Friday, July 16, 2010

The Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life - Part 04

A member of the studio audience has asked that I comment on the Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life, a product of the World Atheist Conference: God and Politics.

Today: Proposition 4:

We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.

We dealt with democracy in the previous post, since it was also included in the third principle. This gives us reason to ask whether this redundancy serves any useful purpose.

As a reminder, in discussing Principle 3, I argued that democracy has its moral limits - basically, constraints on what the majority may morally do to any minority. These limits are typically expressed in terms of rights.

There has been a long philosophical discussion of what rights are. Many conceive of "rights" as "intrinsic moral qualities" and, from this, argue that rights do not exist.

Desirism conceives of rights as aversions that people generally have reason to promote universally - aversions to the use of violence in response to things said and written, an aversion to punishing the innocent, a desire for liberty, and the like. Rights, under this conception, do exist.

However, to say that "the only equitable system" is "based on secularism", where "secularism" is defined as "state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none," generates a lot of problems.

We are not going to discriminate against religions that say that a woman may be stoned to death for the crime of being raped?

We are going to be neutral to the practice of flying airplanes into sky scrapers as a way of expressing disapproval over the desecration of one's holy lands by having them protected in war by infidels?

We are going to turn our backs on parents who refuse to give their children life-saving medical care because they believe that prayer is the only form of medicine required?

Are we going to require that women sacrifice themselves on their husband's funeral pyre or allow the execution of apostates by religions that adopt this practice?

If you pay attention to the rhetoric, this conception of religious freedom gets a lot of air play from those whose interpretation of scripture calls for the use of state or private violence against others. "You are interfering with our religious liberty - you are "attacking *insert name of religion here* when you do not allow us to engage in the violence or inflict the harms on others that our religion demands."

Let us admit to at least one thing.

We are not now, nor are we ever, going to tolerate "secularism" if "secularism" is defined as "state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none."

No sane person would ever adopt such a rule.

State neutrality on matters of religion or belief is substantially indistinguishable from anarchy. It is a claim that there will be no state - no regulation of behavior - because every human action is an event grounded on the "beliefs" of the agents.

An intentional act is one in which the agent seeks to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires given his beliefs, so state neutrality on matters of belief implies state neutrality on all matters of intentional action.

We are not going to tolerate all matters of religion. We must at least be honest with ourselves and put that fact on the table.

Because we are not going to allow state neutrality on all matters of religion and belief, we must confront a real and important question of where we are going to draw the boundaries of our intolerance.

I would not define secularism as state neutrality on matters of religion and belief. I would define it instead as a strong presumption of liberty in matters of religion, and the same right to freedom of belief that I described earlier.

The right to freedom of belief as I have defended it is NOT an immunity from moral criticism for what one believes. People's beliefs can be very much subject to moral condemnation - as with the person who believes that all Jews should be rounded up and executed. However, the right to freedom of belief means that individuals shall enjoy an immunity from violence so long as their immoral and contemptible beliefs are expressed only in words and not actions.

As for a presumption of liberty in matters of religion, this states that a heavy burden of proof shall be placed on those who would argue that a particular religious practice (such as the killing of homosexuals and atheists) is to be condemned.

However, this burden of proof is not so high that it cannot be met.

In fact, the very instant that a religion calls for violence against another whose actions are not, themselves, violence, the burden of proof has been met. The state shall not be neutral with respect to those religious practices. In fact, the state shall take a very hostile stand against them, identifying people who engage in those practices, arresting them, and, upon proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, subjecting them to punishment proportional to the degree of wrongdoing.

This means an utter ban on religions that include violent practices. It means engaging in a state project of shutting down those religions and putting their adherents in jail.

Now, this project has its limits. Among these limits is the one that I mentioned earlier. People shall enjoy an immunity from violence (including criminal penalties) so long as their beliefs are expressed in words alone and not actions. A group of people who get together to express certain religious beliefs shall be immune from punishment. But where they believe in the legitimacy of violence against those who are not violent, they shall be legally prohibited from practicing their religion.

Previous Episodes:

Proposition 01: We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.

Proposition 02: We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.

Proposition 3: We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.


Martin Freedman said...

Very stimulating and interesting thoughts on the meaning of a "secular state". Keep it up!

One final thought is how about rewriting this Declaration in the light of your criticisms. That is for each proposition, to either revise, replace or reject it. I am intrigued to see to see what you would come up with.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I was already doing that. I will publish a revised declaration that I am calling "The (Proposed) Colorado Declaration" at the end of this series.