The atheist narrative in Australia is now almost completely devoid of reason or rationality. I’m going to post on some of the more egregious excesses in the debate which have occurred over the past few weeks.
Before I can do that, I need to lay down some fundamental points which frame how we conceive of religion in society, and how we discuss secularism.
No doubt, I’ll need to make clear at the very beginning: I’m an atheist. I believe that the statement ‘God does not exist’ is true (and provably true) and I believe that any mainstream definition of ‘divine’ does not denote to a real set of objects. To the fun stuff!
Should we have a separation of church and state? We have to ponder what we mean by the terms ‘church’, ‘state’, and ‘separation’. Popularly, ‘church’ refers to religion in general (rather than its original meaning, where it meant the establishment of religion). ‘State’ is a bit trickier. Where once it just referred to the courts and parliament, we now interpret it more broadly. As government services have devolved, more of the public sphere is captured in the idea of the state: schools, hospitals, &c., &c.
This is where language is tricky. Talking about church and state make them seem like really distinct things. ‘Church’ and ‘State’ have no letters in common, after all!
Unfortunately, they’re not so easily distinguished. What happens when we get politicians with religious convictions? Ought they split themselves in twain: one side devoted to the Church; the other to the State? What happens when particularly religious communities elect representatives who share their religious views? What happens when religious views shape election campaign promises? And so on and so forth.
This is where the ‘separation’ is supposed to come in handy. In the U.S., the legislature is — give or take — forbidden to make laws overtly to do with religion. I say ‘overtly’ because the U.S. separation doesn’t result in politicians with religious views influencing policy. This also has the effect that, combined with the first amendment, the legislature is unable to prevent religious groups from doing some particularly horrific things.
Which is odd because the separation of Church and State is an overwhelmingly American concept. Though it has its roots in earlier thought, the Americans went gung-ho with it.
Britain, on the other hand, was more keen on caesaropapism: the Crown would rule and religion would be subordinate to that rule. It’s intuitively nice, as an atheist, to think that the boundaries of religion are confined to the laws of the country, unlike in America where religion is given a status beyond the reach of the legislature (not quite extra-legal, but almost).
For the US, freedom of religion was tied to freedom of thought (or absence of thought, amirite? Hurr, hurr, hurr). In modern times, this precept of ‘freedom of religion’ has become enormously important in debates about multiculturalism and personal identity. Not only does religion attempt to explain the relationship between humans and the cosmos, it also attempts to explain the individual. Humans, being social creatures, form our ideas of individuality and self through reference to our societies. Religious views have traditionally been a part of those societies and encouraged various perceptions of the self. The most notable of these, from a western viewpoint, was the idea of inalienable human rights (which is thoroughly and inescapably a religious concept, extending from the conception of the ‘soul’).
But some people want to go further. Instead of merely freedom of religion, it has been common to see people discuss freedom from religion. In brief, the idea is incoherent. As religion remains an inescapable aspect of the social framework, people cannot claim to have a right to be unmolested by religion. It would be like a fish claiming to have the right to live free of water.
For those unconvinced by the pervasiveness of religion, we can also put it in terms of J.S. Mill. A freedom of religion is your right to act. A freedom from religion is placing an obligation on others not to interfere with you. As the freedom of religion includes the right to demonstrate that religious belief (including the right to express — rather than suppress — that religious belief), there cannot be a freedom from religion (which requires the suppression of the religious beliefs of others). In other words, freedom of religion and freedom from religion are incompatible.
The confusion seems to stem from the idea of secularism. It shocks most people to realise that there’s no common academic understanding of secularism. Here’s why:
Imagine that you take secularism to mean that religion should be a private matter and not part of the public sphere. This is an easy policy to enforce when it comes to anything with GOD written in massive letters: no priests in public debate, no prayer in Parliament, &c. But what about family law? Our concept of family is built on religious notions. Should the concept of family stay in the public sphere?
Some people respond by stating that things like family, mathematics, science, universities, rights, &c., should stay in the secular society because they have (somehow, don’t ask) shed their religious trappings. They used to be religious and, at some undefined point, now they aren’t. Something rational and logical happened to cause this. Magic, I guess. Or leprechauns.
In case you didn’t get my biting sarcasm, there is no process to distinguish the secular from the religious. People agree that most of our cultural artefacts had their origin in religious belief but can’t agree on how things evolve into secular objects.
There are a few responses. The first is to be ruthless and root out the religious thinking in our culture, like Lady Macbeths trying to rid themselves of spots (real or imagined). The second, more common, response is to ignore the problem, rendering invisible the complex religious framework that underpins western society (which, crazily enough, also feeds a lot of atheists’ Islamophobia — as I’ve discussed before).
Neither response is satisfactory, for obvious reasons.
So when we casually drop terms like ‘the separation of church and state’ and ‘secularism’ and ‘freedom from religion’, are we saying anything meaningful? Or do we chant these mantras because they’re intuitively appealing and because they signal to other atheists that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet?