Free Inquiry
Appeared in Free Inquiry, vol 34 issue 6

Research Report: What’s Religion Good For? Three Views

Reason Unhinged: The Religious Subversion of Civil Accountability

Andy Norman

If the gods were not passengers on the earliest human attempts to resolve differences with words, they soon hitched a ride. Ever since, religious pronouncements have been part of public discourse. Such talk can induce feelings of religious solidarity, and this reinforces the impression that religion is conducive to moral and civil order. In fact, though, religious talk is profoundly corrosive of civil society. By quietly subverting expectations of rational accountability, religious talk undermines reason’s power to reconcile, civilize, and humanize us. In this article, I mean to illuminate the mechanism by which religions compromise our prospects for truly civilized existence. Protecting public discourse from the deleterious effects of religious piety, it turns out, is a job that cannot be left to the so-called “wall of separation” between church and state, because the U.S. Constitution’s anti-establishment clause is woefully inadequate to the task; a considerably higher and sturdier barrier is needed. The time has come for a more far-reaching principle, one that insulates politics from all forms of unaccountable talk. The solution lies in the promotion and collective embrace of an idea central to humanism—the idea that each of us has a profound moral and civic obligation to yield to the force of the better reason.

How Reasons Function

Suppose we disagree about the best path to a shared destination. I favor a road that you know to be under construction. You inform me that the road is closed, adding that re-routed traffic is experiencing lengthy delays. Not being a complete fool, I change course, in effect conceding that yours is the wiser path.

Take a moment to appreciate this transaction. Its structure is simple. We (1) start out with different ideas about the best way to proceed; you (2) give me a reason to choose your preferred option; I (3) see the force of that reason and (4) change my mind. As a result, (5) our thinking is brought into alignment, allowing us to (6) proceed in concert. Note that, in this example, thinking is not just brought into alignment with other thinking: your reason brings our shared understanding, and the resulting behavior, into better alignment with conditions in the world. We pool our information, understand the situation better, and are less likely to get stuck in traffic.

This is how reasons typically function: they facilitate collaboration by aligning intentions, both with each other and with circumstance. This functioning is utterly ordinary—so common that we rarely recognize how biologically remarkable it is. But such transactions are comparatively rare among nonhuman animals. Human toddlers easily master collaborative problems that frustrate adult chimpanzees, and the differentiator appears to be our propensity to share understanding via the exchange of reasons.1 Our highly social existence appears rooted, at least in part, in an aptitude for reasoning.2

The sheer normalcy of reason’s reconciling function causes us to overlook—and underappreciate—its importance. For it is by this functioning that we knit together the shared outlooks needed for coordinated living. Human beings reinforce social bonds via storytelling, music, dance, gossip, and, yes, religious ritual, but it is with reasons that we weave the essential fabric of civilized existence.

Reason’s Fulcrum

A curiously abnormal case highlights the social significance of reason’s normal functioning. Athena and Dionysus, the parents of two bright and lively children, face an important decision. Athena thinks that it makes sense to transfer the kids to a better school; Dionysus remains unconvinced. Athena has her reasons and shares them. Dionysus listens intently and acknowledges that they are excellent reasons. “Now what about yours?” asks Athena, “Are there good reasons not to transfer them?”

Dionysus thinks about it. “No,” he concedes, “The good reasons are all on your side.” Athena smiles and reaches for the transfer papers. “Not so fast,” says Dionysus, “You may have the better reasons, but I’m not budging. The kids stay.”

Athena is speechless. Her brow furrows and her jaw drops. When words come, they are tinged with incredulity: “Why on earth not?” Dionysus shrugs; “I don’t know; I just choose to believe in their current school.”

An odd exchange, to be sure, but why? For one thing, Dionysus’s “choice” to believe in the current school seems strangely arbitrary. There is something disturbing, too, about his refusal to budge. In fact, his stubbornness violates an elemental cultural norm. For when collaborators disagree about the best course for joint action, the expected recourse is to exchange reasons and see which option makes the most sense. Such transactions are governed by the understanding that the option backed by the best reasons “wins”—parties favoring less tenable positions are supposed to change their minds. We’re supposed to be persuadable. When Dionysus refuses to follow where Athena’s “better reasons” lead, he thus flouts, with disturbing directness, a norm we usually make a show of observing.

