The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 24, Number 4 (Winter 2008/2009).
On November 11, 2008, the Yale Political Union (YPU) held a debate on the topic “Resolved: Religion Should Have No Place in Government.” YPU invited yours truly to argue in favor of that proposition. After my argument and a question-and-answer period, the student members of YPU took turns giving five-minute speeches in favor of or against the resolution. The debate was lively and intellectually stimulating, and the arguments of the speakers were sharp and unsparing in their criticism—just as they should be. A vote was then held. Regrettably, the resolution was defeated, by a vote of 27 to 45.
Will I do better with you? You can let us know by sending an e-mail with your vote to info [at] secularhumanism.org. Please put “Vote on YPU Resolution” in your subject line. We will report the results, along with excerpts from some of the e-mails, in the next issue of SHB. Below, with some edits, is an abridged version of the speech I delivered for YPU.
Religion should have no place in government. Before I begin to defend that proposition, let me be clear about what I am advocating: I certainly am not advocating that persons who are religious should be excluded from government positions, much less that they should be denied the right to vote. Such a policy of exclusion would be both inadvisable and morally repugnant, even if it were possible to implement such a policy. Nor am I saying that it is improper for government officials or voters to be inspired in some way by their religious beliefs. The source of one’s motivations is a matter of indifference to others, at least to the extent that this motivating source merely provides one with a general commitment to act responsibly and with respect for others in the moral community.
No, what principally concerns me and many other secularists is religion’s role in informing and shaping public policy and, in particular, in the use of religious tenets as a justification for public policy. It is in that sense that religion has no place in government. Discourse about public policy should be framed entirely in secular terms, and decisions about public policy should be based entirely on secular considerations.
Why do I take that view? To begin, I am assuming that we are speaking about a democratic form of government, or at least a government of a country in which the citizens are encouraged to discuss and debate public policy and the government is expected to justify its public policy to its citizens. There is one clear prerequisite for democratic discourse to be successful: the participants in that discussion must be able to understand, evaluate, and debate reasons that others offer for their views. That is not possible if religious doctrine is offered as a justification for public-policy positions.
If you claim that you oppose same-sex marriage because the Old Testament states that homosexual conduct is an abomination, that’s the end of the discussion, isn’t it? There’s really nothing more to say. Similarly, if you claim that you oppose the death penalty solely because you believe it violates God’s commandment not to kill, that also puts a stop to our discussion. At this stage, there’s effectively no way for someone who differs from you to persuade you otherwise.
Now you might say: Is this such a bad thing provided that, ultimately, decisions on what public policies to pursue are left to the people? Eventually, we will decide at the ballot box which policies will be implemented. True, but notice two things. First, if we allow religious tenets to provide a justification for public policy, then what voters are being asked to decide is whether to vote in favor of particular religious beliefs. I don’t think that I have to dwell on why that is not an especially attractive proposition. The last thing any society needs is to divide along religious lines. History provides ample proof of the serious problems caused by religious disputes and how so often there is no resolution to deep-seated religious divisions other than through violence. Second, there is value in discussion. When we can discuss the pros and cons of a particular policy, we may just arrive at a better decision. As indicated, discussion is foreclosed when one appeals to religious tenets or dogma.
Now someone might question my key premise. You might ask why is it the case that reliance on religion cuts short discussion. Can’t we discuss religion just like we discuss other beliefs? In principle, perhaps. In reality, no. I should note that one of my colleagues at the Center for Inquiry, Dr. Austin Dacey, has written a book, The Secular Conscience, in which he argues against the view I am advocating here, at least in part. Dacey does not think it is a good thing for religious tenets to influence public policy, but he does maintain that religious beliefs can permissibly be advanced as a justification for policies during public debates. To quote Dacey:
“Secular liberals must lift the gag order on … religion in public debate. We can no longer insist on precluding controversial … religious claims from public conversation. Let believers and unbelievers speak their minds and let honest debate ensue. This is not to say anything goes in public discourse. Claims of conscience in politics should be held to the same standards as other serious public proposals: honesty, consistency, rationality, evidential support, feasibility, legality, morality, and revisability.”
