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.

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