Friday, April 27, 2012

Secularism - A Wrapup and Summary of Arguments

It is time to wrap up the secularism project.

I started this project after listening to a few attacks on secularism.

I defined secularism as a prohibition on the use of religious arguments as reasons to support or oppose matters of public policy. Public policy ought to be decided on the basis of secular arguments only.

I began this project because I had just encountered a number of attacks on secularism - people claiming that it is perfectly legitimate for people to bring their religious beliefs into debates about policy.

These attacks on secularism were not coming from the religious left seeking more power (though they certainly did embrace these arguments). The attacks were coming from the secular - mostly atheist - left. They came from the perspective of multiculturalism - the view was that a moral society allows for all points of view, without discrimination, even religious. Failure to allow for a religious perspective was branded prejudicial and discriminatory.

Really? All world views are to be accepted and the exclusion of any is prejudicial and discriminatory?

The NAZI, the racist, the rapist, the child molester, the tribal warlord whose gang of thugs kills anybody whom it pleases him to have killed, those who think that God demands the stoning to death of a young girl for the crime of being raped, who withhold simple life-saving medical treatment from a young child, who execute gays (or anybody who shows any type of behavior not "appropriate" for their gender). All of these views are perfectly legitimate and must be allowed into public policy?

Notwithstanding the idea that they cannot all fit in the same policy and we must choose among them, if you are fully prepared to accept all views, then this must imply the acceptance of my view that some of these others are not to acceptable. Why is it that there seems to be only one target of multiculturalism. It's not the Nazi or the racist or the child molester. It is only the opponent of extreme views that earns the ire of the multiculturalist.

Ultimately, multiculturalism is incoherent. It boils down to, "Those who seek to force their morality upon others shall be punished."

However, I want to stress the fact that multiculturalism is not a view found among religious moderates (who generally regarded it as absurd). Religious moderates held that there must be a standard by which different views can be compared, and from which some can be legitimately excluded. To the best of their knowledge, the vast majority knew of no other possibility for that objective standard other than God.

Yet, the "new atheists" of a few years ago decided to blame religious moderates for their toleration of extremists. Rather than blame the people who were actually guilty (fellow atheist multiculturalists), they decided to blame the innocent (religious moderates).


Well, hate-mongering bigots have always had a tendency to blame their target group for any and all evils that can be imagined. It is far easier to blame members of "them" (the opposing tribe of those who believe in a God) than to blame members of "us" (the allied tribe of those who do not), even when the allied tribe members were the ones who were actually guilty.

Against this attack on secularism (along with its false attribution of blame), I saw two types of defense.

One type of defense was the Appeal to the Constitution: Secularism was written into the Constitution and the Constitution must be obeyed in all things. Yet, slavery was also written into the Constitution. Maybe secularism, like slavery, needs to be written out if the Constitution. Besides, where does this principle that we must obey the Constitution in all things come from? The Constitution? That would be circular. From god? That would be non-secular. Then, from where?

The other type of defense held secularism (or the commandment to obey the Constitution in all things) to be a fundamental moral truth. These defenders would simply assert secularism, without ever even trying to defend it. Again, this begs us to ask the question, "Where does this fundamental truth come from? From God, perhaps?"

I attempted in this series to provide a third defense. This defense looked at a practice which we currently have which is entirely - 100 percent - secular; the presentation of evidence in a court of law. When plaintiffs and defendants start to present evidence in a court, one of the requirements is that all of the evidence - every last piece - must be secular. No strictly religious evidence is ever permitted in the court room. Nobody is allowed to claim, "I talked to God and God said that the accused is guilty," or "While the evidence pointed to my client, in fact this is just God testing our faith," or any similar claim.

If we look at the reasons for excluding religious evidence from the court room we come up with three.

First, people can claim anything as a result of faith. Faith requires no evidence - no proof - no support of any kind. Consequently, there are no limits to the claims that a person offering "faith testimony" can make. As an examination of actual religious beliefs tell us, even the most incoherent and inconsistent claims can be made on the basis of faith.

Second, because there is no way for the opposing party to answer claims made on the basis of faith. Neither their inconsistency or incoherence, nor their contradiction with observed fact, can be used against them. "These are my religious beliefs. You may not question or challenge them." Religious beliefs, in short, are considered immune from cross examination.

Third, because of their corrupting influence. History is filled with examples of religious leaders selling the gullibility of their flock to the highest bidder. For a price, the religious leader will tell the highest bidder to believe what the bidder wants them to believe. In the court, we can expect the most convincing faith-based witnesses to command a high price to tell the jury what God wants. In the public arena, people with power and money routinely donate to the church that delivers what is, to them, the best message of what God wants of His followers.

All three of these problems are also problems for the use of faith in policy discussions. People cherry-pick religious interpretations that serve their own ends - embracing those that serve a particular prejudice or social or political advantage, while ignoring or imaginatively interpreting away those that are less useful. Religious beliefs are immune from challenge even on the grounds of incoherence or inconsistency (standards that apply to all secular evidence). Furthermore, the presentation of faith-based evidence corrupts religion, resulting in the funding of those religious leaders that deliver a message that those with money and power want delivered.

Furthermore, it is important to note that secularism was invented by people who believed in God.

The next time you are in a discussion with somebody who presents secularism as some atheist "war on religion", say (something like) this: "It is far too common for people who confront something they do not like to attribute it to a known enemy in order to discredit it. However, the fact of the matter is that secularism was invented by people who believe in God. They invented it to end years of bloody religious wars that had destroyed whole regions of Europe. Now, some people want to revoke the principle of secularism that brought us over 200 years of religious peace. How long do you think it will take before this degenerates into a violent disagreement over exactly WHICH church or religious faction gets to control the state?"

This is actually a fourth reason to support secularism - to avoid violent conflict common in countries where religious factions fight over which one gets to control the state. We can see in history and in the world around us today the costs of abandoning secular principles.

The reasons that I have presented here demonstrate that secularism is not some atheist "war on religion". Secularism was invented by people who believe in a god. In the practice of presenting evidence in a court of law, and in an examination of history where secularism has brought peace and sectarianism has brought violence, we see why religious people today still have reason to support secularism.

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.

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.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Secularism and Religious Practices in Government

I have been defending a hard-line form of secularism this month - one that completely condemns the use of religious arguments in defense of or opposition to matters of policy in which people are harmed.

