Although I am grateful to Peter Leithart for his interest in my work and his efforts to understand my views about basic human goods, his critique of my thought on the subject seems to me to have gone (to use his term) awry.
By “basic human goods” I and others refer to ends or purposes, realized and participated in by activity, that are motivated by reasons for acting whose intelligibility depends on no further or deeper reasons (or subrational motivating factors) to which they are mere means. The activities of raising and to the best of one’s ability answering basic questions of human existence, seeking harmony with the divine, striving to lead a life of authenticity and integrity in line with one’s conscientious judgments, constitute one category of basic human goods. I believe it makes sense to call that category “the basic human good of religion.”
Now any basic human good might be pursued in a morally wrongful manner. To be acting for the sake of a basic human good is no guarantee that one is acting in a morally upright way. Good ends—even the good of religion—can be pursued in morally bad ways. Hence, the sound adage that “the end does not justify the means.” Indeed, one’s pursuit of a good end may be rendered self-defeating by defects in the understanding of that end as well as by delinquencies in the means by which one pursues them. For example, motivated by friendship, one might fulfill a friend’s request to be given heroin, wrongly supposing that one is acting in the friend’s interest by supplying him with the drug.
So what about religion. Here, I will repeat the analysis I have offered in my essay “Religious Liberty and the Human Good”:
In its fullest sense, religion is the human person’s being in right relation to the divine—the more than merely human source or sources, if there be such, of meaning and value. Of course, even the greatest among us in the things of the spirit fall short of perfection in various ways; but in the ideal of perfect religion, the person would understand as comprehensively and deeply as possible the body of truths about spiritual things, and would fully order his or her life, and share in the life of a community of faith that is ordered, in line with those truths. In the perfect realization of the good of religion, one would achieve the relationship that the divine—say, God himself, assuming for a moment the truth of monotheism—wishes us to have with Him.
Of course, different traditions of faith have different views of what constitutes religion in its fullest and most robust sense. There are different doctrines, different scriptures, different structures of authority, different ideas of what is true about spiritual things and what it means to be in proper relationship to the more than merely human sources of meaning and value that different traditions understand as divinity.
For my part, I believe that reason has a very large role to play for each of us in deciding where spiritual truth most robustly is to be found. And by reason here, I mean not only our capacity for practical reasoning and moral judgment, but also our capacities for understanding and evaluating claims of all sorts: logical, historical, scientific, and so forth. But one need not agree with me about this in order to affirm with me that there is a distinct basic human good of religion—a good that is uniquely architectonic in shaping one’s pursuit of and participation in all the basic human goods—and that one begins to realize and participate in this good from the moment one begins the quest to understand the more-than-merely-human sources of meaning and value and to live authentically by ordering one’s life in line with one’s best judgments of the truth in religious matters.
If I am right, then the existential raising of religious questions, the honest identification of answers, and the fulfilling of what one sincerely believes to be one’s duties in the light of those answers are all parts of the human good of religion—a good whose pursuit is an indispensable feature of the comprehensive flourishing of a human being. But if that is true, then respect for a person’s well-being, or more simply respect for the person, demands respect for his or her flourishing as a seeker of religious truth and as a man or woman who lives in line with his best judgments of what is true in spiritual matters. And that, in turn, requires respect for his or her liberty in the religious quest—the quest to understand religious truth and order one’s life in line with it. Because faith of any type, including religious faith, cannot be authentic—it cannot be faith—unless it is free, respect for the person—that is to say, respect for his or her dignity as a free and rational creature—requires respect for his or her religious liberty. That is why it makes sense, from the point of view of reason, and not merely from the point of view of the revealed teaching of a particular faith—though many faiths proclaim the right to religious freedom on theological and not merely philosophical grounds—to understand religious freedom as a fundamental human right.
But if that is true, then respect for a person’s well-being, or more simply respect for the person, demands respect for his or her flourishing as a seeker of religious truth and as a man or woman who lives in line with his best judgments of what is true in spiritual matters. And that, in turn, requires respect for his or her liberty in the religious quest—the quest to understand religious truth and order one’s life in line with it. Because faith of any type, including religious faith, cannot be authentic—it cannot be faith—unless it is free, respect for the person—that is to say, respect for his or her dignity as a free and rational creature—requires respect for his or her religious liberty. That is why it makes sense, from the point of view of reason, and not merely from the point of view of the revealed teaching of a particular faith—though many faiths proclaim the right to religious freedom on theological and not merely philosophical grounds, to understand religious freedom as a fundamental human right.
