A Defense of Secular Government January 19, 2010

A Defense of Secular Government

by Jesse Galef –

About a week ago I had the pleasure of attending a talk on the nature of secularism entitled “Belief and the Public”  given by Michael De Dora Jr., executive director of the CFI-NYC chapter. He started by arguing for the importance of opening religious beliefs up to scrutiny. That part didn’t surprise me and I agreed wholeheartedly.  I was, however, surprised when I realized that he was arguing against what I consider a secular government.  I thought I would put forth my vision of what a secular government is and why we should strive for it.

I should say that I’ve met Michael a couple times and like him a lot – he’s a great leader for the movement.  We’ve agreed on almost everything in the past.  Where we disagree here (besides the semantic issue of how to define secularism) is what role religion should play in our government.

The Issue in Question

Our disagreement came to light shortly after he brought up Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)’s statement opposing the anti-abortion Stupak amendment (link to video):

[This bill] further places the religious views of some into our public policy… [The separation of church and state] allows personal religious views to be personal. We should not, as members, compromise this separation.

Michael considered the remark problematic because it encourages Rep. Stupak to keep his religious beliefs private, where they will continue to subtly affect legislation.  I agree that we should get politicians’ underlying religious motivations out in the open for everyone to scrutinize.  Their “personal” religious beliefs often affect us all, and should be considered fair game for the public to examine.

However, Michael doesn’t see a problem with religious views affecting legislation, only with unchallenged religious views affecting legislation.

A more appropriate response for Rep. Lee to give, he said, would be:  “Rep. Stupak, I know your religious beliefs compel you to sponsor this anti-abortion legislation. That much is fine with me. But I want to challenge the basis of your religious views in hope of putting the truth of this matter to public debate, and perhaps even convincing you to change your mind.”

Where he and I differ is the “That much is fine with me” part.  What I think she should have said is “Rep. Stupak, I know your religious beliefs compel you to sponsor this anti-abortion bill. This is unacceptable. You should be able to separate your beliefs about God from your beliefs about government.”

After hearing the talk and discussing it with Michael later, that seems to be the crux of our disagreement.  Even after religious motivations are made public, I think they have no place in a desirable secular government.

My View of Secularism

When I advocate for a secular government, it’s important for me to let people know what I’m talking about. I take my definition of ‘secular’ from John Stuart Mill, who put it well in his Speech on Secular Education:

There is not a better defined word in the English language. Secular is whatever has reference to this life. Secular instruction is instruction respecting the concerns of this life. Secular subjects therefore are all subjects except religion.

By this definition, whether or not a government is secular is a question of its purpose and scope. A secular government focuses on issues pertaining only to this world and this life, excluding concerns of the supernatural or the afterlife.  When a secular legislative body weighs the merits of a bill, they are instructed to consider the bill’s application to this world.  God’s opinion is irrelevant to the process.

Some feel that if a district’s constituents are religious, it would be appropriate for its representative to use religious reasoning.  But representatives are not supposed to simply reflect their constituents’ views.  We give them a distinct responsibility: to serve people’s needs related to this life.  If lawmakers have unrelated feelings that prevent them from carrying out their duty, they are not fit to serve.  For comparison, think about how defense attorneys are tasked with legally defending their clients in court.  If the attorney allows personal feelings (like suspecting his client’s guilt) or a conflict of interest to affect his ability give the best legal defense, we tell him to recuse himself (or be fired).  We expect attorneys to pursue their goal without letting other concerns affect their professional actions.  We should have the same standards for our legislators.

I won’t pretend it’s easy to tell whether a legislator has supernatural motivations for supporting a particular bill.  They can always come up with post-hoc justifications that are secular in nature.  But the same can be said of the previously mentioned lawyers, board members, journalists, etc.  We encourage them to disclose their conflicts of interest and we investigate when we think their judgment has been compromised.  We should do the same in government: encourage openness so we can scrutinize reasoning, but also to criticize conflicts of interest.

There are tricky cases in which a legislator could argue that if the government paid for a church, his religious constituents would be happier – and happiness is a legitimate secular concern.  Fortunately, our Constitution includes some stronger wording for why that’s unacceptable.  I’ve only given a bare-bones vision of a secular government.  Further rules would be required to flesh it out, but the approach Michael espouses goes against its core.