I have done this by looking at a practice that is already totally secular in this way - the presentation of evidence in a court of law. In proving the guilt of innocence of the accused, only secular evidence is permitted. No religious evidence - no assertions of faith-based belief, no divine or supernatural explanations - are permitted.

When court is in session, "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" is entirely, 100 percent secular.

A critic might point out that I have ignored an obvious injection of religion into court proceedings. People sworn in as witnesses to presenting evidence are typically asked to put their hand on a Bible and swear an oath to God.

Does that threaten to undermine my pro-secular argument? Or do I have an answer for this type of religious practice?

Ultimately, my argument concerns the practice of presenting and answering evidence that seeks to prove that the accused is guilty or innocence - that the material facts in the case are such that the harms inflicted on other people are justified.

Swearing in a witness in this manner has no implications either for or against the guilt of the accused. It is a ceremony that is at least popularly believed to make it more likely that a witness will not lie - a belief that may well be true. As such, it may actually support the goal of a trial - to get at the (100% secular) relevant facts.

This has implications for religious ceremonies as a part of government practices in general. If the practice itself is not related to presenting evidence for or against a conclusion that others may be legitimately harmed, then the defense of secularism I have offered raises no objection against that practice.

"God save the United States and this honorable court," spoken as the Supreme Court enters the chamber, an invocation or a prayer before a legislative session, a prayer breakfast, or a manger placed on a courthouse lawn during Christmas, are not presentations of evidence for the legitimacy of harming some individual or group. As such, they cannot be condemned for the reasons provided in this defense of secularism.

This does not imply that other arguments cannot be found against some or all of these practices.

For example, in a bigoted society, we may discover that jurists are inclined to believe the testimony of somebody who believes in a god and to hold that atheists are prone to lie under oath. In this case, it means that a fair trial may require keeping the jury in the dark. We may call for witnesses to be sworn in away from the Jury, and merely acknowledge the fact that they have been sworn in when on the stand. "I want to remind the witness that he is under oath."

For another example, the Pledge of Allegiance and national motto both declare that atheism is un-American. In the case of the Pledge, loyal Americans support a nation under God - a state listed along with indivisibility, liberty, and justice for all as the preferred form of American government. In the case of the motto, the government tells its citizens that "We" trust in God, and those who do not trust in God should not be counted as one of us.

However, these arguments are different from the argument for secularism I have been presenting. The form of secularism defended here would prohibit "Because God likes it that way" or "We are acknowledging the fact that we get our rights from God" from being used in discussing these policies. However, "Because it increases truth-telling among witnesses" or "It prejudices the jury against accepting the evidence of atheists," or "It effectively bars atheists from public office" are legitimate arguments in a secular-reasons-only debate for and against such policies.

People may dispute that, because my defense of secularism does not touch these policies, the argument does not actually defend secularism per se. Instead, they may say that it defends only a part of secularism.

One the other hand, one can say that these other practices are outside of the scope of secularism.

The debate over whether the term 'secularism' covers these other practices and calls for their abolition is not a debate over the facts of the matter. It is a debate over definitions. No substantive conclusions can be drawn from a dispute over what to name things. As such, that debate is outside of the scope of this paper.

I have defended the proposition that religious arguments shall not be used in policy debates, just as they are not used in determining the material facts in a trial. I will leave it to others to decide for themselves if they want the term "secularism" to extend beyond the range of this argument. Whether they do so or not, those other practices are going to need their own defense. The argument I have provided will not cover them, no matter what they are called.

In my next post, I will bring up an even more serious problem with the idea of removing religious images and symbols from government practices - specifically the practice of a trial. There are religious symbols and images included that not even the most stout secularist is protesting - and would have no reason to protest. I will cover that issue tomorrow.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Secularism and Belief in God

Secularism is not about belief in God.

Secularism was invented by people who believe in God.

They invented secularism to end centuries of religious violence. This violence routinely saw the slaughter of whole people -men, women, and children - for the crime of belonging to the wrong church. The Thirty Years War saw whole regions of Europe entirely depopulated as each side sought to kill everybody belonging to the wrong church.

In some cases, everybody in a town was killed simply because "the wrong religious faction" had a strong presence in that town. "Kill them all. God will know his own," was the rationalization for these mass murders.

Tired of the slaughter, the survivors finally said, "Enough! Henceforth, religion will not justify violence. From now on, no religion will impose its religious practices on others, nor will they interfere with the peaceful practices of others."

In one country, it took the form, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

And that brought peace.

Secularism is not about belief in God.

It is about giving peace a chance.

It did not bring perfect peace. Religious leaders chaffed under the restriction and, from time to time, religious differences turned violent. Because it began as a peace treaty among the most powerful religious factions who ultimately gave up on their efforts to exterminate each other, those factions often did not apply its principles to weaker groups. Jews, the heathens of the New World and Africa, atheists, all were fair game. In a sense, it was much like two schoolyard bullies saying, "Let's stop fighting each other and attack everybody else instead!"

Woe be to everybody else.

However, as a moral principle, it came to be universalized and applied even to weaker groups - slowly, over time.

It is a work in progress.

However, religious leaders - particularly those who want power for themselves - chafe against the bindings of secularism. It is a limit on how much power they can accumulate. They have a strong interest in returning to the days when the church controlled the state, and the state controlled the people.

However, this means getting rid of secularism.

To do this, they need to tarnish it - to discredit it - convince the people to do away with it.

If you went to any competent public relations firm and said that you want to tear down - attack - denigrate - discredit some person, organization, practice, or institution, they will tell you to associate it with something people already hate. Get the word out - through newsletters, through advertisements, through radio and television commentators, through blogs and through speeches to your congregation - that this institution you want them to hate is related to something they already hate.

What can we tie secularism to in order to get people to hate secularism and release religion from these bindings?


A person with a feeling for these types of things will already sense the public animosity towards atheism and be ready to hitch secularism to this most unpopular mule. A professional public relations firm will likely be able to back up this intuition with data gained through focus groups and surveys, but that is not necessary.

It is important to remember that, in public relations, truth does not matter. You get the effect you want by people believing that a certain relationship exists - regardless of whether or not it is true.

Secularism has nothing to do with belief in God. However, there is a political faction in the world that has a strong incentive to make people think that secularism has to do with belief in God - or with belief that there is no God. These are people who wish to be free of the bindings that secularism imposes, so that church can once again control the state and, through the state, control the people.

