Should atheists in the US encourage the establishment of religion?


Whenever I give a talk, as I did recently, on the fight over the teaching of evolution in schools, I am almost always asked why these take place mostly in the US. That is not exactly true but in many other countries, there is no equivalent of the Establishment Clause that people can appeal to to keep religion out of the affairs of the state and so there is little recourse to the courts. In other countries, religion is either so deeply entrenched that the dominance of religious views are taken for granted or religion is so weak (in most of the developed world) that it is not a serious issue or gets resolved in the political arena.

In an article that was sent to me by a reader of this blog, Shanny Luft says that the best way to end religion in the US is to make if the established religion of the country.

The history of American religion suggests that when government involves itself in religion, religion withers on the vine; whereas when governments neither helps nor hinders, religious life flourishes. Therefore: atheists who would like to see a decline in religious influence over government should fight to establish state religions across the nation. If they succeeded, they would make religion anathema. Americans detest few things more than government, and the closer the affiliation between religion and government, the worse the outcome for religion.

This article is largely tongue-in-cheek (it has the phrase ‘a modest proposal’‘ in its subtitle after all) but it is based on an idea that is plausible, that it is the very non-establishment of religion in the US that has enabled it to flourish here.

But you can be sure that if religion gains a political foothold, it will initially unleash a wave of institutionalized bigotry and intolerance that will take a long time to overcome. What else can you expect from true believers who think that their own religion is right and all others wrong? The only reason that they keep that view silent is because they do not have a preferential place in society.

In those states that are currently dominated by religious ideologies, whether they be Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism, we see clearly the evil that religion allied with political power creates. At some point people in those states are going to be disgusted at the corruption and intolerance that religion breeds and turn away from it, just as those formerly Christian nations that are now largely secular in Europe once suffered all manner of horrors in the name of religion.

But that is a heavy price to pay for achieving the goal of eliminating religion. It is far better to realize that religion is incompatible with modernity and let the advancing of the latter undermine the former. The enlightenment values of science and reason are the best antidote to the obscurantism of religion and it is those that we should seek to promote.

Comments

  1. Ulysses says

    One problem with having an established religion is which religion? Will Jews be happy if some flavor of Christianity becomes the established religion? Fred Phelps and Cardinal Dolan both consider themselves Christians and neither considers the other a Christian.

  2. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    it is based on an idea that is plausible, that it is the very non-establishment of religion in the US that has enabled it to flourish here. – Mano Singham

    No, it really isn’t plausible, because it doesn’t account for much of the relevant data. Canada, Australia, New Zealand have never had an established church, but are considerably less religious than the USA. Some European countries have established churches, some do not, but there’s no obvious relationship between that, and the level of religious belief, observance or identification. France, one of the least religious countries, has had more than a century of official secularism (with a brief hiatus under the Vichy regime).

    The decline in religiosity in western Europe, Canada and Australasia is largely a phenomenon of the period during which the welfare state was constructed – the USA has a notably weaker welfare state than those countries, particularly with regard to health, plus greater economic inequality. Phil Zuckerman’s Society without God and the work of Rees, and Paul indicate that societal levels of religiosity correlate well with measures of personal insecurity, and that if they are personally secure, most people don’t need religion. So the best way to reduce religiosity in the USA is probably to defend and extend the welfare state. The religious right are defending their hold over their congregations when they oppose universal health care, availability of abortion and contraception, unions and workers’ rights, social security, etc.. We are likely to find out whether the decline in religiosity is reversible, given the strong and increasingly successful elite attacks on the welfare state and redistributive taxation in Europe, Canada and Australasia. I suspect not, at least not in favour of Christianity. Maybe a viable new religion will grow out of the mushy mulch of Newage.

