Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life - Part 12

A member of the studio audience has asked that I comment on the Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life, a product of the World Atheist Conference: God and Politics.

I said near the start of this series that I would present my own declaration when I was through.

Before getting to it, I am obligated to declare that there is a bit of “apples and oranges” comparison here. The Copenhagen Declaration was a political document that required a number of votes to approve and aimed at getting the approval of a large and general public. As such, it is an instrument of compromise.

If I were presenting my declaration below to a committee for approval, I have little doubt that they would reject some of its claims and reword others. In the end, every one of us would face the question of whether or not to vote to endorse something with which none of us completely approved.

However, this is my document. There are not votes to be taken other than my own. Therefore, it does not contain any elements of political compromise.

Here it is:

(1) There is morality that is independent of law against which laws are to be measured. Without it, there can be no such thing as a just or an unjust law.

(2) The works of scripture are as poor a source of information about morality as they are of physics or astronomy. They represent the prejudices and superstitions of people who died long ago. It is infinitely more foolish to take their words as the words of a all-knowing morally perfect deity as it would be to take the words of a typical preschool-age child as being the precise calculations of a nuclear physicist.

(3) For different religions specifically, and different schools of thought generally, to live together in peace, they must reach for a set of rules that crosses religions and schools of thought. Insisting that all the rules can be found within their own schools of thought is the antithesis of learning to live in peace with others.

(4) One rule essential for maintaining a peaceful and civilized is an extremely high aversion to using violence, including state violence, against others even if one thinks that they are wrong, and to limiting oneself to words, private actions, and peaceful political activities to persuade others of their errors without violence.

(5) There is a moral right to freedom of speech, and just law respects this right. This right is a right to immunity from violence or threats of violence for what one says (or draws). However, it is not a right to immunity from criticism or even condemnation for what one says. In fact, criticism is one of the forms of speech that is protected under this right. It is as unjust to subject the critic to violence or threats of violence for what he says as it is to subject any other speaker to violence or threats of violence.

(6) It is not an “attack,” in any morally objectionable sense, to say of somebody else’s beliefs, “You are wrong.”

(7) The power of the state rests ultimately on the fact that the state has at its disposal instruments of violence. Appeals to faith as a justification of law is the same as an appeal to faith as a justification for violence. It consists in nothing less than saying, “You deserve the violence that I would use against you – or call upon the state to use against you if you do not obey - for no better reason than that I have faith that you deserve the violence.”

(8) The types of evidence that are morally admissible in debating the merits of a law before the legislature is the same types of evidence that it are morally admissible in determining the guilt of the accused. Whereas no person may legitimately take the stand and assert that he has faith that the accused is guilty and, therefore, the accused is guilty, no citizen may legitimately go before the legislature and assert that a law conforms to his faith and, by that fact alone, he deems it to be a good law.

(9) The best defense against tyranny is to give each person who would be subject to the law a voice in what the law says. The best defense against a tyranny of the majority is recognition of individual rights that limit what majorities may impose on minorities. The mere fact that a majority of people wish for a certain law to exist is no guarantee that the law is just and not, instead, an exercise in the tyranny of the majority.

(10) Judges should do their best to base their decisions on the rules agreed upon by the society in which they are a judge, rather than their own views of what those rules should be. This is the essence by which we understand the distinction between a country governed by the rule of law, and a country governed by human whim.

(11) We recognize that some private attitudes can have public consequences. Where those public consequences are dire enough, they give people a reason to call upon the state to regulate those private attitudes. For example, society has good reason to impose sanctions against gladiatorial fights to the death and the public broadcasts of such fights, even between consenting adults.

(12) We condemn the practice, rampant in many religious communities (and some that are not religious) of exaggerating - and sometimes inventing - dire social consequences to “justify” restrictions on the freedoms and opportunities of other people that, in truth, are grounded on nothing but religious prejudice. This is a form of perjury or bearing false witness that would be repulsive to the citizens of a decent and just society.

(13) We further condemn the practice, rampant in many religious communities, of taking scripture as the final word on whether others should be harmed, regardless of the evidence that can be mustered in their defense. This pre-judging of others of deserving of harm or sanctions and blindly dismissing all evidence is the very antithesis of justice.

(14) Parents have a duty, and the state has a legitimate concern, in seeing that children are indoctrinated into those values that are essential for a civilized society. This includes such things as a respect for honesty over deception, kindness over cruelty, justice over injustice, liberty over tyranny, and a respect for rights such as a right to freedom of speech that prohibit violence or threats of violence as a response to mere words (or drawings).

(15) It is inevitable that we are going to disagree over what makes a better society. Because of this, we need to respect a presumption in favor of a liberty that allows people to pursue their own ideas in this regard without infringements on their liberty. However, like all presumptions this one can be overridden when evidence demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt these private moralities are harmful to maintaining a civilized society.

(16) Raising children to get along with others in a peaceful and civilized society is best accomplished by giving them practice at living with an interacting with others who are different from them. It is a legitimate interest of the state to see that children are provided with these skills and to make it a requirement of any form of education that the state is paying for.

(17) True beliefs matter. To believe something is to be disposed to act as if that thing is true. Whereas we have legitimate reason to be concerned with how people are disposed to act, we have legitimate reason to be concerned with what they believe. However, that legitimate concern does not translate into a right to use violence against them. It translates into a right to criticize and to condemn beliefs that tend to be associated with harmful action.

(18) Sound reasoning techniques are those techniques that have been proven to be reliable ways of reaching true conclusions based on the available evidence. This skill is essential for making sound social policy. It also is necessary to prevent unintended harms. People generally have legitimate reasons to see that children are taught the sound reasoning and to demand that any education paid for through the state give citizens these skills.

(19) Science classes are classes devoted to the study of methods for making increasingly accurate predictions of events in the observable world. This skill is essential in protecting people from harm and in making plans that promise to be successful at securing social benefits. Options that cannot demonstrate an ability to improve predictions of events in the observable world have no place in a science class. There are other classes in which that type of information can be presented.

(20) There should be one set of rules governing religious and non-religious non-profit organizations alike. There is no justification for giving religious non-profit organizations special benefits not available to other non-profit organizations (e.g., tax immunities for key employees) nor for imposing on them special burdens.

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