Using Religious Arguments

The discussion of the PETA ad has got me thinking about another question: Is it proper to use religious arguments to persuade a religious believer when you yourself do not accept the religion in question?

I first started thinking about this question after 9/11 when a host of television journalists started lecturing the world about how the terrorism was really inconsistent with Islam and how the Koran doesn’t really require this sort of thing, etc. Now on one level, I am completely sympathetic with this kind of talk. The way that Islam gets caricatured in the West as a violent, backward, terrorist ideology (see, e.g., anything coming from the mouth or pen of Samuel Huntington) really bothers me and it is dangerous. On the otherhand, the idea that Katie Couric or Dan Rather really has anything informed or intelligent to say about the proper interpretation of Islam struck me as utterly ridiculous.

My musings on this led me to think of instances in which non-believers invoke religious belief as a way of persuading religious believers. Consider, for example gay marriage activists who quote the New Testament at opponents of same sex marriage. In other parts of the world, Christians are frequently aligned with left-wing causes, and secular conservatives will quote passages about rendering unto Ceasar what is Caesar’s and getting out of politics. For that matter, consider the attempts of westerners to persuade Muslims that Islam, properly understood, is not really inconsistent with modern liberal democracy.

I find all of these arguments slightly off putting. After thinking about, here is why I believe that I have this uneasiness. There is something manipulative about using religious arguments that you do not yourself to subscribe to. Rather than invoking the truth (as you understand it), you are simply grasping at whatever will get the other person to act the way that you want them to act. It is not quite the same as lying to get someone to do something, but it seems similar.

That said, I do think that there are ways of invoking the religious beliefs of others in arguments that do not rub me the wrong way. One might try to build a working coalition that is explicitly neutral as to justifications. One might understand religious texts as expressing some “deeper” truth to which one actually does subscribe. Etc. Etc.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but feeling that most invocations of religion by non-believers are shallow, manipulative, condecending, and in some sense dishonest.

[A version of this post is also posted at Tutissima Cassis]

25 comments for “Using Religious Arguments

  1. Kaimi
    March 11, 2004 at 12:02 pm


    There may be degrees of impropriety in invoking someone else’s religion. However, this kind of approach is a standard form of hoisting-on-their-own-petard argument. You see it outside of religion too — every time a liberal critic (Tribe?) says to Scalia “you weren’t really being a textualist in X case” or a conservative critic (Bernstein?) says “affirmative action doesn’t help Black people anyway.” True, it’s not like Tribe has dedicated his career to defending textualism, or Bernstein has dedicated his career to advancing the interests of Blacks. Yet, if they understand the subject well enough, they may be in a position to make such arguments.

    Is your real concern that PETA doesn’t really know as much about Mormonism as Larry Tribe does about originalism?

  2. Steve Evans
    March 11, 2004 at 12:08 pm

    This thread is sounding a little too much like The Ethicist from the NYT Magazine…

    Is it proper to call upon religious sentiments in others that you do not possess? It’s largely an issue of proper decorum. I agree with Kaimi that there are degrees of impropriety. Perhaps there is also a relationship to the level of doctrinal initiation of the reference; this D&C quote is not something the avg. non-member is going to pick up on. Non-mormons bring up aspects of my religion all the time, and I’m rarely offended; but they rarely quote the D&C to me. Perhaps in this case there is some pride at work: “who are THEY to tell ME what I believe?”

    What’s also interesting about this post is the assumption Nate (seemingly) makes that the PETA members that made the ad do not “accept the religion in question.”

  3. Kaimi
    March 11, 2004 at 12:11 pm


    This also reminds me of the discussion in legal literature about who may properly participate in the interpretation of a document.

    The scriptures are a document, and PETA is purporting to interpret them. This raises the same question as in law: Does a person need to accept the original document in order to participate in any debate over the document’s interpretation?

    The example that Dworkin (I believe it’s Dworkin who I’ve sene write on this) uses is a bill that passes in Congress, 60-40. The law could be interpreted in one of two ways. Should the opinions of the 40 who voted against the bill be counted in determining its interpretation? It is entirely possible that 40 of the bill’s proponents prefer interpretation A, but 20 of the proponents, plus all 40 opponents, prefer interpretation B. Thus, there is a majority of the bill’s proponents in favor of interpretation A, but a majority of Congress as a whole in favor of interpretation B.

  4. Adam Greenwood
    March 11, 2004 at 12:16 pm

    The coin flips too. We religious people have to use secular justifications to persuade. ‘I have a revelation’ isn’t usually enough. Of course, the difference may be that we can actually believe secular arguments, since they usually aren’t premised on God’s absence. They just don’t take him into account.

