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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Secular Government

In a recent ruling, a federal judge in Madison WI declared the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. Judge Barbara Crabb responded to a suit filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation by saying it violates the 1st Amendment's ban on establishing religion. The ACLJ plans to appeal.

I'm baffled by the argument. No, not this one. The bigger one. The Freedom from Religion Foundation wants at the bottom line to exclude religion from government. The idea, it seems, is that religion should be in its venue and government should be purely secular. But how does this work?

Being secular is simply being separate from religion. Government, they assure us, must be completely separate from religion. Now, given that some 14% of Americans are either agnostic or atheist, that would suggest that something around 85% of us have religious beliefs. Religious beliefs have ramifications for life. Voting in anyone with religious beliefs would also suggest that they will carry those beliefs into their political arena. Of course, voting in only those of non-religious beliefs is an equally religious problem. It is the establishment of non-religion and will carry its own implications to religion. In other words, no matter who you vote in, it will have implications for government and religion.

Further, the vast majority of government has religious connections. No, I'm not talking about "In God We Trust" on our coins or "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. I'm talking about things like the crime of murder which has been labeled a crime because of the Judeo-Christian ethic that Man was made in God's image. Other cultures don't share the same criminal code. But because of religious perceptions, many of our laws are crafted to reflect those perceptions. Our rights, in fact, were defended by the Bill of Rights because of the belief in a Creator who endowed them.

Eliminate religion from government and things will need to change if we are going to be consistent. Obviously "Under God" and "In God We Trust" have to go. All trappings of religion would need to follow. No congressional prayer. Holidays are gone, at least as far as the ones that have religious links. Many government entities close for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Good Friday, and more. Martin Luther King Day celebrates a man whose vision of racial equality was formed by his understanding of Christianity. That had better go. No member of the government would be allowed to vote his conscience if it was informed by religion. That, I suppose, would require thought police of some sort. Of course, some things would get easier. Defending human life would become a far lower priority. That's a religious value completely without basis in an irreligious government. Aiding others in crisis would stop. I mean, clearly it hasn't gotten us any allies for our generosity around the world, so what secular reason would there be to keep it up? Health care could go. Medicare and social security could be terminated. Taking care of people is primarily a religious notion. Oh, sure, some misguided anti-religious people care for others as well, but on what basis? Probably some leftover religious influence. Churches would lose their tax-free status. The concept of personal freedom would become harder to defend. (After all, we just eliminated our lawmakers' rights to vote their conscience, right?) The military could eliminate chaplains. Well, all chaplains related to anything government could go. Judges would stop sentencing alcoholics to AA. And on it goes. You see, religion has its fingers in everything. They would take quite a bit of prying to get out.

The First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." (For those sad Americans who don't understand that "respecting" in that sentence is not about "no law showing respect to", it actually means "no law in relation to".) The goal, as it turns out, of a genuinely secular government, is to outlaw religion. If, for instance, I was in government work and my beliefs mandate that I live my life by certain principles (as they do), this secularization would not allow me to freely exercise my religion. It would mandate that no one in government could freely exercise their religion. The positive values that religion offers would be erased from government, and government would become a frightening thing -- more than it is today. And what it is today is a product of some 50 years of the secularization of government. Are we sure we want to go that way?


Jeremy D. Troxler said...


I've been away for a while, but glad to be reading your posts again. It's amazing to me how this one portion of the 1st amendment is so often interpreted to mean "freedom from religion" instead of "freedom of religion" as you aluded to with your showing respect to - in relation to analysis. Should we also advocate for "freedom from speech"? Everyone in government must remain silent. Or maybe freedom from assembly? No more groups anywhere of three or more.

The scary thing for me is without the moral framework that only religion provides, all decisions are made from some kind of pragmatic or utilitarian position. Entire discourses would have to be thrown out because they "sound like religious arguments". Your point is well taken, who is going to monitor the intention of speakers? Who gets to decide if a proposition is allowed to be presented because it has been vetted and determined to be sufficiently free from any hint at moral oughtness or responsibility.

