God (cont.)

[Single-page view]

Of course, despite all this, it’s clear that religion isn’t going to go away anytime soon. It’s not like we can just forbid people from having beliefs that are ill-founded (nor should we; people should be free to believe whatever they want). So we’re going to have to live with all these different religions trying to pull society in various directions for the foreseeable future. Given that reality, then, how can we organize things in a way that preserves everyone’s freedom of belief while still avoiding the negative effects of believers trying to impose their dogma on others?

Well, for starters, we can recognize the importance of maintaining separation of church and state. A lot of policymakers here in the US seem to have decided that because the Bible is the only true source of morality, not only must everyone belonging to the Christian religion follow its rules, but even people who don’t belong to the religion must be forced to follow its rules. Accordingly, they’ve worked tirelessly to restrict things like gay rights, reproductive rights, scientific research, and even just the basic idea of the state not discriminating between religions. All across the country, schoolchildren are compelled to profess belief in a monotheistic God every morning when they recite the pledge of allegiance, even if they don’t follow a monotheistic faith. Anyone who uses money has to carry around affirmations of belief in the same monotheistic God (“In God We Trust”), even if they don’t worship such a god themselves. Courthouses have erected prominent displays of the Ten Commandments, with their absolute mandate that no god other than Yahweh may be worshiped. And in several places, lawmakers have even attempted to lock nonbelievers out of the political process altogether; the constitutions of seven US states explicitly prohibit anyone who doesn’t believe in a monotheistic God from holding public office. (Luckily these provisions are unenforceable, since they’re blatant violations of the First Amendment and Article VI of the Constitution, but still.)


I started off this post talking about how if we knew for a fact that Christianity were true, these kinds of policies would make perfect sense; in such a scenario, we’d be fools not to turn our system into a full-fledged biblical theocracy. But the thing is, we don’t actually live in that scenario. The situation we live in is one in which a lot of people believe that Christianity is true but can’t provide any evidence for it, while a lot of other people believe that various other religions are true and can’t provide any evidence for them either. And this is a situation that merits a very different response from the first situation – not only for the sake of nonbelievers, but for the sake of believers as well. Barack Obama once gave a speech explaining why this is:

[It’s important] to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forebears of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their Bibles.

This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example.

We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.

Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God’s test of devotion.

But it’s fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.

In short, as commenter anneutral sums up, “Religious freedom doesn’t mean you can force others to live by your own beliefs.” Your religion might forbid you from using contraception, engaging in homosexual activity, and so on, but that alone isn’t a good enough reason for you to be able to forbid other people who don’t belong to your religion from loving whoever they want to love, or to pass laws controlling whether and with whom they can have sex and/or have children, etc. It might feel galling, if you’re a fundamentalist Christian, to acknowledge people’s right to live in ways other than that prescribed by your religion; but they do have that right – that’s why God (supposedly) gave them free will in the first place. And if it still isn’t clear why this right should be respected, think of it this way: Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot. Imagine if one day, your state elected a fundamentalist Muslim governor, who pushed through a law requiring all citizens to abstain from alcohol, pray to Allah five times a day, fast during Ramadan, wear headscarves if female, and so on. You’d probably consider it pretty outrageous, wouldn’t you, that this governor was forcing people who didn’t even follow his religion to adhere to its rules? Well, this is exactly why separation of religion and state is so important.

QualiaSoup offers some great insight here:

It’s true, as he points out, that because our public institutions currently have some biases in favor of Christianity, trying to make them more neutral and unbiased can often make Christians feel like they’re being victimized, or like their religious freedom is being restricted. As Thomas Sowell puts it, “When people get used to preferential treatment, equal treatment seems like discrimination.” But TheoreticalBullshit makes short work of this idea:

(It also seems worth mentioning one of the more ironic parts of this debate, which is that the Bible itself (Romans 13:1-2) commands believers to defer to their secular governments: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”)

At any rate, the point here is that trying to create a more secular public arena doesn’t mean oppressing religious people or trying to wipe all trace of religion from the face of the earth. In fact, I think it’s critically important that everybody have at least some knowledge of all the major world religions and their role in our history, if only for anthropological reasons. Children should be taught about religions in schools. The important thing, though, is that they be taught about religions as religions, and not as science or history. TheoreticalBullshit puts it this way:

I think evolution should be taught in science class, and creationism can be taught in religion class, because evolution is science and creationism is religion. I mean, anybody who disputes that need only demonstrate that the scientific method is what led us to a creationist conclusion.

