I've been wanting to write a bit more about secularism recently because debates with theists always seem to come down to the roles between religion and government. At any given time I may be engaged in 1 or more simultaneous debates with different theists on various websites, forums and blogs. I was on a Christian website recently and found myself in a debate with a fairly conservative Christian Baptist over the separation of church and state. Our disagreements fell along familiar lines where we felt religion's place in public society should be. And I have to say that once again I had all of my stereotypes confirmed: people who are devoutly religious, almost always think that it is perfectly alright to impose their religiously based morals onto other people.
So let me address some of our disagreements and outline some of my views on secularism because in practical terms, the debate over church and state has serious real world impacts, and is not to be taken jokingly.
Freedom of religion
I think I speak for most atheists when I say that a secular society should protect the rights of those of religious faith to believe what they want without undue persecution and for them to have the right to be open about it. But those of religious faith must realize that freedom of religion cannot exist unless there also exists the freedom from religion. I don't have the right to prevent you from worshiping your chosen deity in your private life, and you don't have the right to impose your religious morals on me in my private life.
Now where this gets complicated is in government. Your right to freely practice your religion must encounter some reasonable restrictions if you're employed by the government. This means that as a public school teacher you cannot lead prayer services while on the job, and as an elected official who crafts public policy, you cannot pass legislation that is favorable to any one religion, or religion in general. This is where I notice that many devoutly religious Christians favor a bias for their religion. For example, some Christians will say that it is OK for a Christian teacher to lead a Christian prayer service in a public school, but they're adamantly opposed to the idea of a Muslim school teacher praising Islam in the classroom and leading Muslim prayers. They'll also support the 10 Commandments perched on government property, but would also adamantly oppose the 5 Pillars of Islam on government property. Clear religious bias and religious discrimination against others. If your religious views force you to adopt a stance where you're for openly discriminating against other religions, while favoring yours, then my main thesis as an atheist that religion is divisive and harmful to society is vindicated.
Christian nation or nation of Christians?
I think at the heart of this Christian attitude is the idea that America is a Christian nation and that laws that favor Christianity are justified. While it is true that since its inception, the US has been majority Christian, the US is by no means a Christian nation. There is no mention of god in the Constitution and religion is only mentioned where its limiting role in government is stipulated. Many of the founding fathers were highly critical of Christianity and religion in general and were not Christians themselves but deists. The author of America, Thomas Jefferson, wrote his famous words to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut, who feared for their religious freedom:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
These are some of the most brilliant words ever written on matters of government and religion. It sets the principle of secularism in motion with esteemed articulation. But those with religious faith who want their faith privileged are always picking at that wall, looking to crumble it down. The obvious answer to what religion can get promoted in public school or government office is that no religion should be granted that privilege. Teachers and public officials must keep their religious beliefs to themselves on the job. And I honestly think the same should be true of atheism. No atheistic teacher should be telling their students that there is no god, or that one particular religion is false. Teachers should be instructed to be neutral on matters of religion, they should simply be in the business of teaching the lesson, and the only reference to religion should be in the form of its impact on history, without it's beliefs being taught as facts. If a student asks a teacher if there is a god, the teacher should kindly tell that student that this a question for them to decide on their own.
Now some fundamentalists that I've debated with think that the mere teaching of evolution, or the mere teaching without reference to god is tantamount to teaching atheism. I sharply disagree. There is no wiggle room for getting creationism taught in public schools. It is out of the question because it is not science. Public schools should teach evolution by natural selection, and no reference to god anywhere in the curriculum should be made.
I asked a theist in a debate on gay marriage this question:
Me: Why should our secular government adopt a purely religious stance on gay marriage?
Christian: The view I am espousing is not just a religious view, it is the only view period.
