Thursday, April 19, 2012

Secularism and the War on Religion

Secularism is compatible with those religious and non-religious views that are compatible with secularism and incompatible with those that are not.

Sometimes, you need to state the obvious.

One of the objections raised against secularism is that it is atheistic. Because it is atheistic, it is unfair to religion. In fact, we are told that it constitutes a "war on religion".

The premise in this argument is an easy one to support. After all, a prohibition on the use of religious reasons in policy debates is certainly a-theistic (without religion). To say that policy debates that do not include religious arguments are policy debates without religious arguments is quite obviously true.

However, can we get from this true premise to the conclusion that secularism is unfair to religion or, worse, constitutes a war on religion?

Here, we can bring in the fact that trials are a-theistic in this same sense. Religious arguments are not permitted in attempts to determine the guilt or the innocence of the accused. Trials are limited to secular arguments only. It does not follow from the fact that trials are a-theistic in this sense that our current trial system constitutes a war on religion.

If it was possible to make this leap, then we are going to have to require that people may give testimony of the form, "God told me that the accused is guilty," or "The reason that the evidence does not point to the accused is because God is testing our faith." Refusing to do so is "unfair to religion" and constitutes a "war on religion".

Now, let us look at this gap from the other side. If it is not "unfair to religion" to prohibit people from introducing these types of claims in proving the guilt or innocence of the accused, then it is not "unfair to religion" to prohibit these types of arguments in policy debates as well.

The moral situation is the same. We are looking at whether we are justified in causing harm to some person or group. In one case, this harm is inflicted as the consequence of a court verdict. In the other, it is through the effects of legislation. In both cases, secularism prohibits people from making arguments like, "God talked to me and told me that those people may be killed or imprisoned or denied their freedom, that they must be left to suffer from illnesses and injures that could otherwise be treated, or that we may prohibit them from practices that would improve the quality of their life."

We have three options. (1) We can bar religious arguments in policy debates that inflict harms on people just as they are barred in formal trial debates over the guilt of the accused. (2) We can allow religious arguments in court just as they are allowed in debates over policies that bring harm to groups targeted by the legislation. Or (3) We can explain the relevant difference between the two types of cases.

The "unfair to religion" argument has to be interpreted as a Type 1 response. If this response was valid, it would argue for claiming that religious arguments ought to be allowed in policy debates and courtrooms alike. It does not provide any reason to treat the two cases differently.

Consequently, we can respond to the "unfair to religion" objection by asking, "Do we really want to start allowing religious arguments in a court of law? Do we want faith and "God told me," to count as proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty?

If we are not willing to allow these types of arguments in a court of law (and I have discussed several reasons why we should not allow them in previous posts), then we are still lacking a reason for treating policy debates differently. We are still lacking any good reason for saying that it is perfectly acceptable to support policies that inflict harm merely because "My religion says inflicting these harms is perfectly okay. In fact, we have to inflict these harms or we are not being true to our religion."

There is a saying that I learned as a young child to understand the scope and limitation to rights. It says, "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins."

People who use the "unfair to religion" argument are ultimately claiming that it is "unfair to religion" to apply this limitation on rights to religious practices. Instead, they are claiming that, when it comes to religion, the right to swing one's fist is not limited. We are being told, "You are engaged in a war against religion if you say that my right to swing my religious fist ends where anybody else's nose begins."

If I had tried this type of claim with my dad, I can well imagine his response. "Let's give my right to swing my belt against your bottom the same limits you give your right to swing your fist and see how you like the results."

Well, we can answer the church that demands an unlimited right to swing their religious fist the same response. "Let's give every other religion in the world an unlimited right to swing their religious fists and see how you like the results."

There is a reason why many religious people - and many formal religious organizations - support secularism - and this identifies an important part of the reason. It is the same reason why I, as a child, learned to support a restriction on swinging my fist - because it implies an equal limitation on other people swinging their fist. The reason people have for adopting this limit on swinging one's religious fist is because it is also a limit on other people in swinging their religious fists.

Secularism, at its heart, is merely a statement to religious institutions to the effect, "Your right to swing your religious fist ends where the noses of other citizens begin." In the secular case, it says that in policy debates where we are talking about causing harm - when it comes to answering the question, "Why are you doing this to me?" the answer, "God told me to," just us not good enough.

Is this a war on religion?

If it is, then the war on religion started long ago when we applied these principles in courts of law. If this is a war on religion, then the corresponding limit on swinging one's fist must be understood to be a war on fist swinging.

1 comment:

Don said...

Agree. People tend to confuse atheism (a philosophical position) with secularism (a political position) and humanism (an ethical position). Surely these areas overlap if you go deep enough, but as they are normally practiced are pretty much orthogonal.