Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why Secularism?

Debating with theists recently regarding opposing conceptions of government has lead me to ask the question: Why secularism? In other words, why do I believe in a secular government? Is secularism a religion unto itself? And is a secular government unfair to those who oppose it?

Secularism is defined as "the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the introduction of a religious element." Phrases like "the separation of church and state" are often evoked. Secularism is necessary in order to prevent laws from being passed that are based not on reason and science, but from a religious customs, traditions, rules and scripture. It it the absolutism of morality guided by revelation that I have such abhorrence for.

The idea is very simple: in a pluralistic society like the U.S., where many faiths are practiced, secularism becomes necessary to prevent laws from being passed and enforced onto people that are based on another person's religion. Most of us would not want to be forced to live under the rules of a religion that we do not hold, such as Islamic Sharia. Many people who are of a particular faith also do not want their religion's rules legislated onto them because they feel that many of their religion's obligations are a matter of personal observation. This is why secularism has been so successful in the West and continues to spread around the world.

As an atheist, I want to live in a society whose laws are rational and just, and based on reason and science. Religious laws sometimes enforce conduct that when examined through the light of reason and science, make little to no sense. For example, Jews and Muslims are forbidden to eat pork. Why? Because god says so. Now imagine a law forbidding pork from being served, regardless of whether you are a Jew, Muslim or not. "Because god says so" is not a justifiable way for a law to be passed, for reasons rather obvious to the atheist and theist alike. This also gets you into the problem of just whose god will it be whose commandments get inscribed into law. You will either have to have a national religion or some sort of religious partitioning that will usually lead to prolonged conflict. To prevent all of this, separating religion from government seems to be the obvious solution.

But the argument is far from over. Let's look at some issues made by some of those critical of secularism. Some claim that secularism is itself a religion, and that a secular government is merely one that has secularism as its state religion. It is certainly possible to define religion many ways. If religion is defined as to not include a deity, but to simply represent a system of beliefs, such as a political ideology, then one could twist out an argument that makes secularism look like an imposing force like so many theocracies today and of years past. The problem here, is that if you dilute the definition of religion to include any set of beliefs, then every belief could be come a religion. In other words, being a democrat or a republican can be your religion. Being a socialist or a capitalist can be your religion. So then under this diluted definition of religion, wouldn't our capitalist economy actually be a religion being imposed on every American, regardless of whether they agreed with it or not? All governments have to impose some system of rules and beliefs onto their citizens. It is just simply impossible to have a system so free that no one has anything ever imposed on them. That would lead to anarchy.

Now what about the person who opposes secularism? Are they being treated in a similar manner to how an atheist would be treated in a theocracy? In a theocracy, the atheist will have to be subjected to religious laws, at home and within the workplace. What they eat, who they can have sex with, how they can dress, whether they can drive or not, might be affected. They might have part of their income taken and given to the state religion, they might face penalties for not observing religious duties that could include jail time. They might not be able to speak out and criticize the state religion or the religion's leaders, with penalties ranging from fines to death. It might also be illegal to influence others with another religion or political ideology with similar penalties. A theocracy can force the believer and non believer alike to live as close as possible to the religion's rules, and this may include violations of some of the most basic of human rights.

Under modern secularism, those who wish to observe their religions can do so freely, so long as it does not violate common sense laws based on reason and science. So for example, if your religion allows the forced marriage of underage girls to older men, if it allows honor killing, or if it prevents various justified civil liberties, then the secular government will have to step in to prevent this. This is no more of a violation of one's religious freedom as it is a protection of other's rights. If your religion does not recognize these civil rights, let me remind you that all Abrahamic religions condone various forms of human slavery. So the emancipation of slaves in the American south under this argument would technically qualify as a secular government limiting the "rights" of slave holders to continue their practice of slavery. The moral problem we see when faced with religion is that as the forces of modernity, precipitated by morality guided by a deeper scientific understanding of reality, clashes with Iron Age ideas, we are increasingly seeing hostility in a culture war where the battle lines are drawn in our classrooms and bedrooms.

