Aug 18 2006

Should secularists fight for 100% separation of church and state?

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006.)

Like most atheists, it really is of no concern to me what other people believe. If you do not believe in a god or heaven and hell in any form, then the question of what other people believe about god is as of little concern to you as questions about which sports teams they root for or what cars they drive.

If you are a follower of a theistic religion, however, you cannot help but feel part of a struggle against evil, and often that evil is personified as Satan, and non-believers or believers of other faiths can be seen as followers of that evil. Organized religions also need members to survive, to keep the institution going. So for members of organized religion, there is often a mandate to try and get other people to also believe, and thus we have revivals and evangelical outreach efforts and proselytizing.

But atheists have no organization to support and keep alive with membership dues. We have no special book or building or tradition to uphold and maintain. You will never find atheists going from door to door spreading the lack of the Word.

This raises an interesting question. Should atheists be concerned about religious symbolism in the public sphere such as placing nativity scenes on government property at Christmas or placing tablets of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, both of which have been the subjects of heated legal struggles involving interpretations of the First Amendment to the constitution? If those symbols mean nothing to us, why should we care where they appear?

In a purely intellectual sense, the answer is that atheists (and other secularists) should not care. Since for the atheist the nativity scene has as little meaning as any other barnyard scene, and the Ten Commandments have as much moral force as (say) any of Dave Letterman’s top ten lists, why should these things bother us? Perhaps we should just let these things go and avoid all the nasty legal fights.

Some people have advocated just this approach. Rather than fighting for 100% separation of church and state, they suggest that we should compromise on some matters. That way we can avoid the divisiveness of legal battles and also prevent the portrayal of atheists as mean-spirited people who are trying to obstruct other people from showing their devotion to their religion. If we had (say) 90% separation of church and state, wouldn’t that be worth it in order to stop the acrimony? Bloggers Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum present arguments in favor of this view, and it does have a certain appeal, especially for people who prefer to avoid confrontations and have a live-and-let-live philosophy.

But this approach rests on a critical assumption that has not been tested and is very likely to be false. This assumption is that the religious community that is pushing for the inclusion of religious symbolism in the public sphere has a limited set of goals (like the items given above) and that they will stop pushing once they have achieved them. This may also be the assumption of those members of non-Christian religions in the US who wish to have cordial relations with Christians and thus end up siding with them on the religious symbolism question.

But there is good reason to believe that the people who are pushing most hard for the inclusion of religious symbolism actually want a lot more than a few tokens of Christian presence in the public sphere. They actually want a country that is run on “Christian” principles (for the reason for the quote marks, see here.) For them, a breach in the establishment clause of the first amendment for seemingly harmless symbolism is just the overture to a movement to eventually have their version of religion completely integrated with public and civic life. (This is similar to the “wedge strategy” using so-called intelligent design (ID). ID advocates see the inclusion of ID (with its lack of an explicit mention of god) in the science curriculum as the first stage in replacing evolution altogether and bringing god back into the schools.)

Digby, the author of the blog Hullabaloo argues that although he also does not really care about the ten commandments and so on, he thinks that the compromise strategy is a bad idea. He gives excellent counter-arguments and also provides some good links on this topic. Check out both sides. Although temperamentally my sympathies are with Yglesias and Drum, I think Digby wins the debate.

So the idea of peaceful coexistence on the religious symbolism issue, much as it appeals to people who don’t enjoy the acrimony that comes with conflicts over principle, may be simply unworkable in practice.

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