason and adversaries of dogmatism? They had a higher percent of certainty words, with Harris topping them all. Of the words in The End of Faith, 2.24 percent declare or connote certainty. Of those in The Moral Landscape, 2.34 percent do so.

I’m not at all surprised. I’ve known people who do not believe. The overwhelming majority shrug or sigh. Religion doesn’t interest some. They don’t see a need for belief, so they just get on with their lives, mostly ignoring the claims of faith. Others would rather believe than not, but they can’t (or in some cases won’t, because they fear that believing would force them to give up things they cherish). Whatever their reasons for unbelief, however, they don’t focus on objections to, polemics against, or denunciations of faith. However, there are a few, a very few, who do. They are ardent in their unbelief, dogmatic about the irrationality, perversity, and wickedness of religion.

This relatively rare anti-religious dogmatism isn’t easy to explain. We’re religious animals, as any honest anthropologist will tell you. Perhaps, then, we must encase ourselves in certainties (materialism, scientism, nihilism) in order to stifle our instinct for transcendence. Or maybe it’s the ­related social reality. We’ve heard a great deal recently about the increase of the Nones, the religiously unaffiliated. The trend is real, but polls indicate that even the unaffiliated tend to be “spiritual” if not “religious,” which is not surprising in view of the fact that we’re religious animals. So perhaps today’s thoroughgoing atheist feels embattled, and like most embattled people fights back with the hard-edged weapons of certainty: “It’s undeniable that science has proven the soul to be a myth,” and so forth.

Perhaps, however, there’s a simpler answer. It may be the case that some people are hardwired for dogmatism, creating a Fundamentalist Personality, and someone susceptible to intoxication with feelings of certainty will tend toward atheism, not belief. After all, faith requires imagination. It feeds on our elastic capacity to extend beyond the obvious, beyond the ashen regime of supposedly settled and proven facts. Faith enlarges, and that’s something the Fundamentalist Personality finds frightening. And so Sam Harris constructs defensive battlements of dogma and strings razor-wire certainties to keep out unsettling possibilities.

There are, of course, religious fundamentalists, as we all know. But Haidt’s fascinating study of certainty words suggests that in today’s world of book writers, public intellectuals, and college professors, the Fundamentalist Personality is far more likely to be an atheist on jihad against religion than a religious believer—or a conservative pundit. I’m not certain but very confident that the odds are strong Haidt won’t need to pay out the $10,000 reward.

God, Science, and Technology

About twenty scholars met at the Union League Club on March 10–11 to reflect on what it means to live in a technological age. One question that dominated the discussion was theological: Is the technological project congenial to the Jewish and Christian views of our life before God? In one of the papers under discussion, theologian Brian Brock expressed the prevailing view among modern theologians, which is nuanced, of course, but finally negative. In his view, the technological project seeks to transform the world from something given into something made. Put differently, a technological society encourages us to regard creative doing—making things—as the highest good.

Making is an important part of human flourishing. The Bible certainly encourages us to improve the world: Before the Fall, Adam is told to till and keep the garden. But in Genesis, the central message is for us to receive and cherish the gift of God’s presence with us. After the Fall, however, we’re tempted toward idolatry, which means substituting the work of our hands for God’s work, thinking that the real but finite technological improvements of the human condition can fulfill our ultimate needs. And so, Brock argued, we need to be suspicious not of antibiotics or cell phones or computers, but of the hopes our technological age encourages us to invest in them.

There’s a lot to be said for Brock’s suspicion. But many, perhaps most, of the participants offered more positive assessments of technology. Alan Mittleman observed that the rabbinic tradition has always been less anxious about the sin of pride than the Christian tradition, and thus tends to endorse our technological efforts. In her paper, also discussed, Francesca Murphy made the arresting claim that our technological transformation of reality is a kind of spiritualization of our embodiment—cars as extensions of our capacities for locomotion rather than chunks of metal. Technology, therefore, can serve as a natural sign of the supernatural promise of the resurrected body.

The other recurring question moved in a very different direction: Are we in fact living in a technological age? It was a question pressed by the scientists and technologists at the seminar. Peter Thiel argued that innovation has slowed. Our society is being transformed, but by globalization, not new technologies. Stephen Meredith reported that graduate students in the sciences are increasingly pessimistic about their vocations. And David Gelernter argued that scientific discovery and technological creativity require imagination, something no longer nourished in our increasingly dysfunctional educational institutions.

Needless to say, the theologians and philosophers were taken aback. We tend to see science as a mighty, conquering force. (There is now a field called “experimental philosophy,” and many philosophers take neurobiology more seriously than Plato or Aristotle.) But by Thiel’s reckoning, our elite culture is changing. Until recently, a secularized Christian view of history’s purpose predominated: scientific and technological progress. Today, a reductive materialism of the sort David Gelernter warns us against has become increasingly influential, and its worldview tends to be pessimistic. Things change, yes, but in the end, reality is just atoms going this way and that in the void. As a result, it’s hard to see the point of sacrificing much for the sake of a future that can’t be any different from today, at least not at a deep level. We’ll still be what Darwinism tells us we are: bio-machines programmed to promote our DNA.

Changing attitudes toward technology suggest that there may be some truth to this analysis. After it was built, people went to Hoover Dam (then Boulder Dam), thrilled by what man had accomplished. The New York World’s Fair in 1964 showcased technology. We don’t have the same reactions anymore. Indeed, the contrary is sometimes the case. Concerns about genetically modified food or global warming can often exalt “nature” and treat human innovation as essentially destructive. There’s also a techno-pessimism at work in the present-day mania for organic and local foods. This change has not led us to smash the machines. The vendors at the local farmers’ markets use iPhones. Our ambivalent technological society has contradictions, perhaps. (What cultural moment doesn’t have them?) But on the whole, this suggests a new cultural moment, not anti-technological, but certainly less enthusiastic, less optimistic.

It’s no mean thing to read the signs of the times, and during the seminar Fr. Cyril Hovorun made a particularly compelling observation about our changed attitudes toward technology. Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times was made during the machine age. It reflected the widespread fear that technology would set the agenda for human life, making us machine-like. (“Taylorism,” as the Marxists used to put it, referring to the rigid system of time management developed by Frederick W. Taylor and dramatized in Cheaper by the Dozen.) More recent films express a different fear. In the dystopia depicted in Blade Runner, the “replicants” out-human the humans; machines usurp our humanity, as it were.

This difference suggests that what worries us in the computer age differs from the concerns of the machine age. In Hovorun’s formulation, today we feel technology invading our human space. (Think, for example, of four young people in a restaurant, all looking at their smartphones rather than each other.) The farmer’s market, the local cheese, the ecological manias—these and other forms of techno-pessimism reflect, however haltingly, however incoherently, our proper desire to reclaim human space. That’s right, I think.

I’m very grateful to all the participants in “God, Science, and Technology.” Their contributions to the discussion, along with the papers and responses, covered a great deal more than I have been able to describe here. We hope to publish some of the essays and responses in later issues.   

Articles by R. R. Reno