Freedom gives you choice; it gives you options. If you don't like gay marriage, don't have one; if you don't like abortion, don't have one; if you don't like eating broccoli, don't eat it; but do not prevent others from doing so. And if you are against any morality based on reason and science because it violates your religion, then mount an argument based on science and reason against it without appeal to scripture. Revelation just doesn't cut it as a valid argument.

Finally, I want to add that it is certainly possible that a secularist can become so fundamental that they begin acting like the theocrats in various oppressive regimes. When secularists start acting like adamant communists in their treatment of religious freedom, I oppose them as I would the theocratist. Freedom of conscious is fundamental and must remain so. So I guess therefore what I am really against is any system that stifles freedom, whether it be theocratic or secular. Modern liberal secular democracies offer us the best hope for a free society, with the most justified laws, based not on Iron Age "revelations" when human knowledge of the world was in its infancy, but by using the powers of science and reason. It is because of this that I regard secularism as the best political system.


  1. I agree.

    Secularism is not "a religion". You're right.

    As Christians wake up to the reality that the faith is no longer in control of pubic policy, they will rediscover the Biblical perspective, which was written at the time when the Roman Empire was the civil authority. The rationale is that one ought to obey all just laws of the state, accepting that their authority is effectively divinely delegated for the common good:

    For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
    - Romans 13:3-5

    The Christian Bible is not written in a context of a "Christian country", but in the context of a powerful civil authority, which actually represented a foreign religion.

    1. I hope you don't mean to say that modern day secular democracies are tantamount to the colonial rule of the Roman empire during antiquity. Do you also mean to say that secularism should one day fall like the Romans did and that Christian theocracy should triumph over it?

      I would disagree with Romans 13:3-5, because there are times when one needs to disobey authority. Authority should only be obeyed as long as it is competent and just. Otherwise we might still have slavery, and unequal civil rights.

      You see, even the devil can quote scripture to suit his needs.

    2. Ah, my friend, you are further from the devil than you may assume ;-)

      Modern day secular democracies do share a few similarities with the colonial Roman rule, insofar as they relate to the faith community living within that broader context. The similarities are limited, and obviously the regimes are quite different. But interestingly, in it's day, the Roman Empire also thought itself to be something of the penultimate solution to mankind's civil organisational needs. In that sense, the hubris of modern secularists is comparable. I don't think secularism "should fall", but I would suggest that the next era of the world will not be nearly so concerned with it. Neither China nor India are especially interested in the American style of liberal democracy, and they are where the action is going to be happening.

      The American-led world is fading.

      But don't hear me say that a Christian theocracy is the answer! Indeed, Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world". The kingdom of God concerns matters of moral and spiritual alignment, and of relationship with God, not matters of civil government. Jesus' ministry was concerned to reset the hopes of the people who were looking forward to a theocracy (see Acts 1:6-8).

      Constantine, 300 years after Christ, conjoined the church with the state, causing untold doctrinal distortion (one example: development of the doctrine of the 'just war', waged in the name of the archetypal pacifist Jesus...?). That phenomenon lasted a millenium and a half or so (depending how you measure it... you could even say it continued until the dismantling of the Papal States...). It's over now. We now have returned (from a Christian perspective) to a separation of Church and State (the Roman state had always a sycretistic religious one, but it wasn't Christian before Constantine).

      The point of Romans 13:3-5 was not to endorse every civil government as being divine, but to affirm the sovereignty of God over it. Therefore, when a government behaves badly (like murdering people for their faith), the Christians are expected to pronounce God's judgement on the civil authorities (and they did, as they were being gored by wild animals). That's now called non-violent resistance. It is no wonder that Martin Luther King jr. found so much to commend his movement in the Bible.

      Incidentally, while I recognise that the Bible has erroneously been used to support slavery since it was written, it was the Christian communities which announced and practiced equality between slaves and freedmen. They did this on the grounds that all men are created equal before God (sounds familiar...).

      In the Old Testament (and even in Roman times), slavery was not actually what we saw under colonial Britain, and then the USA. It was bonded labour, sometimes for generations at a time. In fact, even when freed, slaves sometimes elected to be re-bonded to their master because of the economic reality that they would otherwise be destitute. In that context, the OT Law is specific that slaves should be treated with dignity in their community, even if they don't enjoy all of the "human rights" as we know them. It's one more area where anachronism can be unhelpful.

