Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tolerance yes, respect no

Illiberal societies identify one religion, or related group of religions, that rule. Liberal societies try to accommodate the multiplicity of mutually exclusive religious doctrines. One approach is an ecumenical accommodation built on a watered down, common denominator, general religion, with a focus on monotheism, or on theism more generally. Some governments establish this ecumenical religion as their civic religion. An assumption of such civic religion is that religious beliefs warrant respect. Some people are influenced to endorse this respect for religion principle by the notions that liberalism requires respecting pluralism and esteeming diversity of beliefs. Other people associate government establishment of ecumenical civic religion with religious toleration and freedom of worship. But is government establishment of ecumenical civic religion really liberal?

Beneath this accommodation there remain unresolved potential sources of conflict. There is the unaltered totality, supremacy, and singular exclusivity that persists in the doctrine of individual religions. Jesus Christ’s declaration is “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Civic religion says that although Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc., are not your way and as a result you are to suffer eternal damnation, or whatever the punishment is that the particular religious doctrine dictates infidels are to suffer, you should respect them. Civic religion says a god exists (or multiple gods exist), and that citizens are, or at least should be, monotheists (or theists), regardless of, and contrary to, the weight of the overall available evidence otherwise. These are illiberal expectations.

Such respect, built on self-censorship, fear of disunity, and an incomplete non-sectarianism, is artificial and superficial. There is no good reason to treat religious beliefs any differently from other beliefs, and nothing other than circular reasoning to argue that a nonbeliever should acknowledge any religious doctrine as anything more than just another set of ideas. No religion, as a system of belief and a practice of living, is automatically deserving of respect just because others opt to commit to it. Ideas, whatever label we affix to them, must earn our respect intellectually, and not be awarded our respect uncritically.

There is good reason to proffer mere toleration for beliefs of all sorts. Until we find our way to that truth that is the one way for all (which will probably be atheism), or that coherently permits multiple ways for all (toss in deism), tolerance is the pragmatic common ground for living in peace. But religions do not always keep to themselves. They may sometimes impinge on their neighbors. When they do, we need to consider religious doctrines as we would any other set of ideas or any other argument or claim about the nature of the world. Just like we need to justify our non-religious claims about the nature of the world in empirical evidence, so too with religious claims, particularly when they try to assert relevance over determining our behaviors, defining our self-identities, or setting government policies.

Over the last several weeks we have witnessed the spectacle of Islamists overseas protesting for the U.S. government to arrest some of our citizens for placing a video on the internet that was dubbed to depict the founder of their religion as a scoundrel and then translated into Arabic. Some of the protests turned violent. Most Islamic governments tend towards illiberalism, some censor the internet, some have blasphemy laws. Most of our citizens don't want our government to censor the internet or enact blasphemy laws. Yet there is still an illiberal, unearned respect for religious claims in our government's established civic religion that goes beyond any need to respect freedom of conscience. Government establishment of a civic religion improperly cedes to religious claims automatic respect. We are a liberal society relative to other societies, but our establishments of monotheism are illiberal.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Correcting unconstitutional state constitutions

In 1961, the US Supreme Court ruled in Torcaso v. Watkins that it violates both the first and fourteenth amendment of the US constitution for state governments to require anyone to recite a religious test oath as a condition of government employment. State legislatures modify their constitutions frequently. There were 689 amendments in the period 1994- 2001 alone. Overall, there have been almost 150 state constitutions and they have been amended roughly 12,000 times. Yet more than fifty years after that Supreme Court decision, the text of seven state constitutions (Texas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee) continue to mandate an unenforceable religious test oath as a condition for government employment as they did prior to 1961.

Among the possible justifications for amending a state constitution, ensuring that the state constitution complies with the federal constitution is surely among the best and least controversial. State lawmakers knowingly obligate all the citizens of their state to respect state laws and they themselves are obligated to respect those same laws. These state lawmakers are also citizens of the nation which similarly has lawmakers who also obligate all the citizens of the nation to respect national laws. So when a state constitution clearly flouts federal law, the state lawmakers are obligated to promptly amend their constitution to ensure the state constitution complies with federal law.

Yet the very same Article 37 of the Maryland Constitution that was declared unconstitutional in 1961 is one of the obsolete state laws that remains intact. The Maryland State Legislature could take the first step to cleanse their constitution of its invalid provisions with 3/5 of both houses voting to do so. They should have done this fifty years ago.

The current Maryland Constitution, ratified in 1867, has been amended almost 200 times, most recently in 2010, a rate that is close to one amendment per year. In 1970 an amendment that created the position of Lieutenant Governor of Maryland was approved. In 1972 an amendment created the current legislative districting system. Two amendments were on the 2008 Maryland State Ballot, both were approved. Amendments were also ratified in 1962, 1964, 1966, 1974, 1976, 1978, 1984, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2002 and 2006. Yet in all of this time, no amendment "for the general purpose of removing or correcting constitutional provisions which are obsolete, inaccurate, invalid, unconstitutional", as called for in Article 14 of the Maryland Constitution, has been passed by the Maryland State Legislature to comply with the Torcaso v. Watkins ruling.

So what is going on here? Why are some state governments failing to respect a fifty year old Supreme Court decision? It cannot be because they consider exhibiting respect for national constitutional law to be unnecessary. It cannot be because they consider amending the state constitution too difficult. It isn't because public opinion favors religious test oaths for government office. Many state constitutions that pre-dated the federal constitution were subsequently revised or amended to remove religious test oath provisions.

