Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Reflections on God and Freedom: A Kantian Answer to Religion and Politics

In the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky famously declared if God is dead, “then all is permitted.” This is the most famous sentiment for both existential theorists countenancing mankind's existence as contingent and free; on the reverse, Christians underwriting religious conservatism see the liberal challenge of free-thinking atheists as undermining the possibility of a moral world order. For them, while God cannot be dead, endorsing such a view undermines a moral world order necessary for the salvation of humankind. Christians believe that this world will be the eventual fulfillment Christian prophecy, and when that prophecy comes to pass, the stronger the moral world order, the better all our chances are on being on the receiving end of God's promise for salvation. Therefore, one finds politically motivated Christians lining the partisan politics of the Republican Party on major ethical issues from abortion to the death penalty along these lines.

At the outset, I want to be clear. By freedom, I mean not just the politically-loaded term best summarized by Thomas Hobbes as the “absence of external impediments.” External impediments are contrivances of human activity, e.g. imprisonment or depriving of other rights in general. I mean the capacity of individuals to be free in relation to the order of nature itself. Thus, I am not simply talking about those conceptions of freedom of political and moral magnitude. These senses of freedom derive from a larger picture of metaphysical freedom meant here. However, it is also important to mention that this metaphysical sense of freedom is experienced morally.

Orthodox Evangelical Christians advocate that God created mankind and that he gave them free-will. They move from the concept God first to then justify freedom. Within the bounds of this freedom, God suggested a moral code, a way of living that is scripturally-based in what we ought to do. In this view, we are free to transgress against God, and the morality he commands of us. I disagree. I feel that paying attention to the relation of the concepts of God and freedom can shed some light on the overall political motives of the religious right. Ultimately, I argue the reversal of the priority in agreement with Kant. Freedom makes possible our belief in God. This has ramifications for the political story that infuses much of the Evangelical worldview. Like Islam prescribing what ought to be the case in all areas of human life, Evangelical Christians desire what ought to be the case, and such evaluative judgments are undergirded by a religious conceptual story---the concepts of God and freedom. If freedom depends on God, then God can make moral demands on us since he is also the source of the capacity to recognize those moral demands. A person may believe in God is thereby made good on this view.

Reversing the order of freedom to God implies that a person who believes in God is not made good. Instead, a good man must believe in God. In so doing, an awareness of our freedom is needed to make the decision to believe. Any knowing of God must come from our awareness of our freedom, and this is what is meant to subordinate God to the concept of freedom. Kant argues this on purely moral grounds. Our freedom to believe in God secures us from the skepticism that good deeds will have bad outcomes. For the fulfillment of our moral duties requires a belief in the fact that good deeds will have good outcomes. Otherwise, the fulfillment of our duty would severely conflict with the order of things if it is true that good deeds led to the suffering of the innocent and the victimizing of good people.

Issuing from the belief that good deeds lead to good outcomes implies another belief, the end of our short chain of concepts, namely, God. The fact that we believe that good deeds result in good outcomes implies a moral order ensured by God. The moral order is of a different world than the one observed currently. Not believing in the moral world order would admit of despair, and be contrary to our experience of life in general. Thus, Kant can be seen as advocating God qua moral being, and at the very least of the Enlightenment construal, a governor of the world order. On this account, Kant does not think these beliefs about God as a guarantor of a moral world order capable of rational demonstration. Instead, they are “postulates of practical reason.” Since they are not capable of rational proof, Kant is seen as “making room for faith” based solely practical grounds, not theoretical grounds.

As stated above, this reversal of freedom to God has political ramifications, the first being that morality is not dependent on God with respect to its content. Kant can be seen as subjugating all principles to freedom, including God. In this way, morality is a construction and agreement of practical reason, and morality is given an extension, or a lifting up by God. God guarantees the freedom of practical reason to proceed onward by elevating the contingency of human action to the absolute necessity, its categorically bindingness. If God dictated the moral law to us, then we would be no longer free beings, and this removes the capacity of religion to heteronomously impose itself as the standard of right and wrong. Thus, this reversal incapacitates the moral punditry of Evangelicals who wrongly move from the concept God to constraining the bounds of freedom. In addition, a pluralist conception of religion is possible here if the religion in question can integrate this reversal. Moreover, not transgressing the boundary of freedom provides us with a working principle to evaluate religions in a pluralistic climate.