As it turns out, atheists have done a wonderful job of contributing to this project of linking atheism with secularism in the public mind. Many atheist organizations use "secularism" in their title. They speak of atheism and secularism as almost as if they are synonymous. The anti-secularist looks at this and smiles.

This does not imply that atheists are wrong to feed this association between atheism and secularism in the public mind. Far from it. I have just spent three weeks defending secularism. I certainly am happy to be associated with it - in spite of the fact that it was invented by theists. I am not one who has ever said that theists can do nothing right.

However, I think that the public defense of secularism - defending secularism in the press and in the public square, on blogs and in speeches, requires telling people what is going on.

Secularism was not forced on religious people by the all-powerful atheist community. It was invented and adopted by religious people to end centuries of religious violence. However, there are now powerful religious factions who want to discredit secularism so that they can once again create a nation where religious institutions control the government, and the government controls the people. To discredit secularism they like to link secularism to something the people hate - atheism. Just for good measure, they like to promote a strong dislike for atheism at the same time, branding them anti-American, immoral, and a threat to civilization."

If they succeed, there will come a time when the debate will shift. Instead of debating WHETHER the church should control the state - once the bindings of secularism have been removed and church again has permission to control the state - the next question to come up will be WHICH religious leaders get to control the state.

If history is any guide at all, we can expect this to be a very . . . unpleasant . . . debate.

Unless, of course, the answer to the first question of whether the church should control the state remains a resounding, "NO!"

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.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Secularism, Facts, and Values

The way some theists talk about the relationship between atheism and value, and atheist can put his bare hand in a bed of hot coals and care nothing about the outcome.

After all, value comes from God. Without a God, nothing can be important or worthwhile. Nothing matters. Clearly, the effects of having one's hand in a bed of hot coals is not at all important - not worth caring about.

Of course, this is nonsense. The universe may not care about me blistering and charring flesh, but I care. I care a great deal.

Furthermore, that caring is a part of the real world. It is as real as the flesh and the fire - and as real as the nerve endings and the brain configuration in which those events reside. Like gravity and magnetic fields, this aversion to the effects of charring flesh has an influence on events in the real world. Specifically, it motivates me to avoid states of affairs in which my flesh is being burned away. We can see this aversion to pain in the behavior of intentional agents, just as we can see a magnetic field in the behavior of iron.

This aversion to pain also motivates me to avoid situations in which I am being burned. It motivates me to install a smoke detector in my home, to keep explosive liquids such as gasoline away from open flames, to avoid buying a car that is prone to bursting into flames when it gets into an accident.

Another set of behavior that I can engage in to reduce the risk of being burned is to motivate others to avoid behavior that might result in my being burned. It gives me a reason to give to others, using whatever social tools are available, an aversion to cruelty. With respect to those other people, their aversion to being burned also gives them a reason to join me in a campaign to promote a society-wide aversion to cruelty.

All of these are facts about the world - regardless of whether or not one believes in a God. A belief in God does not change the fact that a water molecule is made up of one atom of oxygen and two atoms of hydrogen. It does not change the fact that the earth is (roughly) spherical. It does not change the fact that human respiration adds oxygen to the blood stream. It does not change the fact that a strong aversion to pain gives people a reason to use social tools to promote a society-wide aversion to cruelty.

I bring this up in my defense of secularism to address an argument against secularism that says, while secular arguments are great for addressing matters of fact, it cannot address matters of value. Value requires a god, so value claims cannot be secular.

I have been looking at secularism by looking at a wholly secular institution - the institution of a trial. When it comes to establishing the material facts in a trial, only secular arguments are permitted. Religious arguments (i.e., "I have faith in the claim that the accused is guilty" or "God told me that the accused us guilty") are not permitted in a court of law.

However, while it is true that the material facts are established through a presentation of wholly secular evidence, the law itself comes from an outside law giver. The ultimate law giver is God. Consequently, arguments about what the (moral) law states are inherently sectarian. They cannot be secular. We can dispute the material facts of a case all we want using secular arguments, but we cannot discuss the (moral) law without mentioning a god.

My argument above is meant to show that this is not true. An aversion to pain is not dependent on a belief in a god. Neither is its power to motivate pain-avoiding behavior. Nor do we need a god to explain the fact that this pain-avoiding behavior provides (nearly) everybody with a motivating reason to establish a community-wide aversion to acts that could lead to causing such pain.

A similar set if materiel facts surround the community-wide aversion to taking life or taking property - and in favor of community- wide motivation to help others in need and to tell the truth.

One can still accept all of this and still believe that it is the work of a law-giver. One can still say that God created a universe in which there is a moral law, and that moral law can be discovered using wholly secular arguments such as the one presented at the top of this essay. If somebody wants to insist that there is a law-giver behind it, there is nothing that can be said here against that claim.

For example, assume that you and I were in the jury on a case in which a tree fell off of a logging truck and struck a vehicle, killing its occupants. Assume that I believe that trees came about through a long process of evolution, but you believe that God created trees 6000 years ago.

These beliefs have nothing to do with the material facts relevant to the question of whether the accused should be punished for negligence. It does not affect the verdict. Therefore, the fact that we have these different beliefs are materially irrelevant to the case. Nothing about the institution of a trial (where secular arguments only are permitted) has anything to say about your non-secular beliefs regarding the origin of trees.

Similarly, I can believe that humans evolved to have certain desires such as an aversion to pain that generates a motivation to use social tools to promote a society-wide aversion to cruelty. You can believe that a God created a universe in which this relationship exists.

Even in a case that involves a victim forced to endure a great deal of pain, these beliefs that humans were created to feel pain and be averse to the effects - or evolved to feel pain and are averse to the effects - are as irrelevant as beliefs about the origin of trees in the previous example. We both understand pain, and we both understand the motivating reasons that an aversion to pain provides for social institutions condemning cruelty.

Even here, we have not yet found any reason to leave behind the prohibition on religious arguments when determining whether or not to engage in behavior that harms others - such as declaring them guilty of a crime. All of the reasons for prohibiting religious arguments in a court of law remain just as valid when we shift the discussion away from the guilt or innocence of the accused in a trial to the merits and demerits of public policy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Secularism and Matters of Fact

For the past couple of weeks I have been defending secularism - defined as a the view that religious claims are illegitimate in the discussion of public policy.