If you’re like me, you experience Dionysus’s stance as more than just unreasonable; it is also an affront to Athena’s dignity as a coequal parent. Basic decency requires that we give due weight to one another’s reasons. By refusing to yield, Dionysus in effect discounts Athena’s reasons and preferences. Whether he means to or not, he implies that Athena’s thinking and wishes don’t matter as much as his own. He thereby robs her of a measure of dignity. As anyone who has endured such treatment can attest, this is not a trivial matter.

Dionysus’s strange recalcitrance highlights an unwritten rule of discourse: we’re supposed to accept what can be shown to be reasonable and give up what is shown to be unreasonable. We’re supposed to yield to the “force of the better reason.” It is this rule—and this rule alone—that allows reasons to exert leverage over the disinclined. It is, so to speak, the hinge on which resolution-oriented dialogue turns; reasoning can perform its critical reconciling function, but only to the extent that we voluntarily observe the norm that Dionysus so casually disregards. The door of civil discourse swings open on a world of salutary possibilities, but only if its hinges stay put.

Our unwritten rule merits a name. In light of its functioning, I propose to call it “reason’s fulcrum.” In this article, I mean to illuminate the pivotal role it plays in civilized existence and reflect on the conditions that allow it to work its peculiar (pardon the expression) magic. In the process, we will come to appreciate something that is, for the most part, only dimly understood: religious faith is actually antithetical to civil society. In the end, professions of faith represent defiant refusals to fully embrace the expectation at the very heart of civilized existence. Faith literally unhinges rational accountability, compromising our capacity to bring about a wiser, more connected, and more humane world.

The phrase “the force of the better reason” merits brief comment. I use it as a kind of shorthand. Rational deliberation is not so much a matter of picking out the best of all the reasons that can be offered and deciding the issue on the basis of that reason alone; it is rather a matter of considering all the reasons for and against (or as many as time permits) and seeing which way they collectively point. The actual process is more like vector addition: just as the sum of all forces on an object determines its acceleration, the sum of all reasons for and against a claim determines that claim’s rational standing. The idea is to abide by the verdict that comes from properly aggregating all the persuasive considerations. Though it can mislead, I will continue to use the simpler phrase as a stand-in for the more exact.

Of course, aggregating a complex set of reasons, and determining which way they collectively point, is often a nontrivial exercise. Indeed, reasonable people have been known to look at the same evidence and arrive at different conclusions. Nor has the question of what it means to aggregate reasons properly been definitively answered. Perhaps there is an algorithm that represents the objectively correct way to “weigh up” a set of reasons; perhaps not. Either way, I am bracketing the question because the purpose of this essay is to examine the nature of commitment to reason—whatever reason’s precise requirements turn out to be.3

Reason’s Fulcrum as Social Contract

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argued that ethical and political obligations have their origins in “social contracts”—reciprocal renunciations of freedoms.4 On this analysis, we voluntarily give up certain freedoms (most notably, the freedom to transgress against others) in exchange for the benefits that come from others doing likewise. For example, if we agree to forego mugging each other—and thereafter observe that agreement—we give up the spoils of mugging others, but each gains something of still greater value: freedom from being mugged. Both sides gain more than they give up; the exchange is, as we say, a “win-win.” On this account, the most important moral and political norms confer large benefits while requiring relatively small sacrifices. Proscriptions against lying, cheating, and stealing, for example, find their way into the behavioral codes of widely different cultures, not because they are handed down from a deity but because they “pay their way”—they give the members of those cultures far more than they take away.5

If reason’s fulcrum is an important moral norm, a Hobbesian cost/benefit analysis should reveal it: the costs of our observance should be small relative to the benefits we gain from its general observance. In this case, the “contract” involves reciprocal commitments to abide by the force of the better reason. Each of us makes ourselves persuadable in exchange for persuasive influence over others willing to do the same.

