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Dec 21 2010

Why separation of church and state is important

Canada does not have an explicit legal separation between religion and government, which is obviously cause for concern for me as an atheist. However, whatever your beliefs, this kind of thing should concern you too:

A senior Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, has suggested that opposing the country’s supreme leader amounts to a denial of God. Correspondents say the unusually strong comments appear to be aimed at silencing internal dissent over the leadership of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Sometimes in our more contentious debates, we are tempted to accuse political opponents of being heartless, or say that a position we hold is what God wants. I’m not sure how much anyone actually believes that God cares about politics, but the rhetoric definitely gets amped up at times. However, that’s (mostly) harmless talk; we don’t hear that kind of stuff from our political leaders. This is a good thing, because both of those arguments (liberal and conservative respectively) are thought-stoppers – no reasonable conversation can proceed once we start building our house on the sand of emotion or in the cognitive quagmire of faith.

However, Iran has no such restraint:

The latest comments were made by conservative cleric, Ayatollah Jannati, who heads Iran’s powerful Guardian Council, which oversees the country’s elections and the constitution.

Analysts say the unusually strong demand for public loyalty to Iran’s supreme leader is an attempt by the influential cleric to liken political dissent to religious apostasy – a crime which carries heavy punishment under Iran’s strict Islamic code.

The danger of such statements, especially when backed by state power, is fairly obvious. When the religious establishment controls the state power, and opposition to a political leader is tantamount to a religious crime, then any political opposition is, as a result, a crime. If the leader is corrupt, if the leader abuses his power, if the leader violates the rights of the people, the people have no recourse. Political speech is blasphemy, subject to severe punishment. Forget the idea of an opposition party, forget the idea of free speech, forget the idea of fairness or justice under the law.

Obviously nothing about this particular story will be surprising to anyone who’s been paying any attention at all to the situation in Iran. I only began paying attention in the wake of the election madness a couple years ago, but since then I’ve seen nothing but repeated arrogance, stupidity and evil come from this religious republic. However, abstracting a general rule from this specific case may be possible – it is to everyone’s benefit to have religious power separated by law from state power. The only people who would benefit from an erosion of state sovereignty by the religious establishment is those who agree completely with the leading class’ views. History shows us again and again that fractions will appear within religious communities as they grow larger and more powerful. There is no long-term benefit to the rule of religion – there will always be a group that is seen as heretical until there is only one absolute ruler. Religion knows no satiety in its appetite for power.

So regardless of your religious beliefs, a separation of state power from religious influence is to your benefit. Eventually your beliefs will come into conflict with the ruling party’s, at which point you will find the religious/state power directed at you. The solution, of course, is to wall off religion – allow people their individual rights to believe as they want, but to ensure that state power flows from the people, not from the whims of a capricious God.

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26 comments

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  1. 1
    grassrute

    Crommunist: “The solution, of course, is to wall off religion – allow people their individual rights to believe as they want, but to ensure that state power flows from the people, not from the whims of a capricious God.”

    Although the way in which the American First Amendment has been interpreted has changed over the years, I agree fully with its original intent to prevent the favouring of any particular denomination and from setting up a state church. In addition, I agree that organized religion has no business interfering in the way the state is run. I have no issue with this form of ‘separation of church and state’ even though it was not the originally intended purpose of the first amendment.
    I do, however, think it’s important to distinguish this from the application of faith to politics. Every politician, to one degree or another, applies his/her faith in contrast to just towing the party line. This is true when an MP introduces a Private Members Bill to add ‘Gender Expression’ and ‘Gender Identity’ to the listed of “prohibited grounds of discrimination” on the Human Rights Act. It’s also true when an MP introduces a Private Members Bill that would criminalize coerced abortion.
    Not permitting one side of the debate to apply their faith is, in effect, silencing that group. Both sides should be able to freely express their opinions and is so doing keep each other in balance. This has nothing to do with the separation of church and state.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    Not permitting one side of the debate to apply their faith is, in effect, silencing that group

    It is certainly conceivable that people’s faith will flavour their decision-making processes (in fact, I have absolutely no doubt that it does), we are in a lucky position where few decisions are made on explicitly faith-based grounds. It’s when this pattern is eroded that we begin to see more involvement of religion in public life. A slippery slope argument, to be sure, but if we draw a line between us, the USA, India and Iran, you’ll see that it may not be a fallacy to suggest that increased religiosity in public life results in the erosion of human rights.

