Thursday, November 1, 2012

Modern Secularism and its Disdain for Conscience

At a secular humanist meeting, one irate atheist barked:

  • As far as I’m concerned, Christians can believe anything they want. But once they try to influence legislation and impose their religion on everyone else, that’s when I draw the line!
I responded:

  • Well, aren’t you atheists also trying to impose your beliefs and religion on others?
This, of course, raises many important questions:

  1. What does it mean to “impose their religion on others?” Is it just a matter of a theist having a seat at the political table to discuss various social issues – or even merely to vote - or is it a matter of establishing a state religion which everyone must support and attend?

  1. How does our legal system – the Constitution and the “Separation of Church and State” – answer these questions? And what does it mean to live in a secular state?
For one thing, the well-known “separation clause” is found nowhere in the Constitution. Instead, the First Amendment to the Constitution forbids the establishment of a national religion and any government coercion of religion. According to Wikipedia, “separation” language was introduced later by the Deist Thomas Jefferson:

·        In the United States, the term is an offshoot of the phrase, "wall of separation between church and state", as written in Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The original text reads: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof [language from the First Amendment],' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State." Jefferson reflected his frequent speaking theme that the government is not to interfere with religion.

Of what did this “wall” consist? It certainly could not have barred Theists or Deists from politics, since all of the Founding Fathers, as far as we know, believed in some form of creator God. Nor could it have barred the expression of values, even Biblically inspired values, since all had values. Otherwise they would have absolutely no basis to legislate anything. However, as Jefferson stated, this did bar the establishment of a national religion and the interference of government into religion. This probably also meant that religious dogma that couldn’t be supported by reason or by common law could not be enshrined within the Constitution. For instance, the Constitution could rule against government interference into the church because of reason and common law, but not because the Bible prohibited it.

Consequently, Article 6, Section 3 of the Constitution states “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This meant that a political candidate couldn’t be disqualified by his religion or lack of religion. Instead of secularism narrowing down the field, it opened it up. Instead of disqualifying any who didn’t believe in the prevailing secularism, it opened the field to all. However, today’s secularism seeks to disqualify businesses or candidates that don’t share their opinions in favor of abortion or gay marriage.

The First Amendment was never intended to separate religious people from public discussion. James Madison, the principal drafter of the United States Bill of Rights illuminated the reasoning behind the “establishment clause.” A 1789 debate in the House of Representatives regarding the draft of the First Amendment records:

·        “Mr. [James] Madison [of Virginia] said he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that "Congress should not establish a [national] religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law...Mr. Madison thought if the word "National" was inserted before religion, it would satisfy the minds of honorable gentlemen [who had reservations]...He thought if the word "national" was introduced, it would point the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent.

According to its author, the “establishment clause” was never intended to place religion at a disadvantage, as it has in New York City, which wanted to expel the churches from the city schools where they had been renting space on Sundays. The City had erroneously supported their action by the “separation clause.” Nor was it ever dreamed that this clause could be invoked to prevent Christians from doing business because they didn’t partake in the national ideology.

According to Wikipedia, Madison later claimed:

·        "We are teaching the world the great truth that Govts. do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Govt.” This attitude is further reflected in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, originally authored by Jefferson and championed by Madison, and guaranteeing that no one may be compelled to finance any religion or denomination.

The “wall of separation” also meant that people shouldn’t be compelled to support religion. However, today’s secularism has come a long way. Now, many secularists argue in favor of removing that “wall” in order to tax churches to support the secular government. However, according to one secular source, Madison argued that:

·        "It may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points.  The tendency to usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded agst. by an entire abstinence of the Gov't from interference in any way whatsoever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, and protecting each sect agst. trespasses on its legal rights by others."

In no way did this “separation” exclude Christians from the public sector. Instead, Madison understood that the abstinence of the government from matters of religion was essential. However, with the proliferation of federal government into matters of social welfare, health care and even public education has made conflict inevitable.

Wikipedia argues that this “wall of separation” had been influenced by the thinking of English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704).

·        Locke argued that the government lacked authority in the realm of individual conscience, as this was something rational people could not cede to the government for it or others to control. For Locke, this created a natural right in the liberty of conscience, which he argued must therefore remain protected from any government authority. These views on religious tolerance and the importance of individual conscience, along with his social contract, became particularly influential in the American colonies and the drafting of the United States Constitution.

Although many of the Founding Fathers weren’t orthodox Christians, they understood the necessity to not coerce “individual conscience.” Just until recently, even the decisions of the US Supreme Court upheld the importance of conscience, even at the cost of national security. The Court upheld the right of “conscientious objectors” to not have to bear arms and the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to not have to pledge allegiance.

Today’s secularism is different. It has little tolerance for issues of conscience – others’ conscience. It wants to place the churches under federal hiring guidelines, thereby depriving churches the right to govern themselves. It has removed Christian groups from campus because they fail to conform to the secular beliefs of the university. Today’s secularism seeks to remove conscience objections in health care, requiring pharmacists to sell the morning-after drug, or nurses to participate in abortions or Christian businesses to provide insurance for procedures that violate their conscience. Secularism has imposed its own religion upon the public schools, disqualifying any mention of God in favor of atheistic explanations. Instead of teaching moral absolutes, secularism has imposed moral relativity in most areas, except where it directly impacts school governance. For instance, while we are no longer able to criticize any sexual lifestyle, cheating on exams is absolutely wrong!

We need to readdress this essential question: “Can we all live together under a system of increasing top-down coercion, or must we retain a respect for individual conscience?”

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