I claim that this simple quid pro quo is hugely non–zero-sum. To see this, consider its centrality to civilized existence. John Locke located the origins of civil society in the reciprocal renunciation of violence.6 His idea was that we become citizens (as opposed to barbarians) when we cede the option of violence to civil authorities. Wiser civil authorities wield this power sparingly—mostly to buttress the authority of discourse-based conflict resolution mechanisms—and we all come out ahead. Note, however, that such an arrangement works only if there are discourse-based conflict resolution mechanisms to fall back on, and for this, reason’s fulcrum must already be in play. In this sense, at least, Locke’s “original contract” is not original at all but derivative of reason’s fulcrum. In the complex scaffolding of social norms that is civilization, reason’s fulcrum occupies a foundational stratum.

In fact, reason’s fulcrum has a strong claim to be considered the real “original contract” of civil society, because it is precisely the availability of discursive modes of waging conflict that makes it possible to forsake uncivil conflict resolution strategies. Reason-giving discourse affords a near-optimal (that is to say, minimally destructive and often maximally constructive) mechanism for adjudicating conflicts, and nothing civilizes people like the recognition that this is so. Of course, the price of gaining rational leverage over others is giving others rational leverage over us. At its core, becoming civilized is a matter of submitting to the force of the better reason.

The Paradox of Rational Commitment

It is relatively easy to expect others to be responsive to reason, because when they are persuadable, it gives us leverage. Holding ourselves to the same standard is harder because it gives others leverage over us. Fully embracing reason’s fulcrum, then, involves making (and keeping) a commitment, one that can be expressed, at least roughly, like this: If you have the better reason, I will yield.

Is this a commitment worth making? Is it wise to so bind oneself? Let’s examine the bargain, considering first the costs. Signatories to this “contract” do give up the freedom to obstinately promulgate irrational opinions. If you care enough about being rational, though, this cost is negligible (for the behaviors foresworn are inconsistent with your chosen identity). Still, the commitment can oblige you to accept many things you don’t like and relinquish many things you are loath to give up. It requires you to back down whenever the reasons indicate that you are not in the right.7 The life of reason is not without sacrifice.

But consider the benefits. Reason’s fulcrum anchors rational discourse—and that activity, it turns out, opens up a world of possibilities. A world structured by rational accountability is one where persuasion takes the place of more coercive means of exercising influence; where conflict is waged with words and violence is pushed to the margins; where freedom from fear becomes a real possibility; where open-minded inquiry replaces ideological posturing; where science replaces superstition, ignorance gives way to knowledge, and reason-tested technologies improve quality of life.

The psychologist Richard Tetlock has demonstrated that “the expectation that one will be called upon to justify one’s beliefs, feelings or actions” makes collaborative social reasoning dramatically more truth-conducive.8 This is an important finding, and it underscores the fact that rational accountability is a tremendous aid to inquiry, discovery, and science. If we care about truth, wisdom, and sound judgment, in other words, we should render unto rational discourse what belongs to rational discourse—specifically, obedience to the “better reason.”

To sum up the benefits, then: reason’s fulcrum allows for constructive conflict resolution; it enables collaborative inquiry; it facilitates learning; it promotes the recognition of human dignity; it fosters social harmony, discovery, science, technological advance, and sound decision-making. Nearly every benefit that civilization affords us appears to be rooted, in one way or another, in our collective embrace of reason’s fulcrum.

