Many religious conservatives in the US are publicly afraid of the loss of their religious liberty. They see the possibility of their religious identity and expression truly becoming illegal and extinct. These concerns are echoed widely among prominent members of the religious right. Conservative pastor Rick Warren said religious liberty is the civil rights issue of our day, 2016 presidential hopeful Ted Cruz thinks the government is waging an "assault" on religious liberty, and Louisiana governor and Christian convert Bobby Jindal says religious liberty is at stake due to increasing secularism.
There is no doubt about it. The US is becoming more secular and less religious. As it has been widely reported, the recent 2014 GSS survey shows that 21% of Americans claim no religious affiliation and are categorized as the "nones". As many as 7.5 million people may have left religion just since 2012. This is an increase of the nones of about 2 percent since 2012. Many religious conservatives are disturbed by these trends and scared that this increasing secularization is fueling a hostile attitude towards religious expression and some actually fear the government is attempting to make religious expression, or being religious, illegal.
Is there any truth to their claims? What would I do if I were in control of the law?
First, for far too long the religious zealots have been violating the separation of church and state, by enacting laws that teach creationism in schools, preaching politics from the pulpit while remaining tax exempt, displaying the 10 commandments on government property, trying to enforce religious morality onto non-believers, and many, many others. When these violations get challenged, religionists often react as if their religious liberty is being infringed. But right-wing paranoia is almost always fueled by ignorance and rarely turns out to have a strong factual basis. There are no attempts by the government to make religious expression illegal. There are attempts to make sure the the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment is respected. Secularists like myself do not want to take anyone's religious freedom away, we want to make sure it stays out of government - where it doesn't belong, and we don't want people to be able to use "religious liberty" as an excuse to discriminate.
To be a true secularists who holds to the basic separation of church and state principle means that you do not suppress the free expression of religious beliefs. But, if those religious beliefs violate basic civil rights of equality, then in my opinion, civil rights trump religious expression. That means you should not be allowed to discriminate against someone's race, religion - or lack thereof, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation on grounds that your religion requires you to do so in all government facilities and institutions, as well as in private businesses that cater to the general public. When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, it outlawed racial discrimination in "public accommodations" like hotels, motels, restaurants, and theaters. Many segregationists strongly objected to the idea of government forcing private business owners to serve black people equally. But if this stipulation was not there, most of the white-owned private businesses in the South would have continued their discrimination against black people, and in effect, we would have still had segregation, perhaps even to this day. I see the discrimination perpetrated in the name of religion the same way.
Second, if I were in control, if I could make the law do whatever I wanted with impunity, do you know what I'd do? Well let me be clear. While I am a die hard, uncompromising secularist, secularism to me doesn't mean forcibly suppressing religious expression and belief. It means the government stays neutral on religious matters. Occasionally, civil rights and religious liberty come into conflict. And while I absolutely believe everyone should have the right to be open about whatever it is that they believe in, when you're dealing with the equal treatment of citizens in government and pubic accommodations that cater to the general public, I think civil rights trump religious freedom. Why? Because to be able to discriminate against certain groups of people and justify it with a faith I don't feel is justified. I believe in living in an evidence based society, and I don't think that religion should allow anyone privilege to harm other people or discriminate against them in the name of a faith tradition. Therefore, if I allow "religion" to be a valid excuse to discriminate against gay people, then I have to allow religion to be a valid excuse to discriminate against black people.
Suppose a business owner adheres to Positive Christianity, the religion held by some of the Nazis. It emphasizes the racial purity of Aryan peoples. Suppose he didn't want to serve any non-white people on the basis of his religion. If on principle you support the right of Christian business owners to discriminate against gay people in the name of religion, then you must support the right of a Positive Christian to discriminate against black people in the name of religion. I don't want to live in that world, and that's why I'm against religion being accepted as a valid excuse to discriminate. So if I had my way, religious believers would have the right to be open about all of their beliefs freely and without persecution. They would have the right to build houses of worship, to assemble, and to observe, just as they do today. But they couldn't mix their religion with government and they couldn't use religion as an excuse to discriminate. When your beliefs become public policy, you have to rationalize and justify them in a secular manner, as per the Lemon test. You cannot appeal to faith or religious magic or scriptural authority as the basis for justifying your policy. There needs to be evidence that I can access objectively. And it should be without saying that this goes for all beliefs.
Look, religious people should be able to have their religious institutions and be able to go there and worship, and worship publicly and openly in a "free market" of ideas. But I don't have to respect their beliefs. If their beliefs cannot withstand criticism and if they cannot make as good a case for their religion as secular alternatives can, and if as a result, their religions begin to decline, that's not legitimate reason to cry about "secularization". When I hear cries about increasing secularization from religionists, this is usually just a cry about the dwindling religious privileges that their religion has enjoyed in government for so long that they now fear they're losing.
Welcome to Atheism and the City. This blog is about exploring atheism through contemporary urban living. I live in New York City, the secular metropolis, and I have an avid interest in all things religion, science, philosophy, politics, and economics. I am an atheist, a humanist, a philosopher and a thinker, and the purpose of Atheism and the City is to write about my thoughts and experiences on the subjects and topics that I have a passion for. Feel free to respond to any post whether or not you agree.