  3. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    it is based on an idea that is plausible, that it is the very non-establishment of religion in the US that has enabled it to flourish here. – Mano Singham

    No, it really isn’t plausible, because it doesn’t account for much of the relevant data. Canada, Australia, New Zealand have never had an established church, but are considerably less religious than the USA. Some European countries have established churches, some do not, but there’s no obvious relationship between that, and the level of religious belief, observance or identification. France, one of the least religious countries, has had more than a century of official secularism (with a brief hiatus under the Vichy regime).
    Reposting with just one link (version with link to Gregory Paul “in moderation”):

    The decline in religiosity in western Europe, Canada and Australasia is largely a phenomenon of the period during which the welfare state was constructed – the USA has a notably weaker welfare state than those countries, particularly with regard to health, plus greater economic inequality. Phil Zuckerman’s Society without God and the work of Rees, and Gregory Paul indicate that societal levels of religiosity correlate well with measures of personal insecurity, and that if they are personally secure, most people don’t need religion. So the best way to reduce religiosity in the USA is probably to defend and extend the welfare state. The religious right are defending their hold over their congregations when they oppose universal health care, availability of abortion and contraception, unions and workers’ rights, social security, etc.. We are likely to find out whether the decline in religiosity is reversible, given the strong and increasingly successful elite attacks on the welfare state and redistributive taxation in Europe, Canada and Australasia. I suspect not, at least not in favour of Christianity. Maybe a viable new religion will grow out of the mushy mulch of Newage.

  4. Corvus illustris says

    … an idea that is plausible, that it is the very non-establishment of religion in the US that has enabled it to flourish here.

    This idea is a commonplace in some circles, and can be found at least as far back in time as some letters of Madison’s (restricted, IIRC, to the Anglicans → Episcopalians in VA). Garry Wills’ Under God talks about this. But anybody who would seriously consider a converse–that establishment in the US would lead to European-style indifference–needs to consider the at-least-three-way, internecine wars among the Dutch in the course of the break from the Habsburgs and the Reformation. The tolerance and religious indifference found in the modern Netherlands is a late consequence of some terrible suffering. (Oh, and some of that early craziness continues in Grand Rapids, MI and environs.)

  5. machintelligence says

    we see clearly the evil that religion allied with political power creates.

    Keep an eye on Russia to see how that works out.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    In those states that are currently dominated by religious ideologies, whether they be Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism, we see clearly the evil that religion allied with political power creates…

    Well there you go. Luft’s comparison is only between the U.S. and Europe. Islamic states and others are not included. When you include those, Luft’s comparison fall apart.

  7. Corvus illustris says

    I don’t at all disagree about the importance of the rise of the welfare state, but I think that restricting attention to historically-late British colonies in which the colonists retained hegemony (including the USA) gives a distorted picture of the fall of religiosity. Continental Europe retains a cultural memory of the Thirty- (in the Netherlands, Eighty-) Years’ war that has tended to take religion (or the absence thereof) out of the public sphere and into the private–where the former can die a natural death. The welfare state also began its rise much earlier on the continent than it did in English-speaking countries.

  8. mnb0 says

    Nice idea, but empirically wrong. Belgium never has had a state religion; the German Weimar Republic abandoned it in 1919, France in 1905 and The Netherlands in 1848. In none of these countries creationism flourishes.

  9. mnb0 says

    Nope, Corvus. In the Dutch Republic of the Seven Unified Provinces the state religion was the Dutch Reformed Church. The Netherlands only got separation of state and religion in 1848.
    Hence the phenomenon of hidden catholic churches; some of the buildings survive until today.

  10. mnb0 says

    Sorry Corvus, Dutch history doesn’t back you. The Dutch catholics (notably in Haarlem and Alkmaar 1572) fought as courageous against the Spanish Habsburgs as the protestants. The Eighty Years war is a lot more than just a clash of two religions.

  11. Glenn says

    Apotheosis of the state

    The state is the actuality of the ethical Idea. It is ethical mind qua the substantial will manifest and revealed to itself, knowing and thinking itself, accomplishing what it knows and in so far as it knows it. The state exists immediately in custom, mediately in individual self-consciousness, knowledge, and activity, while self-consciousness in virtue of its sentiment towards the state, finds in the state, as its essence and the end-product of its activity, its substantive freedom.

    The state is absolutely rational inasmuch as it is the actuality of the substantial will which it possesses in the particular self-consciousness once that consciousness has been raised to consciousness of its universality. This substantial unity is an absolute unmoved end in itself, in which freedom comes into its supreme right. On the other hand this final end has supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the state.

    –Hegel

    http://stopmebeforeivoteagain.org/2012/09/apotheosis_of_the_state.html

  12. jamessweet says

    I agree it’s an overstatement to say that the separation of church and state has been the cause of the religious flourishing in the United States, but it probably helped. At the very least, the old truism that when religion and state mix, it is bad for both, seems to hold somewhat true (in the long term, at least).

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