Sunday, January 18, 2015

I wasn’t consulted about that faith compromise, and won’t respect it.

The eighteenth-century compromise I complained about back in 2012 is still sticking in my craw (especially now). Since the 2012 post was detailed enough I’ll simply link to it rather than retell the story, which involves the controversy over Thomas Paine’s publishing The Age of Reason and the how people in the US came to think about and approach not just secular government but secularism more generally. Ultimately, a sort of compromise was reached that not only involved the separation of church and state but a cultural approach to faith-religion. In short, it would be understood that religion was a private affair and that, as long as it was institutionally separate from government, faith shouldn’t be subjected to public criticism or ridicule. Paine had “wounded the warm and tender feelings of more than a million of his real friends” with his book, as one commentator put it (Daniel, 248), and that wasn’t acceptable in polite society.*

My opposition was based on two general factors. First, Paine and others since, especially anarchists, have been hurt by this pseudo-civility requirement, for simply speaking the truth about religion. Even if we’re “granted” the right, always on a shaky foundation, to challenge or mock faiths, doing so is claimed to be unnecessary and cruel. Second, it rests on a false idea of how faith actually works in the world.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the formal constitutional separation of church and state has led to a separation of religion from government. Today’s congress, for example, is 92% Christian; the majority Republicans, 301 of them, are all Christian but one. 300 out of 301. And these people, many of whom are extremists, are not leaving religion at the legislative door. It’s central to their rhetoric, their arguments, and their policies. Those policies are overwhelmingly contrary to the basic needs and rights of women, LGBT people, and nonhuman animals. They’re generally set in opposition to the protection of the environment and the teaching of science. It’s obscene to expect people actively harmed by bogus beliefs to treat those beliefs with respect.

But even if this weren’t the case, the idea that a barrier between “private” religion and “public” politics could ever really exist isn’t one we should take seriously. Religion involves people’s understanding of reality. How could that not affect their opinions on matters of public concern? It obviously does.

Further, as I’ve been arguing for several years, faith itself is a ludicrous, unethical, and highly dangerous way to approach knowledge and belief. It’s not a virtue, and should not be treated with respect, much less deference. Many of our most urgent problems involve learning and acting on the basis of the truth and challenging authorities. To respect faith, or call on others to respect faith, in this context is unconscionable moral negligence.

* It’s fascinating that those warm and tender feelings weren’t wounded by slavery, violence against indigenous people, or the oppression of women.

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