Like QualiaSoup says in his clip above, the role of religious education should be to educate students about religions, not to indoctrinate them into one particular religion. Students should be empowered to decide for themselves which religions (if any) they want to follow, and which they want to reject.

And really, this principle should apply to every other area of their lives too, not just their formal education; children shouldn’t be subject to their parents or their communities or anyone else pigeonholing them into a specific religion before they’re even old enough to understand what the religion entails. As Dawkins writes:

Our society, including the non-religious sector, has accepted the preposterous idea that it is normal and right to indoctrinate tiny children in the religion of their parents, and to slap religious labels on them – ‘Catholic child’, ‘Protestant child’, ‘Jewish child’, ‘Muslim child’, etc. – although no other comparable labels: no conservative children, no liberal children, no Republican children, no Democrat children. Please, please raise your consciousness about this, and raise the roof whenever you hear it happening. A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This later nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a ‘child of Muslim parents’ will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose – or reject – when she becomes old enough to do so.

And TheraminTrees expands on this point with a parable:

Thomas and Uma are lifelong supporters of a major political party in their country. After five years together, they have their first child, Ben. They invite their friends and family to a ceremony, where the baby’s hand is painted in the party colour and pressed against a ballot paper. The assembled company cheers its approval, and a minister joyfully announces that their political party has just gained its newest member. There’s a photographic frenzy to capture this wonderful moment in Ben’s life.

Year after year, Ben will be taken to weekly meetings in which he’ll be made to listen to speeches and sing songs praising the party leadership. Each week, Ben will made to join in with a election ritual, lining up at a booth and voting publicly for the party, then sipping celebratory champagne. The same messages will be drilled into Ben as facts, over and over and over and over again. The party leader is always right. Those who rebel against the leader will suffer terrible consequences. Only devoted members will enjoy a good life. The messages will be further reinforced when Ben is sent to a conviction school, with curriculums designed to keep the students’ political convictions in line with the party ideology. At school, as with all other public spaces, he will be made to wear party colours.

As his reasoning skills develop, some of what Ben hears about the leader will seem nonsensical, contradictory, even hypocritical. At first, he’ll voice these problems unselfconsciously. But he’ll be reminded that the party is perfect, so his criticisms must be wrong. He’ll further be accused of ‘sacrilege’ and warned of harsh consequences for such talk. Ben will feel guilty, scared, and isolated. Critical thoughts about his party will now arouse anxiety in him. He’ll learn to dismiss his misgivings as the product of his own ignorance. Before long, he’ll learn to block them out altogether. Conversely, he’ll learn that compliance gets rewarded. When he does as he’s told, affirms his political loyalty, raises funds for the party, and so on, he’ll be showered with approval and praise, strongly encouraging more of the same behaviours and deepening his sense of identity as a party member.

In his thirteenth year, in a special public ceremony, Ben will confirm his lifelong commitment to the party leadership, promising always to campaign and vote for the party and affirming that he makes these vows entirely of his own free will. Thomas and Uma will look on with pride, thrilled that their son made the right choice. They will genuinely believe they gave their son a choice.

I suspect very few of us would have any difficulty recognising this hypothetical scenario as abusive. I suspect that if politicians tried to encourage this kind of childhood induction into their parties, there would be huge public outrage. So why is it that many of us will accept all of the above abuse when it comes to religion? The induction of babies as party members. The manipulation of children through endlessly repeated promises, threats, rhetoric, and rituals they’re are not equipped to evaluate or resist. The further encroachment on children through schools, which should be places of education, not proselytisation. How is it possible to hold two such wildly conflicting sets of attitudes towards the same phenomenon of child indoctrination? Protective toward the child in regard to politics. Protective toward the indoctrinator in regard to religion. Child religious indoctrination stands out as one of the most systematic, self-perpetuating forms of abuse humans perpetrate on others.