Back to Reality

I’ve described the political system I want to achieve.  But saying it doesn’t make it happen.  We have to deal with the reality and make the best of this imperfect world.  And in reality, connecting religion with political power has repeatedly resulted in political strife and schisms.

In the perfect marketplace of ideas, religious views would be susceptible to the same persuasion and political negotiation that apply to other views.  Unfortunately, by invoking faith, religion has a tendency to resist the normal rules.  Michael argued that even that faith can be discussed and reasoned with.  Perhaps so, but it cannot be budged on the timescale necessary for political deliberation. Instead of asking Rep. Lee and Rep. Stupak to debate biblical interpretation on each issue – an impractical request given our experience of these debates – we should encourage them to focus on a different task: serving in secular government.

Even besides time constraints, religious reasoning resist the normal rules by creating extremes not found anywhere else in politics.  Compromise, which is so essential to politics, is made difficult to impossible when God is allowed into the discussion.  When a person believes they have God’s authority, why should they care about the thoughts and opinions of mere mortals?  Things get even worse when the subject of eternal damnation comes into play and overwhelms any concerns for the quality of life here and now.  By insisting that we only grant our government power focused on this life, we give the system a chance to make progress.  We need more voices arguing for this vision of politics.

Some might argue that legislators are going to be affected by their religious views no matter what, and that we need to accept that and try to engage with the beliefs as the only way to improve legislation. It might not be possible for a legislator to entirely separate his religious beliefs from his secular concerns, but that doesn’t mean we should give up and stop striving to get closer to that ideal.

That’s not to say that beliefs should be entirely private, just as irrelevant as possible in politics.  The debate should happen outside the halls of congress.  Society can and should discuss all ideas, but we can do so without taking a step back toward the days of constant politico-theological infighting.  Political arguments can continue on topics more amenable to negotiation, compromise, and persuasion.

Michael’s view – that we should allow and engage with the ideas – has a lot of supporters.  In fact, a particular William Connolly book argues that religion will – and should – always affect public policy, and the best course of action is to encourage pluralistic interaction and engagement:

“Negotiation of an ethos of engagement provides the best alternative to both a secularism in which partisans pretend to leave their basic presumptions at home when they enter public life and a republican notion governed by a single conception of the common good.”

The book’s title?  Why I am not a Secularist.  I was surprised to hear Michael argue against what I consider secularism, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see a leader of the Center for Inquiry trust in the power of open discourse.

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  • TychaBrahe

    See, the majority of our politicians are Christian, which doesn’t prohibit much that we aren’t used to.

    What if instead of Rep. Stupak arguing against abortion, it were Sen. Lieberman or Rep. Ellison arguing to make pork consumption illegal, based on their religious beliefs? What if it were Senators Reid and Hatch arguing to ban caffeine or alcohol based on their religious beliefs?

  • Michael considered the remark problematic because it encourages Rep. Stupak to keep his religious beliefs private, where they will continue to subtly affect legislation. I agree that we should get politicians’ underlying religious motivations out in the open for everyone to scrutinize. Their “personal” religious beliefs often affect us all, and should be considered fair game for the public to examine.

    A more appropriate response for Rep. Lee to give, he said, would be: “Rep. Stupak, I know your religious beliefs compel you to sponsor this anti-abortion legislation. That much is fine with me. But I want to challenge the basis of your religious views in hope of putting the truth of this matter to public debate, and perhaps even convincing you to change your mind.”

    Where he and I differ is the “That much is fine with me” part. What I think she should have said is “Rep. Stupak, I know your religious beliefs compel you to sponsor this anti-abortion bill. This is unacceptable. You should be able to separate your beliefs about God from your beliefs about government.”

    You’re asking too much. You simply will not get this from religious people. The Christian faith, especially in its more fundamentalist and evangelical guises, disallows it outright.

    I also find your idea a bit repulsive. You’re talking about policing people’s thoughts. It should be no more acceptable in the promotion of our ideals than in the promotion of religious agendas. It’s perfectly acceptable to disagree with a person’s thinking – in fact, it ought to be encouraged, and we should even debate ideas vigorously. It is not acceptable to say that they must not think a particular way, or use a particular worldview to inform their decisions. Their motivation is not relevant when what we’re discussing is their actions. Someone could believe that they’re doing everything they do to please their God and still make all the same decisions we would like them to. Outcomes are important, and the means by which we achieve them are important, but we shouldn’t be in the business of telling people that they can’t seek those outcomes on the basis of ideals with which we disagree.