By the way, how could any of the proponents of these law suits or this judge come to their line of reasoning? You would have to purposefully not read an incredible amount of documentation from the founding fathers to even suggest this kind of understanding parallels their original intention.

I can only imagine what things will be like when the time comes when our nation knowingly endorses moving from a secular society to a non-theistic society.

Stan said...

Jeremy: "Who gets to decide if a proposition is allowed to be presented because it has been vetted and determined to be sufficiently free from any hint at moral oughtness or responsibility."

When I wrote it, it sounded even to me to be a bit over the top. However, as it turns out, this is exactly what is going on right now in California with the group suing to overturn Prop 8. They have sued on the basis that the proposition was motivated by hate and are currently examining at the behest of the court as many as they can who favored it to determine their motivation.

Oh, and I think a "secular society" by definition is a "non-theistic society" ... and between the outspoken anti-theists as well as the silent majority of practical atheists, we're not too far away.

Jeremy D. Troxler said...


The best definition i've heard of secularism is "when religious ideas, institutions and interpretations have lost their social significance." The society does not have to be non-theistic to be secular, it just has to leave God out of any social situation. Anyone can be religious at home, at church, etc. but they just can't bring a religious bias to any situation that would bear on anyone else.

Now, having said that and if it is accepted as a good definition of secularism I think it is a short step from that idea of secularism to the contemporary idea that any religious image, speech, thought or motiviation should be legally banned from any public place.

In other words, I think by definition secularism is not non-theism but it may, in fact, lead inexorably to it.

Again, great post and may God help us if our judicial system ever considers part of their job description to determine the thoughts and attitudes of the heart of man.

Stan said...

"Secular" is primarily defined as "Worldly rather than spiritual." The dictionary defines secularism as "a system of political or social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship." Your definition is probably applicable, but it is not the dictionary version.

In a similar sense, the dictionary defines "theism" as "a belief in God". I differentiate "theism" from "deism" (which is also "a belief in God") in that "theism" is more accurately a belief in the omnipresence of God -- that God is everywhere in terms of presence, power, authority, etc.

So, if secularism is "when religious ideas, institutions and interpretations have lost their social significance", then secularism in that sense is opposed to theism in the sense that I use it since theism cannot coexist with a God without significance.

While secularism may not actually be opposed to theism (I think the dictionary says it is, but ...), it is without a doubt the warming of the pot for the cooking of the frog (if you know what I mean).

Jeremy D. Troxler said...


" is without a doubt the warming of the pot for the cooking of the frog (if you know what I mean)."

I do know what you mean. Even if my definition is accepted (over the dictionary definition) secularism leads inexorably to non-theism. Secularism is at least a move away from total submission of all our being to God, that's definitely turning the burner on high and just waiting for the water to come to a boil.

Sujewa said...

And now, for a word from the other side of the fence :) The US gov was set up as a secular gov or with a strong separation between religions and the government or with the government not having the ability to set up an official religion due to the religious conflicts that the founders saw in Europe and due to the fact that the various strains of Christianity practiced in the several colonies at the birth of the republic did not agree with each other. Essentially the founders wanted to avoid religious war in the new republic. The primary difference between secular ideas and religious ideas is that secular ideas are bound by human reason and logic, or can be proven to be true or fales, can be proven to be actual/existant in this world or not. Religious ideas, however, draw upon otherworldly possibilities - the possibility of existence of God or gods, afterlife, heavens, hells, the possibility of the high value of the inspired wisdom of ancient holy men, etc. A fair amount of core religious ideas cannot be proven to be true or false, thus they are in the realm of belief. Needless to say, to base a government - an organization set up to manage affairs in this world, based on a set of ideas that deal with primarily unverifiable other worldly ideas is not such a bright idea. If you want examples all you have to do is take a look at pre-democratic/pre-secular Europe or Japan (pre-WWII) and also take a look at the state of things in contemporary theocracies world wide & also at governments world wide that are siginificantly dependent on one or more religions. Second item - a secular government does not mean that the officials of the government cannot have their own private religious beliefs. In fact ideas for use in the government can come from any source - including religions, the only requirements being that they work/can be tested & that they do not lead to the unraveling of the nation, or that they cannot be accepted merely because they (the ideas) have a high place within a religion. The US secular gov idea & practice has worked well for over 200 years and have revolutionaized governance/the idea of government world wide, thus, it appears to be a very good idea to keep the government and religions separate.