    3. With the theists that I have debated secularism on, what they have always failed to do is provide an alternative system of government in regards to religion that they would instead support. I think this is because they are afraid to admit that they do indeed support their religion, whether it be Christianity or Islam, having national recognition and laws that enforce its traditions. In other words they are theocrats.

      I'm not sure if you live in the UK or Australia, but here in the US we have a secular democracy. And although US influence is waning, our brand of secularism is very well exported around the world. European countries adopted it, Australia's constitution is directly inspired by ours on the establishment clause (Section 116 of the Australian constitution). And let's not forget that India is the world's largest democracy and is officially a secular country.

      So let me ask you if you could describe for me your personal opinion on how you think religion should be handled within the government and political system. Do you support my above described brand of secularism?

    4. I'm in Australia. I'm not disputing that the Australian Constitution could be inspired, in parts, by the USA one, but in general our "brand" of democracy is much closer the UK one (with exceptions like church-state relations!). We are a constitutional monarchy, after all.

      Also, the USA constitution's freedom of religion provisions are inspired (and in parts originally worded) by William Penn. It is probably fairer to say that we followed the USA example of taking up some of Penn's ideas.

      Europe's dependence on American constitutional precedents is highly questionable. Perhaps you are referring to the church-state matter. I'm no expert on European politics, but I'd be surprised if they were comfortable with that characterisation. You know your "pursuit of happiness" stuff was very heavily influenced by the French Revolution... right?

      I think that our (Australian) political system is wonderful. It provides for protection against the nonsense of "blasphemy laws", at the same time as providing people access to pursue faith as they please. We recently had a High Court challenge against the Federal Government funding chaplains in schools, and the High Court ruled that the funding model needed modification, but in the process affirmed the right of the state to make chaplaincy services available in schools (that was the real objection behind the challenge, funded by atheist groups).

      We have an atheist, unmarried Prime Minister who lives with her partner in the Lodge. She is on public record as saying that knowledge of the Bible is important for students of history and English Literature.

      I suspect many of these things would be met with riots in the USA. What you guys seem to have is militant secularism and militant fundamentalism, set against one another as extremely as one can imagine. We, on the other hand, have middle-road secularism (with some zealous advocates), and moderate Christianity (with some zealous advocates). We don't have the tight bundles of left/right political 'issues', either. Our public debate is capable of being quite nuanced on matters like abortion, euthenasia, marriage laws, religion in schools, etc.

      Overall, I think Australia gets the balance right. Perhaps that's parochial, as I'm not an expert on USA politics, but what I do see from the outside makes me feel sick. I don't think America has got it "right" at all - it's ugly. It may not be "the system", it's probably still shockwaves from the Civil War. We never had one of those...

      But it really doesn't matter much what I think. Whatever China and India do, they aren't going to ask my opinion and they will be needing the US opinion less and less too. They will be the "elephants in the room", who may sit where they please. The rest of us will set our posture in response.

      In Australia, we've been doing that for 200 years, but the elephant was America. It's changing. For the last 20 years, we have been talking about the 21st Century as the "Asian Century".

      I care very deeply about the value of our democracy. I don't see a theocracy as an "improvement", but if one were introduced, I would favour it looking a lot like the British monarchy: The seat of legitimacy (with a democratic executive), but not exercising executive power.

    5. It might another decade or two before the US sees a viable atheist candidate let alone president. But who knows, things can happen quickly. A decade ago no one thought we'd have a black president. Things can sometimes change rather quickly. All we need is a good candidate who happens to be an atheist.

      In the US here the numbers of non-religious people are growing. It is about 16% now who are not affiliated with any religion. It may sound small, but that adds up to about 40 million people, and just a decade ago that number was in the single digits.

      You see I have no problem with the religious, as long as the recognize and adopt secularism within government and politics. If we could all be secularists, I wouldn't care so much as to what stories anyone believes in their head.

