Public Discourse


God and Public Reason

JUNE 19, 2021BY R.J. SNELLWho would deny that liberalism is falling apart, that the center is not holding, or that a vindictive and evangelistic progressivism is afoot? If so, the natural law cannot but feel like feeble comfort. Still, some of us are unwilling to reject public reason or the hopefulness of John Courtney Murray, for we never assumed his optimism was naivete. 

Given the current troubles, the wariness many conservatives express about public reason is perhaps unsurprising. Public reason, for starters, sounds Rawlsian, and thus defunct, even if gasping along in certain political science departments unaware their moment has passed. Furthermore, some have concluded that liberalism was a poison pill that duped traditionalists and religious conservatives into a false sense of belonging while slowly corrupting and weakening religion until that moment—perhaps now—when progressivism could aggressively attack and defeat tradition.

We’ve lost, the story goes, or at least lost a whole lot, although we hope to carve out enough space for ourselves to survive until better times. The idea that we might appeal to public reason with which to dialogue with people of good will is naïve, at best, or even complicit, guilty of collaboration with our enemies and cultured despisers in hopes they might leave us alone, acknowledge our rights, or give us a place at the table. Public reason is a sham. It not only doesn’t work, it also asks us to bracket our own language, arguments, authorities, and moral commitments. It asks us to fight with one hand tied behind our back, and then, eventually, it asks us to fight against ourselves and our beliefs.

Prominent thinkers and their youthful epigones proclaim the foolishness of appealing to public reason, expressing disbelief, even contempt, for those holding on to outdated hopes of “the Catholic moment,” “springtimes,” “consensus,” or natural law liberalism. We thought we were advancing by speaking in the patois of liberalism, but we have assimilated, forgotten our own language, and are unarmed just as liberalism turns against us. Increasingly, too, our children were formed in the language of public reason rather than our own language, and have become all but illiterate, no longer knowing, or caring to know, their own traditions.

This account, or something very much like it, is the view of an increasing number of conservatives.

For those, like myself, who when young read John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths with enthusiasm, the current mood is alien and alienating. Certainly I recognize the many intellectual pathologies of the moment: an intolerant and illiberal mood, lack of intellectual diversity, cancel culture, a decadent educational system, widespread confusion about gender, attempts to undo religious freedom, and the entire litany of an aggressive progressivism. Still, despite these trials, some of us (stubbornly) maintain that because the natural law cannot be excised from the human, as that would entail the erasure of the human, there is thus a public reason, as everyone has access to the basic principles of reason and morality. Of course, reason operates within history and social context, and ours is not an especially reasonable time. Still, we can exercise attentiveness, intelligence, reasonability, and responsibility, the root conditions of public reason.

This cannot be denied, for one cannot reject natural law without offering reasons, justifications, evidence, and judgments, thereby demonstrating the ongoing reality of intelligence and its demands. Just as one cannot deny the principle of non-contradiction without utilizing that very principle, so one cannot deny our ability to know the truth without making truth claims and by that very act affirming the possibility and necessity of truth.

In other words, the natural law isn’t going away, for whenever and wherever there are rational beings, there is natural law and public reason. Denying public reason is to deny natural law, which is something of a fool’s errand, unless one denies public reason without giving reasons for doing so, in which case, to be blunt, we need not take those claims seriously, as we need not afford much respect to claims asserting their own irrationality. I consider natural law to be irrefutable, for natural law just is the workings of intelligence as intelligence seeks to understand, seeks to judge the truth, seeks to judge true value, and seeks to live in keeping with those judgments. Insofar as we offer justifications or explanations for those judgments, we provide theories of morality, theories about natural law, and theories about public reason. But natural law is itself the pre-theoretical operations of intelligence at work, and there are not and cannot be intelligent reasons to deny the operations of intelligence. Theories about public reason can be denied without contradiction, but the natural law itself is irrefutable, and natural law grounds public reason.

Hope, Not Naivete

Now, however self-evident the natural law is—and of necessity remains, whatever anyone claims—the conservative hesitation regarding public reason persists, for natural law can seem awfully distant and abstract in the face of the crisis of the moment and the ebbing fortunes of our side, even granting our occasional victories. Who would deny that liberalism is falling apart, that the center is not holding, or that a vindictive and evangelistic progressivism is afoot? If so, the natural law cannot but feel like feeble comfort.