    So while I would not ever suggest or advocate the exclusion of a group from being politically active simply because I disagree with their beliefs, I would argue that the validity of those beliefs should be called into question, and that we are all better off (the believers included) when we do not give “faith” the standing of fact.

  3. 3
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Not permitting one side of the debate to apply their faith is, in effect, silencing that group

    If and only if a group has only religious arguments for their position, then yes: disallowing religious arguments effectively silence that group.

    If and only if a group has only empty-headed bullshit arguments for their position, then yes: disallowing emtpy-headed bullshit arguments effectively silences that group.

    Are you suggesting, Grassrute, that we should consider emtpy-headed bullshit arguments to form the basis of political policy?

    If yes: we’ll leave it there.

    If no, then you agree that some positions are insufficient for rational discourse. Religious arguments (being a subset of empty-headed bullshit arguments) fall into that category that are insufficient.

    If people choose to provide insufficient arguments, it is not the responsibility of the political body to lower the standards to allow the morons to participate: morons will screw up the process. They’re morons.

  4. 4
    grassrute

    I think we’re all largely in agreement here. If any MP drafts a bill that is obviously motivated by his faith, it’s in the MPs best interest to provide non-religious arguments for the Bill.

    A Christian MPs faith will compel him/her to oppose legalizing euthanasia. A ‘separation between Church and State’ law shouldn’t forbid the MP from mentioning his faith or the Bible as being his/her motivation. No doubt, the MP would still need to provide sound arguments to persuade others. I don’t support the use of ‘empty-headed bullshit arguments’ as Brian articulates it so nicely. Although the individual’s faith may be the motivation, evidence that euthanasia will be harmful to society is needed for a sound argument. Anything less would be an attempt to force one religious moral code on all citizens.

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    I think we’re all largely in agreement here.

    It’s a Christmas miracle!

  6. 6
    Brian Lynchehaun

    A Christian MPs faith will compel him/her to oppose legalizing euthanasia.

    A side point: you’re incorrect on this issue. There are many MPs of the Christian faith who are in favour of legalizing euthanasia. Because their faith isn’t the only motivating force in their life.

    ‘Respect for the autonomy of other people’ is to many people (yes, including some Christians) a *higher* principle than the bible.

    Although the individual’s faith may be the motivation, evidence that euthanasia will be harmful to society is needed for a sound argument.

    So…

    If an MP stands up to present a bill and says “I have no arguments in favour of this bill, but I’m putting it forward anyway”, then you would consider that MP to be…. What?

    You would consider their reasoning (which they are simply not telling you) to be…. What?

    How can you possibly evaluate their thinking if it’s hidden? How can you judge your representative if they secret away their reasoning process (such that it is)?

    This is an unacceptable way to govern. Take for example the following two cases:

    “I present this bill that is against abortion. I am giving no arguments in favour of it. Please vote.”

    “I present this bill that is against black people. I am giving no arguments in favour of it. Please vote.”

    Which one is religiously motivated? Is even *one* of them religiously motivated? Both? Are either of them racist? Sexist? Neither of the bills save us money (because that would be a non-religious argument in favour).

    In short, claiming that one can vote as per religious convictions allows any old bullshit reasoning to hide from the light of day.

    It also allows the following ridiculous (yet common) situation:

    Bob: “I’m a Christian and I believe that X is right!”
    Mayuko: “I’m a Christian and I believe that Y is wrong!”

    Neither of these folk are in a position to even discuss the problem, because “the problem” is that neither of them think critically, and both think that the other “isn’t a real Christian”. No discourse is therefore possible. No politics can take place.

    one religious moral code

    I agree that that would be a problem, but probably for different reasons than you:

    There are no consistent religious “moral” codes, and I have yet to see a religious “moral” code that is actually Moral when examined objectively. Tell me that you’re not in favour of stoning, and you’ve already rejected part of the Christian moral code… (and quoting the “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is just cherry-picking quotes. Jesus *also* said that his coming did not change the law: it doesn’t cut both ways)

  7. 7
    Brian Lynchehaun

    It’s a Christmas miracle!

    Sorry. :(

  8. 8
    Crommunist

    Like all miracles, it disappears under any kind of close scrutiny :P

  9. 9
    grassrute

    Brian – I don’t see the relevance to your side point. I will make one correction to my previous comment to appease you: “A Christian MPs faith *may* compel him/her to oppose legalizing euthanasia.” Disagreement among groups, or political parties for that matter, doesn’t disqualify them from participation in the political process.

    As to your example of an MP that doesn’t explain his/her reasoning, I’m not sure where you’re going with it. I don’t support an MP hiding his/her reasoning nor did I suggest otherwise. I do support faith being applied to politics while recognizing the importance of evidence to support the individual’s support or opposition to a particular bill, policy etc.

    Digressing from the topic, I have no problem telling you that I’m not in favour of stoning. I won’t get into the how I justify that because I would have to use the bible resulting in everything that follows being irrelevant…eh!

  10. 10
    Brian Lynchehaun

    I’ve only a couple min spare for a quick response right now.

    Digressing from the topic, I have no problem telling you that I’m not in favour of stoning. I won’t get into the how I justify that because I would have to use the bible resulting in everything that follows being irrelevant…eh!

    The issue here is that you are failing to understand why it’s irrelevant, you’re simply ignoring the massive problem with what you are doing.

    In simple terms (as simple as I can lay them out, at least):

    There exists Statement A in the bible that says one has to do something.

    There exists Statement B in the bible that says one does not have to do something.

    On your view, Statement A is contradicted by Statement B, and thuse you don’t have to stone people.

    ‘x is contradicted by y’ is a symmetric relationship which means that if ‘x is contradicted by y’ is true, then ‘y is contradicted by x’ likewise true.

    At that point, you have a contradiction, and you have no reason to give precedence to Statement B rather than Statement A.

    That you have chosen to give precendence to Statement B is the case, but you have refuted the bible with the bible. Thus does the bible stand refuted.

    And yet you want to give a bibical account? But you just refuted the bible…

    And this is why everything that follows from a contradiction is irrelevant.

    (skipping a more nuanced discussion of the Reductio Ad Absurdum for reasons of time and brevity)

  11. 11
    grassrute

    Brian – “At that point, you have a contradiction, and you have no reason to give precedence to Statement B rather than Statement A”

    There is no contradiction. In the Old Testament God’s people were the nation of Israel. Today God’s people are scattered among the nations. The laws and punishments written for (the nation of) Israel are not to be imposed on other nations. Where’s the contradiction?

  12. 12
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Please define specifically, explicitly and completely the term “the nation of Israel”. By this I mean who, precisely, constitutes said ‘nation of Israel’ and who does *not* constitute said nation.

  13. 13
    grassrute

    The offspring of the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel) who came out of Egypt constitutes the nation of Israel. And that would exclude all others.

  14. 14
    Brian Lynchehaun

    So the teachings of Moses don’t apply to Christianity? No 10 Commandments then?

  15. 15
    grassrute

    Brian – The law still applies to Christians today in a number of ways:
    -through the 10 commandments we are able to identify what sin is
    -we are able to see the innocents of Jesus who kept the law perfectly
    -we are able to see that Jesus was a perfect sacrifice without blemish
    -the law can be seen as God’s holy and perfect will and therefore what Christians can aspire to. The words of Psalm 119 describe how a Christian feels about the law.

    The law is written for God’s people so they can better understand the character of God. It is also a useful tool for evangelizing others so they understand their need for a saviour. Implementing it as the law of the land for any country today would have many negative consequences for both church and state.