Many secularists assert that secularism is a good thing. Yet, when asked to defend it they tend to come up with feeble arguments that are incoherent, require the invention of useful fictions, or come dangerously close to being sectarian.

The challenge I have taken up this month is to actually defend secularism.

I have been illustrating my points by looking at the institution of the public trial. In a public trial, religious augments are strictly prohibited. Only secular arguments may be used to establish the material facts of the case. We can easily see how messed up trials would get if evidence was not limited strictly to secular claims.

I argued that the problems with using religious arguments in policy debates are the same as those facing the use of religious arguments in a court of law. That these problems argue for using strictly secular arguments in a trial, hey also argue fir using strictly secular arguments in matters of public policy.

I then pointed out that secular arguments are required fir all matters of fact, that courts if law appeal to an external law giver to determine what the law requires. Similarly, we can argue that, on matters of policy, we may restrict the debate over material fact to secular arguments only, but we must appeal to an external law giver (God?) to get the law. Secular arguments may be required on all matters of fact, but we must go to religion to discover all matters of value.

I will address the alleged need for an external law giver in a later post. Today, I want to look at the line separating fact from value.

That the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and that it formed from heavy elements manufactured in a previous generation of stars that blew up - scattering these elements through space - is a material fact.

That life evolved on this planet. It started with a basic life form and, through a process of random mutation and survival of the fittest, evolved to produce the creatures we see around us, including humans. The evidence for this is so strong that if this issue were to come up in a court of law, evolution would be proved beyond a reasonable doubt as a material fact.

Another matter of fact would be that scriptures were authored by primitive humans with severely limited understanding of the world around them in which they attributed their own bigotries and prejudices to a divine being. This, too, is a material fact - the type of fact that, insofar as it affects public policy, can only be legitimately defended using secular arguments. Taking scripture as inerrant would be comparable to asserting at a trial that a particular witness must be assumed to be infallible and perfectly honest, disallowing all cross-examination or counter-evidence.

By the way, this does not contradict the claim that there is a God that is the foundation of all moral law. It only asserts that the Torah, the Koran, the Bible, the Iliad, and other religious books - when it comes to matters of public policy - are to be taken as flawed human contrivances guessing at what such a being would command.

Everybody, in every religion, already believes that this is the case of every religion to which they do not belong. Many people in each religion are willing to admit that this is the case even within their own religion. This is not an argument for atheism and against religion. It is, instead, an argument for the proper approach to take to scripture in terms to its relevance to public policies that affect real human beings. Scriptures are contrivances invented by humans who have been dead for over a thousand years reflecting the prejudices, moral beliefs, and opinions of its flawed human authors.

In our list of material facts, we can add that as a matter of fact wine remains wine and the communion cracker remains a cracker during Catholic mass. The belief that the wine transforms to the blood of Christ and the cracker to the body of Christ even though its sensible properties remain the same is nonsense.

We can imagine a witness at a criminal trial claiming that he is innocent of cocaine possession because, through some magic ritual, the white powder in his bags was transformed into powdered sugar even though all of its sensible properties (including those that can be determined by chemical analysis) are those of cocaine. For all practical purposes - the substance remains cocaine in spite of these outlandish claims. The prosecution does not have to prove that transubstantiation did not take place.

Gay pride parades are not a factor influencing the course or severity of hurricanes. It is surprising - well, sickening, actually - how many people will assert that there is not sufficient evidence to support the claim that atmospheric CO2 contributions have an effect on such things as storm severity claim with absolute certainty that homosexual marriage does have an influence. Either way, just as it is not permissible in a court of law to declare as a defense, "God did it," it should not be taken as a legitimate argument in defense of or opposition to a matter of public policy.

These relationships of cause and effect (such as between hurricane severity and homosxual marriage) are material facts no different from the relationship between a bullet shot through the heart on the subsequent death of the victim. Let some shooter try to argue that the course of the bullet had nothing to do with his intent but, instead, was guided by a God to kill the accused for the crime of sodomy or for worshipping a false God. We will see how far that type of argument goes in a court of law. It should go no further in matters of public policy.

Even if we were to accept the claim that a requirement for secular arguments is only applicable to matters of material fact and not at all relevant at all to matters of value, we can come up with a huge list of material facts that need this application. We see around us far too many violations of this principle - and far too much need to return to the same secular standards for evidence we find in a court of law.

However, we can go further. The distinction between fact and value is not as sharp as some like to pretend. Many questions of value are, at the same time, matters of material fact that would also require a restriction to strictly secular arguments where those facts touch on matters of public policy.

I will have more to say on this in my next post.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Secularism and the Question of Values

The task that I adopted for April is the defense of secularism.

I have defined secularism as a prohibition on religious arguments in matters of public policy.

I began by referring to the wholly secular institution of the trial. In the courtroom, there is a total prohibition on religious arguments on matters involving the guilt or innocence of the accused. Only secular arguments are permitted.

This is a policy that has almost universal assent - even among those who believe in a God. When it comes to determining the facts of the case, only secular arguments are permitted. Nobody is permitted to take the stand and say, "I talked to God and He said the accused us guilty," or confront the possibility that divine intervention resulted in the defendant being seen on a surveillance camera miles from the scene of a crime at the time the crime occurred.

Allowing religious testimony in trials would allow defendants and accusers to fill the court with unfounded beliefs asserted on both sides of the case with no foundation other than, "I have faith that this proposition is true". It would corrupt the churches who would make their money by offering faith-based testimony in favor of those with the money to pay (which substantially explains the close relationship between religious factions and "the too 1%" in politics today - and through much of history). Furthermore, "God said I could get what i want in spite of the fact that these others are harmed" is, in reality, often a rationalization for skirting the wrongness of behavior harmful to others.

However, there is still a problem with this defense of secularism.

The anti-secularist can concede to secularism all matters of fact in policy debates. (Note: secularism has no objection to make with respect to religious reasons for private actions such as what to eat, what to wear, the use of birth control, and when to pray.)

However, at the same time, the law itself is provided by an outside lawgiver. Even the instructions to the jury as to what it takes for the (secular) facts to establish guilt or innocence is negotiated outside of the Jury's presence. With its limitation to secular arguments, juries are not allowed to determine what the law says. They only get to decide how the material facts relate to the law.

If we apply this same set of principles to matters of policy debate, we may limit the dispute over the facts of the matter to secular arguments only. However, those secular matters of fact have to be applied to a law provided by an external law-giver, which is God - where religious leaders play the role of attorneys arguing among themselves, independent of the jury, on questions of what the law actually says.