Certain thought experiments can sometimes give us an insight into our rationalisations, even if only a brief glimpse. One of them is the veil of ignorance, proposed by moral and political philosopher John Rawls. He suggested a hypothetical scenario where we exist outside of a society and have to decide what kinds of governing principles we’d be prepared to accept. These might focus on divisions of labour, allocation of resources, the granting of rights. The catch is that we don’t know what attributes we’ll have when we enter that society – what sex, skin colour, nationality, natural abilities, inherited wealth, and so on. They’re hidden behind ‘the veil of ignorance.’ What this does is remove our self-interest. Any personal meaning we might’ve attached to these features is stripped away. Rawls suggested that a just society was one that we’d be prepared to enter at random.

So: I invite the viewer to imagine the following two societies. Society A and society B each contain the same range of religions. There are Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and so on. There are the same denominations we see in our world today, from moderate to fundamentalist. ‘Christian’ could mean Amish, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so on. Society A runs on childhood indoctrination. Here, children are considered members of their parents’ religion at birth. They’re taught to accept this religion as the truth, which in the overwhelming majority of cases, will result in their lifelong allegiance. Meanwhile, society B runs on childhood education. Here, children are informed about all religions, without preference or manipulation, and left to decide which – if any – they wish to join. In which of these two societies would you be more comfortable being randomly born to parents of any religious group?

The veil of ignorance removes self-interest. It actually does so simply by reminding us how every single one of us came into this world. We didn’t choose characteristics like our sex, skin colour, nationality. Something else we didn’t choose was our religion. But unlike the characteristics I’ve just mentioned, we should’ve had control of this one. But that control gets taken away from us when we’re assigned the religion of our parents at birth and taught to accept its ideology as truth. We then develop a deep familiarity, connection and loyalty to that religion. And we forget how utterly arbitrary it was that we happened to be born to parents of this religion. We may even think how lucky we were to be born to parents of the true religion and not to parents of any of those other false religions.

Child indoctrination is an act of subjugation – colonising a human brain in its most impressionable state with an ideology it’s simply not equipped to process. An ideology that’ll extend a far reach over the child’s life – even down to choice of life partner. Signing up to such ideologies needs to be a matter of informed consent, not power-based child coercion that bypasses consent, generation after generation. We wouldn’t abide it in politics. We shouldn’t abide it in religion.

There’s a lot wrong with modern-day American society. It isn’t perfect – not by a long shot. But one of the things it does get right, at least, is its emphasis on freedom as a foundational human value. Our freedom to choose our own path in life is one of the most valuable things we have. And there’s no freedom more fundamental than freedom of thought and belief. If we want to make sure that our society thrives in the future, then, we have to do everything we can to make sure that no one is forced into their beliefs, or deceived into them, but that they’re given every chance to discover their own beliefs honestly. That includes their political beliefs, and it includes their religious beliefs as well.

Granted, I understand that this logic won’t convince everyone. If you’re a fundamentalist who really believes in your religion’s teachings – if really believe your child is going to go to Hell if you don’t indoctrinate them and make 100% sure that they’re following your faith – then that consideration will probably outweigh your respect for your child’s freedom of belief. (On a related note: If you’ve never seen the documentary Jesus Camp, I highly recommend checking it out below (or click here to watch it without the Spanish subtitles – it wouldn’t let me embed it for some reason).)

But the fact that this is the case – that religion can so easily cause people to disregard others’ most basic rights for misguided reasons – is exactly why it’s such a dangerous thing, and why those of us who aren’t religious need to be so wary of its influence. We might not be able to change everyone’s mind about God and the supernatural and the afterlife, but the least we can do is try to protect innocent people from being harmed in this life, and to make sure that everyone here is being treated fairly.

And that’s the real bottom line here – not just when it comes to separation of church and state, but when it comes to the broader question of how to live our lives in general. If there really is no God up there running the show – if there’s no one watching over us and making sure that everything in our lives always turns out for the best – then that means we have to look out for each other, because ultimately, we’re all we’ve got. No one’s going to miraculously swoop down from the sky to save us – and that means it’s on us to take care of each other. We’re the ones who have to be responsible for feeding the hungry, treating the sick, comforting the fearful, protecting the innocent, and so on. If there’s one thing you take away from this post, then, I hope it’s this. We mortals may be all alone in the cosmos – but to quote Mt. Joy, “we’re all alone together.” And so we should all do our best to treat others – believers and nonbelievers alike – as our brothers and sisters. That’s one thing that I hope religious people and nonreligious people will one day all be able to agree on. As far as I can see, it’s the only way forward. ∎