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The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 25, Number 1 (Spring 2009).
In the last issue of the Secular Humanist Bulletin, I reported on the debate in which I took part at Yale University in November 2008. Before the Yale Political Union (YPU), I defended the proposition: “Resolved: Religion Should Have No Place in Government.” Unfortunately, the resolution was defeated by a vote of 45 to 27. SHB printed an abridged version of my speech and asked our readers for their views on the resolution.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the resolution found more favor with our readers than with the YPU. In fact, the resolution carried 14 to 0 with what I will classify as two abstentions (persons who agreed in part but also disagreed in part). Secular humanists are not noted for being laconic, so many of those voting explained why they supported the resolution. I will provide excerpts from some of their responses.
Reggie Bruster agreed with my point that religion is a conversation-stopper; that is, once someone invokes religious doctrine as a justification for public policy, there is no possibility for a meaningful exchange of views. As he puts it, “Religion provides believers with nonnegotiable, nothing-to-discuss answers and edits, none of which has a place in democratic governments. If believers champion their sacred texts as God’s inerrant truths, chances are they aren’t open to discussion contrary to their truths.”
Phil Cook reinforced my point that “religion” cannot provide anything resembling consistent guidance on public policy, observing that “it should be obvious that religion has no place in government [because] each individual has his/her own idea of what or who God is … or what God wants of humanity.”
The two abstentions suggested that my approach to the issue may not have been ideal. John Blevens commented that for believers my arguments would have been “unconvincing” and “even offensive.” My remarks may have been a bit more pointed before the YPU than they would have been before another audience. I was advised by the leaders of the YPU that the students prefer clearly defined positions and sharp rhetoric—and, in fact, that I risked losing their attention were I to appear too deferential and considerate to opposing views. That said, I believe my arguments were sound and cogent. Moreover, even had I been less polemical in my remarks, I doubt I would have persuaded many more students. Some people are open to persuasion through discussion and debate—otherwise we would never have examples of individuals changing their views, and discussion truly would be futile—but in any given audience it is usually a minority who are not fixed in their opinions.
Of course, we must take maximum advantage of the opportunities given to us, and in this regard I found the observations of one reader especially helpful. Dr. Renee Cooperman, who holds a PhD in rhetoric and composition, provided very detailed comments on my speech—roughly ten paragraphs worth. It would be impossible to do justice to Dr. Cooperman’s many thoughtful observations in the space of this article. However, I found one of her comments especially insightful. She suggests that I could have improved my argument by emphasizing that:
The faithful do not need to worry that their ethical concerns will lose value in [my] world view. [My view] only asks that the faithful will need to find ways to express their faith through reasonable arguments….
The argument [should have] continue[d] to defend (and define) democracy as requiring a citizenship that uses reason in debate to persuade rather than religious conversion to persuade. Your points that follow about divisiveness would be stronger with a reference back to the kind of democracy both arguments find as common ground.
I did make something like this point toward the end of my speech, but it may have been better to make this clarification near the beginning to keep the fence-sitters more susceptible to persuasion. Secularists should not care so much about the source of inspiration for a person’s views but the content of those views and the existence of rationally defensible grounds for those views. Religion has no place in government, but we need to accept the reality that for the foreseeable future religion will continue to have a place in the beliefs of many, and for those who cling to religious beliefs we need to show them that they have nothing to fear from a secular government.
I thank everyone who took the time to consider and vote on the resolution.
Ronald A. Lindsay is the chief executive officer of the Center for Inquiry and a senior research fellow. He is the former executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.