Another way of describing this problem is to say that secular arguments are great when the matter under dispute is a question of fact. However, they are worthless when the matter under dispute is a question of value. Furthermore, questions of value have no answers without a reference to God. At least, secularists have not provided a sensible alternative.

In short, you cannot have secular-only arguments on matters of value, only on matters of fact. And there is a sharp distinction between values and fact.

I have witnessed a number of situations where this distinction has bitten a secularist.

In one case, Michael Newdow was discussing his lawsuit against, "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance on C-Span. His argument was that reciting a pledge with this phrase was unconstitutional - it was wrong because it violated the First Amendment. The priest that squared up against him on this discussion then asked why it was wrong to violate the First Amendment.

Of course, the priest was no saying that it is okay to violate the First Amendment. He was arguing that the rights written into the Constitution came from God, and it was absurd to interpret the amendment in such a way that it would forbid us from acknowledging that God is the author of the rights it contains. "One nation under God" acknowledges the fact that our rights - including those rights that bring peace among the different religions - come from God.

Sam Harris' book provides another example. After protesting the moral failings we find in many parts of scripture, he presents a secular morality. That secular morality is, basically, act-utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism was presented 200 years ago and, since then, has confronted a great many problems that Harris simply ignores.

In fact, Harris' act utilitarianism can be used to justify just about any evil we can find in scripture. In each of the cases, we can make the argument that the biblical act is the act that produced the best outcome for the most people, even if we cannot see or understand how this is the case.

Many secularists with an eye towards evolution want to ground value on our evolved dispositions. They tell us that we do not need to worry about evil in the absence of a God, because we evolved dispositions of empathy and concern for others that will motivate us to be kind even if we give up our beliefs in God.

However, this evolutionary argument ignores the fact that our evolutionary history explains evil as well as good. It did not prevent the Holocaust, it does not end racism, and it has not prevented theft or rape or murder. Against the evolutionary argument, sectarian morality is not concerned with the evils we cannot commit because of our evolved disposition. It is concerned with the evils that humans are quite capable of committing - as evidenced by the acts going on around us. The claim that we evolved a disposition to be moral utterly ignores the evil that is going on today. It isn't even discussing the same topic as that which concerns the question of grounding moral value on God.

A third form of secularist simply treats values as intrinsic properties. This type of secularist assigns value intrinsically to something like happiness, preference satisfaction, life, health, autonomy, liberty, self-realization, well-being (which, itself, is circular since the "well" part of "well-being" needs some sort of foundation). Yet, they are utterly unable to answer the question of how it is their particular entity acquired this intrinsic property and how we can demonstrate its existence in the laboratory.

Social contract theories ultimately fail because the premise that there is a social contract is as fictional as the premise that there is a God. We can add to this the problem with how a hypothetical fictional social contract can generate real-world duties and obligations.

The same fault can be found with impartial observer theories. There is no impartial observer. If there were, and he was truly impartial, he would not CARE what we did. If he did care, where would that caring come from and how is it the case that his caring generates obligations for us?

Rawls' theory of justice binds people to principles we would adopt behind a "veil of ignorance" has similar problems. How is it the case that the principles we adopt in a fictional situation apply to the real world? If it were the case that the fire alarm were going off, I would leave the building and move a safe distance away. However, that does not imply that in the real world, where there is no fire alarm going off, I should also be leaving the building and moving a safe distance away.

Besides, what type of theory draws its conclusions from an ignorance of various premises anyway?

I would like to add that none of these problems negates the problem of claiming that there is some God that is the source of all value. The "faith" component of religion means that people can say whatever pleases them while denying any obligation to actually back up what they say. As a result, people who appeal to God as a source of value are often (always?) merely telling us their own likes and dislikes and adding, "Oh, but I am not demanding that you obey ME. I am demanding that you obey GOD. I am merely his humble servant. Now, God wants you to kneel before me and kiss my ring." Furthermore, many religious "values" actually come to us through religious leaders who have sold the gullibility of their followers to the highest bidder - the "top 1%".

These define some of the many ways in which secularists have addressed the question of value.

Still, at this point, we are working with a premise that concedes to secularism (and secular arguments - where religious arguments are prohibited) all matters of fact (as argued for in last week's posts).

Before we go further into the question of value, let us look at how far we can go with that concession.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Defending Secularism: Causing Harm for No Good Reason

In my defense of secularism so far - the proposition that religious reasons ought not to be used in making policy decisions - I have used arguments that the vast majority of theists should also agree with.

They know the merits of prohibiting religous arguments from the courtroom. It would bring into the court as "evidence" any number of claims of the sort, "I have talked to God and he said the accused is guilty, so the accused is guilty." plaintiffs and defendents to pay for the services of those who are best capable of making a convincing case that "God told me that my client should win this case."

The same arguments apply to the use of religious reasons in matters of policy. It fills policy debates with all sorts of baseless claims. It also corrupts religion as those seeking to get their policy enacted shops around for priests who will tell their followers that God favors the person who has purchased the preacher's testimony.

You do not have to be an atheist to see the merit in both of these objections to religous arguments on matters of policy.

Yet, there is a third argument.

There is no God, and all religious claims are founded on a false premise. God favors no side in policy debates because there is no God.

As a matter of fact, what is really going on when a person makes a religous defense of a policy decision is the agent is simply giving his or her preferences. "There are certain things that I want. However, they involve creating states that harm others. I doubt very many people will go along with the idea of harming others just so that I can get what I want. Therefore, I am going to claim that it is not ME who wants these things, but God. Furthermore, I will claim that God will punish us all of He does not get what I want . . . um . . . I mean . . . what God wants."

I will not deny that the people making these claims often believe that they are serving some diety and that they are reporting what God wants. It is not the case that they are all liars.

However, it is the case that they are all mistaken.

People are known to be quite good, not only at lying to others when it serves their purpose to do so, but also at convincing themselves of convenient fictions. An individual who wants to do something that is harmful to others will often justify the act in his own mind by convincing himself of falsehoods that give the act some sense of legitimacy.

Child molesters will convince themselves that sex with a child risks no harm or provides a child with a benefit. Rapists convince themselves that women actually like being raped or that they deserve rape as retribution for some crime such as teasing or mocking men. Insurance companies deserve to be ripped off, and it is permissible to shoplift because the company is ripping off its customers anyway. My company is not treating me fairly, so it is an act of justice for me to take this money from the cash register.

