Sunday, January 10, 2010

Inalienable Rights: A Commentary

I'm currently in the process of listening to Dinesh D'Souza's intriguing book Life After Death: The Evidence on audiobook, primarily because I have seen some commentary that there's a discussion of string theory in it, and I wanted to see how it was being used in case I get questions about it during interviews.

I'll comment on the book itself when I get done with it, but right off the bat, I have an issue with the Foreward, written by The Purpose Driven Life author, Pastor Rick Warren ... who appears to have read neither the book nor the U.S. Constitution.

The first issue is that Warren says:

So where can we learn the truth about the afterlife? We have two choices -- speculation or revelation.

Aside from other potential problems with this statement, it has one serious contextual problem: the whole point of D'Souza's book is that there is a third option.

In this book, D'Souza does not appeal to revelation (though he himself is a Christian), but rather attempts to ground his arguments in the application of rational thought, proving that it is not irrational to believe in life after death. In other words, while he is not proving that life after death is true, he is certainly attempting to show that reason allows the possibility of life after death. It can't be ruled out, as the "new atheists" (or old atheists, for that matter) claim, purely as an irrational proposition. (So far, I find his case relatively compelling, despite some logical problems with some of his arguments here and there.)

The second issue from Warren's Foreward can be found in the following statement:

Even the American constitution points out that our "inalienable rights" are "endowed by our Creator," not by the government or any other human source.

For one thing, these quotes are from the Declaration of Independence, not the U.S. Constitution. (And, as an educational sidenote, the final version of the Declaration of Independence used the phrase "unalienable rights" - which means the same thing.) But the real problem comes when you look at the full sentence from the Declaration which Warren has extracted for his point:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Warren is perfectly right to point out that this statement invokes the mention of a Creator, but he's misses a major point in this sentence, which goes directly against the message of his Foreward.

There is no appeal to revelation - in fact, the truths are "self-evident" - so by his own previous litmus test, this must be "speculation." In fact, neither the Declaration nor Constitution contain any statement of positive support of specific religion, nor any appeal to divine revelation.

The Constitution has two mentions of religion, and both are somewhat against religion - the well-known First Amendment, dictating that the federal government can not establish a religion, but also a clause specifically stating that the federal government cannot require religious oaths for holding office. (Some people swear on Bibles by choice, but the Constitution specifically states that this is not, and cannot, be a requirement of office.)

In fact, the rights outlined in the Declaration of Independence are based on a rational worldview, in contrast to a revelatory worldview. This didn't have to be so. The Declaration could have invoked specific divine authority (like pretty much every other political document in history until that point). As outlined in Jon Meacham's American Gospel, there was an impassioned debate among the population because many religious thinkers wanted the government to be Christian, and didn't like that it was specifically designed as a secular institution.

The real implication of this line of the Declaration (and, to an extent, of D'Souza's book) is that you can apply reason to obtain certain information about the nature of divine truths. The appeal to revelation may or may not be valid, but it is not the only way to obtain divine truths and, in forming a diverse community, it's not even the preferred way.

Why did the founding fathers make this choice? Because the political authority of the King of England was rooted in the idea of the divine right of kings. The King of England was, after all, also the leader of the Church of England. He was endowed by his Creator with the mantle of kingship.

By invoking individual rights that were "self-evident," the founders made it clear that there was no force - not even religious revelation - could unearth the foundation of individual liberty upon which the new nation's claim of independence rested.

In every respect (except marketing), Warren's Foreward to the book is a mistake, and an intellectually misleading mistake. If nothing else, D'Souza (who was a White House policy analyst during the Reagan administration and has since been a political writer) should have recognized that the quotes were from the Declaration and not the Constitution, but even more than that he should have recognized that the claims Warren were making were at direct odds to the central message of his own book: reason is a valid way to explore the nature of the divine.

More thoughts to come on the central message of the book (which I am so far finding much more favorable than the Foreward) as I complete it ...

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