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.


Anton Kozlik said...

Alonzo, this was a great series. You are to be complimented.

mojo.rhythm said...


With respect to future blog posts: would you be willing to consider specific requests from the studio audience if the requests were reasonable and interested you?

If yes, then I was wondering what your thoughts about Sam Harris' arguments for torture were. He seems to proffer the view that, by accepting collateral damage from war as inescapable yet demonizing the collateral damage from torture, we are holding to a very irrational double standard. I find his defense of torture emotionally disturbing, but I can't seem to produce a logical argument that counteracts his thesis. What are your thoughts?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I enjoy specific requests - it saves me the effort of deciding what to write.

Currently, I am taking a short break as my wife and I enjoy our 25th wedding anniversary, but I will be back shortly with a new project.

Richard Washington said...

Excellent post :)

Good to see a simple and clear collection of the arguments in one place.

Keep up the good work!



Asim said...

Nice article. Do you agree with me when I say: A secular person, or a secularist, is not necessarily an atheist. He can be religious, but he still believes in institutional secularism (in regard to public policy and practices). All atheists are secular, but not all secular persons are atheists.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Not all secular individuals are atheists. As I wrote in my article, secularism was invented by theists to end a period of religious warfare that at times got so severe that whole regions of Europe (mostly southern Germany and northeastern France) became almost depopulated.

It was, in effect, a peace agreement among warring religious factions to the effect that neither faction will seek to control the government.

On the other hand, it is possible for an atheist to be non-secular. This would be an atheist who holds that "the people need religion". Even though he holds that all religious claims are false, he may also hold that religion is the only effective tool for bringing about social order. Thus, he argues for theocracy while keeping his opinions on the existence of God a secret.

Asim said...

Thank you for your quick response. I believe that atheists can be spiritual, but not religious, believing in god, heaven, hell, etc. I wish I could correspond with you some other way.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Note that a non-secular atheist is not religious. A non-secular atheist would be one that advocated a strong relationship between church and state.

He would say, for example, "There is no God. However, without a belief in God and a strong sense of religion, people generally are going to run around raping and murdering. So, even though I think that all of this "God" talk is pure fiction, I still think that we would be better off if everybody else believed that there was a God, and that there should be no separation between church and state."