Tag Archives: Separation of Church and State

Time To Stop Debating

argumentAs has every successful movement before it, the atheist movement must now move past the debate stage. There are no new arguments to be made, no new evidence to be presented, and further debate only distracts us, legitimizes ridiculous claims, and introduces unfounded doubts about objective reality itself.  As long as we continue to treat religious fantasy with undue respect, we are not fighting back but rather are complicit in perpetuating mass delusion. 

For example, we must quit debating creationism as if it were a legitimate theory. We must stop quibbling over biblical interpretations and contradictions as if they matter. We must cease the sham of conducting research to disprove prayer. We must stop discussing faith-healing as if it were merely a cultural difference. Rather we must quietly assert, through our refusal to entertain religious claims and rationalizations, that the reality-based world has moved on. 

It is not closed-minded or insensitive to simply discard out of hand any claims or opinions based upon religious authority or dogma. We don’t feel conflicted about summarily dismissing assertions that are based upon a belief in white supremacy or a flat Earth and these who espouse them are rightfully marginalized.  

Of course, we cannot eliminate delusional beliefs, but as with many other anachronistic ideas, we can denormalize and marginalize them so that their influence is kept to a minimum. And make no mistake, many religious beliefs are dangerous, and even laudable religious beliefs inherently undermine our capacity for rational thought. 

None of this suggests that secular society can or should relegate religious citizens to voiceless second-class status. On the contrary, we must engage in social justice debates with everyone. But like a judge who rules on the admissibility of arguments in court, we should reject out of hand any religiously based argument that is not consistent with objective facts and universal humanistic values. Practically speaking, a pluralistic society cannot function in any other way – unless it becomes a theocracy. 

This stance is already standard for any number of groups who hold bizarre beliefs. Many people believe in ghosts, or discredited conspiracy theories, or Bigfoot. The difference is that those groups do not attempt, or are not powerful enough, to substantially influence public policy. We don’t have a political Bigfoot-wing fighting to introduce a Bigfoot curriculum in our schools, to build Bigfoot memorials on public property, and to push through legislation based on the teachings of Bigfoot. That makes it all the more important that we do not continue to indulge and normalize religious belief. 

The gap between our secular and religious worldviews is deep. At times it seems like a bottomless chasm. But that gap is not wide. Our common goals and needs as humans bring our two sides close enough together to form strong bridges on a wide range of social justice issues. But atheists must insist that where we disagree, those bridges have to be built upon facts and reason and universal values. Religious beliefs cannot serve as the foundation to bring together those who do not share them. We must insist that our government limit itself to the real-world in which we all live. 

Although even atheists can get caught up in silly debates, the main reason we are activists is because we see powerful religious interests, perhaps unwittingly and with sincerely good intentions, pushing America toward delusional thinking and theocratic behaviors. And both, at any level, are anathema to our American ideals, including the free exercise of religion. Ironically, while we do not believe in religion, we atheists actively defend the separation of church and State that ultimately protects religious liberty. 

So, in order to move forward, we must refuse to engage in arguments over fictions and get to work in the real world. We must listen to any reasonable, fact-based arguments. But we must insist that if religious believers wish to inform social policy in keeping with their religious beliefs, that they do so by sticking to objective facts and sound logic. 

WA State Toying With Theocracy

Adapted from the version originally printed in the News Tribune (see here).

The Washington State legislature is currently considering joint Resolution 8205 to amend the state constitution with language to “protect” religious freedom (see here). While protecting any group of people always seems like a good thing, there is a lot about this amendment that sounds like the ominous drumbeat of theocracy on the march.

It starts out by declaring that the rights of people to worship are “guaranteed” and no one shall be “molested or disturbed” on account of their religious belief. That seems innocuous enough but such protections already exist and there is no reason to codify them further in the state constitution. We don’t need to clutter up our constitution with reassurances for every group that merely wants double extra emphasis of their rights.

Next the authors added language to “not forbid” religious organizations from receiving state public money. This is yet another of the incessant attacks by religious organizations to undermine our American tradition of separation of church and state. There are sound arguments why our separation exists and tremendous care should be taken to protect it against the continual efforts by religious organizations to dismantle it.

The next section provides a constitutional guarantee that religious beliefs cannot be considered in any evaluation of a person’s qualifications and fitness for any job. We have seen too many cases in which public officials have refused to carry out their essential functions in office because it conflicts with their religious belief. Other times, in adherence to their beliefs, they have been seen to interpret their responsibilities and focus their attention in a way that is not in the public good or faithful to their office. Religious people are proud that their beliefs influence their public behavior. To nevertheless exclude those beliefs from consideration in making personnel decisions is reckless and denies the reality of how real people behave.

In similar fashion, the new language guarantees that religious belief shall not be considered in jury selection or in consideration of legal testimonies. Again, this is reckless and denies the glaringly obvious fact that religious belief can impact the impartiality of a juror or the credibility of a witness. The capacity of a person to believe religious nonsense can and should be a part of the picture in evaluating their credibility on other issues.