    When I say that a Christian politician will apply his faith to politics, that doesn’t mean he will in any way try to legislate Christianity. There is a distinction between mixing faith and politics vs church and state.

  16. 16
    Crommunist

    You just said the old testament only applies to the tribes of Israel. Therefore according to you, the ten commandments don’t tell us anything about sin. Not only that, but there are any number of sins that are not listed in the ten commandments, and a number of things that are forbidden by the commandments that aren’t considered sins. Furthermore, we are left to assume that Jesus kept the sabbath, honored his mother (which he didn’t, a lot), never lusted, etc. It doesn’t say that anywhere in the gospels. You’re free to assume it, but you don’t even have Biblical testimony to support that assertion.

    As far as the rest of your statement goes, since you can’t seem to decide which laws are valid, you’re quickly proving the point that I have made several times, and Brian is attempting to make, that religious “laws” are just made up as deemed convenient. Your view of the “law” is no more correct than someone who says that stoning is acceptable (as spelled out in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, etc.), or that hell is simply a metaphor and the Bible is an anthology of myth.

  17. 17
    Brian Lynchehaun

    through the 10 commandments we are able to identify what sin is

    I’m sorry, but that’s patently not true.

    “Sin” is the violation of the law of god.

    The 10 Commandments are a list of the laws of god (in the old testament).

    The laws of god from the old testament only apply to Jews.

    Therefore the 10 commandments only identify sin for Jews and not for Christians.

    You may, if you wish, contradict yourself. That’s something I try to avoid, myself, but I can appreciate that we value different things…

    we are able to see the innocents of Jesus who kept the law perfectly

    What laws? The laws that only apply to Jews? How does this tell us about Christians?

    we are able to see that Jesus was a perfect sacrifice without blemish

    Please explain.

    The law is written for God’s people so they can better understand the character of God.

    You mean the Jews? Please explain how this applies to Christians?

    Implementing it as the law of the land for any country today would have many negative consequences for both church and state.

    Um…

    Following the law of god would have negative consequences?

    Please explain…?

    When I say that a Christian politician will apply his faith to politics, that doesn’t mean he will in any way try to legislate Christianity

    Actually, it means precisely that.

  18. 18
    grassrute

    Crommunist: “You just said the old testament only applies to the tribes of Israel.”

    No actually, I never said that. My exact words were “The laws and punishments written for (the nation of) Israel are not to be imposed on other nations.”

    Brian: “The laws of god from the old testament only apply to Jews.”

    Looking back at my comments I don’t see anything that would cause you to draw that conclusion. The law was only written for the *nation* of Israel and not for other nations to adopt. This doesn’t mean citizens within these nations can’t/don’t live by this law.

    Your comments indicate that you see a distinction between the God of the Christians and the God of the Israelites in the Bible, or at the very least a contradiction. They are one and the same covenant God. Christians are adopted children and enter into a covenant relationship with God. The covenant law plays a large role in this relationship.

    There was no Israelite that was able live in perfect obedience to the law. Every grievance against the law (sin) was cause for punishment. Jesus took upon himself this punishment so that the entire debt of sin is paid. This includes both the sins committed in the past as well as those to be committed in the future. For Christians today, that means our sins are already paid for and forgiven. Having the sins paid for doesn’t give Christians a free pass to live in sin. Rather, we strive for perfection which is perfect obedience to God’s law. Not just outer obedience, but having the law written on our hearts. This is not possible without the Holy Spirit which is another can of worms I don’t care to open. For example: Imagine you have a friend who is broke and cannot work but is completely dependant upon you. He breaks your neighbors window with a baseball. You pay the neighbor double the amount it cost him to replace the window. Does your friend show any appreciation at all for what you’ve done if he turns around and breaks the window again just because you already paid for its replacement? Your friend would show thankfulness by doing what he can to repay you for your kindness. All examples will have their flaws, but this is similar reasoning to Christians today observing the law.

    Brian: “Following the law of god would have negative consequences? Please explain…?”