Stan said...

I'm going to have to disagree. I'm going to have to disagree on a lot of points, so this will likely take more than one entry in response.

First, I would disagree that the government was set up "as a secular government" or that it had "a strong separation between religions and the government". Certainly they didn't want the government setting up a "state religion", but that doesn't preclude religious involvement in government (as demonstrated, for example, by the history of prayer in the Congress).

The First Amendment says (in part) "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Two things, then. The Congress (as opposed to any other governmental body, such as the State) shall make no law that establishes a particular religion. That doesn't mean that a religion cannot be recognized or that all religion must be ignored. It just can't be established. And, of course, Congress cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion. Well, of course, that one is nonsense. We already do. We won't allow animal sacrifice for Moslems, for instance. We've refused to allow Mormons their polygamy. Still, I don't see anything in the Constitution (or its attendant Bill of Rights) that precludes religion in government. Declaring a National Day of Prayer (which doesn't establish any religion at all) as a violation of the First Amendment is nonsense.

Stan said...

Beyond that, however, it is impossible to separate religion and government. Here's why. If I am in government -- say a Congressman or some such -- and I believe (due to my religious convictions) that murdering babies (some call it "abortion") is wrong, my choices in my role as Congressman will be shaped by my convictions. The only way to avoid this fact would be 1) to only allow the election of atheists or 2) the election of people without principles. Oh, wait, only allowing atheists in office would be a direct violation of the Constitution (Article VI, Para. 3).

I do have to point out that your "difference between secular ideas and religious ideas" concept is a bit odd. First, if secular ideas are "bound by human reason" and "can be proven to be true or false", why don't we have consensus on the secular ideas that are being offered? Why isn't everyone convinced on global warming (a completely non-religious concept), Evolution (America remains one of the least certain believers), or whether or not it's okay to kill babies in the womb (like the amazingly schizophrenic "Laci and Conners Law" demonstrates)? Just examples. Second, the supposed separation of "human reason and logic" as opposed to "religion and faith" is a false dichotomy. Religion and faith are not separate from reason and logic. In fact, the biblical term for "faith" means literally "to be convinced by argument".

Then there is, as I pointed out in the article, the entire problem of morality apart from religion. Eliminating religion as a basis for Law, you're left with a lot of holes.

Stan said...

You said, "A secular government does not mean that the officials of the government cannot have their own private religious beliefs." How, then, would you separate government and religion? Would you require that their beliefs remain "private"? "I'm sorry, Congressman, but you cannot vote your conscience if your conscience is governed by your religious beliefs." If not that, then the Congressman in question would be voting his religious beliefs, and you'd have religion in government.

I did not nor would I even consider suggesting a theocracy in America. On that you and I would agree. Nonsense. I disagree with your premise that a theocracy would necessarily be "not such a bright idea" simply because it operates on "primarily unverifiable other worldly ideas". I mean, just because ideas are "unverifiable" doesn't make them wrong. I'm not suggesting either a government based on religious views or that my beliefs are "unverifiable". I'm just saying that just because you can't verify something doesn't mean it's not true. No, beyond that, if there is a God who is infinite, it would be mandatory that His ideas would not be able to be verified. The finite cannot grasp the infinite.

No, we're in agreement that we don't want a government based on religion. That wasn't my point. My point is that religion is so entrenched in human beings in general and in this country in particular that it is not possible to actually separate religion and government without making some radically unwise and unconstitutional laws that would establish atheism as the national religion. That, by the way, has been tried elsewhere. It didn't work out too well for them.