    I think I have to agree with Kaimi that the problem is the utterly facile way that the non-religious often approach religious arguments. Like the render-unto-Ceasar example you cite, or the Jesus-was-loving therefore how dare you advocate X, they usually assume that the religious person is incredibly stupid, and therefore I who know bless-all about your beliefs needs to explain them to you. Either that or they’re political ploys to make religious people look hypocritical to the uninformed.

    Much better to admit one’s ignorance. Better to say, I don’t know much about Islam. Its followers are accountable to God for their beliefs, not to me. Still, I don’t understand why some people including some adherents treat it as such a violent religion. I’ve read this sutra and heard this hadith and that makes Islam sound like a religion of peace to me.
    And better to admit this ignorance not on national TV but to some informed Muslims who can situate the response.

  5. March 11, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    From the links that were posted with the PETA sign on this site it seems that the main person behind this was LDS and I assume that is how HE interprets that scripture.

    And so it goes there will always be some who feel they need to preach their interpretation of scripture… I had a counselor in the bishopric that felt eating chocolate was as bad as drinking coke as was bad as drinking coffee and tea.

    … He never made a billboard though :)

    I’m new here. Hi everybody :)

  6. March 11, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    Interesting comment Nate. My take on the employ of non-believed-in religious arguments is grounded in my particular philosophical hermeneutic. Generally speaking, I’m suspicious about the appropriation of any claim or principle that is not characterized by what Herder called “Hineinfühlen”–that is, a “feeling into” the culture or web of belief within which the claim or principle is intelligible. I think “manipulation” is the right way to describe such gross, unsympathetic appropriation. What it involves is wrenching of a historically and morally embedded argument out of its context and placing it in another, for the purposes of judgment. But judgment (e.g., whether or not Mormons are living up to the Word of Wisdom) requires a reflectiveness which will not be available if the principle itself is placed in a foreign context, or a vacuum; consequently, rather than judgment what you’re likely to see is bitterness or condescension. The result, too often, is that the principle itself becomes cheapened and more easily disregarded.

    Of course, the flip side to this hermeneutical approach is that no person, and no principle or claim, is every entirely outside some sort of shared context; we’re all embedded in SOMETHING in common, however minimal. Charles Taylor has written a couple of interesting essays which give this kind of spin to Rawls’s “Law of Peoples” and his notion of “overlapping consensus”; drawing on the work of theologians like Jacques Maritain, Taylor has argued that in the ACT of articulating one’s belief or tradition when confronted about it–what he calls “creative re-immersion”–will help make manifest the shared ground. So, while I think the agenda implicit in the PETA billboard is likely to be a crude one, and unlikely to accomplish much beyond issuing a reproach to Mormon drivers heading down 1-15, it’s not impossible to see how such engagements, in a different environment (like discussions on T&S, perhaps?), might actually be constructive.

  7. March 11, 2004 at 12:21 pm

    Kaimi: The “hoist on their own petard” approach is a bit more complicated that what you are saying. It seems that one could make this argument for two possible purposes. First, you could be using it as a way of demonstrating to some third party that the person that you are hoisting is inconsistent or hypocritical. I think that this is largely what Larry Tribe is doing when he talks about Scalia. What is interesting, is that the argument is personal rather than conceptual. You are making a claim about the intellectual consistency (or honesty) of A PARTICULAR PERSON rather than of a particular intellectual position. Admittedly this is fun, but it is — strictly speaking — an ad hominem debaters trick, a rhetorical ploy rather than an analytic tool. As a method of persuading third parties it amounts to the argument, “Don’t believe that way that X believes, because X is a hypocrit.”

    Alternatively, the hoisting could be directed at the hoistee, as an appeal to that person to change their beliefs, actions, etc. on the basis of the argument that the hoister makes. At this point, I start having the same problems. It seems a little manipulative and dishonest.

  8. March 11, 2004 at 12:22 pm

    First off, there are LDS vegetarians, albeit few. So it’s not necessarily true the PETA debate is the unchurched lecturing the churched.

    However, even if it was, I’m not sure that’s inappropriate. I have a friend who wasn’t raised with any religious instruction thinks the whole idea of God is a crock. However, she speaks up when she sees people who call themselves Christian doing things very much not in alignment with “the golden rule”. In essence, she is saying “practice what you preach”. I’m fine with that. What I don’t like is when people flat out lie about what a religion teaches.

    When a scripture is quoted directly by a non-believer, it should prompt the believer to engage in dialogue – either to correct assumptions or to reflect on the validity thereof.

  9. March 11, 2004 at 12:30 pm

    You know I tend to do the same thing sometimes. I have a friend that was doing the Body-for-LIFE program. I had tried it in the past and only made it half way through. I sure tried to make sure he followed the plan – even though I wasn’t following it anymore. We could probably all find areas where we try to pull a mote out of our brother’s eye.