If the choice were merely between all of us embracing rational accountability or none of us doing so, then the decision would be a no-brainer: we’d be “all in,” and scientific, technological, and moral progress would advance apace. But there is a third option: we can hold others rationally accountable and make a public show of being accountable ourselves, all the while surreptitiously compromising our commitment when convenient. A popular way to do this involves rationalizing: reasoning so as to get the conclusion you want, while trying to maintain the appearance of reasoning fairly. We clothe our preferences in good reasons when we can, but when genuinely good reasons aren’t available, we’re not above hiding the unseemly bits with a fig leaf of rationalization. (The emperor of unreason may have no clothes, but he invariably avails himself of nominal cover.) It is important, after all, to protect one’s reputation as a rational being. The alternative with integrity, though, is to keep the commitment and consistently yield to the force of the better reason. The phenomenology of such high-integrity commitment is interesting, for it bears a more than passing resemblance to faith. In Greek myth, Odysseus had his sailors tie him to the mast of his sailing ship, thereby providing us with a timeless metaphor for commitment. In like fashion, we can tie ourselves to the ship of reason and let the winds of reason-giving discourse determine our course. This is arguably the way of reason, but clearly there is something akin to faith in it—for it involves committing to the ship, trusting the winds, and voluntarily depriving oneself of the freedom to back out on the deal.

Plato’s account of Socrates’s final days stressed his mentor’s unswerving devotion to the life of reason.9 Socrates, always willing to yield to the force of the better reason,10 is depicted as utterly unwilling to compromise this core commitment—his commitment to rational accountability. Even in the face of death, Socrates took a stand for reason’s fulcrum. In so doing, he set an example that has echoed through the ages.

Do truly reasonable people constantly reevaluate their commitment to the life of reason and jump ship when it’s in their interests to do so? Or do they instead maintain their commitment “in good faith,” remaining aboard even when the seas get rough? There is cleverness in the former option, but wisdom in the latter.

How Reason Comes Unhinged

Reflect for a moment on the genesis of reason’s fulcrum. How does it come into being? As with all norms, it comes into existence with expectation. The norm literally takes form when we expect each other, and ourselves, to be responsive to reason—when the expectation of rational accountability becomes normal. With normality, expectation becomes normative; adherence strengthens norms.

Conversely, violation weakens them. At one end of the spectrum, covert violation can barely diminish a norm’s influence; at the other, outright defiance can deal one a mortal blow. Challenges to reason’s fulcrum can fall anywhere on this continuum and generally take the form of nonobservance. Nonobservance, of course, has a greater or lesser impact depending on the readiness of others to follow the norm-defying example.

In field after field, mature, responsible people are careful to set the right example. They expect one another to be responsive to reasons and to treat violations with some seriousness. A responsible engineer will not say that a bridge’s aging trusses are sound unless there is good evidence; indeed, an engineer who indulged in such irresponsible talk could lose his or her job. A good doctor will not recommend a surgical procedure without solid grounds for thinking it will help the patient; otherwise, the doctor could lose his or her medical license. If Dionysus puts the kibosh on a sensible-seeming proposal to improve the kids’ education, he ought to have a good reason. Heck, if I cancel a picnic that you are looking forward to, I owe you a reason. In every area of our lives, where the well-being of others is at stake, we expect people to have reasons for the choices they make, or at least yield when confronted with them.11

There is one notable exception. There is one domain where accountability-defying performances similar to Dionysus’s are not only common, but celebrated. I speak, of course, of religion. In this sphere, accountability to the force of the better reason is held in abeyance, and faith—the tenacious refusal to rethink something despite evidence to the contrary—is held to be a virtue. Religions valorize faith, thereby exempting core claims and attitudes from the rational revision they would otherwise face. Religions employ other mechanisms to evade rational accountability. Concepts such as heresy, apostasy, and sacrilege are used to frighten dissenters into silence, thereby buying religious views a kind of de facto immunity from criticism. The idea that doubts can consign one to eternal torment (the New Testament classifies doubting the Holy Spirit as the one and only unforgivable sin) represents a particularly nasty and psychologically abusive way of blocking critical reflection.12 Scripture’s purportedly divine origins buy it a large measure of unearned deference. By according private revelations—experiences of a deeply meaningful but personal nature—evidential significance, religions subvert the scientific expectation that results be publicly replicable. Clearly, devices like these, and the example they set, compromise our collective commitment to rational accountability.

Humanism is properly understood as a thoroughgoing commitment to rational accountability. Humanists recognize that scientific and moral progress are both predicated on the depth and breadth of our collective willingness to abide by the force of the better reason. We humanists are not (just) grouchy debunkers out to rain on religious parades; we grasp that moral progress hinges on reason’s fulcrum and ask that religions play by the same rules as the rest of us. At bottom, humanism is not antireligion; it is pro-accountability.

