Sunday, April 30, 2006


Religiously Godless

Here is a nice confluence for a Sunday:

PZ Myers, at his blog Pharyngula, has an essay called "Secular horror?" on what he sees as the proper role of "secularism" in the American form of government and secularism’s relation to atheism.

[S]ecularism is a progressive value; it is something we should be promoting as a core part of our identity, and an absolutely essential property of good government. Secularism does not in any way imply atheism or agnosticism, nor is unbelief a prerequisite for favoring a government that is completely independent of sectarian religion. At the time of the founding of our country, among the most vigorous advocates of the separation of church and state were the Baptists, not the atheists, who were then and have always been a tiny minority. In a country with a plurality of diverse beliefs (and that also has not changed), it makes sense that the government that serves them all should make no commitment to any one brand of religion, and that we should enforce a studied indifference to all forms of the sacred. ...

At the same time, there is "Founding Fathers had a nonsectarian god in mind," a joint review by Bruce Tomaso of American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek, and David L. Holmes’ book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. As the article points out, while the Founders rejected invoking the Christian God:

[T]hey chose what Benjamin Franklin called our "public religion," a sort of benign homage to a sort of generic god, one whose outline, and agenda, were deliberately left vague.

It's a nonsectarian god, a god not weighted down by dogma. He made us. He watches over us. But he isn't kicking butt and taking names. Unlike the Old Testament God, or the God of the Crusaders, or the God of the Wahhabi, he doesn't exhort his followers to lop off the heads of those who worship in the wrong temple. ...

Still, these men were not atheists, and they didn't expect Americans to act as atheists. "For the Founders," Meacham writes, "religious freedom was not equivalent to a public life free of religion."

Meacham, a devoted Episcopalian, believes that:

. . . America's public religion, this religiosity without specificity, has been a national strength -- and that we weaken ourselves culturally and politically when we let the fringes on either side define God in their image.

"Everybody's blood pressure, on both the left and the right, could be reduced at least a few notches if we accept that historically there is this religious language in the public sphere, but it is not coercive," he said.

Back to PZ:

I think that what does far more harm to our cause is to consciously and explicitly associate that reasonable insistence on a secular government with atheism (at least, that is, until we remove the stigma of atheism). It reinforces those false notions that good Christians want a Christian government, that America is a Christian nation, that religion is an essential part of patriotism, and that only the godless would want to keep superstition, religion, dogma, and the supernatural out of a rational government. That is the antithesis of a liberal position, and it supports the goals of the Religious Right. ...

Here's another important progressive value: tolerance. There is much confusion about what tolerance means. It does not mean that you only allow people whose ideas you like in the party; quite the contrary, if you like and approve of them, it doesn't require the virtue of tolerance to accommodate them. ...

It will never be easy to reconcile these competing beliefs and the various ideas of how they should be accommodated within a democracy. It is no accident that the Establishment clause opens the Bill of Rights. There is no issue more divisive and more likely to play havoc with a civil society than our beliefs about religion.

James Madison, architect of the Bill of Rights, recognized that it was ultimately a "parchment barrier" against tyranny. It is only as strong as the people who take its meaning to heart.

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