  • Colin

    I think that perhaps Michael and Jesse are missing the real nature of this debate. The real question about religion in politics has to do with the justifications given and their so-called “universal accessibility.” John Rawls argues that we have a moral obligation to give universally acceptable reasons, at least for basic political structures, at least to reasonable citizens (some big caveats there), and Robert Audi makes the argument that I think Jesse is trying to make – namely that religious justifications are morally wrong b/c people should not seek to bind others based on their personal, controversial beliefs. But here’s the problem – How can we really tell which beliefs (secular or religious) are properly “accessible”?

    Can you ground your secular / humanist ethics on a metaphysical foundation more acceptable than that of a Roman Catholic? Perhaps, but the point is that we all have more or less “private” beliefs and assumptions that others reject, and to single out religious assumptions may be unfair. Believers in politics aren’t often making claims about the supernatural; they are making moral claims and using their religion as a justification / foundation. Secular liberals make competing moral claims, with (hopefully) more reasonable parameters, but in an ultimate epistemic sense, we can’t be sure that our moral foundations are ‘superior’ to believers’, especially when we’re talking about public debate.

    For more on this basic line of thought, read Austin Dacey’s “The Secular Conscience.” His basic thrust is that secularists have better arguments, but that there is no way to rule certain families of belief as impermissible to public debate from on high.

  • I believe there are two problems here. One is, the distinction between secular and religious government. Biblical religion assumes this worldly effects from disobedience of God’s will, as in “oppress the poor and the nation will fall”. The plagues in Egypt were secular in their effects, for example. You may feel that such predictions are mistaken, but they concern secular matters. The other problem is the characterization of Stupak’s “religious belief”. What do you imagine God is telling Stupak? Is he being told that the fetus is a form of human life? But I believe that without regard to any religious commitment, on the basis of its unique DNA. Or is God telling Stupak to protect human life, which is something you presumably believe as well? There may be only religious reasons to avoid pork, but there are secular reasons to avoid killing human beings.
    .-= Bruce Ledewitz´s last blog ..Dances with Wolves Meets The Matrix =-.

  • muggle

    I agree. If you can’t put your religion aside, then you should refrain from being a government representative in a secular country. The thing is you represent all the people, not just those who believe as you do. If you bring your religion into it, you are not fairly representing those of your district who are not the same religion as you — and you have a duty to represent them.

  • Neon Genesis

    I don’t think it’s so much that they’re suggesting that religious people can’t turn to their religious faith for justification for their morals but you have to have something other than just your religion to back up your claims. For example, if you think gay marriage should be banned while allowing straight couples to be married, you’d better have more than an unproven religious belief to back up the claim otherwise that’s turning America into a theocracy, not that we’re policing people’s thoughts and telling them they can’t form morals from the bible.

  • Jerry Schwarz

    Representatives have to consider their beliefs when taking positions on public policy. This is especially true when (as in the abortion debate) they are moral beliefs and not factual ones. Whats the alternative? To only vote based on raw political calculations? To say that they shouldn’t act on their religious beliefs is to say that religious beliefs are somehow not really “beliefs”. What’s wrong with acting on religious beliefs isn’t that they are religious it is that it is wrong to base beliefs on “faith” which is an illegitimate mode of reasoning. An analogy here is voting on funding for research on acupuncture. If a representative believes that acupuncture is valuable (as many do) then it isn’t wrong for them to act on that belief. However since acupuncture doesn’t work it’s wrong for them to have that belief in the first place.

    Fortunately we have a Bill of Rights that limits congressional actions whether they are based on religious or secular beliefs. And the Supreme Court has said that one of those rights is the right to an abortion. I don’t know how many of those who voted for or against the Stupak amendment did so on moral grounds and how many did so with an eye to the next election. I presume most representatives voted on some of both. But I think the moral grounds are more legitimate than the political ones.

