My current project is a defense of secularism.
The defense I offer is not that of the incoherent ideology that the public square must be free of all ideology except the ideology that there should be no ideology but the ideology of no ideology.
I am not treating secularism as something like a divine command handed down from the heavens or sewn into our evolutionary genes allowing for no further justification - as a "self-evident truth" that cannot be verified or falsified.
I am also rejecting the defense option that treats the Constitution as scripture such that whatever is written in the Constitution must be done. For decades, this type of reasoning was one of the more useful political gambits used in the defense of slavery.
The defense I offer began by pointing to a current institution that is entirely secular - the presentation if evidence in a criminal trial.
In a criminal trial, the prosecutor must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. More important for the purposes of this series of posts, prosecutors are prohibited from using religious or sectarian arguments in their attempts to prove guilt. In making their case that the accused is guilty, they are absolutely and without qualification or exception restricted from using anything other than secular evidence.
These types of arguments should also be prohibited in debate over public policy - and for entirely the same reason.
Whenever the subject comes up that a group of people shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, we should (as with a criminal trial) begin with the assumption that this denial of life, liberty, or well-being is unjustified, putting the burden of proof on those eager to do harm to others. Also, as in a criminal trial, only secular evidence should be permitted in making the case that the harms inflicted as a matter of public policy are justified. Religious or sectarian arguments - as in a court of law - should be rejected, allowing for no exceptions.
A person should never be denied his life, his liberty, or his well-being simply because somebody else asserts, "My God wants you to suffer this harm; therefore, it is justified."
In referring to testimony in a court of law, I drew a scene in which the accused is confronted by somebody who takes the stand and says, "I talked to God, and God told me that the accused us guilty." Let some district attorney try a move like this, and all but the most incompetent defense attorneys will be on their feet in an instant shouting their objection.
Furthermore, that objection will be sustained. This type of testimony is not permitted precisely because there is no way to determine through evidence that such a conversation actually took place or, if it did, that the witness understood what was being said. The defense must also be able to confront the possibility that God was lying, or that God did not know what he was talking about. None of these options are available in a court of law. Consequently, this type of testimony is ruled too problematic to be used to establish the guilt of the accused.
The defendant in the criminal trial is only required to answer the secular case that can be made against him.
To take just one example, homosexuals in this country face the same situation in the public policy debate over homosexuality as a defendant in a criminal trial confronted with a prosecution witness who says, "I talked to God and God told me that the accused is guilty." In the former case, the homosexual is confronted with people in the public forum who say, "We talked to God and God told us that homosexuality is an abomination."
All of the problems that we would have if we allowed prosecutors to bring in witnesses to testify, "I talked to God and God told me that the accused is guilty," we find in the public debate where people testify, "We talked to God and God told us that homosexuality is an abomination."
Did this conversation actually take place? If it did, is it being reported correctly? How can we find out in a publicly verifiable way? Did the witness accurately understand what the speaker was saying? Was the speaker actually God, or merely some person claiming to be God or asserting a special power to hear God talking to him? Could it be the case that the being claiming to be God was lying? Did this being actually know what he was talking about?
There are simply too many problems with this type of testimony to allow it to be used to claim, "Therefore, we are right to deny the accused of their life (in some parts of the world), or their liberty (e.g., to merry). A person who makes this leap from religious claims used in public debate to the conclusion that harms inflicted on a target group are justified are behaving just as immorally as a jurist who declares that a defendant is guilty because a witness reports, "I talked to God and God told me he was guilty."
The testimony is far too problematic to be considered a legitimate justification for denying others their life, liberty, or well-being. It is no less problematic in the public sphere than in a court a law, and should be judged no more legitimate than it is in a court of law.
Another problem with allowing this type of testimony is that it is infinitely corruptible. It can be (and will be) bought and paid for by those who have a surplus of money and a shortage of virtue.
I will talk about the corruptibility of faith or religious testimony in matters of policy in my next post.