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.
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