I wonder, sometimes, if any reader has noticed a curious absence in the posts that I have submitted to this blog. Though I speak frequently about the relationship between religion and morality, I have not yet written, nor have I even used the argument, that something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in virtue of the principle of separation of church and state.
The closest argument that I have given relating to this separation is a counter to the claim that, “If you do not mention God (e.g., in biology class, in the context of evolution), then this is the same as promoting atheism.” This inference, of course, is absurd. It is the same as saying that, “If I do not tell you what color my car is, then this is the same as saying that my car is transparent.” In other words, if I ask you what color your car is, and you refuse to answer, this is not the same as saying that your car has no color.
But this is a far cry from arguing for separation of church and state.
When I argue against “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, my argument is only loosely connected to the separation of church and state. My argument is that “under God” has been placed in the Pledge in such a way that it denigrates and insults all who are not “under God” by equating them with rebels (not indivisible), tyrants (not with liberty), and moral criminals (not with justice for all).
My argument against including “In God We Trust” is that this motto says, This motto states that the most important principle that a country can stand for – that a person can fight and die for – is the principle that the nation’s population should be divided between an included and accepted ‘we’ who trust in God, and a group of ‘they’ or ‘those who do not truly belong here’ who do not. Not only is this principle not the most important principle to live and die for, it happens to be a principle that no fair and just person could embrace at all.
Recently, at the atheist ethicist journal, I argued against inserting religious messages into graduation ceremonies and the like, not because of ‘separation between church and state’, but because ‘people who come to these ceremonies do so to celebrate their child’s graduation, not to be preached at by somebody who has beliefs that they do not share.” I used a standard, “Do unto others” argument to illustrate that no Christian would tolerate having an atheist preach to them about the futility of believing in a “sky daddy” – and that they are hypocritical to demand and even celebrate that which they would condemn if done by others.
In an earlier post, “Intolerable religion,” I distinguished between morality (that which is not optional and, thus, may be forced on everybody) from religious culture (that which is optional and should not be forced on anybody). I argued for an interpretation of the moral principle behind the First Amendment as stating that the government shall not impose religious culture on others nor should it interfere with the free exercise of religious culture - unless that religious culture is immoral (it is a religion that calls upon its subjects to do harm to others). Immoral religious culture may be – must be – restricted, or we give a religion the legal right (never a moral right) to harm others with impunity.
I would not argue against a practice of imposing religious culture through force of law because it violates the First Amendment. I would argue against it on the basis that it violates the moral principle that the government shall neither require nor prohibit practices that which are neither morally obligatory nor morally prohibited respectively – such as telling people when to eat, when to pray, what church to go to, or whether to go to church at all.
This is not, strictly speaking, an argument for the separation of church and state. It is an argument for the separation of religious culture and state based on a moral distinction between that which is obligatory, permissible, and prohibited. ‘Religious culture’ here is simply defined as ‘that which does not fall in the category of obligatory or prohibited but which, instead, properly fits the moral category of ‘permissible’.’
The reason that I have not argued in defense of a strict separation between church and state is because I have never been able to make sense of this separation – let alone argue for it.
Imagine a person who truly believes that if this country does not condemn homosexuals or abortion, that God will inflict terrible punishment upon us, killing countless people and harming others. This person sits in the legislature, and is being asked to vote on legislation that will make homosexual acts and abortion illegal, punishable (each) by death. Asking this person to vote against these laws is like asking him to condemn countless people to death and suffering. Telling this person not to act on his religious beliefs is, simply, pure nonsense.
In short, I have not seen an account of ‘the separation of church and state’ that does not ultimately turn out to be ‘a separation of belief and action’. Saying that an individual should act contrary to what he believes to be the best act is simply demanding a little too much.