Still, some of us are unwilling to reject public reason or the hopefulness of John Courtney Murray, for we never assumed his optimism was naivete. He, too, knew that natural law liberalism was situated within the vicissitudes of time, history, and the distortions of a disordered age. It’s convenient to caricature Murray, among others, as ignorant of the challenges, but this overlooks Murray’s own recognition of the difficulties within the “contemporary historical moment of world crisis.” Murray knows that by public reason we cannot mean something like what everyone here agrees to, for that would be something like the view of the “tribe” rather than the dictates of intelligence. Instead, he readily acknowledges the presence of barbarism in the West. Our barbarism, however well-dressed, remains a kind of idiocy, or at least in the ancient sense, where “idiot” was the person without the knowledge needed for public life.

For Murray, it is evident that the human now “leads the most organized life that man has ever led in history,” and that the United States is not tending to pluralism so much as a kind of enforced unity. It is, he suggests, not whether we shall have national unity, “but what kind of unity and quality of unity shall we have?” The current progressive demands not only tolerance but also adherence to the new orthodoxy, which Murray indicated long ago was very likely: “the threat today is not cultural disunity; the threat today is rather cultural uniformity and the menace it holds to the distinctness of personality and the distinctness of the religious community within contemporary homogenized culture.”

Furthermore, Murray recognized that religion is sidelined by a false understanding of the separation of Church and State. He predicted that the vacuum left by the enforced absence of religion would be met either by “the mystique of science” and hopes for a “purely technological society,” or by some “political mystique,” which would be an “unclarified concept of freedom” or some reified notion of “democracy.” To be honest, Murray sounds less like a sanguine optimist than a jaded realist in these passages, and his arguments about “unclarified freedom” sound not entirely dissimilar to those who suggest the logic of liberalism results in choice for its own sake or undifferentiated liberty and the mystery of existence.

It is not naivete when Murray nonetheless suggests that a legitimate civil unity must be founded on the rule of law and therefore must be “based on reason.”  Reason is “basic in the creation of the civil community and its civil unity. If, and where, the forces of reason fail, civil unity becomes impossible.” Persuasion based in reason about morals, politics, and law is “the instrument of high politics,” and it is reason which turns us from barbarian to statesmen and political beings. It is “logos” which “lifts our nation above the level of a tribal unity, above the unity of the war-making group.”

Murray, however, knows that barbarism is a possibility, as is tribalism, as is idiocy. The “real enemy,” he suggests, is the idiot who does “not possess the public philosophy, the man who is not master of the knowledge and the skills that underlie the life of the civilized city.” Of course, such failure of knowledge can occur in various ways, but its cause now is, he suggests, “technological secularism,” with its organization and instruments and “techniques of power” that do not, and cannot, explain “the nature of man” or “the nature of true civilization.”

That is, we must understand human nature, the human good, the good life, and the common good, but technological secularism cannot understand such things, is incompetent to understand such things. Instead, reason must be capacious enough to move past technology and science—however capable and praiseworthy in their proper domains. Such is the task and possibility of natural law and the public reason it makes possible by knowing and explaining the human and the human good.

Insofar as we reduce reason to science or to calculation—the ability to count and quantify—we will not understand political ends, and we will be ignorant, idiots.

The Decapitation of Reality

We have, as Murray suggests, reduced reason in this way. Or, in the words of John Finnis, we have experienced a “decapitation of reality,” a decapitation of reason. A central cause of this decapitation is that technological secularism considers the propositions of religion as “inherently incapable of conveying any understanding of, or rational response to, any feature of reality.” Religion might express “deep and passionate commitment,” but is thought not to exhibit “a line of rational inquiry, reflection, and judgment.” According to Finnis, such a view is “lethal to religion” and violates the norms of inquiry, thus decapitating reality and reason.

Natural theology provides reasons to believe in God, and those reasons are not themselves grounded in religion or revelation: “the lines of thought that converge in the conclusion that one should affirm a transcendent cause are lines of thought continuous with all our inquiries, reflections, and judgments in every field of science and rational discourse.” In fact, it is these reflections and ponderings and judgments that are “the perennial root and cause, rather than a consequence, of religious belief.” We have religion because we are intelligent and reasonable beings and seek to understand everything about everything. Note well: we seek to understand, to know the truth about everything, not because we simply wish for consolation or deep and passionate commitments. Religion is grounded in natural questions, including questions about the proper ways to respond to and live in keeping with our knowledge of religion.

