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Friday, June 17, 2005

Faith and Law

According to a recent news report, Dean David Rudenstine of Cardozo Law School thinks that faith in God is a challenge to legal education. The New York Lawyer (free reg. req'd) quotes Dean Rudenstine as saying

"Faith challenges the underpinnings of legal education.  Faith is a willingness to accept belief in things for which we have no evidence, or which runs counter to evidence we have. . . . Faith does not tolerate opposing views, does not acknowledge inconvenient facts. Law schools stand in fundamental opposition to this."

I respectfully disagree.

I've heard positive things about Dean Rudenstine from people that I respect, and I wonder whether his remarks have been accurately characterized in the news article.  Indeed, the article later states that "In his address, Mr. Rudenstine took care to express his respect for sincere religious views."  So perhaps there's something more to this story.

But I'm concerned, because as set out in the article, Dean Rudenstine's remarks (particularly the direct quotes) are toxic in their overbreadth.  They are a set of sweeping statements of anti-religious bias, seemingly based on bigoted ideas about how religious faith operates in all people. 

Rudenstine characterizes faith as follows:  "Faith does not tolerate opposing views, does not acknowledge inconvenient facts." Well, let's start with the obvious concession:  Yes, there are some religious people for whom religious faith operates in just that way.

But equally obvious is the other side:  There are a lot of people for whom faith in God does not mean intolerance of opposing views, or failure to acknowledge inconvenient facts.  Some of them have been pretty good legal thinkers, too. 

Dean Rudenstine's sweeping characterization is vastly overinclusive, and ignores the rich diversity within religious believers.  Some religious believers are highly tolerant of others; some are less tolerant.  It is impossible to accurately characterize all religious believers as tolerant or intolerant -- just as it is impossible to characterize all non-believers along those lines. 

I'm going into law teaching this fall, and I believe in God.  I'm not planning on leaving my faith behind when I enter academia.  Am I bringing something with me that is in "fundamental opposition" to law schools, that "challenges the underpinnings of legal education"? 

No.

I'm going to teach my classes, go to conferences, write my articles.  Hopefully I'll do well.  In any case, the question of whether or not I believe in God is going to have as much relevance in my classroom discussions as the question of whether I cheer for the Yankees or the Red Sox.  I'm not going to ask my students "do you believe in God?" on exams.  I'm going to ask about law, and I'm going to teach about law.  And hopefully, my students will do the same.  It's not my job to quibble about theology with my students -- I'm there to teach them law, and they should be prepared to learn on the same terms.

My faith is no challenge to legal education or law schools, and neither is the faith of millions of other religious believers.  However, there are real problems, like bigotry.  Bigotry and intolerance are among the ideas that stand in fundamental opposition to widely held ideals of law.  This applies not just to tolerance along racial, gender, age, or sexual orientation lines; it also means tolerating the religious beliefs of others.  Thus, statements that suggest that religious faith is inimical to legal education are as wrongheaded as the racist and sexist assertions of decades past that claimed that blacks and women were inferior learners. 

Of course, disagreement with religious organizations is fine.  Heaven knows there are a number of religiously oriented political groups with whom I disagree vehemently -- and I'm never hesitant to criticize them.  But even strong disagreements with particular individuals don't justify sweeping statements that denigrate the faith of sincere believers. 

Faith means many things to many people.  For some, faith may provide a justification for intolerance or hate.  But for others, it does not lead to such sentiments.  And for many people, faith can lead to tolerance, altruism, peace, respect, and love.  Some of the greatest statements exhorting respect for others have come in religious contexts. 

Because of the diversity of religious belief and religious believers, faith itself is a law-neutral topic.  And because of that law-neutrality, any sweeping statements that faith is opposed to law are wrong.  There is nothing about the concept of faith that is opposed to legal education, to law schools, or to society's ideals of the rule of law.

UPDATE:  I just noticed the response by Dean Sargent of Villanova, who writes that:

But for Rudenstine to argue that there is no place for faith in public discourse -- or in law schools -- not only shows not only that he has not done his homework (as Mike Perry suggests), but that he would throw the religious baby out with the dishwater, thereby impoverishing the quality of debate within law schools and marginalizing (or excluding) those students who seek to integrate faith, reason and public responsibility in their lives.

