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

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited if necessary. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.

Meanwhile, I would like to wish all this blog’s readers Reason’s Greetings (with thanks to Norm for that coinage). Thank you for reading.)

As it is for 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 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 few 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, securing a breach in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment for seemingly harmless symbolism is just the overture 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 creationism (IDC). IDC advocates see its inclusion 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 she also does not really care about the ten commandments and so on, she thinks that the compromise strategy is a bad idea. She gives excellent counter-arguments to those of Yglesias and Drum and also provides some good links on this topic. Check out both sides. Although temperamentally I am sympathetic to Yglesias’s and Drum’s aversion to these kinds of conflicts, I think Digby clearly wins the debate.

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.

POST SCRIPT: Huckabee and the Villagers

Although “Huckabee and the Villagers” sounds like the name of a music group, the title actually reflects the fact that the thesis of my last two posts on why the Villagers dislike people like Mike Huckabee has now received support from Huckabee himself, who says:

There is a level of elitism that has existed, the chattering class if you will who lives in that corridor between Washington and Wall Street and they sort of live in their protected world, and frankly for a number of years many of them thought of people like me – whether it was because we were evangelicals or because maybe we were out from the middle of America. They were polite to us. They were more than happy for us to come to the rallies and stand in lines for hours to cheer on the candidates, appreciated us putting up the yard signs, going out and putting out the cards on peoples doors and making phone calls to the phone banks and – really appreciated all of our votes. But when they got elected, behind closed doors, they would laugh at us and speak with scorn and derision that we were, as one article I think once said “the easily led.” So there’s been almost this sort of, it’s okay if you guys get a seat on the bus, but don’t ever think about telling us where the bus is going to go.
. . .
But you know what’s happening, my campaign is now, a person has bubbled up – not from the chattering class. I’ve never been their favorite. I wasn’t their pick. I wasn’t the one they early on said “Well he has the money, and he has the name and the ancestry.” What we have in this country is this growing sense of tension where there are people would just as soon, guys like me, just continue to support candidates and make sure they get elected. But we don’t really want to have to hear from guys like me after elections – and now that we’re actually, potentially going to be the nominee – it’s making some folks uncomfortable ’cause they don’t know what we’re going to do.

(Thanks to Kevin Drum.)

Is this the start of open warfare between the Villagers and the people who have been pandered and condescended to by them all these years?


  1. dbs says

    I am an part-time theist and a full time lover of the Constitution. As such, I am always saddened when government entities choose to adorn themselves with the symbols of any religion/

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