      China is officially an atheist country as far as I know. As its influence and India's gains strength in this century, I don't really see how this affects secularism negatively. China is a lot less concerned with other countries internal affairs, they really seem to care about exploiting resources to make money.

      The great challenge this century will be in how the world wakes up to the fact that our global economy, based on crafting finite resources often with cheap exploited labor, simply cannot go on much longer with the increasing demand the world puts on it.

      Christianity as a religion continues to wane pretty much worldwide (except maybe for the most uneducated parts of Africa and Asia) so I don't expect much trouble with Christians this century aside from the occasional fringe group. Islam will continue to be a problem to secularism, but I think with a continued onslaught of secular criticism and influence, a large part of the Islamic world will secularize.

    6. China is officially an atheist country. It does have some kind of state-sanctioned, dogmatically controlled "Christian" church, and it is illegal to be a Christian unless it is through that church! The Chinese government's relationship with religion is very different to your own. Just because there is a coincidence between their atheistic worldview and yours does not make them a comfortable bedfellow. I suggest looking outside that narrow paradigm and getting a handle on their whole approach to matters of faith. It is not the same, while not entirely opposite, to the US one. It's different.

      The number of professing Christians in the West is falling, as you say. That is perfectly understandable, when only two generations ago it was considered more or less immoral to be anything but a church-going Christian. That attitude has changed, and those who are only nominally Christian now have alternatives. In the pre-Constantine times, the Christian population was something around 5% of the whole (albeit still growing). Who knows what the number will be, once the concept of a truly secular society unfolds? It won't be zero, though.

      Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world Christianity is booming. To write that off as related to a lack of education is a stunningly elitist assertion! No wonder the Africans, and other international people groups, are wary of Western hubris.

      Throughout history there have been Christians of low education, and Christians of high education. Education is not some kind of antidote to Christianity! You are confusing the *correlation* between broad education in the West and the decline in Christianity, with the question of *causality*. It's a popular(ist) argument, but unconvincing. Do you realise that the Church *invented* universities...?

      What "education" (particularly in the field of Biblical criticism) has done is to dismantle Christianity and expose it to more analysis than any other socio-religious phenomenon in human history. In the process, new insights into the Bible have been gained, which present much deeper and more nuanced themes than the previous dogma could have imagined. So while it is convenient to cast the whole faith as a bunch of fables, and doing so sells books and DVDs, it remains intellectually dishonest.

    7. There does seem to be a direct causal relation between a person's level of education and their religiosity. Of course there are exceptions. If level of education isn't a causal factor in decreased religiosity, then what are the causes in your opinion?

      If increased education leads recipients of it to more critically analyze their religion, it seems to me that this is the causal factor in decreased religiosity.

      Most Africans want to modernize and therefore Westernize and are not weary of it. They want to live in modern, technologically and economically advanced societies and are weary of looking "backwards" to the rest of the world. That is why millions of them are immigrating to Western countries.

      I recognize China's attitude towards religious freedom and I'm against it, I was just making the point that because they are not religious, they are not a religious threat to the West, although China does pose other threats.

      Wasn't the first formal institution of education made by Aristotle in about 380 BC? This was the precursor to all later universities.

    8. >> " If level of education isn't a causal factor in decreased religiosity, then what are the causes in your opinion?"

      As I pointed out above, the Western world was previously a default Christian community. It no longer is. What the "natural" level of Christianity will be, nobody knows. But this fact alone is sufficient to explain the falling rates of religiosity.

      "Critically analysing their religion" is certainly one factor, for some, in decreased religiosity. In others, the reverse is true: critically analysing their religion can (and does) lead to a deeper and more convinced faith.

      Your sweeping comments about Africans remain of a type which would be incredibly offensive to many of them. I don't know where to begin...

      Aristotle had schools of students? Sure. So did the ancient Hebrews, and I'm sure other civilisations pre-dating Aristotle, too. (Try the Chinese for size: But the "university", such as it is, came into being as a brain-child of the church (partly, to study Aristotle!). Aristotle, for all his importance, remains just one more important thinker. He didn't happen in a vacuum, nor drop out of the sky.



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