Along these lines, I think that if a politician believes that atheists are fools, and he says this, that the fault is not actually that he said it, but that he believes it. The person who would say such a thing is a person who has been turned by his religion into an arrogant bigot who has just shown that is arrogance is entirely unfounded. When others speak up to condemn his statement, the objection should not be, “It is okay to believe such a thing – as long as you do not say it out loud” The problem (at least for a political candidate) is that no person stupid and bigoted enough to believe such a thing is qualified to hold public office.
This type of person simply should not be made a part of any real-world legislature. He is another example of a person who has been made a threat to the well-being of others because he has been trained to believe something that is not true and to hate those who do not deserve hate. His is like a person who has come to believe that arsenic in the drinking water is an important health measure. The remedy is not to say that he should not act on this belief. The remedy is to make sure that nobody who has this belief ends up serving in the legislature, where is superstition or (other form of) stupidity will put the health and well-being of good people at risk.
For these same reasons, I do not object to any teacher telling his or her students his or her religious beliefs. If a teacher says, “I am a Muslim,” there is no fault in the fact that she has informed her students of what is actually a fact about the real world. If she is a Muslim, and the children learn that the proposition, “The teacher is a Muslim” is true, then the students have learned another fact about the real world and are better informed because of it. The same is true of a teacher who says, “I believe that Jesus is our savior and that nobody gets to heaven but through Him,” or “I believe that there is no God and an indifferent universe is just as willing to kill us all as let us live – unless we take care of ourselves and each other.”
However, I am not saying that a teacher has a right to teach nonsense to a child. The problem with a teacher trying to convince students that evolution has flaws it does not have, or that the Earth can be no more than 6,000 years old, or that all homosexuals and adulterers shall be put to death, is that this person is not teaching. Her students are not becoming smarter, nor are they becoming better people. Instead, she is making them a threat to others both by making them too stupid to make intelligent decisions and to filled by hate to lead a good life.
Of course, people will disagree over what counts as ‘truth’ or what counts as an education. However, these are not issues that should be swept under the rug with a promise not to talk about them. They are issues that should be debated in the open. It might even do the children some good to realize that there is a debate and that there are sides to take.
I oppose placing the 10 Commandments in public buildings, not because it violates the separation of church and state, but because its principles are objectionable. The Commandments, when taken in context, invites citizens to kill those who worship other Gods , violate the Sabbath, or take the Lord’s name in vain. Putting these documents in public buildings is an invitation to go to the Bible and find out their context. Going to the Bible and finding their context means promoting a view where violators shall be executed. If you do not support the execution of people who worship other gods, work on the Sabbath, or take the Lord’s name in vain, then you cannot in good conscience support others putting teaching children to accept this view.
In other words, the problem with the 10 Commandments is not that they are religious. The problem is that the principles they advocate are principles no good person can accept. They are the products of a primitive and ill-informed culture that had as poor an understanding of the difference between right and wrong as they did of science. These displays are appropriate in a display of the history of morality – the way that an ancient anatomy text is appropriate in a display on the history of medicine. But it is as insane to to argue that we, today, should follow those practices as it is to say that modern medicine should follow the practices in that ancient text – ignoring everything we have learned since then.
I fear that constantly objecting to these policies on the basis of ‘separation of church and state’ will serve only to promote a general hatred of the idea that church and state are to be kept separate, and an endorsement of the idea that church and state were not meant to be separate. We must remember, we are dealing with people who can sweep aside the mounds of evidence against a young earth and in favor of evolution – they are certainly not going to have any trouble sweeping aside evidence of a secular Constitution.
I would argue in favor of focusing on what is really wrong with these proposals – and it is not the fact that they violate the principle of separation of church and state. It is that they are primitive ideas of both science and morality that belong back in the dark ages if not before.
At least, in this blog, I have already stated that I am not interested in political strategies. I am interested in what is right and wrong in fact. I do not find what is right or wrong in fact in terms of violating a principle of separation of church and state. I find a what is right and wrong in fact by looking to see of the laws are founded on true beliefs and good desires. Those that fail this test should be discarded regardless of which side of the church/state wall they fall upon.