Or, what amounts to the same sort of reasoning, "God says that I can go ahead and have these things that I want even though others are harmed, because God says that those others are an abomination - sinners - heathens - violators of His commandments and thus deserve the harms that they will be caused to suffer."

Secularism is justified because every attempt to justify policies that cause harm to others using religious arguments fit this model.

They are all examples of doing harm for no good reason.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Defending Secularism: The Corruption of Religion

The HBO Series ROME has a scene in which Julius Caesar makes it clear that he is considering providing the priest with a very large cash contribution. In the same conversation, Caesar mentions that he will be in a better position to make such a gift if the church were to declare that Jupiter approves of Caesar’s actions.

The augury was performed at the Temple of Jupiter, where the priest determined that Jupiter did, in fact, approve of Caesar’s actions.

When a priest or other religious leader tells his followers what God wants, what are the odds that he has not auctioned off the gullibility of those who listen to him to the highest bidder? "If I tell the people in my flock that God wants them to support your candidacy, what will I get out of it?" Consequently, we should expect to discover that God will be most interested in whatever will help the candidate that pays the highest price for His support.

How much of what we call "religious values" are, instead, the things that serve the interest of some political or economic interest who has provided some "generous contributions" as a result?

My current project is to defend an uncompromising form of secularism that says that religious reasons ought never be used in policy debates. I am illustrating my reasons for this principle by looking at a situation in which uncompromising secularism is already the rule of the day – the question of the guilt or innocence of the accused in a court of law. In a court of law, non-secular arguments are strictly prohibited without exception. Noting the reasons why they are prohibited in this case helps to understand why they ought to be prohibited in matters of policy as well.

One of the reasons for this is the corruptibility of religion.

What would happen if we were to allow religious testimony in court?

That is to say, we were to allow priests to enter a courtroom and declare, "I have talked to God and God has told me that the accused is guilty."

Or, "Jesus told me in a dream last night that the tire that exploded was, in fact, an act of god and not a result of any negligence on the part of the tire manufacturing company."

One of the immediate impacts of this would be the corruption of the church. Priests and others who claim to speak to God will be able to sell their services to the highest bidder. We find the Temple of Jupiter in Caesar's pocket (or Caesar in the pocket of the Temple of Jupiter as it threatens to use its ability to determine God’s will against the political leader who does not pay appropriate compensation).

Religion is particularly corruptible in this sense precisely because religious claims are not backed up by any type of verifiable facts. We have no neutral source that we can appeal to in order to determine that the religious leader is accurately reporting what God wants. We are told to accept his claims on faith.

The corruption of religion by those with money and interests to advance by influencing religious messages is already going on. Religious leaders are almost certainly tailoring their interpretations of scriptures to serve the interests of those with political and economic power. The message that we get is, in many cases, the message that those with power and money want us to hear - which, in turn, will tend to be messages that will help them to keep or enhance their power and money.

This is certainly not a universal law. We can find exceptions. Yet, the existence of exceptions does not change the fact that religious messages and the people who deliver them are always and forever subject to the influence of political and economic power.

Even if no religious leader were consciously pursuing such a corrupt path, we would still see the same effect. The invisible hand of the market place does not lift up the church that makes the truest and most accurate claims about what God wants. The invisible hand of the market place lifts up the church that has the most marketable message, and that collects the largest rents (payments) for that message.

In short, religious messages are an economic commodity. People shop for a religious message, and pay more for the messages that they like. However, please note that the messages they like are not necessarily the messages that any God would like.

Furthermore, the market place is a place of "one dollar, one vote." People who control 51 percent of the dollars also control 51 percent of the votes in the market place. Consequently, we can expect the religious market place to sell its most popular religious products to the people who have the most economic and political power.

There should be absolutely no surprise to discover that the messages the people get from the most economically successful religious businesses are those that serve the interests of the wealthiest people. That is precisely why they are the most economically successful religious businesses - they serve the interests of those who can afford to make the biggest charitable contributions.

Again, I am not accusing every religious leader of this type of corruption. SOME are almost certainly guilty - and those who are guilty will tend to be more financially successful than those that are not. However, even if NONE were guilty, we would still see this type of relationship develop. It is still the case that people will buy the religious messages they like the best, and the people with more money will have more market influence than the people with less money. So, it is still the case that the more successful religious messages will tend to be those that the people with power and money like the best. That is how the free market works.

We know what will happen the moment that we allow attorneys to bring into the court people who will report on whether, as a matter of faith or augury or divination, their god or gods favor one verdict over another. Some will acquire a stronger record of success than others. Those that are more successful will be able to command higher prices than those who are less successful. The messages themselves will be those that serve the interests of those with the power and money to pay for them.

We also already know what happens when religions can bring their faith-based testimony into policy discussions. Again, religious leaders tend to deliver whatever message best serves the interests of those with the ability to make the largest contributions. Their message will not serve God so much as they will serve the interests of people with money and power.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Secularism: Religious Testimony in Policy Debates

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.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Defense by Example of Uncompromising Secularism

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.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Problems In Defending Secularism

My project this week is to defend secularism.

I am going to start off doing a poor job of it. I am going to show how the traditional defenses that secularists use tend to fall into a trap. They use a narrative where, for most people, God is the ultimate justification for all moral claims. This means that, when secularists use their traditional arguments (or argument fragments), the type of reaction they can expect from their religiously-minded listeners is, at best, a respectful, "You really don't see how you are contradicting yourself, do you?"

Ultimately, secularists will usually use one of two following defenses for secularism.

One of those common defenses is to treat the proposition, "THOU SHALT NOT MIX CHURCH AND STATE" as a fundamental moral principle that needs no justification.

But where do these fundamental moral principles come from? And, if we know the source, does it make sense to argue that this principle fits with that source?

In treating this as a fundamental moral principle, the secularist is ultimately suggesting that secularism functions the same way as divine commands. The principle gets its authority from some supernatural entity or force. However, the theist at least attempts to offer a justification for how a commandment gets its authority. Why must we obey this rule and not some other? Because God is the author of our commandments, and that gives them divine authority.

However, if we go this route, secularism is self-refuting. If the only way to defend secularism is to appeal to God as the final justification for all moral values, then the defense of secularism is non-secular. On the other hand, if we remove this justification for all moral values, then all moral claims (including secularism) are without foundation.