Dean Sargent also notes an e-mail reply, that

I would have thought that Rudenstine was marking exactly this kind of distinction by calling attention to the kind of "faith" that sets itself in opposition to evidence, for example, from the sciences. I did not read his remarks as a blanket condemnation of everything that travels under the heading of "faith."

This seems possible, and I hope correct.  I've heard enough good things about Dean Rudenstine that I would hope that he would make that distinction.  Perhaps, as Dean Sargent suggests, Dean Rudenstine "got carried away with his own rhetoric" and was not making a serious claim about all faith.

Posted by Kaimi Wenger on June 17, 2005 at 06:57 PM in Religion | Permalink

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Church-state issues often involve fundamentally different understandings of the nature of religious faith. That fact became clear yesterday when the New York Law Journal reported on recent remarks by Cardozo Law School Dean David Rudenstine. Rudensti... [Read More]

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» Commentary: Church-State, Dean Rudenstine and Unde from Commentary: Church-State, Dean Rudenstine and Unde
Church-state issues often involve fundamentally different understandings of the nature of religious faith. That fact became clear yesterday when the New York Law Journal reported on recent remarks by Cardozo Law School Dean David Rudenstine. Rudensti... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 18, 2005 10:59:37 PM

Comments

Plainsman,

I like to talk about faith -- the basis of my faith is a great topic, about which I can talk for hours. I blog on religious issues at Times and Seasons ( http://www.timesandseasons.org ) with a great group of co-bloggers (including Conglomerate blog's Gordon Smith). We've discussed issues like the nature of God, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the meanings of different scriptural passages, and the continuous challenges of living one's religion.

Those discussions -- and all religious discussions that I have -- shape me as a person, and they contribute to my character and my thoughts.

But they have only a limited impact on my career as a legal academic.

I draw on my experience as a law student. I took courses in law school from professors of many different religious backgrounds -- Jewish, Christian, atheist. I didn't think that I got better instruction or worse instruction from anyone because of religion. There's no evidence (that I saw) that Jewish or Mormon or Episcopalian professors are better or worse professors. Rule 403 is rule 403, regardless of whether it's a Baptist or a Jew or a Mormon teaching the class. The rule against perpetuities doesn't change based on the professor's religious beliefs, either. And so forth.

As far as scholarship, that may be different in at least two ways.

First, there are limited opportunities for explicitly religious legal scholarship, such as occasional symposia about Catholic or Jewish legal thought. (There's even been one on Mormon legal thought!) If I'm writing a piece called "A Mormon Approach to Property Law" -- well, then clearly my beliefs will impact the piece. But those opportunities are limited. I don't expect to make a career in Mormon legal thought.

Second, I'm sure that my beliefs affect my scholarly goals in broad, conceptual ways. I have a strong belief in fairness and justice. I'm anti-utilitarian by nature, and strongly deontological. I have no doubt that those aspects of my scholarly work have been shaped, at least on some level, by my religious instruction.

But those are also the sorts of broad, conceptual aspects that aren't necessarily signals of religion. I may be a deontologist because I read the Book of Mormon (the connection certainly isn't that direct, but we'll pretend that it is, for argument's sake). However, a professor down the hall may be a deontologist because he read Kant. And the professor next door may be a deontologist because she read Rawls. The ways in which religion has shaped my legal thinking are not unlike the ways in which many others have been influenced simply by philosophy or ethics.

I understand that separation of religious belief from work as a legal academic may not be as easy for some people as it has been, so far, for me. I'm not saying that my approach is the only approach, just that it's the way that I've found to navigate this terrain myself. And like many others, I'm just doing my best to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.

Posted by: Kaimi | Jun 20, 2005 3:35:11 PM

Joelle,

I understand your comment, and it seems to be similar to Leiter's suggestion, noted at Mirror of Justice, that Dean Rudenstine's comments were meant to be viewed as limited to certain types of faith.

