Secularism and The Religious


Bill Maher and Andrew Sullivan had an interesting clash over religion on Real Time this week (video above, along with a discussion of Sarah Palin.) This exchange demonstrates an important point regarding the politics of belief vs. disbelief. Bill Maher generally takes the extreme attitude of not only disagreeing with those who believe in god but of making a point of displaying his disdain for them. Regardless of the validity of the opposing argument, it is a foolish point of view to take from a political perspective. You simply are not going to either change the minds or get the votes of people you deride as being fools. The exchange above also demonstrates why this is unnecessary.

There is similar intolerance on the other side of the issue, with many religious voters failing to understand the meaning of secular government as established by the founding fathers. Andrew Sullivan referred to himself as a religious secularist, which might help clear up some of the confusion among conservatives who equate secularism with hostility towards religion. He differentiated between his faith-based beliefs on religious matters and fact-based views on political issues stating, “I believe our politics should be governed by secular principles.” Maher, while still unlikely to have changed his mind on religion, did concede, “That’s an improvement.”

That is more than just “an improvement.” That is all that is necessary. Any individual’s personal beliefs on religion should be of no concern with regards to politics as long as they understand that religious beliefs should not be the basis for public policy.  Such a separation between religious beliefs and public policy is also what Obama has been advocating in his defense of separation of church and state. Obama has argued essentially the same point made by Sullivan in saying:

We should acknowledge this and realize that when we’re formulating policies from the state house to the Senate floor to the White House, we’ve got to work to translate our reasoning into values that are accessible to every one of our citizens, not just members of our own faith community.

In other words, religious voters might be influenced by their religious views, but such religious views are not a valid argument with regards to public policy. The beliefs of religious voters are only a valid consideration in public policy if they relate to general or universally accepted values and are not based upon specific religious teachings. It is not necessary to wipe out religion, as a handful of radical atheists seem to favor, as long as religious views are not imposed upon others through government action.

Oliver Kamm discussed this further over the weekend in the Times of London:

Beliefs about first and last things, and religious worship, are private choices in which the state has absolutely no legitimate role. Secularism protects religious liberty by, as Agnès says, abstaining from the choice of one religion against another, or of religious belief against non-belief. Atheism is a private belief, and one I hold; it is not a position that should occupy civic space, any more than should the monotheistic religions.

Even many advocates of secularism get this wrong. I agree with a good deal of the argument of Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, and consider, as Dawkins does, that there is an essential conflict between science and religion. (This is not due to any particular finding of scientific inquiry, such as the fact of evolution, which it’s perfectly possible for a theist to accept. It is due rather to the different ethos of science, which is questioning, and that of religion, which is by definition the explication of a body of beliefs. One is critical; the other is dogmatic.) My difference with Dawkins is on politics and social questions.

The cause of secularism is politically vital. But there is no political case for atheism. (I do believe, as a pragmatic point, that society would be better off if there were more atheists around; but I also believe that society would be better off if moderate religion, accommodating itself to secular government and education, supplanted religious absolutism. A consistent secularist would be indifferent between these possibilities.) Dawkins, by contrast, maintains (p. 44): “American atheists far outnumber religious Jews, yet the Jewish lobby is notoriously one of the most formidably influential in Washington. What might American atheists achieve if they organised themselves properly?”

Leave aside the tendentious first sentence of that statement. (American Jewry is not “formidably influential” in forming public policy, even with regard to US policy in the Middle East; it genuinely isn’t.) The second strikes me as a thoroughly bad idea. I do not wish to see, and will not sign up to, an organised interest group of atheists, because atheism is a private belief, of no civic significance. So is religious belief. The task of defending state neutrality between those positions is what we, and the President of the French Fifth Republic, should defend.

1 Comment

  1. 1
    Diana Hsieh says:

    “Any individual’s personal beliefs on religion should be of no concern with regards to politics as long as they understand that religious beliefs should not be the basis for public policy.”

    Amen to that!

    Diana Hsieh
    Founder, Coalition for Secular Government

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