The other common defense comes from an appeal to scripture . . . um, I mean . . . the Constitution. "It is written in the Constitution that we must not mix church and state; therefore, we must not mix church and state." It is as if whatever is written in the Constitution must be obeyed, for no reason other than the fact that it is written in the Constitution.

Of course, the response to this is simply to say that the mere fact that something is written in the Constitution is not a good enough reason to follow it. The reason to follow the Constitution itself must come from some other source.

The ultimate source of Constitutional legitimacy is God.

Oh, yes, I know that the Constitution says, "We the People", but from where do "We the People" get the authority to create a Constitution?

The answer to that question can be found in the Declaration of Independence. We get the authority because God has endowed us with certain inalienable rights. That among these rights is the right to create governments. So, again, your defense of secularism by appeal to the Constitution either appeals to God as the giver of the authority to create constitutions or it denies the legitimacy of Constitutions.

Either way, secularism is incoherent.

Of course, both of these responses assume that God is the authority of all moral value - which means that all moral justifications are inherently non-secular. It is not an air-tight objection to secularism. However, it does create a problem for the secularist, and one that causes her arguments to fall on deaf ears.

At this point, I need to start to specify what it is that secularism claims - or, at least the version of secularism that I will be defending.

Like many words, "Secularism" is used in countless different ways by countless different people. Each person picks a definition that suits their purpose. It may even be the case that this term is so loosely defined that it does not serve a purpose. One person can be arguing for secularism while another argues against it. Yet, the two people actually agree on all matters of fact. They just defined the terms differently so that what one person is for actually has little in common with what the other person is against.

So, let me simply state the proposition that I will be defending. While I hold that it captures much of the common use of the term "secularism", I will not debate whether it is the one true and accurate definition of the term.

The principle that I am calling "secularism" states that religious arguments or premises shall never be used as a justification for legislation. Either when defending or rejecting a piece of proposed legislation, legitimate arguments for or against that legislation never appeal to strictly religious premises.

In saying this, I am not saying that all religious conclusions must be rejected. We are not going to reject capital punishment simply because the Bible is in favor. We are, instead, going to debate the merits and demerits of capital punishment and make a decision based on the secular arguments - where the fact that scripture endorses or prohibits it is irrelevant. Only the secular arguments matter.

I also want clarify what I mean by secularism by offering an account of what is really going on in the case against secularism - taken from the point of view of somebody that holds that there are no gods. (I also reject the premise that gods are the final justification for moral value, such that if there are no gods there is no justification for moral value. However, that is a different story.)

I know that, as an argument, this will seem question-begging. However, it is not my intention at this point to defend a conclusion, but to clarify a meaning.

One of the things I mean by secularism is to reject the view that the church is - or ought to be - the state (that they ought to be the same thing) or, for purposes of this essay, that the church holds ultimate authority and that the state is subordinate to the church.

Of course, we seldom hear people assert directly that the state should be subordinate to the church - though many of their arguments carry a strong implication. Instead, what we hear is that we should be a nation "under God" or that the state gets its legitimate authority ultimately from God. (Of course, this leaves open the question of whether the chain of authority is God-state-people, or God-people-state.)

But there is no God.

There are only people who claim to be able to tell us what God wants. In the real world, all claims that we obey God are actually claims that we obey particular religious leaders. A claim that we are to be a nation "under God" is really a claim that we are to be a nation ruled by religious leaders. This is - in terms of real-world effect - what a rejection of secularism entails.

In the United States, we also have to contend with the fact that we have no single dominant church. Instead, we have an oligarchy of religious leaders. Every argument about the separation of church and state can be preserved by recasting it as an argument for the separation of religious oligarchies and state. The fact that we are dealing with multiple religious leaders forming a religious oligarchy rather than an individual church is morally irrelevant.

Their quest for power - their quest to control the state as well as the church - rests with promoting the idea that the state gets its ultimate authority from God, "And if you want to know what God wants, just ask us."

Secularism rejects this practice. It says that the government is not going to appeal to "the church" (or to a religious oligarchy) claiming to be the voice of God for legitimacy.

In the posts that follow, I am going to defend secularism. I am going to argue that, in legislative matters, an appeal to religious matters is never legitimate. I will also argue that one can hold as a background belief the idea that all moral claims (like the claim that we ought not to use religious arguments in discussing the merits and demerits of legislation) may have their final authority in a divine being, but that this belief has no practical relevance. You cannot make any legitimate inference from that premise to any conclusions about what the law ought or ought not to be.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Secularism as a Political Ideology

Secularism is an ideology.

I wish to begin my defense of secularism - which I will continue through several posts - with this because I have heard many people describe secularism as something that transcends ideology - as something that sits over the top of all ideologies and gives us instructions on their use in political debate.

This conception holds that secularism is all about having different people with different ideologies come together at the political table, setting their ideologies aside, and making decisions for the good of the community independent of ideology.

The first thing I am going to say about this is that it is not secularism.

It is not even coherent.

Much of its incoherence can be brought out through this question: If we are going to set all ideologies aside, then do we also set aside the ideology that says to set aside all ideologies?

It does not matter how we answer this question, we enter into problems.

If we answer "No. People who come to the political table must not set aside this ideology," we must ask why this ideology is permitted at the table while all others are prohibited. What makes it special?

If we answer, "Yes. People who come to the political table must set aside all ideology including this one," then we have left behind our foundation for saying that all (other) ideologies must be left behind. We also do not have anything we can use to make any political decisions.

This is the same incoherence we find in the claim that we must not indoctrinate our children - that we must leave them free to make up their own minds. When I hear this, My next question is, "Is it wrong to indoctrinate children into the belief that indoctrination is wrong?"

If children are free to grow up to be parents who hold that it is free to indoctrinate their children, then on what basis do we condemn the practice? If, on the other hand, we hold that all children must be indoctrinated into the practice of no indoctrination, we have an incoherent and self-contradictory rule. Consider the proposal, "We are not going to indoctrinate a child into any language. Instead, we are going to make sure that a child's mind remains uncontaminated by any language, so that the child can choose his or her language rather than having a language foisted upon the child."

I suspect I do not need to go into a long explanation as to why this proposal is simply nonsense.