(I'm also struck by the reaction demographics. The blogs have a number of posts reacting to Dean Rudenstine's comments. Without anything approaching empirical certainty, but just based on my own viewing of comments at several cites, it strikes me that those who view the comments as problematic are religious believers who think that Dean Rudenstine's language goes too far. I wonder if there is a divergence in meanings, with religious observers viewing the term as having one meaning, while others view it as holding a different meaning.)

If Dean Rudenstine meant to condemn only certain types of faith, or certain types of faith-based arguments as used in politics, his statement as reported seems to be a lot broader. At the very least, he's being sloppy in condemning a term that creates strongly-held feelings in many people. I don't find the response "he's not talking about you" to be particular reassuring; the fact is that the dean chose certain language, and it's well known that that language includes people like me.

Let me ask a counter-example. Suppose that I want to publicly criticize some political aspect of the Democratic Party. I decide to express this disagreement by taking a broad phrase -- one that may describe a lot of the Democratic Party's actions, but which also applies to a host of other organizations and individuals -- and condemning it in general terms. I write: "The 'human rights approach' is opposed to everything good in America."

Is it overreaction for other groups and individuals to wonder whether this condemnation is meant to apply to them, or to criticize me for making such an overbroad generalization?

Posted by: Kaimi | Jun 20, 2005 3:06:27 PM

Actually, one of the things I found interesting about Mr. Wenger's post was how comparatively non-cognitive his account of faith was.

Personally, I would have been more likely to respond to Dean Rudenstine's parochialisms by noting that everybody's metaphysics, whether materialist or theistic, is unproved; you must either adopt some sort of "faith" or simply go without a response to some of the deepest aspects of existence. Faith is, among many other things, a kind of intellectual venture, a way of getting a metaphysical grip on the universe.

Perhaps this is a Catholic thing. I can say one of the reasons I like being Catholic is that I am rationalistic in temperament. In a world as mysterious and opaque as the one in which we find ourselves thrown, a rationalist temper leads pretty readily to a certain kind of existentialist religious faith. Descartes --> Pascal.

Posted by: Plainsman | Jun 20, 2005 12:17:21 PM

"Faith challenges the underpinnings of legal education. Faith is a willingness to accept belief in things for which we have no evidence, or which runs counter to evidence we have. . . . Faith does not tolerate opposing views, does not acknowledge inconvenient facts. Law schools stand in fundamental opposition to this."

It is hard not to read your response to this statement as an overreaction to a fairly innocuous comparison of faith and reason as methodologies. Not as a call to arms against personal choice. Faith is appropriately defined as a willingness to take information at face value - without inquiry or evidence - and critical inquiry as a process that encourages opposition and must account for inconsistent facts. Although faith is often opposed to science (as in the resurrected "intelligent design" debates) it can and should be compared to other academic endeavors - such as legal training. This is especially important in a political climate where so-called "faith" is frequently manipulated to quell dissent. If you have any doubts, take a quick look at the Union of Concerned Scientists' website or read the profile on the president by Ron Suskind that appeared in the NYT on 10/17/04.

Posted by: Joelle | Jun 20, 2005 11:57:31 AM

"Faith challenges the underpinnings of legal education. Faith is a willingness to accept belief in things for which we have no evidence, or which runs counter to evidence we have. . . . Faith does not tolerate opposing views, does not acknowledge inconvenient facts. Law schools stand in fundamental opposition to this."

Hmm, "running counter to evidence we have." Would that be anything like, say, not allowing a jury to hear about a burglar's 5 previous burglary convictions? Or in throwing out a houseful of evidence, murder weapons with fingerprints, or signed confessions, simply because the timing of a Miranda warning or a violation of search and seizure laws.

Not saying I disagree with any of the above, but it's the height of hypocrisy to assert that the legal field is somehow immune to the same shortcomings of other disicplines or occupations.

Posted by: anonymous | Jun 19, 2005 6:18:52 PM

Amen, Kaimi.

I mean, um, I concur :)

Posted by: Jeff V. | Jun 19, 2005 1:25:03 PM

Dean of the Cardozo School of Law...that's affiliated with Yeshiva University, isn't it?

Interesting place for the dean to come out against faith...

Posted by: David Schraub | Jun 18, 2005 2:25:02 PM

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