The Parable of Encroaching Pumpkinism

Protecting civil society from religious intrusion, I have claimed, is a job that cannot be left to the nonestablishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. Can the latter’s insufficiency be shown? The barely fictional case of Freedonian politics may serve to drive the point home. Suppose Freedonia’s predominant religious caste—the Sacred Order of the Great Pumpkin—makes up a sizeable majority of the population and consistently elects “Pumpkinist” candidates to public office. The more ardent Pumpkinists declare that Freedonia is, and has always been, a “Pumpkinist nation”; they decry the erosion of Pumpkinist values and make strident demands that the legal system conform to the revealed will of the Great Sky Squash. Their efforts, though, are frustrated by a key provision of Freedonia’s constitution, one that prevents the passage of any law that would tend to “establish” religion, or “impede the free exercise thereof.”

Still, Pumpkinist convictions routinely surface in political debates and often influence public policy. Voluble professions of Pumpkinist faith win favor with the electorate; pious references to scripture evoke reverence in legislative chambers, and challenges to Pumpkinist principles are increasingly viewed as distasteful. In some cases, they are viewed as downright heretical, even shouted down. Meanwhile, Pumpkinist children are taught, let us say, that their squash-lord abhors intra-Christian marriage, and sure enough, sacred scripture describes such unions as “an abomination.”

Now suppose that you are a member of Freedonia’s Christian minority, and the Pumpkinists push through legislation that prohibits Christians from marrying one another. Civil liberties advocates challenge the law’s constitutionality, but Freedonia’s Supreme Court upholds it, pointing out, in its majority opinion, that the prohibition neither establishes Great Pumpkinism nor impedes the free exercise of Christianity. (“The free exercise of Christianity,” the majority rules, “is not predicated on marriage, for all of its rituals can be performed by the unmarried. . . . Nor do bans on intra-Christian marriage constitute an ‘establishment’ of religion; such bans find sufficient basis in basic moral decency.”) The electorate accepts this rationale, for they can feel in their bones the basic indecency of intra-Christian marriage.

The parable shows that religions can encroach on basic rights and freedoms without directly violating the antiestablishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. What must we do, then, to protect civil discourse against religious subversion? In what follows, I suggest some candidate principles for a second wall of separation—a higher, sturdier wall suitable to the needs of a truly free people. All require critical testing, so I invite debate on their merits.

Constructing a New Wall of Separation

The wrongness of Pumpkinism-inspired restrictions on the freedom to marry, I take it, is obvious. But how might one get a devout Pumpkinist to see this for him- or herself? One can point out that intra-Christian marriage doesn’t harm anyone or that the state has no compelling interest in its regulation. These arguments are not unworthy or unimportant, but they correspond to utilitarian and classically liberal argument strategies—arguments that are notoriously ineffective at swaying the devout. For the moment, then, let us set them aside.

A Kantian argument strategy has more promise in this context because the so-called “law of the gospels” occupies a prominent place in religious (and, let us say, Pumpkinist) moral teachings. A rhetorical question will suffice to convey the gist: How would you like it if others used their religious convictions to justify taking away your freedoms? If you wouldn’t like it—and you admit that it is wrong to do unto others what you wouldn’t want done unto you—then you shouldn’t deploy your religious convictions to justify policies that deprive others of their freedoms. If their articles of faith appear arbitrary to you, then chances are your articles of faith will appear arbitrary to them. If, as an aggrieved minority, you find a majority’s sectarian rationale alienating or unsatisfying, then you should avoid employing such rationales yourself. Such reflections indicate that, when it comes to public policy discourse, sectarian reasoning is out of bounds. It’s simply not a civilized way to argue.

