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.