I know that some might think that these protections are evidence of an enlightened nation that seeks to protect all points of view. I submit that such absolute protections are far more indicative of repressive theocratic regimes that end up with a religious ruling class that can never be questioned, challenged, or held accountable for the beliefs and the resultant public policies that they impose on others. They want their cake and eat it too; to believe whatever crazy thing they want, enact it publicly, and bear no risk of adverse consequences or repercussions.

Many religious advocates have long argued that homosexual individuals are not deserving of status as a protected class because they [falsely] claim that their behavior is a choice. Religious belief certainly is a choice, and by their own logic does not deserve extraordinary constitutional protections. If we allow religious advocates to codify these kind of absolute protections into our constitutions, make no mistake, it is not hyperbole to say that we are not moving toward liberal enlightenment but toward repressive conservative theocracy.

MilosciaState Senator Mark Miloscia (see here) is a primary driving force behind this legislation. I have no doubt that Senator Miloscia would love a constitutional amendment to expand his own Christian mission into the public sphere and to elevate his personal beliefs above public scrutiny. But this attempt to insert his religious beliefs into public policy is the best possible example of why his resolution is so very dangerous and must be resisted with all possible vigor.

Shame on Baumgartner, O’Ban, Becker, Bailey, and Warnick for co-sponsoring this regressive amendment with Senator Miloscia. I urge you to withdraw your support.


Jefferson’s Grand Nightmare

ThomasJeffersonThomas Jefferson was our Einstein of social and political science. He had an uncanny ability to understand human behavior and to envision what would ultimately grow from the seeds being planted in his times. Because of his visionary insight he fought for many years with his contemporaries, including his protégé Madison, to convince them to adopt several key provisions into our new Constitution. In fact he threatened to dismantle the effort to build a new nation if they were not included. He was adamant that a nation without these essential protections would be worse than none at all.

The first was Separation of Church and State, for without that protection he foresaw that our secular freedoms would inevitably be corrupted into a Theocracy. Jefferson would probably be relieved to see that we still do protect our wall of separation and that it offers some protections against Theocracy, but he would probably still be shocked and disappointed at the extent to which religion has succeeded in subverting or bypassing that wall.

The second thing he insisted upon was a ban against a standing army, for he feared that a standing army would only ensure perpetual war and war-profiteering. On this Jefferson would most certainly be horrified and most gravely disappointed. We do have a standing army that is only in principle under the command of a “civilian” President. In truth his worst fears in this regard have been realized with our huge standing army and the almost irresistible profit motive that ensures unending warfare.

The third thing Jefferson fought for was protections against corporations, for he saw that without very strong protections, our nation would inevitably be coopted into a Corporatocracy to serve the interests of corporate enterprises. He feared that these ravenous “wolves at the door” as he called them would eventually devour the government.

Jefferson did win this battle – for a while. The founders explicitly and deliberately never used the word “corporation” in the Constitution because they feared that merely by mentioning the word, corporations would be conferred with some status. For our first 100 years or so, most States had extremely stringent laws in place to prohibit any political action whatsoever by corporations. In fact, until as late as 1950 some states still had laws on the books forcing companies to disperse completely every 20-40 years to prevent them from amassing too much power and wealth that could corrupt the government.

When did the protections Jefferson put in place all fall apart? The root is the 1857 Dred-Scott decision that essentially said that people could be property. This resulted in the Civil War and the Civil War had the horrible side-effect of creating a monstrous gun industry (and a gun-culture) in America as the government cranked out untold numbers of guns that eventually ended up in the general population. The second corporate behemoth that was created by the Civil War was the rail industry as President Lincoln pumped huge amounts of money into rail to mobilize his war effort. These newly giant corporations helped win the war, but also became corporate monsters with new-found wealth and appetite for more.

Unsatisfied with accepting the corporate restrictions that had held corporate influence at bay since the Constitution, the rail industry started to direct its wealth into politics in an explicit effort to dismantle corporate restrictions on political influence. In the 1875 Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railway case, the claim was put forth that the 14th amendment protected companies as persons. The court explicitly ruled that “it made no ruling” on this assertion. However, in a published headnote the reporting journal “mistakenly” said that it did so. This was completely erroneous and absolutely non-binding, but yet law students to this day believe that personhood for corporations was actually part of the ruling.

It all went horribly wrong from there. A subsequent court cited this mistaken report as precedent and conferred rights upon companies as persons, even though no such precedent existed. By doing so, they set an actual binding precedent that impacted dozens of subsequent rulings leading right up to our most recent one which essentially gives corporations unlimited and unfettered power. Citizens United gives them such power that the dictates of corporate greed now arguably overwhelms any other institutional force working on behalf of the social good.

And the irony is that even the citation in the 14th Amendment used to justify this claim of personhood in Santa Clara County was false. Throughout that section, the authors of the Constitution refer to “natural persons” to explicitly exclude corporations. In only one little clause, they omitted the word “natural” totally by mistake, and this omission has served as the ultimate Constitutional basis for all of the rights of personhood that corporations have won.