Dwelling on this point illuminates a surprising truth: the “law of the gospels” has implications that are fundamentally secularist in nature. No one wants the sectarian rationales of others to subvert public discourse, so we should all forgo employing such rationales ourselves. Thus, the golden rule implies not just state neutrality on religious issues but a public discourse freed from sectarian thinking and argumentation. (If this is right, secularists have come to grips with an implication of Jesus’s teachings that, unfortunately, many Christians remain blind to. Here at least, seculars’ commitment to treating others as they wish to be treated is considerably deeper and more thoroughgoing than that of, say, Christian Dominionists. Should seculars, then, feel entitled to act “holier than thou”? No, but it is not wrong to recognize that secularism here exhibits a measure of moral maturity that religious ideologues often lack.)

The point is that the “golden rule” has epistemic corollaries—implications for how we ought to reason and deliberate. If you don’t like it when others are obstinately unpersuadable, you should avoid being obstinately unpersuadable too. You shouldn’t deploy reasons in ways that you wouldn’t want others deploying them. If it’s inadmissible for others to invoke their articles of faith in support of conclusions you abhor, it’s equally inadmissible for you to invoke your articles of faith for conclusions they abhor. (The fact that an article of faith is yours, of course, is not a morally relevant fact.) To put the point in a provocative form: there is something profoundly “unChristian”—and morally wrong—about public policy arguments from uniquely Christian (or Hindu, or Muslim, or Pumpkinist) premises.

Centuries of jurisprudence underscore the necessity of structuring discourse and deliberation in certain ways if we wish to achieve just outcomes. Rules of evidence, Miranda rights, jury sequestration, the advocacy system—all this and more represent attempts to lend the judicial process a kind of procedural integrity. But it is not just judicial proceedings that need protection from corrupting influences. Legislative proceedings—and political discourse more generally—are also prone to corruption. The influence of Pumpkinist ideology on Freedonian law is one case in point; the influence of Christian ideology on American law is another.13 It is worth asking what kinds of procedural rules can serve to protect political discourse from ideological corruption.

John Rawls’s work in political philosophy offers an example of the sort of thing I have in mind. He illuminates the concept of justice by imagining a deliberative situation stripped of one type of corrupting influence: the motivation to rig the political game in one’s own favor.14 His “original position” and “veil of ignorance” represent clever attempts to purge a hypothetical political discourse of distorting influences. But there is no reason that we should not attempt to do the same with actual political discourse. Indeed, it is imperative that we attempt it—and succeed.

Here, Kantian do-as-you-would-be-done-by reasoning suggests several possibilities:

• The Principle of Transparency. Political arguments must employ premises that are sufficiently transparent (at least in principle) to those affected by the resulting policies.

• The Principle of Public Grounds. Public-policy proposals should never be argued for on private or inscrutable grounds.

• The Principle of Accountability. Civic discourse should be accountable to those whom it affects.

• The Principle of Common Ground. Justifications for the exercise of state authority should always be built upon facts and evidence in principle available to all (and possibly also, upon interests common to all)—upon what we might call “common ground.”

I don’t know that I would go to the mat for any of these principles, but each expresses, at least roughly, an intuitive and sensible-seeming restriction on political discourse. For only reasons that meet such restrictions can perform the outlook-reconciling, mutual-understanding-building function of genuinely civil discourse. (Note that these principles are designed to protect against several forms of ideological and special-interest-based corruption, and in no way discriminate against religion per se.)

Why Religions Are Fundamentally De-civilizing

The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that religious ideology poses a unique challenge to civil society. That is why they enshrined the nonestablishment clause in the very first article of the Bill of Rights. But what is it about religious conviction that makes it particularly subversive of civil order? One answer is that it tends to sanction violations of all of the above principles. Thus:

• The grounds of religious conviction are notoriously opaque to all but the duly indoctrinated—they violate the Principle of Transparency.

• Religious beliefs are frequently based on private revelation—on experiences of a deeply personal nature—grounds that, when they influence public policy, violate the Principle of Public Grounds.

• To valorize faith is to encourage unaccountable talk; indeed, admonitions to “have faith” function, for the most part, to exempt religious ideas from answerability to evidence or argument. Faith-based politics violates the Principle of Accountability.