    I think that is all this comes down to.

  10. March 11, 2004 at 12:45 pm

    I think Renee has hit on the real issue. When an outsider points to a teaching and says “practice what you preach” we may have real concerns about what is the perceived preaching that is going on. When PETA, for instance says “Here is a quote from your book of scripture about limiting the consumption of meat, therefore in order to practice what you preach you should be vegetarian” I take issue with what their view is of our teaching. The practice which the group thinks follows from our preaching is off. You cannot take that one statement from D&C 89 and overlook other scriptural pronouncements and the statements of modern day prophets, otherwise you don’t have the full picture.

    Similarly, the problem of nonbelievers using religious beliefs against believers arises in the context of homosexual rights. “Doesn’t your religion teach tolerance and love?” is regularly asked. We are told to embrace homosexual rights otherwise we don’t “practice what we preach”. We know of course this is absurd, because our “preaching” also includes a call to uphold sexual morality. Furthermore, the religious views of what it actually means to love another or be tolerant may be different than what the nonbeliever thinks.

    I don’t have problems with someone or a group asking questions about religious beliefs, but often when religious beliefs are used by nonbelievers to promote their own cause in a “practice what you preach” sort of way, the nonbelievers have absolutely no clue about what the religious beliefs really are and/or how they fit into the religous group’s big picture.

  11. March 11, 2004 at 12:49 pm

    Dustin, If feel like sometimes people take that scripture about the beam vs mote to mean “We should never correct someone else or call into question when their actions negate what they say their purpose.” Do you really believe that to be true? If so, we cannot criticize or question anything – including “criminal” actions.

    Those scriptures, and that of “judge ye not” nature, I’ve always taken to mean “don’t be a hypocrite”. If you’re sleeping around, don’t condemn someone else for sleeping around. Stuff like that.

  12. March 11, 2004 at 1:06 pm

    “I don’t have problems with someone or a group asking questions about religious beliefs, but often when religious beliefs are used by nonbelievers to promote their own cause in a “practice what you preach” sort of way, the nonbelievers have absolutely no clue about what the religious beliefs really are and/or how they fit into the religous group’s big picture.”

    Brent: This strikes me as exactly the same as Russell’s position, although without the German ;->.

  13. Charles
    March 11, 2004 at 1:18 pm

    The main issue I take with someone, say a non-believer, quoting scripture or something I do believe in to pursuade me to a certain conclusion is that the non-believer does not always have a full understanding, or even a fair degree of understanding.
    In the issue with PETA, I’m sure that this idea stemmed from an LDS activist. They thought “hey we can use this from D&C on a board. It will mean something to mormons and maybe make them think. It will also drum up controversy and henceforth free press.”
    PETA doesn’t have to understand the scripture to quote it, but I am bothered because the entire organization probably does not know the context of it.
    It is the taking out of context that I disagree with.

  14. lyle
    March 11, 2004 at 2:10 pm

    I recently ran an “affirmative action/legacy programs/slave labor” Chocolate bake sale at Rutgers-Camden School of Law. I did it on the same day they were selling tickets to the Martin Luther Pro-Affirmative Action annual dinner (his birthday I believe).

    I labelled my sale the “I HAVE A DREAM” Chocolate sale; and prices for the chocolate were cheaper if you: were a religious, ethnic, racial, etc. minority; and/or were the child of an alumnus; and/or decided to buy chocolate made with cocoa beans made from slave/child labor.

    I was labelled as a RACIST and few people would talk to me; except the pro-AA people; who would either come over to try and explain how wrong I was, shout at my saying “we will overcome, we will overcome,” or some would just have a nice discussion with me.

    I thought that it would be ok, for me to have a dream of a color-blind society; and to invoke Dr. Luther’s words to promote this.

    Instead…I was heaped upon with hate and racism by the TRUE keepers of Dr. King’s legacy.

    Perhaps I was insensitive to the real injustices of racism and the effects it has had on our society. Yet…I have to wonder what Dr. King would feel about the issue. I also have to wonder what God would feel about the D&C being used, arguably, to encourage others to better follow its precepts…regardless of the intent.

  15. Adam Greenwood
    March 11, 2004 at 2:15 pm

    This is the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time. You’ve taken the affirmative-action bake sale concept and, zowie, really spiced it up. I’m betting you did this all by yourself? And I’m betting its because everyone else was too chicken to help?

    BTW, why just Martin Luther? People forget that Zwingli, Calvin, Melancthon, etc., were also important reformers with important insights into affirmative action.

  16. lyle
    March 11, 2004 at 2:25 pm

    Adam, yup…it was a solo job. The Federalists wimped out and I basically had to threaten the administration with a viewpoint discrimination lawsuit.