Citizens United was a horrible, horrible decision based on a tragically comical sequence of false legal precedents. If Thomas Jefferson were here today he would most certainly be crushed to see that the wolves are no longer at the door, they have the run of the house.

There are only two Constitutional remedies for this corporate subversion of our government. The first is for the Supreme Court to reverse itself and all previous rulings. The second is for a Constitutional Amendment to simply insert the word “natural” into the Constitution where it was meant to be. That would perhaps force the Court to reverse itself.

I am glad to see Jefferson is not here to see his worst nightmares for our nation come true. But none of these alone are the Grand Nightmare I refer to. Jefferson’s grand nightmare would be the truly horrifying synergy of these three anti-democratic forces working together; religious zealotry fueled by corporate power and greed wielding the power of a huge standing army.

The False Security of our Wall

wwzPeople build walls of all kinds and trust in them for protection. But walls are defenses of last resort. If determined enemies reach your walls, you are probably already doomed. Your walls may repel the initial wave, they may block a host of arrows, but eventually they fall to sappers, they’re breached by catapults, or they’re simply overrun by sheer unrelenting numbers. Even the Great Wall of China did little to defend against the Huns who never ceased probing for gaps, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. Nor did it offer protection against the Manchus who simply bribed their way through a major gateway. The seemingly insurmountable wall built in the movie World War Z to keep the world on the other side did little to protect civilization in the end.

Still, we continue to imagine that walls will protect us against most any threat. Many think a wall will protect them from the imagined threat of illegal immigration. Many think the walls of their gated community will protect them from the increasingly impoverished masses. Many think flood walls will protect their cities from the inexorable tides of rising oceans. Clearly they are all tragically mistaken. If Mexicans really wished to find ways into America, a wall would prove to be little more than an inconvenience. A gated community is not a self-contained biosphere and the poverty of the surrounding world will still have deadly impact on those barricaded within. And if we have not taken action to halt greenhouse gas emissions before the oceans rise to claim our coastal cities, our seawalls will prove to be no more than pathetic proof of our folly.

It is similar folly to imagine that our great Wall of Separation of Church and State truly protects secular society from the relentless incursions of religion. For every religious initiative it blocks, many more get through. This Wall, like any physical wall, cannot endure continual attacks without continual vigilance. And the reality is that its defenders are few and they get tired and need to rest while their attackers are endless and inexhaustible. If we naively hope to limit the harmful impact of religious delusion, to contain it harmlessly segregated outside the Wall, we are doomed to either suffer the slow death of a thousand religious slings and arrows or fall beneath an eventual catastrophic collapse.

This is not to say the Wall is not important. It is vitally important. But it is only a seat-belt that can limit injury but cannot address fundamental car safety. It is a pair of safety goggles that helps minimize some accidents but cannot hope to protect against unsafe lab practices. The Wall can shield us somewhat but if we rely solely upon it for our protection and safety, we cannot long survive.

Yet far too many secular leaders see protecting the Wall as a sufficient end goal of secularism. Even worse, they argue that it is not our place to dictate what goes on beyond that Wall. They imagine that as long as we have the Wall, secular and religious folk can coexist happily, separate but equal, on their respective sides.

This is folly. It is folly not only because religious people will never cease their efforts to breach the Wall – though they certainly will not. But moreover as long as we condone their ideas by giving them undue respect, as long as we give mass delusions any credibility or any benefit of any doubt, the believers conclude that their beliefs have as much legitimacy as our conclusions and they will understandably never be satisfied with anything less than a decisive voice in public policy decisions.

Consider the inevitable result of halting our secular outreach at the Wall. Religious people then have the relatively unchallenged freedom to exercise their delusions on their side. On their side they will continue to educate their children to believe fairy tales. They will continue to preach to the faithful to ignore science and reason. Some will continue to incite religious radicalism. These believers can then reach right through our mighty Wall at any time with their vote and their representatives are duty-bound to represent their religious views in public policy.

The only way to ensure a sane and stable society is to eliminate the need for any Wall. And the only way to do that is to evangelize science and fact-based thinking and stop showing undeserved respect or deference for religious or new age thinking. If we do that, if we venture outside the Wall and fight for a society where science and reason are taught to all and respected by all, religion simply fades away on its own. If we do not, if we trust in our Wall to protect our secular way of life and let religious thinking fester and grow, then we cower inside the false security of a death-trap.

It is naïve, even cravenly irresponsible, to set merely protecting the Wall as the boundary of our legitimate self-interest as a secular nation. No beliefs are benign and no beliefs are without wider consequences. They are all infections that compromise the rational capacity of the greater society. We must take the fight of reason and rationality directly to religious people. If we do not eventually eliminate the magical thinking that makes us require a Wall, and probably quite soon, then we will one day look around to find that it has been trampled to rubble under the march of believers.