Monday, November 12, 2012

Militant Secularism And Atheism: A Practical Application To Secularism

When Malcolm X was asked whether he considered himself "militant", he jokingly responded by saying he considered himself "Malcolm". Perhaps I can answer this question by saying I consider myself "Michael".

I have asked myself the question of whether I am a militant atheist. I don't think I am militant, so much as I am polemic. I have no intention of killing or physically harming anyone on behalf of my beliefs. I believe in peace, love and justice. When it comes to politics, I will say that I am and I support those who are adamant about furthering the secular agenda. When it comes to my personal life, I am usually enthusiastic when it comes to debating my convictions and this could be perceived as being militant.

That said, I do not support state atheism in any sort of communist style system that would restrict religious practice, and I do support the rights of the religious to practice their personal faith free from persecution. My support for them ends when they begin trying to advance their religious-based beliefs in government because it is then that they are violating my freedom from religion.

But as I've engaged in debate over secularism with those who are actively against it, I feel the need to clarify my positions. One of the bonuses of debate is that it does force you to sharpen your convictions as they are cross-examined. Let me lay down for a moment some of the core points on my views towards secularism.

  1. First, secularism is not a religion. It is a principle; it is a political ideology. If secularism cannot be advanced in government because you classify it as a religion, then you would also not be able to advance democracy as well because it would be classified as a religion too and we would have a situation where no set of political beliefs would enter the government. 
  2. Secularism is to keep religious organizations and dignitaries separate from government. This does not mean that someone with religion cannot become an appointed or elected politician, it just means that those with religion in government should base laws and policy free from their religious traditions and dogma.
  3. Basing policy free from religious traditions and dogma does not mean that one cannot advance a moral position that their religion also agrees with, it means that the person in government must be able to give a valid argument on their position, without appeal to their religion. In other words, they must justify their political position in secular terms using reason and science. If their justification for their position is to say "my Bible/Torah/Qur'an says it is wrong so I do too" that is a violation of secularism. 
  4. For example, take the issue of abortion. If a politician is against abortion, a secular government means they must justify why it is wrong without using the typical appeal to religion and god by saying the fetus has a soul and that their holy book says it is wrong. This would be an appeal to religion and not to science and reason. Even though there is no scientific evidence for the soul, it is possible to mount an argument against abortion from the point of view of secularism completely absent of religion and theism. Such an argument would be valid in a secular government. 
  5. If a secular argument without appeal to religion and the supernatural cannot be made for the reason a certain law or policy should exist, then it is not admissible in a secular government. 
  6. This is a practical and fair approach towards secular laws because it does not mean that all laws and policies that exist in religion(s) will be immediately blocked, rather it means those laws and traditions must be defensible without being backed up by the religion.
Even with this approach towards secularism we are not free of conflicts. Take the issue of school sanctioned prayer that I recently explored and debated. Imagine someone who is for introducing school sanctioned prayer comes up with statistics showing that schools that have allowed it have better test scores and lower dropout rates and this is used as their appeal to science and reason for why it should be allowed. Now we have a conflict here in that something that may be good for students if applied would violate secularism by allowing a government institution to establish a religion. 

How do I weigh in on this problem? As I mentioned before, the establishment clause prevents the government from establishing any religion, and allowing any religion to be sanctioned by a government institution violates that principle. So therefore, even if you could successfully mount a secular argument in favor for school prayer, the practice itself would violate the separation of government from religion. 

Secularism and its practical application certainly introduces complex situations that have to be analyzed from multiple points of view. That is why we have armies of lawyers and liberal watchdog organizations like the ACLU as well as those who are trying to poke holes in secularism doing what they do. 

This brings me back to my point earlier about the militarism of secularism. As we head towards a majority secular society with religiosity on the decline, secularists like myself will increasingly find ourselves in the position of power. It is certainly possible for an atheist and secularist to be as fundamental as any theist in their approach towards freedoms of conscience and expression. I feel obligated to maintain a fair and practical approach towards my views on secularism so that its practice does not do to those with faith, what those with faith did towards those without faith when the faithful had the monopoly on power. 

I do not want to be called a hypocrite by simply doing to others today what people like them have done to people like me in the past. Moral integrity and virtue are more important and are the cornerstone of my character. 

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