I said last week that I was going to defend secularism. It's about time I got to it.
If somebody tells you that they are anti-secular - that secularism is a bad thing - ask them how they feel about the current system of trial by jury.
They may offer some objection to the Exclusionary Rule, or object to the fact that jurists are conscripted, or claim that the system coddles criminals. You can wave those issues aside and say, "I am not talking about those parts. I am talking about the fact that, if the police were to haul you away right now and charge you with a crime, you would enter a system in which you would be assumed innocent, and within which the prosecution must prove that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
"Now, here is the kicker. In proving that you are guilty, the prosecutor is strictly limited - with no exceptions of any kind - to secular evidence. Sectarian evidence is not permitted at all in a court of law."
I said at the start that I was going to defend a strict and unaccommodating form of secularism. This is it.
There is zero tolerance in a court of law for sectarian argument. All evidence, and all forms of reasoning, must be secular. Even when the debate is over what evidence the jurists are allowed to see and what arguments are permitted, other than evidence excluded because it was obtained illegally, the concern is over whether the jurists might draw inferences harmful to the accused that are unsound in the secular sense.
Why prohibit jurists from hearing about the defendant's criminal history? Because past behavior is not evidence that the accused committed this particular crime at this particular place and time.
Pointing to the institution of trial-by-jury as an example of a strictly and uncompromisingly secular practice serves three major functions right at the start.
First, it combats the fear of a system that has never been tried - that is purely hypothetical. Yes, it has been tried. It is being used today. It is a system that the listener is almost certainly familiar with - giving the listener instant access to a large set of facts about what a wholly secular institution would look like.
Second, it is an institution where all but the most religious almost certainly believes should remain secular. There are extreme religious radicals who will insist that judges determine the guilt or innocence of the accused according to revelation - based on their spiritual purity. However, the fact that an argument will not be convince people suffering a certain closed-mindedness does not imply that the problem rests with the argument.
Third, it allows us to easily see the flaws with sectarian arguments by imagining what would happen to the system if trial by jury if they were permitted.
Let prosecutors bring revelation to the courtroom as evidence of guilt.
Let us admit arguments like this:
"I was walking through the forest and I came to a waterfall. As I looked on the beauty of the scene I thought about the corruption in the world. Then, it hit me. I suddenly knew, as certain as I know anything, that the accused was a part of that corruption. He is guilty. Don't ask me for proof. The proof is in that sense if certainty that overwhelmed me in the woods. It was God revealing his truth to me. Part if that truth is that there us corruption in the world, and the accused through his guilt shares in that corruption."
Or, imagine this exchange between the attorney for the defense and a crime-scene investigator.
Defense: "Did you test the DNA found at the crime scene?"
CSI Investigator: "Yes, I did."
Defense: "Was it a match to my client?"
CSI Investigator: "No, it was not."
Defense: "It was not? How do you explain that."
CSI Investigator: "It must have been an act of God. He is testing us - testing our faith - trying to see if we have the courage to hold to our convictions. I am a person of faith - and I have faith that the accused is guilty. That's all that matters."
Or, imagine a jurist at a trial who simply fails to attend or to listen to the evidence presented. Instead, he declares, "The accused has rejected the one true God. That makes him a heathen and guilty of all manner of sin. Whether he committed this crime or not, my God wants him punished. I intend to see him punished by declaring that he is guilty once this case goes to the jury."
We can immediately come up with three problems with allowing this type of evidence.
First, we can fully expect that what a person discovers through revelation or adopts as a matter of faith tells us what the person wants to believe, but provides little help in discovering what is true. In fact, it gets in the way of truth by clouding judgment and blinding a person to evidence.
Second, sectarian evidence is corruptible. The agents of faith can easily sell their revelations and articles of faith to the highest bidder. This may take the form either of direct corruption: If you happen to have a revelation that my company's product is safe and that these accidents are an act of God, then my corporation may see fit to make a sizable contribution to your church..
Sectarian evidence may also take the form of indirect corruption. If have enjoyed a long and productive alliance with the pharmaceutical industry. If we weaken that alliance, we weaken ourselves. Therefore, we must continue to offer juries our interpretation of scripture that says that God created these procedures to be safe and effective. The appearance that some people are being harmed by their use must instead be interpreted God's punishment for the lack of faith of those afflicted with these harms. We will use our power to offer sectarian evidence to aid our political allies and harm our political opponents.
Third, there is no defense against these types of claims. If a priest says, "God told me that you are guilty," how are you supposed to respond to that? No, God did not. I spoke with God yesterday and he said that I am innocent!
A courtroom, confronted with the question of whether the accused did or did not commit the crime, is no place for sectarian arguments. The very fact that they cannot be tested (cannot be independently verified or falsified, and that humans are not entirely trustworthy, argue that sectarian arguments are off limits in determining what happened at the scene of the crime.
We have here an entirely secular institution that allows for no exceptions and no special accommodation for religion.
The next step is to apply the lessons we have learned here to matters of public policy.