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Saturday, October 15, 2011

WDAD: What Do Atheists Do About Church/State Separation?

Atheists are commonly, but not solely, at the forefront of issues of church/state separation and the legality of school sponsored prayer or endorsement of a particular religion. But, many religious people object; why do atheists care so much about the presence of something they don’t believe in? Shouldn’t they just let the religious believe as they will and allow the presence of what they claim is a civil religion shared by America? First off, just because someone doesn’t believe in something doesn’t mean they can’t have an interest in its public existence. Religious studies does not preclude being a nonbeliever in all religious creeds and, one might argue, actually aids one in being more reasonable towards whether they hold so called “absolute” truth in them. But the second issue lies with this sanctimonious idea that religious people of a majority faith can have some established tradition of a school prayer, such as in Cranston, Rhode Island, without consideration of any other groups, believers or otherwise. Not to mention civil religion is another issue entirely of something becoming secularized by long historical exposure, which I’d strongly disagree with and might confront another time. Even Jesus himself says that praying in public and making a big show of your piety is hypocritical and doesn’t show proper reverence to a God you come to as an individual, in privacy. No one’s saying that religious people can’t pray to themselves or read a bible in extracurricular activities or the like and anyone thinking that religion has to be completely removed from public life reflects the insecurity many religious people think atheists have, but usually don’t. As long as public religious behavior is not obnoxious and obstructing the basic freedom from religion that complements freedom of practice in the first amendment it is permissible. Religious people have no reason to be opposed to atheists’ activism of separating church and state, not only because by any stretch of theology church should be separate from state by their natures, but because by establishing religious neutrality of the government, all religions can flourish better in not being favored or disfavored by civil authorities.

A common claim is that by separating church and state, atheists want to put themselves in power. First off, that wouldn’t follow because we’d still remain a representative republic, where officials are voted in by majority, which means that atheism would have to become popular in the people’s minds. By no means is church/state separation trying to keep religious people out of government, as long as they maintain their beliefs privately and don’t try to foist them on the populace that doesn’t necessarily agree, nor should it be their business to legislate such things in the first place. Atheism is not favored by church and state separation anyway, primarily because atheism is neither a political ideology or a religion, so in a sense, atheism is simply given fair treatment only in that it has a position about religion that would be problematic in a system where theism in any form is favored. A blank wall, contrary to what many advocates of the prayer banner in Cranston West, does not advocate atheism anymore than a bald man’s head suggests he’s favoring anti-hair rights. When religion is privatized, religious people may still evangelize, but only within their own power, and not under the protection of the state in any sense. Christian prayers, along with any other divisive type of devotion, will not be allowed by the very principle that school is a place for secular education first and foremost. A moment of silence will suffice, and anyone thinking otherwise neglects the point I’ve visited already in this article on praying in public. If your God only hears you when you pray out loud in a group, then it’s a pretty pitiable deity for promoting conformity over individuals in their own walks.

People might question why atheists advocate something that isn’t explicitly stated in the Constitution. While the phrase “separation of church and state” isn’t in the constitution, neither is “minority protection”, “separation of powers” or other things we take for granted as implied, but not outright stated, by the principles set forth in the constitution. When it says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” we have two spheres of consideration. The first is the government’s relation to religion. This isn’t just a matter of the government not establishing a state religion, as many would say, but not favoring any religion at all. The government is inevitably full of religious people, yes, but the government itself is not founded on any explicitly religious ideas, contrary to popular myths. Laws against murder, theft and the like are not derived from the Ten Commandments, thankfully. This relates well to the second clause of free exercise, since if the Ten Commandments were applied as laws across the board, it would be illegal for non theistic religions to even be practiced, such as Buddhism or Jainism, which would directly contradict the free exercise clause that so many Christians throw around. So that whole line of argument is defeated on the grounds that you wouldn’t want other religions to not be practiced, since that would contradict the equality of that clause for all citizens, not just Christians. Yes, you have a freedom to practice your religion, but you have no reason to ask the government to stroke your proverbial ego. You have a demographic majority in this country; that should suffice. And whatever your practice of religion may be, it necessarily stops at government legislation and involvement in any form, for the same reason that the government doesn’t go to your churches and tell you what to preach. As much as many states still have discriminatory religious tests, which goes against article six of the constitution, the argument that the first amendment only applies to the federal government is directly contradicted by this “no religious test” article which applies to employees of the government at all levels implicitly.

People think atheists are being anti Christian in their advocacy of church and state separation, but this is incidental. If there were Muslims or Jews trying to enforce unconstitutional school prayers of their religion or use government money to aid their particular groups, then the ACLU and FFRF would be up in arms as well, though it’d be unlikely. It’s primarily Christians that have a complex about their established traditions being removed because people actually know the law and how it applies to the relation between religion and government as a whole. And when people’s religious freedoms are infringed upon, I also have a problem with that, such as the building of a mosque and community center in my home state being stopped on groundless claims by primarily Christian people. Many Christians don’t understand where their religious freedoms stop, thinking that any restriction on their religious practice in public is discriminatory, mostly because they buy into a myth that the founding fathers actually wanted religion to be the basis of government, which is patently false. Similar limitations apply to freedom of speech as freedom of religious practice; you cannot abuse what is partly a privilege along with being a right. You have all the freedom in the world to practice Christianity of various flavors, along with any other faith across the globe. But that stops when you are in primarily secular contexts and should be privatized, not completely suppressed as alarmists might hastily conclude. There is much more freedom in the vast sphere of public religious practice than the tiny amount of freedom you surrender in terms of being supported or endorsed by any government extension. Why people don’t see this is best attributed to the false sense of entitlement they get by being in the privileged majority. If you were in a position where you felt like you couldn’t even talk about your beliefs or disbelief in some alternate American religious culture, perhaps you might understand why atheists and Christians alike can agree that religion shouldn’t be endorsed in any sense by the government. When the government is neutral to religion, the behavior of religions can flourish in a public and private setting without feelings of trying to invade every aspect of life as some would have it in schools and government.

I admittedly already spoke about this in part in “WDAD About Religious Norms Part 2” but this extended take on questions theists and Christians would probably ask of me and other nonbelievers is important for many reasons I could linger on. Bottom line; no religious freedoms are being taken away by removing explicit religious displays and behavior from a particular area of life, such as with the case involving Jessica Ahlquist in Rhode Island. Certain Christian denominations were persecuted by other sects in America’s early past for not being Christian enough or not believing the right things. That’s why the founding fathers saw fit to keep it out of government, on the federal and state level, entirely. Perhaps we’ll always vote Christians in, but those Christians can divide their loyalty to their country and to God in separate but overlapping spheres. Pray in private, but not as a representative for people of faith and no faith alike. That way, your devotion is that much more sincere because you don’t feel any need to justify it to others. If the primary nature of religion is a communion between human individuals and the sacred, then you shouldn’t care whether the government gives you any spotlight about your fellowship with God. Keep church and state within their respective boundaries and they’ll both function that much better. You can vote your conscience as a Christian, but don’t vote as if Christianity has any special place in the government’s eyes, because even if it does, it shouldn’t. It’s not looking to please any humans, is it? Pleasing your God suffices. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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