    Considering the above purpose for the law, how can imposing this law yield any positive results? Imposing the first three commandments would involve forcing citizens to serve God. A true conversion of the heart is needed to love God and therefore it’s impossible to force obedience to these commandments. It would also be negative for the Church. The churches would be full of people with unconverted hearts.

    Brian, could you provide some examples of how applying faith to politics would result in the legislation of Christianity? There are many Christian MPs today and this simply isn’t happening. The closest example I have been able to think of is in regards sexuality. A Christian politician will be opposed to any sex that would take place outside of marriage. Applying his/her faith to politics shouldn’t result in imposing chastity on citizens. Applying his/her faith should, however, will result in a resistance to encouraging promiscuity. For example, secular politicians will promote condoms while Christian politicians may leave it to the parents to determine what’s best for their children and/or promote abstinence.

    Some references:
    Romans 3 19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

    Romans 5 27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, 30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. 6 1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

  19. 19
    Brian Lynchehaun

    I’m pretty close to losing my shit here, I’m trying to keep it together.

    Please, for the love of all that’s holy, try to answer just one thing and try not to make up random bullshit as you go along.

    Brian: “The laws of god from the old testament only apply to Jews.”

    Looking back at my comments I don’t see anything that would cause you to draw that conclusion. The law was only written for the *nation* of Israel and not for other nations to adopt. This doesn’t mean citizens within these nations can’t/don’t live by this law.

    Forgive me if I talk to you like a 6 year old, as you seem to be at that level of cognition.

    You said that

    1)

    In the Old Testament God’s people were the nation of Israel. Today God’s people are scattered among the nations. The laws and punishments written for (the nation of) Israel are not to be imposed on other nations.

    and

    2)

    The offspring of the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel) who came out of Egypt constitutes the nation of Israel. And that would exclude all others.

    Putting 1) and 2) together we get:

    The laws and punishments written for the offspring of the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel) who came out of Egypt are not to be imposed on other nations.

    You see what I did there? I inserted the content of your definition.

    To further substitute:

    “The offspring of the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel) who came out of Egypt” are also known as “The Jews”. So we can also say that:

    The laws and punishments written for the Jews are not to be imposed on other nations.

    You said

    are not to be imposed on

    This is the same as saying: “only apply to”.

    Thus did I rephrase what you said as

    “The laws of god from the old testament only apply to Jews.”

    Now.

    Do you comprehend, or is it still a mystery to you (and you alone)?

    If you understand, please answer the original questions. *I* don’t see a distinction between “The god of the christians” and “the god of the israelites”: neither one is real!

    You have stated that there is a distinction, you are the one claiming a difference, and then a few comments later you claim that there isn’t a difference.

    Read your own comments.

    Read them again.

    Read them again.

    Ask someone for help if necessary. You are contradicting yourself and when it’s pointed out to you, you say “nope, I don’t see it”. As if that somehow makes things better…

  20. 20
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Also: please stop quoting the bible at me.

    I, too, can pull random quotes from children’s books, but I have the decency to realise that it’s A) irrelevant and B) makes me look dumb.

  21. 21
    grassrute

    This was taken for the free dictionary. Taking a break from the Bible this time.

    Definition of Impose
    1. To establish or apply as compulsory; levy: impose a tax.
    2. To apply or make prevail by or as if by authority: impose a peace settlement.
    3. To obtrude or force (oneself, for example) on another or others.
    4. Printing To arrange (type or plates) on an imposing stone.
    5. To offer or circulate fraudulently; pass off: imposed a fraud on consumers

    Definition of Apply
    1. To bring into nearness or contact with something; put on, upon, or to: applied glue sparingly to the paper.
    2. To put to or adapt for a special use: applies all her money to her mortgage.
    3. To put into action: applied the brakes.
    4. To devote (oneself or one’s efforts) to something: applied myself to my studies.

    The law was imposed upon Israel (and Israel only, no other nation). Christians adopt the law and willingly put it into action. I would suggest YOU read and reread my posts.