    Jesse wants a “secular government” and defines that as one where the participants don’t take their religious beliefs into account. As an atheist I don’t tell people what their religion requires. If someone says that their religion requires them to support certain policies I take what they say at face value. If I understand Jesse he would exclude such people from government. This would be a religious test and the constitution prohibits that.

  • AxeGrrl

    Neon Genesis wrote:

    I don’t think it’s so much that they’re suggesting that religious people can’t turn to their religious faith for justification for their morals but you have to have something other than just your religion to back up your claims. For example, if you think gay marriage should be banned while allowing straight couples to be married, you’d better have more than an unproven religious belief to back up the claim

    You nailed it NG. If one’s religious belief is the only thing one is basing a political argument on, and if there are no secular reasons/arguments to support it, then it needs to be dismissed.

  • Neon Genesis

    The way I look at is that it’s like a court of law. If all we needed to put someone behind jails was the eyewitnesses’ personal beliefs, there would be no need for courts, trials, and investigations. You have to have more than just a belief that a person committed an act of murder before you put them behind bars. You have to have actual tangible evidence backing your claims up. It’s the same thing with non-religious beliefs in politics as well. Even if you’re an atheist, if you believe Obama was secretly born in Kenya and that his birth certificate that proves otherwise is a forgery, you’re going to have to present some actual tangible evidence to prove it’s true other than just your blind assertion that Obama is secretly a Kenyan citizen and you’re not excused from this rule just because you don’t believe in God. The problem with basing government laws on religion is that so far no religion has presented any tangible evidence of its claims yet and so just like it would be unfit in a court of law to create laws based on faith alone, so it is also unfit for government law. And even some Christians, like the Interfaith Alliance recognize the importance of a secular government not guided by religion: http://www.interfaithalliance.org/

  • muggle

    . If all we needed to put someone behind jails was the eyewitnesses’ personal beliefs, there would be no need for courts, trials, and investigations.

    And what we’d have is Salem all over again. Spectral evidence being barred happened for a reason.

  • Miko

    Your position is not agent-neutral, and so I disagree. Why should religious morality be excluded from influencing bills while all other nonreligious moral systems should be allowed to influence bills? Why is “I believe that abortion is wrong, so I shouldn’t be forced to pay for your abortion” a worse argument than “I believe that abortion is not wrong, so you should be forced to pay for my abortion”?

    muggle: If you can’t put your religion aside, then you should refrain from being a government representative in a secular country. The thing is you represent all the people, not just those who believe as you do. If you bring your religion into it, you are not fairly representing those of your district who are not the same religion as you — and you have a duty to represent them.

    If they did what you want, they’d no longer be fairly representing those of their district who are the same religion of them. Don’t forget that the core problem with district-based representative government is that it’s nonsense on stilts.

    Tycha: What if instead of Rep. Stupak arguing against abortion, it were Sen. Lieberman or Rep. Ellison arguing to make pork consumption illegal

    This is not an apt analogy, as the Stupak amendment doesn’t ban abortion, but only says that public funds can’t be used to pay for it. A better comparison would be if instead they were trying to pass a law making it illegal for the government to fund the purchase of pork through its “Free Food to Everyone” program, except for the fact that this program doesn’t actually exist (yet).

    Colin: John Rawls argues that we have a moral obligation to give universally acceptable reasons, at least for basic political structures … But here’s the problem – How can we really tell which beliefs (secular or religious) are properly “accessible”?

    The problem only arises because our current government is so diametrically opposed to the principles of Rawlsian liberalism. The proper solution of course is to recall that the essence of liberalism has always been self-determination and so have every decision made at the most local level it conceivably could be made at: the gay marriage issue can be settled by each individual gay couple, wages are an issue between employees and employers, immigration is an issue between an individual and her feet, the proper level of health care and how to fund it is a fundamentally personal issue [N.B. the omission of insurance companies from this clause is not a mistake and this is most definitely not an argument for the continued dominance of insurance companies; without government intervention of the form currently under display, they wouldn’t even exist], etc. To do otherwise is to say, “You could make this decision for yourself, but instead I’m going to use the threat of violence in order to make it for you” and is thus to wholeheartedly embrace conservatism.

  • michaeliharris01@yahoo.com

    OMG this is so wrong. They should keep away their belief from their job, people are suffering from their stupidity. They should never use the government marketplace for their own use.