Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Secularism Is Not State Atheism

You don't know how many times I've been debating a theist on religion and god and they bring up communism as an argument against atheism. You simply cannot conflate atheism with communism. They are two are different things. One is the disbelief in god, the other is a political ideology based on a socialist economy and shared ownership of resources. Atheism is not a political philosophy and says nothing about what kind of government one should live under. An atheist can be a communist, a capitalist, a socialist, a democrat, a republican, or a libertarian.

Secularism is the principle that religion and government should be separate, and that government should take a neutral position on matters of god and religion. That is quite different from state atheism. State atheism is when the government takes an officially atheistic position and may restrict religious worship publicly and privately. That is not secularism. Under secularism the government does not take sides and endorse one religion over the other. In a secular society, I should be able to ask what the official government position on religion and god is, and I should be told that there isn't one. Secularism means religious belief is allowed in the private sector, and that citizens may believe whatever they want and be open about it, but they cannot use government to privilege one religion over another.

Secularism also doesn't mean that the government endorses atheism. Not acknowledging god is not an endorsement of atheism. No school teacher or government official should be forcing atheism onto anyone. By neutral, I mean that government does not endorse or restrict religious belief in the private sector. Individuals working for the government can have private religious beliefs, but when they are on the job they cannot preach or favor one religion over another.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, secularism means that laws must be crafted free of theistic or religious justification. That is to say, one cannot use a religion or god as the basis to justify a law being proposed. There must be a secular justification, and if one cannot be made, the law violates secularism. This makes many theists angry, because many of them know that without presupposing their religion as grounds for which their agenda is being justified, they cannot make a secular argument supporting the laws they'd like to see passed. But this is exactly what secularism is supposed to prevent.

The problem with this misunderstanding here is that many theists trot out communism as "proof" that atheism is detrimental to society and they drill this belief into the heads of their audience over and over again. And so theists begin to conflate atheism with communism, and secularism with state atheism, as if they're all the same, but they're not. And only a fool continues to make the same refuted argument and fails to learn from it.

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