Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Secularism and Religion in the Public Square

Imagine living in a society where virtually all county courthouses have a statue of Jesus on the cross somewhere about. In many places, it is an elaborate statue - life size larger. Many courthouses have their main statue outside near the front door, others, inside at the center of the Atrium or high on the far wall.

Courthouses that do not have such statues often have paintings and murals.

Many have both. There is practically no place where one can stand where one cannot see this symbol in some form.

Where you do not see a statue, you see a cross. Often, the judge will have one on his desk. You will amost certainly find several prominently displayed in his office.

Imagine a culture in which most legal documents have a Christian holy symbol - a cross. The official court stationary has a cross on it - on its envelopes and letterhead both.

Furthermore, the society we are imagining is one in which most of the law firms include the Christian cross in their company logo, on the corporate stationary, and in their advertisements. Most attorneys display this symbol prominently on their work materials.

It sounds like a nightmare, right?

Only - with one slight modification - this is the situation we have today.

That slight modification?

Replace "Jesus" with "Justitis"

Justitis was the Roman goddess of justice.

Take the scenes described above, remove the statues of Jesus on a cross, and put in their place statues of a woman, blindfolded, holding a set of scales in one hand and a sword in the other. Make the same substitution in all of the paintings and murals depicting Jesus - replace them with pictures and murals depicting Justitis.

Where, in the scenes above, we had the Christian cross appearing on court documents, replace it with the Justitis holy symbol - the scales of Justitis. This is, symbolically, the scales on which she weighs the evidence for the accused before - with the sword - delivering her verdict.

Now, let us have the Freedom From Religion foundation file lawsuits to have these statues and paintings removed from government buildings, and the holy symbol - the scales of Justitis - removed from all court documents.

Of course, the claim will be that Justitus is no longer a religious symbol. It is secular. However, is that not the same defense made for including Christian symbols in government documents? That it is no longer a religious symbol? It is a secular symbol?

With the respect to the Pledge of Allegiance, it already mentioned one God. We could have simply changed it to say, "one Nation, under Justitis."

These facts create a set of complications regarding religious symbols and government. They demonstrate that the issue is not as black and white as many who insist on removing all religious symbols from the public square would like us to believe.

What if the Department of Health and Human Services adopted the symbolism of Christianity, the way the Department of Justice has adopted the symbols of Justitis? What would it take for that to be permissible? (We are setting aside, for the moment, the ways in which Christian doctrine is often used to block activities and policies that promote good health.)

In this, we have clear evidence that religious symbolism can acquire a secular meaning and can be fully and unquestioningly adopted by people who do not follow that religion. When that happens, there is no objection to be made that allowing those religious symbols on government property and using them in official government documents.

Again, this does not imply that no objections can be made against the use of religious symbolism. I still object to "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" as the national motto because it creates an environment hostile to atheists in general and establishes a nearly perfect barrier against atheists holding public office. I would object to Christian symbols in the courtroom because it would provide Christians with a home court advantage in the court room - prejudicing juries in favor of Christian plaintifs and defendents without regard to the evidence. This is why courts must remain neutral - why Justitis wears a blindfold.

However, once again, these considerations do not apply, strictly speaking, to secularism per se. It is not through a defense of secularism that we come to these objections. It is through a consideration of more generic fairness and justice.

Before I close, I wish to point out another set of implications to draw from these facts. We hear it claimed that this is a Christian nation built on Christian values. Justitis - with the concept of weighing evidence, removing prejudice, and applying just punishment - pre-dates Christ by hundreds of years. Furthermore, like most Roman deities, there was a Greek predecessor. For the Greeks, the name of this goddess was Dike.

It is interesting that it is not the symbols of the Christian religion, but the ancient Roman and Greek religions, that survive today in our concept of justice. In addition to trials where evidence was presented and a verdict rendered, they also gave us democracy. In fact, we can find much closer representations of our current form of government in ancient Greek and Roman forms than we can in any Christian government formed before 1700. The omnipresence of the religious symbolism of Justitis (and even the very name Justice) tells us the true origin of these concepts.

We are not so much a Christian nation as we are an ancient pagan Greek nation. We show this by continuing to include ancient pagan Greek and Roman religious symbolism in our government documents.


downtown dave said...

Actually, Jesus predates Justitis. He told the Jews that before Abraham was, "I AM." He is also called the Beginning and the End and the Ancient of Days.

Also, imagine a world where Jesus rules and reigns from Jerusalem, and puts all His enemies under His feet.

Pngwn said...

@downtown dave

If we are allowed to use the religion itself to determine historical relevance, then Gaea predated everyone, but so did YHWH, but so did Vishnu, but so did Amatarasu.

See how that could be contradicting?

This is why we have to set aside religion, and use the same standards to authenticate religious documents (like the bible) that we use to authenticate other documents.

The historical Jesus was born in 1CE (that is after all, the splitting point in the Western world).

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, I just happened to run across another blog post that is quite contrary to this post (although it isn't intended as a response to this post, I should add).

And I quote, "It doesn’t matter if it has more historical significance than religious significance (and I accept that it has less religious significance anyway). If it has denominational religious significance at all then it’s against the law."

I just thought I'd bring it to your attention.

Here's the link in case you wish to comment.


Alonzo Fyfe said...


I need to note at the start that the quote you provided has to do with what is or is not against the law. My posts concern morality (what ought or ought not to be the case), not law. It is possible to have an unjust or immoral law.

On the issue of morality, let us assume that a new preacher comes to town, he builds a church and attracts a congregation. In his religion, there is a set of commandments.

(1) Do not lie

(2) Do not take for yourself property that is not yours.

(3) Do not kill, except to protect the innocent from violent harm, and then only as a last resort.

(4) Do force sex on others without their consent.

(5) In matters involving children, always guide your decision according to the best future interests of the child.

(6) Keep your promises.

(7) Be charitable - and give aid freely to those who need aid.

(8) Be curious and learn - come to know those things that will be a benefit to yourself and those around you.

(9) be civil in your conversations of others.

(10) In matters of public pulicy, remember that the purpose of the policy is to serve the public, and not to serve you.

Now, they have this list of commandments and they donate a plaque with these commandments to the school to post on the wall.

Are we to say that one cannot post this list of principles in a public school precisely because there is a church in town that accepts these principles as divine commands?