Thursday, December 16, 2010

Keeping church and state separate -- an excerpt

The following may become a part of the book I am working on. I'm currently writing a "defense of liberalism"/"primer for young liberals" book that is a basic outline of what the movement stands for. It should be ready for print sometime early next year.

The passage below is part of the chapter on religious freedom. I wish to offer this disclaimer before you read on: I consider myself a religious individual. I am a Christian, and believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. But I don't support the idea that my belief, nor any other belief, should be legislated (read: forced) unto others. There is no place for religion in our government -- hopefully what I've written below will explain why I feel that way.

I don't despise religion, rather I celebrate it; but I also don't feel it belongs in the laws we enact.

Thomas Paine once wrote that the only church that mattered to him was the one in his own mind. No church (or any other religious body) should ever weigh its will or dogma unto any individual, unless that person voluntarily chooses to adhere to the principles and procedures that their belief employs.

It's a noble idea that was discussed at great lengths by one of the most important (though often forgotten) founding fathers. Sadly, his sentiments are often ignored by too many in our society, both today as well as in his own time.

Zealous, overbearing religious leaders, convinced of their divine authority, often try (to this day even) interjecting their views into government policy, thereby legislating a piece of doctrine that is based on faith, not on distinguishable fact.

If an individual chooses to adhere to the rules of a specific belief, they may submit to them as they please. But requiring everyone to submit to your rules (or, heaven forbid, someone else requiring you to submit to theirs) is a clear violation of the liberties we all consider sacred.

Religious zealouts will argue that their beliefs are meant to be treated as truth -- Jesus IS the son of God, as one example, and you can't argue against that "fact." Though it's a "fact" that I myself don't care to contend (I consider myself a Christian, and thus believe this as well), it's not anyone's place to force that belief -- or any other -- on anyone else.

You may ask, "Why is it a violation of a person's liberties to base law on religious beliefs?" To answer that, I ask that you consider a different belief for a moment, one not based on religion, and what it would mean to force it upon others.

If a person contends that the world is flat, he may be ridiculed, laughed at, or mocked; if he continues to make that contention, he may be shunned, belittled, or ignored. But he shouldn't be forced, legislatively, to believe the world is indeed round, even if policy is formed around the assumption that it is. If empirical evidence exists that suggests his beliefs are unsound, it is his decision to choose how to interpret that data presented to him -- no one should require him to hold those views.

Now consider a different example: what if a person were instead forced to believe in something that WASN'T empirically sound? What if people were coerced to believe the world was indeed flat, and that those believing otherwise had to accept rules and legislation surrounding that belief? It'd be unjust to say the least because people's lives would be legislated not just on an opinion, but on an opinion they knew was inaccurate.

Creating law based on religious principles is similar to basing it on flawed opinion: the religious zealot and the ignorant fool both put their trust in a belief that cannot be proven true. The only difference is that, with religion it's equally impossible to prove the belief false. That there is an inability to falsify someone's religious belief seems reason enough for many to justify enforcing it, for failure to prove something false in many people's minds means that it must be true.

But much like the invented religion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, just because we can't prove something false doesn't make it valid. Basing our laws on so simple a premise could spell disaster in so many ways, not to mention oppress entire groups of people that don't adhere to certain belief structures.

For an individual who voluntarily chooses to be a part of a religious organization, and who purposefully chooses to take part in their dogma, faith can be a beautiful thing; nothing that I've said here should take away from the happiness and joy that religion can provide for many millions of people worldwide. As I've already mentioned, very few beliefs can actually be proven false; though that doesn't mean we shouldn't question them as individuals, we should do our best to embrace the many different belief structures present in our society, ensuring that individuals are free to choose the path that's the best fit for them. It'd be no better to force everyone into secularism than it'd be to force everyone into evangelism.

Still, when it comes to governance, the state must remain neutral. It must not legislate any belief (even the absence of belief), but instead provide a framework of laws that treat each and every one as equal. It must base laws on observable facts, not on the opinions of certain groups of people.

The individual must remain sovereign when it comes to religion, must be free to determine for themselves what course or path their life must take. Whatever force in our universe that did indeed create us never made it clear enough that this way or that way was the one TRUE way to live -- but they did bless us with free will, with the ability to come up with our own answers to life's greatest questions. What a disservice it would be for a man-made instrument like government to compel others to adhere to specific doctrines, to throw away the one true gift we know for sure our Creator gave to us: free choice to worship him/her/it/they (or no one) as we please.

1 comment:

  1. This is all well and good, except that it's not really very far-reaching.

    On one hand, a conservative could easily say that your beliefs in favor of strong safety net programs for the poor are influenced by your interpretation of your Christian beliefs. So I think what you really mean is that there shouldn't be laws that don't have at least some secular justification.

    But an intelligent opponent of same-sex marriage, for instance, would say that there is a secular justification for not allowing same-sex marriage. He would say that the purpose of marriage is to provide a stable environment for raising biological children, and since two people of the same sex can't have children together, it doesn't make sense for them to be married.

    Now, you can of course disagree with this point, and many people do. But my point is, there are very few ideas pushed by mainstream politicians that they can't point to some sort of secular justification for them.