Secondly, by keeping religion in check with reason, the charitable work of religion does with respect to morality can be gleaned as morally valuable, and the faith that engenders such morally valuable actions can be publicly endorsed. On the first, consider a recent conversation I had with a worker of This person told me that much of the work of human-trafficked people and refugee populations in Long Island is done by Catholic Relief Services. Certainly, CRS has its own Catholic mission, but a Kantian perspective allows us to see their work as morally worthy, despite any misgivings we might have of the religious ontology that motivates moral action. In regards to the second feature, many liberals advocate a type of secularism that pits religious citizens against themselves publicly. Such citizens are told to keep their religion to themselves, and their public life is half-alienated between whom they truly are from whom they must present themselves as being. The alienation felt makes people inconsistent within their lives. Such alienation need not endure if the view of religion is kept within the bounds of reason as discussed here. In this way, religion can be made consistent with Kant's “God of freedom” without succumbing to the public alienation one receives in a purely secularized realm of public affairs.

Finally, the political order and institutions have no divine mandate of rational demonstration. Reason is not a tool of faith, nor is faith a tool for theoretical reason since Kant's anti-metaphysical commitments reign in the employment of theoretical reason to never reason beyond the boundaries of experience. Instead, the good will – practical reason – is the ultimate ground on which both the metaphysical impulse of theoretical reason and power of faith turn. For Kant, human life is the center stage of wonder and the moral law. Hence, no scientific proponent of theoretical reason, nor any faith can impose itself as an institution that deprives me of my dignity, my autonomy. I am free, and that is what matters. No matter the directon of political justification, whether liberal technocratic tyranny or conservative religious zealot, no one can override my freedom. Moreover, to act morally is to always presuppose that I act under the capacity of freedom.


Rahul Bhattacharya said...

The Rang Rasiya Freedom of Expression Art Competition aims to bring about a socio cultural movement which discovers new talent, and brings contemporary art into the discursive domain of the middle class. It attempts to create a domain for contemporary art outside the current dominant systems. Working in network partnerships with galleries, auction houses and state run art institutions, the competition aims to bridge the aesthetics of the common man with ‘high art’ tradition in the true spirit of the master painter Raja Ravi Varma. He succeeded in bringing art out of the clutches of the aristocracy and the and the orthodox temple priests. Making art an integral part of popular culture. Often celebrated as a reformer who brought God outside the confines of the temple, Raja Ravi Varma was successful in radicalising and energising the relationship between the audience and the painted image.

Organised by the 'Infinity Art Foundation', The Rang Rasiya Freedom Of Expression Art Competition, aims to push the newly developing notion of art, which goes beyond the traditional understanding of art as being (only) either in terms of painting or sculpture. The competition embraces and welcomes new media expressions in art (, performance, graphic design video, photography).

it gives me great pleasure to welcome the new year with the Rang Rasiya freedom of expression movement crossing the 3000 registration mark. maybe its a sign that freedom of expression will be the mantra for this year .

There has been participation from across the country, and from across class barriers. the response has been so great that we are thinking of extending our last day for registration and to increase our all india publicity buzz. when such a over whelming number of people join a platform, then there is an obvious need to make the platform larger.

if at all there are any changes in the date line as we extend the registration time line we will revert to you on the fifth with a new schedule.

till then lets soak in the new year with a song beautifully written by Shirley Erena Murray

God of freedom, God of justice,
God whose love is strong as death,
God who saw the dark of prison,
God who knew the price of faith:
touch our world of sad oppression
with your Spirit's healing breath.

Rid the earth of torture's terror,
God whose hands were nailed to wood;
hear the cries of pain and protest,
God who shed the tears and blood;
move in us the power of pity,
restless for the common good.

Make in us a captive conscience
quick to hear, to act, to plead;
make us truly sisters, brothers,
of whatever race or creed:
teach us to be fully human,
open to each other's need.



Vancouver Philosopher said...

Sounds like new agey crap, no offense. Even systems of belief in Indian philosophy would suffer from the Kantian problematic given that God is subordinated to the concept of freedom just as much as Brahmin, or any Godhead.