The problem with religion, that should be obvious to all, is that being a true practitioner of an Abrahamic faith like Christianity requires that you discriminate against other people, like homosexuals. Now the Christian above has every right to oppose gay marriage for what ever reason he wants, but as a civil issue, under our secular, godless Constitution, and our Declaration, where all men are created equal, there is no legal justification to deny same sex couples the right to marry. Ultimately, the only justification against gay marriage will come from religion. This is why I think that the gay marriage debate is a classic example of an issue that highlights the importance of the principle of secularism.
The theist I was debating with laid out his case for the constitutionality of gay marriage:
The right to call what they do "marriage" or "proper and legitimate marriage" is not a Constitution right - it is not a Constitutional right to change meanings of words and to change definitions of words.I later replied:
The definition of marriage has been continually redefined. Polygamy was widespread in the bible, and so was forcing underage girls into arranged marriages with older men. I wouldn't call that "traditional marriage" by any stretch of the imagination.
I will never tire of hearing this kind of hypocrisy reflexively espoused by Christians who feel the need to define marriage biblically as "1 man and 1 women," while ignoring the fact that the bible condones polygamy and child brides through and through, and then when I bring this up hearing them say that god condoning the practice didn't mean he approved of it. What a compromiser Yahweh must be.
We don't define marriage biblically just as we don't define anything else of importance biblically or koranically. This seems to be an argument that some theists will never rescind.
Religious liberty in the age of secularism
Last year the Reverend Rick Warren said that religious liberty will be the civil rights struggle in the 21st century. On various blogs where I find myself debating with theists on secularism, I hear this cry being echoed all too often. Let me highlight an issue that I think crystallizes this perceived threat to religious liberty.
First I want to say again that I fully support one's right to religious belief and be open about it. (But it must also be recognized that if one has the right to force other people to be exposed to their religion publicly, then one also has the right to force them to hear criticism about their religion publicly.) Now take an issue like contraception. If someone's religious convictions compel them to be against its use, then that is their business. While they do not have the right to deny anyone else's access to it, the main issue arises when dealing with whether an employer who's against contraception can deny its coverage to an employee. A related issue is whether churches or business owners have the right to deny service to gay marriages. These issues are where things get sticky.
After thinking about this issue, I do respect a church's rights to discriminate against gay people in that they shouldn't be forced to marry same sex couples if they don't want to. Business owners like wedding boutiques who refuse to service same sex couples I feel differently about. When the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed it prevented businesses from refusing to service customers on the basis of race. I see no difference between discriminating based on race or sexual orientation. So I would not support a private business' refusal to offer service based on sexual orientation if their business is deigned to cater to the general public, like a restaurant or a clothing store.
On contraception, if the institution is religious, I could respect their right to refuse to cover contraception in their health coverage. But a regular private business' refusal I think goes to far. The main reasons why I don't respect a business' refusal to cover contraceptives, are that (a) theists who do so are cherry picking their morality from the Bible (or other religious text) and are inconsistent; and (b) if a religious exception can be made, then we should in principle allow any other ethical objection on any issue, like a Jehovah's Witnesses employer refusing to cover healthcare that allows for blood transfusions, or an animal rights employer who refuses to cover some parts of healthcare because the products were tested on animals, or a woman's rights employer refusing to over erectile dysfunction pills because she thinks it's sexist. Once the employer has the right to discriminate based on their personal moral preference when it comes to healthcare, it starts a dangerous precedent.
This all highlights the main concerns among the religious, which is that they might not be allowed to discriminate anymore as our country further secularizes (and liberalizes), and might be forced to treat those they consider wicked and sinful with equality. They're also concerned that they will not be able to influence politics like they way they have in recent decades, and that public expression of religious faith with be so limited by radical secular laws that it will be forced into privacy. Let me just say that for so many decades, the wall of separation between church and state had been routinely violated and that this fear amongst the believers is really just a reaction to the fact that our nation is starting to look as a secular country is supposed to look.
Do you have any issues with secularism that you'd like to share? I'm looking for new issues to address in a part 2 of this topic. I will have more on the practical issues of secularism in the coming weeks.