Or, what amounts to a very similar proposal that is very close to the issue of indoctrination, "We are not going to provide a child with any beliefs. Providing beliefs to a child violates the child's autonomy. Instead, we are going to make sure that the child grows up without any beliefs, leaving the child free to choose his or her beliefs when that child is ready to do so."

Really? Explain to me how that is going to work.

The claim that we are not going to indoctrinate children is ultimately a claim that we are not going to provide them with an initial set of beliefs against which they will evaluate all future beliefs. That is simply not an option. It is just like the option that we are not going to indoctrinate children into a language but allow them to choose their own. How are they going to choose?

Like it or not, we are going to have to answer the question of which initial beliefs (or language) we are going to give to a child - and "none" is not a possible answer. Similarly, we are going to have to ask, "What ideologies may people bring to the political table?" "None" is not a possible answer.

This is a fact - like it or not.

So, I am not going to defend the idea that secularism demands bringing no ideology to the political table - I find that option absurd. Secularism itself is an ideology - and it is the correct one to bring to the political table. All competing ideologies are flawed in some way - though I hasten to add that it is NOT the case that all other ideologies are competing. There are a lot of ideologies compatible with secularism and can easily fit beside it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A Defense of Secularism - Introduction: Preconceptions

Is secularism a good thing?

A lot of secularists throw the word out almost as if it has magical powers. Merely by sprinkling something with "secular" we give it legitimacy, whereas those things that lack "secular" must be rejected.

But can it be defended.

What is secularism anyway? If we are going to defend it, we certainly need to start off by explaining what it is that we are defending.

I have decided that my third project this year will be a defense of secularism. My first project - a critique of Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy - took me through January and February and into March. I spent the rest of March in defense of the Reason Rally. Now, I am ready for a new project.

I wish to present a defense of secularism. Before I start, I want to address a concern that may make what I write on this subject seem confusing to some.

Reading always requires interpretation. A reader comes to a document with a certain set of preconceptions and ideas (including theories as to what certain words mean as they are used). What she sees is a string of characters on a page. To assign meaning to those symbols, the reader draws on her own beliefs - beliefs about how symbols are commonly used, beliefs about the context that surrounds those concepts, and the agent's own desires as to what she wants the author to be saying. If the writer and the reader do not agree on those traditional uses or the context, then miscommunication results.

There are two mindsets common in the atheist community that, if they are brought to the interpretation of this defense of secularism, will cause confusion and miscommunication.

I reject both of these sets of background assumptions.

One of these is the "us versus them" (or "atheist versus theist") tribal mindset. My defense of secularism will not provide a blanket defense of the atheist tribe in its battles against the theist tribe. The type of secularism I will defend is something many religious moderates already embrace. At the same time, my leading opponent - the philosophy which will be the main focus of my criticism - is an atheistic liberal philosophy called 'multiculturalism'. Multiculturalism became widely accepted, particularly in Europe. It through the academic community late in the past century. It is still widely accepted.

The "new atheist" faction has spent the last ten years accusing religious moderates of a fault that actually comes from the atheist community. The accusation is that religious moderates provide apparent cover and legitimacy to the dangerous ideas of religious extremism. They do so by telling us that we must respect religious conviction in all its forms. This would include the religious conviction of the extremists.

Yet, this idea actually comes from the atheistic philosophy of multi-culturalism. Multi-culturalism does not get its ethos from scripture. It is entirely a-theistic. It tells us that we have no legitimate way to criticize other cultures. The only criticism we can make comes from within our own culture, and requires the unwarranted and arrogant assumption that "my culture is better than your culture."

For the most part, religious moderates found this idea repulsive. "What? Are you telling me that I cannot judge the culture of the Holocaust, the slave culture of parts of pre-civil-war America of the racist segregationist culture that followed, or the culture of Stalinist Russia? That is absurd! These things are wrong and any view that casts them as 'just another opinion' is absurd and should be dismissed as such."

Indeed - the religious moderate is right. The natural implication of post-modernism is that we cannot criticize the religious fanatic who flies an airplane into a sky scraper, throws acid on the face of a woman who dares not wear a veil, executes gays and apostates, and holds that atheists cannot be patriots and are not to be considered fit to hold public office. The idea that there is no "right" or "wrong" but only "different" was not a view of the religious moderate. It is - or was - the dominant view of the atheist liberal.

I consider the ongoing practice of attributing to religious moderates the attitudes of the atheistic post-moderns to be not only a mistake, but a moral wrong as well. The new atheist-theist tribal distinction motivates those afflicted with a disposition to forgive and forget the trespasses of fellow atheists and blame all that is wrong in the world on members of the other tribe - some branch of the theists. Thus, we get the accusation made against moderate theists, "Either you are with us, or you are against us - but, to be with us, you must be an atheist."

I will not be making this mistake. My defense of secularism will primary agree with the religious moderates that the atheistic post-modernist multicultural philosophy is morally bankrupt. My allies will be found among the religious moderates. As a preview of coming attractions, there is a significant difference between multiculturalism and secularism. Multiculturalism says to listen to all voices, religious and non-religious. Secularism, on the other hand, will argue for excluding religious reasons from public policy.

The second distinction that a reader might bring to these posts that will cause confusion is the "new-atheist versus accomodationist" distinction.

I will offer a strong defense of secularism that, with its near absolute prohibition on religious reasons for public policy, will appear to many to be "new atheist" in its approach. The reader may then be tempted to adopt the attitude, "Since this is a 'new atheist' position, I will apply new atheist assumptions to the whole of these articles."

That person will soon see me make other claims that are not new-atheist at all but, instead, accommodate a wide range of religious beliefs.

Typically, when a reader gets into a spot like this, her reaction is not to say, "Maybe I should rethink my assumption that the author is a new-atheist." Indeed, she does not even know that she has made that assumption - it is a type of move that comes without effort or conscious acknowledgement. Instead, she is likely to conclude, "The author must be confused to think that these claims actually fit into the 'new atheist' pigeon hole I have put the author into."

The fact is, I reject the new-atheist versus accomodationist distinction. This defense of secularism will draw upon and add strength to that rejection. Putting it in a "new atheist" or "accomodationist" pigeon hole in which it does not belong will only create confusion.

Tomorrow, I will start my defense of a rather hard-line form of secularism. You, the reader, will come to those articles with a set of ideas that you will use to interpret the article. In doing so, I would recommend leaving the atheist-theist tribalism, and the new-atheist versus accomodationist classifications at the door. They will not help where we are going.