    I thought that by arguing against legacy programs, which Pro-AA people don’t like; AND by arguing against slave labor, i.e. being a ‘liberal’ activist…that folks would look to these things and use their minds to independent evaluate what was going on.

    nope. the adminstration told all the student leaders to pass the word around the entire campus to avoid/ignore my event. funny thing…it worked; except that there were no KKK people…which was what they were expecting.

    i am actually rather hurt that folks didn’t take the chance to inform themselves about the larger issues involved with discrimination.

  17. March 11, 2004 at 2:33 pm

    I think PETA’s position is hard to reconcile to the D&C. The D&C clearly views plants and animals as having a purpose *for* us. Whereas PETA wants to move to treating them as a kind of proto-equal.

    Having said that though, if PETA wants to reduce meat consumption, worry about how we care for animals we consume and so forth, then the D&C *does* give them a lot of ammo. I don’t think it will eliminate use, but clearly our eating habits are not in harmony with the D&C.

    While it is easy to simply discount them as not understanding the full body of theology, I think their drawing attention to passages we tend to repress is fair game. Whether that involves hypocrisy really depends upon how we view those passages.

    My personal feeling is that we treat animals purely as product and that the D&C condemns this. I recall Pres. Kimball giving several talks along those lines as well.

  18. March 11, 2004 at 3:05 pm

    Clark I am not so sure that “clearly our eating habits are not in harmony with the D&C” depending on what you mean by “our eating habits”. If you mean the Adkins and similar diets, then I think you are right, if you also mean that many Latter-day Saints are following such diets. If not, then I am not so sure that our eating habits are “clearly” out of harmony with the D&C, at least not with respect to meat intake. I remember reading somewhat recently about he amout of meat consumed by people in the early 19th century and by our standards it would be excessive. Thus, to determine how out of harmony we are (or are not) with the admonition to eat meat sparingly, we would neet to know what “sparingly” meant and perhaps something of the underlying rational, if discoverable for the “times of winter” or “famine” provision (e.g. whether it had to do with refrigeration issues as many have posited). I also am not so sure we repress this scripture as much as we just don’t emphasize it. It might get repressed now in light of the huge popularity of the Adkins and no-carb diets, but historically I would not say that it has been repressed.

  19. Kaimi
    March 11, 2004 at 3:40 pm

    If the problem is with the cartoonish nature of the characterization of the other view, how should we feel about our own cartoonish oversimplifications of opposing views.

    Church members and leaders oversimplify ideas like evolution and then make fun of the straw men. Hugh Nibley’s real / artificial diamond essay is another example of this kind of oversimplifying the other side to argue against it.

  20. March 11, 2004 at 4:25 pm

    Is there any logical way that it could be construed that we eat meat “sparingly” if we eat it 2-3 times a day or even once a day? I don’t know how often it was consumed in 1850 by the saints. But I don’t know that that’s even relevent as much as the definition of “sparingly”.

  21. March 11, 2004 at 4:30 pm

    Brent, the argument that because 19th century people ate a lot of meat entails that the WoW allows that much meat intake seems difficult to accept. Drinking, smoking and other such matters also were common relative to the church today. Yet I don’t think we’d say those were the basis for interpreting the WoW.

    I don’t disagree that we have to view 19th century practice to understand the term “sparingly.” I do disagree that we look at 19th century practice to determine the meaning of the entire passage. I think it much more likely that in the 19th century they simply lived the principle even worse than we do.

  22. Adam Greenwood
    March 11, 2004 at 5:43 pm

    Nothing illegitimate about your complaint, just that I think it’s not exactly the subject under discussion. We’re talking about having a cartoon version of someone’s ideas and then upbraiding them for not conforming to the cartoon.

  23. Moe Levine
    March 12, 2004 at 1:12 am

    you could be using it as a way of demonstrating to some third party that the person that you are hoisting is inconsistent or hypocritical

    it also proves that god is hypocritical, for permitting such a scoundral to be his or her surrogate

    others pray to god for world peace, the end to hunger, etc. Me, I would prefer just a minor miracle like the 700 club going off the air

  24. March 12, 2004 at 11:58 am

    Both Professor Bainbridge and Mirror of Justice (Rick Garnett) have picked up this post. Check out:


  25. March 14, 2004 at 12:05 am

    Non-believers making a religous argument (or a “religious” argument) is rather like Stanley Fish, or any PoMo, making sounds like a principled argument for anything. Fish does it all the time, glibly announcing that since he doesn’t really believe in principles he’s free to use and discard them at will as they suit his interests. I’m also reminded (as Kaimi was, making a similar point above) of racial preferentialists who justify their abandonment of colorblindness on the grounds that it was not part of the original intent of the 14th Amendment but who have no use for original intent as a method of settling other interpretive disputes.

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