Natural law is not dependent upon religion, not derived from religious claims or religious authority, and yet natural law is competent to direct us, by reason, to considerations and knowledge of human nature, purpose, the good, and the politics proportionate to such knowledge. This is public reason, and it is in principle open to the knowledge of every rational person. It is also open to the objections, questions, and counter-arguments of every rational person and is thereby both public and capable of meeting the requirements of a coherent account.

Any insistence that natural law or natural theology should be walled off, or not considered because of its comprehensive claims, is unwarranted, compresses reason to the domain of technological secularism (thus eviscerating public reason, about which technological thought is quite idiotic, in Murray’s sense), and violates the integrity of intellect itself. The intellect has an entirely natural desire to seek to understand everything about everything, and the norms of the intellect are to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible in our attempt to know and live. These “rationality norms,” in the language of Finnis, “guide us in all our fruitful thinking,” and, moreover, “summon us to affirm the existence and providence of God” so that “we should expect that refusals to make such an affirmation will rest on arguments, or on other considerations, which do not leave reason, including practical reason, intact and undistorted.”

To Have Public Reason, We Must Ask About God

Now, even if one deems Finnis incorrect that reason does affirm the existence of God, reason should still be deemed capable of considering the question of the existence of God as knowable—even if one’s answer is “no, He doesn’t”—and thus belief in God is not subjective, or emotive, or relegated to the domain of mere passionate commitment. Even the atheist should grant that the question of God, and our knowledge of God’s existence or non-existence, is mandated by rationality norms. To refuse the question, or to suggest it so much passion, or to arbitrarily decide that questions of God and religion and morality are somehow forbidden in public, is, by definition and in each instance, to distort and pervert the demands of reason.

That is, public reason requires that we ask about God; to forbid that question, or to sequester it safely to Church but not to statesmanship, does not leave reason intact. To have public reason, we must ask about God.

Now, this claim about the integrity of intellect is made without recourse to the content of religion. To say that questions of religion are demanded by the exigencies of reason, and that reason’s health depends on natural law being granted free rein, is not to assert that the truth claims of religion, let alone this or that religion, are part of public reason. Yet of course they augment and amplify reason.

Technological secularism, it turns out, is quite inadequate to explain the common good, human nature, or human dignity and equality. Lacking such knowledge, a politics dependent on merely technological secularity might be efficient and able to attain its desired ends, but would not be able to justify those ends, and would, of necessity, be unable to know the ends which matter most, such as the meaning and purpose of our liberty, our dignity, our society, our lives. Such a politics might be very good at determining interest rates and how to build roads, but it would be all but incapable of asking about the justice of such things. It and would be forced to conclude such debates by power, even if that power was the will of the majority in keeping with democratic norms. But a majority determined by will, is, nonetheless, a majority determined by power, not reason. Scientific materialism, or any form of reductive thought which brackets or sidelines religion, threatens to derail and “strip away the one aspect of human reality that makes us equals in dignity despite the manifold inequalities between us.

Forbidding ultimate questions, or declaring such questions to be beyond the reach of reason, is a decapitation of reality, and this is “dangerous to individuals and societies.” Religion, generally, as well as sound philosophy reject such decapitation, and religion is thus a friend and support of public reason. Any insistence that religion retreat into the private domain or cloister “insinuates a serious public untruth about the reality in which political communities and their law have their place.” It’s unreasonable to do.

Bringing Reason Home to Itself

As Benedict XVI articulated in his famous Regensburg Address, the restoration of reason is necessitated by overcoming the artificial cribbing and confining of religious questions:

For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.

Consequently, he calls on people of faith to enter into the dialogue of cultures by insisting on reason, reasoning in public, even though the current situation is such that public reason is gravely damaged insofar as religion is ignored:

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur—this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.

Some now judge that religious conservatives’ attempts at public reason resulted in our failure and our assimilation, suggesting it would be better to return to the authority of faith instead of natural law liberalism. They are not wrong to note the irrationality of our moment, but what is needed for statecraft is not the authority of religion as religion. What is needed is religion and the natural law to bring liberalism and the state back to their senses by bringing reason home to itself after a long, and increasingly fruitless, exile.

John Courtney Murray knew this.

About the Author


R.J. Snell is Editor-in-Chief of Public Discourse and Director of Academic Programs at the Witherspoon Institute. Previously, he was for many years Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University and the Templeton Honors College, where he foun… READ MORE

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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