    Separating church from state is not the same as separating faith from politics, Amen?

  22. 22
    Brian Lynchehaun

    So in answer to my question

    Do you comprehend, or is it still a mystery to you (and you alone)?

    A simple ‘no’ would have sufficed.

    You seem to agree (it’s hard to tell, you contradict yourself frequently) that ‘to impose’ is a high correlation with ‘to apply’.

    So in your dictionary-diving, you have missed the word ‘only’.

    If there are two people, Bob and Fred, and I have a rule that I wish to apply…

    Now, I have decided that this rule applies to someone, for sure, but I haven’t decided to whom, specifically, this rule applies.

    I have chosen to not impose this rule to Fred.

    The upshot of my choice is that this rule only applies to Bob.

    Saying that the laws of the Old Testament are “not to be imposed upon” group x is the same as saying that the laws of the Old Testament “only apply to” group y.

    Comprehend?

    Also: do you understand that “comprehend?” doesn’t mean “do you agree?” It means “do you understand?”

    Saying “I disagree” to a “do you understand” question means “no, I don’t understand”.

    I’m getting tired of explaining basic comprehension…

  23. 23
    grassrute

    Brian “I have chosen to not impose this rule to Fred.
    The upshot of my choice is that this rule only applies to Bob.”

    You are correct. However, Fred may decide he wants to live by this rule by his own free will. Fred is free to make that choice, but he CANNOT impose that rule on his fellow countrymen should he decide to get into politics.

    What is so difficult about this to understand? There is no contradiction!

  24. 24
    Brian Lynchehaun

    What is so difficult about this to understand? There is no contradiction!

    When you know what you’re talking about, you get to say things like that. Not before.

    You are correct. However, Fred may decide he wants to live by this rule by his own free will. Fred is free to make that choice, but he CANNOT impose that rule on his fellow countrymen should he decide to get into politics.

    So here’s the deal, the core point that you are completely missing, and is probably going to shoot over your head a few times. Read it slowly, and carefully:

    When you declare that Fred is ‘committing a sin’, you are imposing the rules of Christianity on him.

    This does not have to be a legal imposition, merely a social imposition.

    You have (finally) agreed that (that you said) “the laws of god from the old testament only apply to Jews.”

    You have affirmed (finally) that you agree with that.

    You have also stated that someone may choose to follow those same laws if they so wish (and, of course, I agree with that).

    Now.

    If you say that

    The law still applies to Christians today in a number of ways

    then you are contradicting yourself.

    It does not apply to ‘Christians’, according to your own statements, but that any individual person may choose to live their life according to the Jewish laws.

    So you cannot declare the behaviour of someone else to be sinful ever if they have not claimed to be following those laws, because those laws are optional (“may choose”).

    Now, you are free to change your position, now that you understand what your position is. I’m not going to hold you to this.

    I’ll get to the rest of the stuff later, but I expect that explaining to you that “a person of faith necessarily involves faith in their political decisions” is going to take longer to explain to you than the above. :(

  25. 25
    grassrute

    I would prefer to compare it to:
    Jews = arranged marriage (to the law)
    Christian = voluntary marriage (to the law)

    Choosing to be married to someone (law) doesn’t mean the rules of marriage don’t apply to you.

    This is an over simplification of the way it works, but I’ll let you claim your victory…for now.

    Merry Christmas, God’s blessing in the new year.

  26. 26
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Choosing to be married to someone (law) doesn’t mean the rules of marriage don’t apply to you.

    Then this contradicts

    The laws and punishments written for (the nation of) Israel are not to be imposed on other nations.

    Or are you suggesting that anyone who flagrantly breaks the laws of the old testament (by, say, committing murder) will not be punished by god if they are, say, Buddhist?

    but I’ll let you claim your victory…for now.

    I’m sorry that you see this process as adversarial.

    You must have been *fun* to teach in elementary school:

    “ok, I will accept for now that 1+1=2. Enjoy your victory for now, teacher, I’ll return to this later”
    :(

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