Thursday, April 26, 2012

Secularism and Feeling Left Out

This month, I have been offering a defense of secularism.

Specifically, I have been arguing for a form of secularism that strictly prohibits religious premises on deciding the merits of a law or an element of public policy.

Against those who would object that this is unfair to religion, I point out that this is exactly the procedure we follow in a court of law. The instant the gavel hits the block and court is in session, religious beliefs are barred. They are absolutely and completely prohibited. When it comes to presenting the material facts of the case, all evidence must be secular.

People on both sides are prohibited from offering testimony of the form, "God told me that the accused is guilty," or "If we do not execute the accused then God will punish us with plague, famine, hurricanes, and boils."

If anybody tried such a claim, all but the most religious of us will roll our eyes and say, "That's religion. It does not belong here." Religious arguments are permitted in court in some parts of the world, but no part that any but the most fundamentalist extremists in America would view as a role model.

All of the reasons we have for rolling our eyes at religious claims made in a trial are just as valid when people try to use religious claims on matters of law or policy. When it comes to actions that do harm to others, It would please my God," or "God demands this sacrifice," are poor reasons - just as poor as when using them to argue that the accused is guilty of the charges against him.

This objection to religious evidence does not imply an objection to religious ritual or symbols. These rituals and symbols may face objections from sone other direction, but not from secularism as defined here. If they are not being offered as evidence for inflicting harm on others, then they do not violate the rule that justification for causing harm to others must be grounded exclusively on secular claims.

I read a lot of articles in which people complain about a religious ritual at a government activity claim that they object that, "It made me feel left out, like I did not belong."

Wait, let me get my violin - because, in the wide scope of human experience, your feelings are clearly more important than anything else going on in the world.

I, too, protest many of these rituals. However, it is not because they hurt my sensitive feelings. I look for actual harm. If I find it, then that is the ground for my complaint. If not, then I consider the fact that there are probably more important things in the world to worry about today.

Why oppose "In God We Trust" in the council chambers?

Because it hurts the feelings of those who would attend Council meetings but who do not trust in God.

No, actually.

Because it prejudices the Council and the public assembled against people who seek to offer testimony to the Council or run for a seat who do not trust in God. It gives the Council permission to discount the interests of such individuals because, "We trust in God, and you do not." It puts the community assembled at the meeting in a hostile state to any atheist there to give testimony or run for office.

I oppose these practices, not because they make me feel bad. It is because they cause harm.

What is the opposition going to say to answer thus objection?

Will they say, "It does not prejudice the electorate against atheist candidates?" Will they answer, "It does not promote hostility against those who do not believe in God?"

Well, let's count the number if atheist candidates in public office. Let's ask people if they would vote for atheist candidates. Let's ask people to rank different groups in terms if the degree to which they are seen as anti-American. Let's collect some secular, empirical data on that claim and see how well it holds up.

Here is a research project for any aspiring researchers out there (or that you can pass along to someone you know). How about a survey that compare the importance of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to a person to that person's willingness to vote for an atheist candidate for President? I bet it would closely match the support for a pledge of allegiance to "one WHITE nation" that we might find among those who would have trouble supporting a black candidate.

Let's put a plaque that says, "In God We Trust", or begin a research project with a Pledge of Allegiance or a prayer and measure the effect on the listener's opinion of atheist testimony or likelihood to support an atheist candidate.

The next time one wants to oppose a blatantly Christian prayer at a government event, I would suggest recognizing the fact that your feelings simply are not that important. Instead, what matters is that the people who are organizing these prayers are attempting to prejudice the electorate against candidates who do not share the religious views expressed in these practices.

Having said that, one should acknowledge that causing individuals to "feel like an outsider" - alienating them - can be linked to real harm. In some cases, it lowers self-esteem and promotes self-destructive and anti-social behavior among individuals who do not have a sense of belonging to the community. Anti-gay sentiments is tied to a significantly higher suicide rate among gay teenagers who pick up society's hatred of gays and learn from it to hate themselves. "If society wants me dead, then I will give them what they want."

Here, again, we have some empirical questions that we can pursue that links the activities one is protesting to actual harms being suffered. If the link can be established, then there is a real and important reason to protest the policies.

If you truly cannot come up with anything better than, "They hurt my feelings," then maybe it is not important enough to pursue.


treedweller said...

I'm not seeing much difference between "made me feel I don't belong" and "conveyed hostility to atheist candidates et al."

Perhaps you are merely pointing out that the latter makes a better argument for secular public meetings and facilities, and I am inclined to agree with that.

But, in both cases, the underlying problem is entitlement felt by Christians to insert their religion into every aspect of our lives. The implication is that we are all free to believe what we want, provided we don't get inthe way of real, Christian Amurkins. The implied threat is sometimes imagined by the rest of us, but not always.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The difference is that making one feel left out does not imply any further action, whereas promoting hostility towards atheists and, in particular, atheist candidates does imply harmful action.

The latter serves the purpose of securing position in government for those who believe in a god. As I said in the post, it also causes people to disregard atheist testimony, thus negatively impacting the known atheist's voice when offering testimony.