Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Don’t Let Them Attack Your Autonomy! The Trick of Debunking Religion

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 21, 2013

The modern world speaks a great deal about autonomy, and the more the modern secularist emphasizes his or her autonomy, the more the faithful Catholic doubts its value. However, as I pointed out in my review of Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski’s recent book (see Epistemic Authority: Preferring the True and the Good to the Self), a legitimate emphasis on personal autonomy is implicit in the Christian doctrine of conscience. We cannot escape the need to make our own decisions about truth and goodness.

In making these decisions, many other people can help us, and we can come to recognize various authorities over what we believe. That’s the point of Zagzebski’s book, which I highlight in the review. She destroys the claim of epistemic egoism—the claim that we cannot exercise our autonomy unless we reject all authority and insist only on believing whatever happens to suit ourselves. But in the final chapter of the book, Zagzebski points out that the ultimate war against autonomy is not waged by those who accept moral and spiritual authorities, but by those who try to explain them away by attributing moral and religious belief to various kinds of forces over which we have no control.

Secularists very commonly attempt to do this in a variety of ways. One method is Freudianism. The Freudian tells the hapless believer that his religious beliefs are not the result of any conscientious personal reflection but of a subconscious need for safety and the escape from fear. Another method is sometimes used by evolutionary biologists. Here the assertion is that religious beliefs have no relationship to reality, but have simply evolved as particular adaptations to outside conditions in the quest for survival. It is somewhat peculiar that such theories are used primarily against morality and religion, since they could just as easily be applied to the beliefs of those who are wielding these arguments like swords. But such is the modern world.

Yet another method is to attempt, without legitimate evidence, to impugn either the intelligence or the motives of those who hold a particular belief. Whole studies have been done to prove (by sampling only modern Western nations) that religious belief is more common among those with less intelligence and education. Of course, even if this were broadly true, one could just as easily find the reason in a typical lack of conscientious reflection within the dominant class as in the ignorance of uneducated Christians. Alternatively, it is not uncommon in modern society for deeply religious people to be accused of ulterior motives—of desiring unwarranted consolation, or of currying favor with particular communities, or of lazily giving up their right to think.

While we all at times fall into the trap of imputing unsatisfactory motives to those with whom we disagree, the attempt to discredit religion in these ways is most often made by those who claim to be champions of autonomy against those they regard as failing to act in a properly autonomous way. The free-thinker is autonomous; the Christian is suffering from some sort of mind control.

But this is contrary to the very nature of the secular arguments, and Zagzebski’s enormous gift to the discussion goes straight to the heart of the matter in just one sentence. “I think it is important,” she writes, “to see that these are attacks on autonomy.” She goes on to explain:

It is impossible to be self-governing without a substantial amount of trust in oneself. Evidence we trust that indicates that conscientious reflection is not apt to produce true belief in broad areas of belief formation undermines trust in the reflective capacities needed for self-governance. Even if the attack is only directed at one category of belief, for example, moral, political, religious, or philosophical beliefs, loss of trust in the faculties and dispositions that lead to beliefs in that category can easily lead to a loss of trust in the faculties that lead to beliefs in many other categories because they are often the same faculties. We do not, after all, have very many belief-forming faculties, and if we have reason to think these faculties are untrustworthy in their deliverances in one area, there is reason to suspect their deliverances in general. At the worst, the evidence casts doubt on the trustworthiness of the norm of conscientious self-reflection—on the connection between following the norm and getting the truth. We cannot be self-governing if we doubt the basic norm of autonomy. (pp. 239-240)

There are, in fact, two ways in which personal autonomy can be attacked. One way is to coerce people to behave a certain way, by coercing their actions. This is the method commonly employed in law. We may not care a bit about what somebody believes in their heart of hearts about X, but there will be hell to pay if somebody does Y. This is an inescapable part of life. The right things are not always enjoined or proscribed, but life in community is not possible without constraints of this kind. Within due limits, such constraints are not evil.

The other way to attack personal autonomy is to attempt to control the very process by which a person comes to a decision about what to believe or, better yet, to supplant their decision process altogether with an outside influence. This is the meat and drink of all brainwashing, whether with the use of drugs and torture, or through impermissible “educational” techniques which are designed not to enhance conscientious self-reflection but gain a sort of control over the “student’s” mind—whether through some totalitarian thought-control process or a more subtle but incessant deformative “educational” pressure over a long period of time.

Now clearly, the greater and more vicious attack on autonomy is perpetrated in the second case. A person can be interiorly autonomous (spiritually free) even if he is incarcerated and forced into hard labor, or even if he is executed for his beliefs. But the attempt to co-opt the decision-making process is far more sinister. It is the ultimate assault on autonomy. The chief mode of assault, barring extreme situations, is just what we saw in the examples I cited above: The deliberate effort to undermine a person’s trust in his own conscientious self-reflection, which lies at the very heart of that autonomy which, quite simply, makes us human.

In the end, we must decide what to believe for ourselves, but not without help from others, and not without the acceptance of whatever communities and authorities we may—on conscientious self-reflection—judge will give us a better chance of arriving at the truth than if we tried to work everything out for ourselves. In fact, we must trust our conscientious self-reflection or sacrifice our humanity.

Don’t fall for the tricks of those who claim to be defending autonomy, if what they are really doing is attacking yours.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.