Taking Rites Seriously

Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith

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Francis J. Beckwith
  • Cambridge: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The title of this book is an allusion to Taking Rights Seriously by Ronald Dworkin (Harvard University Press, 1977), who is one of the key legal and political philosophers—along with John Rawls, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Steven Pinker, and others—as contributors to the current debate on the intersection of religion and public education, reproductive issues, and changing definitions of marriage. As demonstrated by his very extensive footnotes, author Francis Beckwith has done an immense amount of research in the scholarly literature and various court cases on these topics. He shows familiarity, not just with the scholarship supporting his own—socially conservative—position, but also with writings from the progressivist side. One of his key arguments is that this serious engagement with a full range of opinions tends not to be reciprocated. When those on the other side make comments about religious faith being nothing but irrational fideism, their scholarship often reveals a lack of serious engagement with the literature of religion, both contemporary and historical. Secular rationalism [SR] advocates, for example, often write that religious claims are unprovable, incontestable, and unable to change over time given that they are insulated from ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification. Beckwith argues that these assertions about religion are either plainly false, or question-begging in ways that render them useless philosophically. He also argues that “purposes and motives are conceptually distinct” (61), a subtlety that many in the judiciary are not able to grasp. Beckwith notes that “citizens are taught that any public disclosure of their beliefs, that motivate these citizens to support a legislative proposal, may result in the judiciary’s rejection of that legislation regardless of its content or the reasons offered for the proposal” (74).

On the controversy surrounding ideas that Darwinism is “only a theory, not a fact,” and that school children should be taught that “intelligent design” [ID] is a viable alternative—Beckwith is critical of both ID advocates, and of the decisions by judges ruling on such teaching. Beckwith argues that the text of the judges’ decisions reveal their philosophical confusion, also noting that critics of ID, such as Richard Dawkins, actually assume the truth of certain principles of Aristotelian metaphysics without realizing that they are doing so. The real alternative to naturalistic Darwinism is Thomism, not ID, Beckwith argues; this does not mean that he favors the teaching of Thomism in public schools, but rather, that the terms in which such debates have been conducted have been confused in several different ways.

On abortion and embryonic stem cell research, Beckwith argues that while what is known as the “pro-life” viewpoint is often held by religious believers, this does not mean that their reasons for holding their moral stances are intrinsically “religious,” and therefore, “irrational.” Arguments supporting a pro-life stance regarding the beginning of personhood can be fully rational—and in line with natural science; a position that can be, and in fact is, supported by some secularists. To the extent that court decisions are rooted in an assertion that the pro-life position that the life of each human person begins at conception is necessarily an irrational religious dogma, those decisions demonstrate faulty reasoning.

Beckwith’s chapter on same-sex marriage is essentially a plea to those on the winning side of the cultural debate to pause and reflect before supporting the punishment of those on the other side of the debate. The prosecution or persecution of bakers, florists, Catholic adoption agencies, or Pentecostal foster parents is actually a violation of the Public Justification Principle [PJP], a principle that the advocates of same-sex marriage have, themselves, advanced in academia as their preferred foundation for legal philosophy. If the state is going to use its coercive power to force citizens to conform to this newly ascendant legal regime, it needs to justify such coercion in the eyes of those who are being coerced. That is a tall order indeed, as Beckwith notes, considering that even liberal thinkers such as Rawls, Dworkin, and Anthony Kennedy have argued that the comprehensive doctrines of traditional religious believers are rationally coherent and deserving of respect.

Beckwith’s overall argument in Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith seeks to unmask and resist the triple-layer-cake of ignorance, arrogance, and oppression. There is ignorance when religion is criticized without being understood clearly; there is arrogance when “reason” is defined as “how we secular people think” and “unreason” is defined as “how those religious people think”; and the resultant oppression is not just a theoretical possibility but also a present reality in the Western world.

A relatively minor point of complaint for this reader concerns Beckwith’s heavy reliance on acronyms such as CFT [cosmic fine tuning] and IBE [inference to the best explanation]. More than once I could not remember what a particular acronym meant, and had to leaf back through the previous pages to figure it out. I estimate that writing out all of the acronyms would have added, at most, one or two pages to the length of the book—a small price to pay to avoid reader frustration, and to produce a more elegant flow of prose on the page.

In sum, I highly recommend this book to anyone concerned with the issues discussed herein and all such readers can benefit from its analyses and its erudition—rregardless of where they are on any ideological spectrum.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is associate professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Francis J. Beckwith is professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University, where he also serves as Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Philosophy and Co-Director (with Trent Dougherty) of the Program in Philosophical Studies of Religion.


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