• Condemnation of heresy, apostasy, and sacrilege introduce scare tactics into a process that ought to be unfettered by fear (thereby falling afoul of what one might want to call the “Principle of Nonintimidation”).

• Religious convictions are famously sectarian—based on arbitrary tribal affiliation—which means that they are not drawn from the common ground of our shared humanity. They violate the Principle of Common Ground.

In this light, the salutary feature of religious utterance is its outright defiance of rules that might otherwise serve to structure a robust and healthy political discourse. Religions, of course, are multifaceted phenomena. They represent many things to many people and arguably confer significant benefits. But they also represent organized opposition to the civilizing effects of rational discourse. It is high time humanity came to terms with this fact.


Should the introduction of religious pronouncements into public discourse, then, be considered a punishable offense? No. I am not suggesting that we introduce legal or constitutional restrictions on religious speech. Indeed, the right to speak freely—even in a religious modality—should be viewed as fundamental. It doesn’t follow, though, that we are obliged to listen to such speech or treat it as germane to public policy issues, still less that we give it “equal time.” A truly civilized people will regard the insertion of theology into politics as faintly ridiculous—as worthy of bemused disdain. (And sometimes worthy of ridicule, the ridiculous being—by definition—that which calls for ridicule.) Such a people will enforce rational accountability with politeness and good humor but also with seriousness, vigor, laughter, sarcasm, and irony. They will take a stand for the force of the better reason and recognize that doing so will sometimes offend the delicate sensibilities of the faithful. The making of a truly sustainable and prosperous civilization requires that we renew our collective commitment to rational accountability.


1. See Michael Tomasello, M. Carpenter, J. Call, T. Behne, and H. Moll, “Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 (2005): 675–91. See also Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (New York: Pantheon, 2012), 204ff. I argue that reasoning plays a key role in the formation of shared intentionality in my as-yet-unpublished “Why We Reason: Intention-Alignment and the Genesis of Human Rationality.”

2. Biologists call humans “ultrasocial” in recognition of our highly collaborative mode of being. See E. O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth (New York: Liveright, 2012).

3. I examine the question of reason’s requirements with some care in “The Unmaking of Wisdom,” which appeared in Free Inquiry December 2010/January 2011 and in Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, Fall-Winter 2010.

4. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), chapters 14 and 15.

5. For a further discussion of this concept, see Ronald A. Lindsay, “How Morality Has the Objectivity that Matters—Without God,” Free Inquiry, August/September 2014.

6. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964).

7. For certain purposes, the distinction between what available reasons indicate is right and what really is right is not a distinction worth making. In other words, there is a sense of “in the right” for which the reasons and evidence available to the relevant parties is the relevant class of evidence. If, for example, we’re interested in whether someone decided responsibly, given what she knew at the time, the difference more or less evaporates. I will not argue the point here.

8. Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 75–76. See also Norman, “Why We Reason.”

9. Plato, Five Dialogues (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981).

10. Except in Crito, when Socrates admits to being deaf to Crito’s entreaties and proves uncharacteristically closed to a number of arguments for escaping into exile. Ibid.

11. It is easy to lampoon this claim by misconstruing it as asserting that each of us routinely has what others consider (or the misconstruer himself considers) to be good reasons. But that is not the idea. The claim describes a prevalent expectation but does not assert that we consistently meet any particular interpretation of that expectation. You can question humanity’s track record of conforming to this norm, but you can hardly deny that it is, in fact, an important norm.

12. Were Christianity a true friend to humanity, would it resort to such abuse? See my “Why Faith’s a False Friend,” Humanist Network News, available at

13. Sociologist Joseph Baker has demonstrated that religious belief has considerable influence in U.S. public policy, despite the Constitution’s “wall of separation.” His comments were presented at the Institute for Humanist Studies Symposium, Houston, Texas, November 30 – December 2, 2012.)

14. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999).

Andy Norman is a professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. He writes and speaks on the philosophy of humanism, the foundations of ethics, and the teaching of wisdom. In addition to Free Inquiry, his work has appeared in Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism and several scholarly journals.

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