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Atheism and Separation of Church and State

Atheism is really Robert’s hot topic, not mine, but I wanted to comment on an article I recently discovered via Newstrust (which I highly recommend) entitled Myth: Atheism is Promoted By Church/State Separation & Religious Neutrality. In the article, the author is attempting to debunk the notion that by maintaining a strict separation between church and state, governments are actually promoting atheism.

I agree with the author this much: that by not promoting a specific religion, the government is not intentionally promoting atheism. But “intentionally promoting” is only a narrow interpretation of the word “promoting”, in that you can promote something without meaning to. The effects of not endorsing a specific religion are complex, and I would argue that in the long run, atheism does much better in an evironment in which there is no established religion.

First, there is the obvious point that in a state with an established religion, it is hard for other creeds or (dis)belief systems to gain a foothold, regardless of whether they be theist or atheist in nature.

However, there’s a more subtle point: Atheism is, in my view, a branch of Skepticism, which has a long and established philosophical history. The other main branch of skepticism is what you might call spiritual skepticism, which expresses doubts about the power of logic and human reason. This other branch is little known today, but was a major force in philosophy during the period of the Greek and Roman civilizations all the way up through the middle ages. Rational skepticism, which we know today, is just the opposite – it expresses doubts about our ability to know the supernatural, while maintaining a strong belief in the power of logic. The reason that this latter form of skepticism is so widespread today is because of the stunning success of the Enlightenment, that is, we live in a world in which logic and reason have been demonstrated to have great power. During the earlier period where we didn’t have such a good understanding of physics and the other sciences, it was possible (even reasonable) to claim that we would never be able to comprehend nature and the “workings of God”.

Despite the fact that these two forms of skepticism are mirror images of each other, they also have much in common.

If we look back over the source of history, we find an interesting pattern, which is that skepticism (in its modern, rational version as well as its historical, spiritiual version) tends to flourish in societies where there is a lot of competition between various faiths and worldviews.

In other words, if everyone around you believes exactly the same thing, then you’d likely come to the conclusion that there must be something to it; Whereas if everyone around you believes something different, but they all claim to know the absolute truth, then you’d know that majority must be wrong; And from there its only a small jump to thinking that they must all be wrong!

Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? Suppose those six blind wise men came to you and reported their findings. One claims that it like a rope, another like a wall, and so on. Now you have to decide which one to believe. Would you simply pick one at random? Unlikely. Perhaps you have some preference as to which of the six men you consider the “wisest”. Maybe. But most likely of all, you would probably decide that they are all wrong, and that some phenomena had occurred which was beyond their understanding entirely.

Thus, a pluralistic society such as our own, in which there are a multitude of religious beliefs and many arguments over who has the “correct” belief, is exactly the kind of environment that fosters skepticism towards religion in general. And that tolerant, religiously diverse society would be impossible if there was a state-endorsed religion.

The irony here is that it is each religion’s insistence that they are right and all others are wrong that weakens their case; In an environment where each creed insists they alone know the truth, the more they assert this argument the less believable they become.

Which matches very well with my own experience talking to friends and co-workers about religion. I am far from the so-called “bible belt”, so clearly my social network is not representative of the country as a whole. But most of the people who I talk to seem to feel that religion is not only untrue, but unimportant – irrelevant. Not something that they really need to concern themselves with, except for the occasional political junkie who is concerned about the impact of religion on the political process.

I should also mention, it is because of this argument that skepticism flourishes in an environment in which there are competing belief systems, that I also believe that public schools should be allowed, if they wish, to offer religious instruction. I would only offer one restriction: That they must offer the students a choice of which religion they are taught! Or better yet, teach them more than one. No public school would be allowed to teach only a single religious view, there would be a “diversity requirement” for any religious curriculum such that the school must offer a wide enough range of viewpoints.

The benefits of this approach would allow students to extract much of the value of religion (and I would claim that there is much cultural and historical value to be gained), without instilling in them the poisonous dogmatic mindset that is responsible for much of our nation’s ills.

4 Responses to “Atheism and Separation of Church and State”

  1. Robert McNally Says:

    Open societies require free thought and free speech. Prohibiting a state religion is an important safeguard of those rights. Without the pressure of a state religion all world views can compete on a level playing field, whether they are theistic or non-theistic. Having a level playing field is not promoting one world view over another. In the publicly-funded classroom, providing courses in philosophy and comparative religion also provides that level playing field.

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