Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Secular does not Mean Atheistic

One of the common bromides the religious right pushes is the for-us-or-against-us mentality that there cannot be neutrality with regard to religion in the public sphere. Secularism to them is just atheism by another name. Their arguments are many and flawed in this regard, but luckily Zachary Gappa was kind enough to list many of them in one convenient article, ripe for fisking, so let's dive right into the stupid, shall we?

As is common with this sort of tract, Gappa completely misrepresents the position of those of us who support a strong separation of church and state, and as is so common with writers of his ilk, complete with intellectually dishonest scare quotes:

"They say the public sphere ought to be 'secular', free from talk of religion lest someone be offended. Religious freedom is interpreted as the freedom not to hear another person's religious convictions."

Absolute garbage. The issue of the secular town square has never, ever, been about taking offense, or fear of hearing other opinions. We atheists cannot hope to match the pious in those regards. The argument behind the 1st amendment is pragmatic. It is simply easier, and less bloody, to settle our civic disputes sans religion, as the ever-growing disputes in the middle east attest. Faith-based views leave little room for compromise, thus leading so often to violence. Better to keep those private, admittedly logically baseless religious views to ourselves, and hash out our civic disputes based on objective facts everyone can observe and grasp.

Now sadly we hardly live up to this standard in America. Numerous issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage, have groups whose entire political position is based on religion. The spirit of the 1st amendment is lost on them. Further, politicians find it necessary to prattle on about their faith, or their respect for that of others, to sustain their political careers. Announcing that one is an atheist is still the surest way to electoral defeat. And of course, we have people like Pat Robertson and James Dobson who wield great political power solely because of the number of people whose religious views they reflect. We have a long way to go to achieve the sort of secular civic life the founding fathers envisioned. So one can be forgiven for wondering what planet people live on who can play, with a straight face, the Oppressed Christian card in America as Gappa does:

"Sadly, these freedoms of the individual are no longer respected. The ultimate freedom is no longer the freedom to speak or practice one's religion, but the freedom to not be offended by anyone else. It is now seen as rude if one person defends their religious beliefs publicly. Beliefs about morality are no longer welcome in the public sphere. The only place left for religion is within the walls of a person's home or church."

Gappa is simply delusional here, there is no other way to put it. It is just another example of how some people are so attached to their religious view of the world that they see any restraint on it as a complete rejection. Keeping them from pushing others around equates to pushing them around in their twisted little minds.

"Most in today's culture believe that a person's religious beliefs do not have a broad impact on their view of life... And for an atheist, they are rooted in the belief that there is no God."

More MSU from Gappa, as he himself contradicts this, since most people in today's culture are in fact Christians who personally understand the impact their views have on their life. But this is typical of those pushing the persecuted-Christians meme. Christians are either the deserving majority, or the downtrodden ignored minority, depending on which best suits the author's arguments.

As for the second claim above, it reveals Gappa's ignorance of atheistic thought. Atheist views are no more based on their lack of belief in Gappa's gods than are Gappa's views based on his lack of belief in unicorns. Lack of belief is no basis for anything. It is empty by definition. Gappa cannot grasp this, which leads right into this little fallacy:

"People do not realize that a 'secular' public sphere inherently assumes that there is no God. Since every person's religious beliefs impact the way they view the world, a secular sphere discriminates against those whose opinions are rooted in their belief in God."

I'm sure Barry Lynne, pastor and head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or Francis Collins and Ken Miller, religious people and successful scientists, would find this claim interesting that they are discriminated against in their chosen secular arenas. The reason the claim is nonsense is because Gappa assumes believers have no secular views to apply in the appropriate arena. That is, secular arenas don't discriminate against believers as long as they bring secular substance to the table. It is only when they attempt to substitute religious views for the secular currency that they find themselves criticized.

To argue as Gappa does, we would conclude that any football player attempting to play basketball is unfairly discriminated against because he is not allowed to tackle people on the basketball court. The likes of Miller and Collins in science, or Lynne in politics, have no trouble succeeding and being respected by their peers because they do not attempt to use the language of religion where it is inapplicable. The first amendment says one of those spheres is the public sector, and Gappa's own example supports this position.

"One example...is Christians who oppose euthanasia on the basis that God gives humans life and does not give them the discretion to end their lives. In contrast, many atheists would argue that, since there is no God, humans are free to end their own lives whenever they deem appropriate. By removing God from the public debate on euthanasia, secularism discriminates against the opinions of the Christian."

It does? How? The Christian is free to follow his views about the gods and life with regard to his own life as he sees fit. Ah, but see, people like Gappa are never satisfied with that. They must not only be able to follow their views in their personal lives, they must also be allowed to force others to do so in the public arena.

But to see the wisdom of excluding religion from the public sphere, imagine a religious group called the Euthers, just as large as Gappa's anti-euthanasia one, whose religious views demand the euthanizing of the terminally ill. Now, how are they to settle their differences? The Gappas say euthanasia is bad, because their gods say so. The Euthers say euthanasia is good, because their gods say so. Now, the "are not"-"are so" argument is only going to continue for so long before they start shooting at each other. They have no other option, since their religious views, being faith-based, are not amenable to logical analysis. Thus, we get Northern Ireland and Iraq, as well as all the other spots in the world where the religious are at each other's throats.

Gappa would have us structure our society so that the same could happen here. Simply substitute abortion for euthanasia, and his other points fall to logic as well. Far from being impossible as he suggests, people separate their religious views from views in other arenas all the time. It's called "context", which given how brazenly Christian debaters ignore it would possibly explain why Gappa cannot grasp the possibility of doing what all of us do every day. We have our science hat, our political hat, our family hat, our church hat, and many many others.

If Gappa has his one (religion) hat and no other, he has a lot in common with another group of people, the dreaded Islamo-fascists, who he and his kind would have us believe is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. However, many of us are starting to see that Christian fundamentalists who want a theocracy are far more dangerous to everything America is supposed to stand for. A secular America is a free America, for believers and nonbelievers alike.

2 comments:

alex said...

"Secularism to them is just atheism by another name."

I agree with your disagreement, mostly.
At the same time however, there's this statement:
"intelligent design is just biblical creationism by another name"

I would have to say that to the /extent/ the latter is true, the former is true. (and false, false)

ScienceAvenger said...

That is nonsense at a very basic level. The two subjects are not in any way logically connected, thus there is no reason one couldn't be true while the other is false.

The evidence that ID = creationism is considerable, including the Wedge Document, "cdesign proponentists" from the Of Pandas and People editing, and the fact that all the ID arguments are just rehashed creationist arguments.

The evidence that secularism is not atheism could end with two words: Barry Lynne.