3. Rights independent of religious beliefs
Interestingly and tragically, in times past, and even in some places today, regard for persons’ spiritual well-being has been the premise, and motivating factor, for denying religious liberty or conceiving of it in a cramped and restricted way. Before the Catholic Church, in the document Dignitatis Humanae of the Second Vatican Council, embraced the robust conception of religious freedom that honors the civil right to give public witness and expression to sincere religious views (even when erroneous), some Catholics rejected the idea of a right to religious freedom on the theory that “only the truth has rights.” The idea was that the state, under favoring conditions, should not only publicly identify itself with Catholicism as the true faith, but forbid religious advocacy or proselytizing that could lead people into religious error and apostasy.
The mistake here was not in the premise: religion is a great human good and the truer the religion the better for the fulfillment of the believer. That is true. The mistake, rather, was in the supposition made by some that the good of religion was not being advanced or participated in outside the context of the one true faith, and that it could be reliably protected and advanced by placing civil restrictions enforceable by agencies of the state on the advocacy of religious ideas. In rejecting this supposition, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council did not embrace the idea that error has rights; they recognized, rather, that people have rights, and they have rights even when they are in error. And among those rights, integral to authentic religion as a fundamental and irreducible aspect of the human good, is the right to express and even advocate in line with one’s sense of one’s conscientious obligations what one believes to be true about spiritual matters, even if one’s beliefs are, in one way or another, less than fully sound, and, indeed, even if they are false.
When I have assigned the document Dignitatis Humanae in courses addressing questions of religious liberty, I have always stressed to my students the importance of reading another document of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, together with it. Whether one is Catholic or not, I don’t think it is possible to achieve a rich understanding of the Declaration on Religious Liberty, and the developed teaching of the Catholic Church on religious freedom, without considering what the Council Fathers proclaim in the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions. In Nostra Aetate, the Fathers pay tribute to all that is true and holy, implying and then explicitly saying, that there is much that is good and worthy in non-Christian faiths, including Hinduism and Buddhism, and especially Judaism and Islam. In so doing, they give recognition to the ways in which religion, even where it does not include the defining content of what the Fathers, as Catholics, believe to be religion in its fullest and most robust sense—namely, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ—enriches, ennobles, and fulfills the human person in the spiritual dimension of his being. This is to be honored and respected, in the view of the Council Fathers, because the dignity of the human being requires it. Naturally, the non-recognition of Christ as the Son of God must count for the Fathers as a falling short in the non-Christian faiths, even the Jewish faith in which Christianity is itself rooted and which stands according to Catholic teaching in an unbroken and unbreakable covenant with God—just as the proclamation of Christ as the Son of God must count as an error in Christianity from a Jewish or Muslim point of view. But, the Fathers teach, this does not mean that Judaism and Islam are simply false and without merit (just as neither Judaism nor Islam teaches that Christianity is simply false and without merit); on the contrary, these traditions enrich the lives of their faithful in their spiritual dimensions, thus contributing vitally to their fulfillment.
Of course, from the point of view of any believer, the further away one gets from the truth of faith in all its dimensions—what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council rightly refer to as “the fullness of religious life”—the less fulfillment is available. But that does not mean that even a primitive and superstition-laden faith, much less the faiths of those advanced civilizations to which the Fathers refer, is utterly devoid of value, or that there is no right to religious liberty for people who practice such a faith. Nor does it mean that atheists have no right to religious freedom. The fundaments of respect for the good of religion require that civil authority respect (and, in appropriate ways, even nurture) conditions or circumstances in which people can engage in the sincere religious quest and live lives of authenticity reflecting their best judgments as to the truth of spiritual matters. To compel an atheist to perform acts that are premised on theistic beliefs that he cannot, in good conscience, share, is to deny him the fundamental bit of the good of religion that is his, namely, living with honesty and integrity in line with his best judgments about ultimate reality. Coercing him to perform religious acts does him no good, since faith really must be free, and dishonors his dignity as a free and rational person. The violation of liberty is worse than futile.