One problem with Dacey’s proposal is indicated by the last sentence of that excerpt. Religious belief is not something usually held to the same standards of consistency, rationality, and evidential support as are other beliefs on which public policy might be based, and that includes our moral beliefs. That Jesus was simultaneously both divine and human seems on the face of it impossible—even more than some being having the identity of both a rhinoceros and a worm—but that does not prevent Christians from asserting this belief because at the end of the day they can always invoke “faith.” “Faith” means not having to supply reasons. You cannot argue with someone’s faith. If you don’t believe me, try arguing with a Chicago Cubs fan.
Furthermore, even if adherents of religion were willing to allow their beliefs to be examined critically, and certainly some theologians are willing to submit at least some of their claims to scrutiny, think about how involved the process of determining public policy would become. Every time someone offered a religious belief as a justification for public policy, we would become immersed in an incredibly complex discussion about whether the underlying religious belief is justified. Let’s say someone favors abstinence-only education because fornication is a sin in Christian doctrine. To start off, we would have to examine the basis for the claim that fornication is indeed a sin. This requires exegesis of biblical texts that are not terribly straightforward or transparent in their meaning. More over, who is to say the Bible represents the commandments of God? We now know, for example, that the four canonical Gospels set forth in the New Testament represent a fraction of the various gospels regarding Jesus that floated around in the first few centuries of the Common Era. How do we determine which statements attributed to Jesus actually represent the views of Jesus? Do we even know whether Jesus existed? Scholars have spent decades on such questions. And, of course, for those who do not accept Jesus as divine or even a divinely inspired prophet, there is the problem of proving to them that they should accept the pronouncements of Jesus as authoritative. How in God’s name do we accomplish that within the period of the time available for coming to a decision on a public policy such as the support of abstinence-only education? We cannot turn every public policy debate into a debate on religion unless we are willing to spend all eternity engaged in such debates.
Contrast this religion-laden approach to public policy with the secular approach. The primary goals of abstinence-only education are to reduce STDs and unwanted pregnancy. If abstinence-only education is effective in achieving these goals, especially if it is more effective than standard sex education, perhaps it should be supported. If it is not, then support may not be advisable. This is a question that can be resolved through empirical studies. Granted these empirical studies cannot be done overnight, but they require a finite amount of time and yield clear results, as contrasted with the lifetime of study that would be required to address abstruse theological questions that do not promise to yield a definitive answer ever. In fact, studies have been carried out on abstinence-only education, and these studies show it is not effective. That should resolve this question, and it would resolve this question if we kept religion out of government.
But you might ask at this point, are we not denying to those who accept religion as a guide to moral values a right to participate in government? Or, at the very least, are we not requiring them to restructure and rephrase their views in nonreligious terms before they participate in government? This was the complaint made by Stephen Carter in his book The Culture of Disbelief. He argued that those who want to keep religion out of government force religious citizens to restructure their arguments in purely secular terms before they can be presented. To which I say: And? So what? What is wrong with that?
As I said in the beginning, I am not arguing that religious persons should be kept out of government and, of course, I recognize that a person’s religious beliefs will influence her outlook. But if that person wants to engage fellow citizens in a discussion about the correct course of action to take, she must restructure her arguments in secular terms. There is nothing onerous about that requirement. In fact, it operates as a much-needed check on the soundness of one’s reasoning. If one cannot reformulate a religiously based moral belief in terms that a nonbeliever might find persuasive, one should pause to consider whether one’s views are correct. Perhaps you have misinterpreted God’s commandments. After all, why would God ask you to follow a rule that does not make any sense when you try to explain it to someone else?
I submit we need to go beyond sacred texts and religious dogma when considering the basis for public policy. Using some allegedly sacred writing from millennia ago—that provides us with the profound wisdom of a nomadic and barbaric tribe—as both the starting and end point of any public policy debate does not seem an especially promising way to deliver solutions to twenty-first-century problems.
Ronald A. Lindsay is the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.