2cornucopias

Being Human in an Age of Unbelief by Archbishop Chaput – Part II

In 03 Archbishop Charles Chaput on 2012/04/12 at 11:11 AM

This leads me to my second point. The University of Pennsylvania is one our country’s premier research universities. That’s a great gift to the Philadelphia community. It’s also a great privilege for all of you as students, especially those specializing in the sciences.

Science and technology have expanded human horizons and improved human life in vital ways over the last century. They’ve also, at times, done the opposite. Part of a good education is learning the skill of appropriate skepticism. And that skepticism, that healthy wariness, should apply even to the methods and claims of science and technology. When a distinguished and thoroughly secular scholar like Neil Postman writes that “the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living” – then we need to be concerned.iii

There’s a proverb worth remembering here: “To a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail.” If modern man is scientific man, technology is his hammer. But every problem isn’t a nail. Knowledge without the virtues of wisdom, prudence and, above all, humility to guide it is not just unhelpful. It’s dangerous. Goethe’s poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – which some of us probably know from the Mickey Mouse cartoon based on it — sticks in our memories for a reason. We’re never as smart as we think we are, and we have a bad track record when it comes to preventing the worst uses of our own best discoveries.

Science involves the study of the material world. But human beings are more than the sum of their material processes. Trying to explain the human person with thinking that excludes the reality of the spiritual, the dignity of the religious and the possibility of God simply cripples both the scientist and the subject being studied – man himself. To put it another way, we can destroy what we mean by humanity while claiming, and even intending, to serve it.

We might wisely remember one other fact about science. Writer Eric Cohen observed that “From the beginning, science was driven both by democratic pity and aristocratic guile, by the promise to help humanity and the desire to be free from the constraints of the common man, with his many myths and superstitions and taboos.”iv In other words, scientists too often have a divided heart: a sincere desire to serve man’s knowledge, and a sincere disdain for what they see as the moral and religious delusions of real men and women. If this doesn’t make us just a little bit uneasy, it should. Both faith and science claim to teach with a special kind of authority. One of the differences is this. Most religious believers accept, at least in theory, that they’ll be judged by the God of justice for their actions. For science, God is absent from the courtroom.

This leads to my third point. God is also absent from the U.S. Constitution – but not because he’s unwelcome. In effect, God suffused the whole constitutional enterprise. Nearly all the Founders were religious believers, and some were quite devout. Theirwritings are heavily influenced by biblical language, morality and thought.  America could afford to be secular in the best sense, precisely because its people were so religious. The Founders saw religious faith as something separate from government but vital to the nation’s survival. In his Farewell Address, Washington famously stressed that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” for political prosperity. He added thatm“reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” For John Adams, John Jay, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Carroll, George Washington and most of the other Founders – including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin — religion created virtuous citizens.

And only virtuous citizens could sustain a country as delicately balanced in its institutions, moral instincts and laws as the United States.Here’s my purpose in mentioning this. The American Founders presumed the existence of natural law and natural rights. These rights are inalienable and guaranteed by a Creator; by “nature’s God,” to use the words of the Declaration of Independence. Such ideas may be out of fashion in much of legal theory today. But these same ideas are very much alive in the way we actually reason and behave in our daily lives.

Most of us here tonight believe that we have basic rights that come with the special dignity of being human. These rights are inherent to human nature. They’re part of who we are. Nobody can take them away. But if there is no Creator, and nothing fundamental and unchangeable about human nature, and if “nature’s God” is kicked out of the conversation, then our rights become the product of social convention. And social conventions can change. So can the definition of who is and who isn’t “human.”

The irony is that modern liberal democracy needs religion more than religion needs modern liberal democracy. American public life needs a framework friendly to religious belief because it can’t support its moral claims about freedom and rights with rational and secular arguments alone. In fact, to the degree that it encourages a culture of unbelief, liberal democracy undermines its own grounding. It causes its own decline by destroying the public square’s moral coherence.

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