The seven state governments have not acted because the unconstitutional religious test is for theism, and there is substantial public opinion opposition to fully applying our constitutional law to atheists. In Torcaso v. Watkins, the Supreme Court ruled that an oath of office cannot be utilized to restrict government employment only to people who self-identity as theists. But according to Congressional law we are "one nation under God" and "in God we trust" describes the national character. In the minds of many people, equality before the law for all citizens is a divisive principle when all citizens really means all citizens and not just theists. In their minds, atheists may exist, but their existence is an alien anomaly that is to be disregarded. In their minds, some people may say they are atheists, but no one is really an atheist. In their minds, atheism is dangerous, it is a rotten choice, it indicates poor character, and therefore atheists should be fenced off from the rest of community in self-defense. In their minds, many atheists accept their outsider status because even they themselves understand it is justified.

And our lawmakers, instead of respecting the federal constitution first and fourteenth amendment laws, enthusiastically celebrate the federal laws from the 1950's that define citizenship and patriotism as theistic. Lawmakers for at least the past fifty years have defined leadership as being about following the majority, wherever it goes, federal constitution be damned. Secularists shouldn't consent to this situation. We should be challenging both public opinion and our lawmakers because we know that they are wrong. Because we know that the 1961 Supreme Court decision was correct. Because we know that the first and fourteenth amendment express legal principles that are worthy of our respect. Because leadership has to come from somewhere, and leadership can only come from the people who recognize the problem.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Theism is not secularism

Jacques Berlinerblau has written another article that was published with the title Atheists Are Not Secularists, this time his article was published Sept. 9 in Salon (previously it was published in the Huffington Post). It makes similar arguments as before, but with some additional details, and it adds a historical section on Englishman George Jacob Holyoake who coined the term secularism. His first argument is that secularism is being confused with atheism, his second argument is that atheists who criticize religion generally are extremists.

Mr. Berlinerblau begins by complaining that "the equation secularism = atheism ... is increasingly employed in popular usage". He cites the Secular Coalition of America for making this association because it claims to advocate on behalf of "the non-theistic community". Berlinerblau asks "why must so-called secular organizations be focused exclusively on nonbelievers?"

But on closer inspection it turns out that the otherwise diverse groups that "from the 1940s ... mobilized on behalf of secular causes" have an incomplete commitment to secularism and non-establishment of religion. They have focused on protecting minority theistic religious beliefs from majority theistic religious beliefs when the two conflict. Non-theism was, and continues to be, beyond the scope of their otherwise secularist agenda. The result is that the general principle has been compromised. So non-theists did what we had to do to defend the principle of secularism, we formed our own secularist group.

Berlinerblau is adopting a blame the unpopular victim argument here. Instead of holding the secularist movement responsible for dividing secularists by excluding atheists, he wants to hold atheists responsible for dividing the movement by adding their voice to the movement. This division will end with a change in position among the theistic secularists. When the rest of the secularist movement is willing to assert that the theistic national motto, pledge of allegiance, oaths of office, etc. are neither secular nor in compliance with the EC, regardless of poorly justified judicial decisions asserting otherwise, this internal division will wither away.

Berlinerblau complains that "the equation secularism = atheism", an equation which the Secular Coalition of America does not make, "leaves people of faith with little incentive to buy in". The Secular Coalition of America advocates for an inclusive government secularism that all secularists can share. The Secular Coalition of America states on its web site that they "enthusiastically welcome the participation of religious individuals who share our view that freedom of conscience must extend to people of all faiths and of none. Accordingly, our staff works in cooperation with a variety of other organizations and coalitions where common ground exists on specific issues...". If there is any advocacy that the Secular Coalition of America is engaged in which doesn't uphold civic equality for people of faith then Berlinerblau should identify it. That some theists prefer to have no association with atheists may be true, but that fact doesn't impose on atheists any obligation to be content with not having a public voice in civic affairs.

Government secularism is compatible with theists publicly advocating for theism on both religious and secular grounds. Numerous theists do this, and Berlinerblau evidently has no problem with this, nor should he. Similarly, government secularism is compatible with atheists publicly arguing for atheism. Berlinerblau, however, mistakenly thinks that atheists should not criticize "religion in general" and, if they do, they are "catastrophically" promoting a "creed" that is "dangerous", "misguided", and "extremist". As an example of this he cites Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins for their statements that people who defend religious faith, despite being well-intentioned, are facilitating religious extremism. Berlinerblau somehow concludes from such statements that they "can’t distinguish between a member of the Taliban beheading a journalist and a Methodist running a soup kitchen". Berlinerblau is wrong. They can and they do make this distinction.

It is a distinction between how we justify our beliefs and what beliefs we adopt and how the two are related. If the method deployed for justifying beliefs does not place substantial constraints on which beliefs can be viable, then we will tend to adopt more parochial and arbitrary beliefs. That is the problem with religious faith that the "New Atheists" quoted by Berlinerblau are pointing out. Choosing between religious faiths is too much like choosing between shirt colors, it is too non-empirical to allow for a logically right versus wrong choice. But unlike choosing shirt colors, choosing holy book literalism has implications for civil and human rights. Accordingly, an empirically constrained, evidence first approach to justifying beliefs is arguably a stronger and longer lasting antidote to religious intolerance than is tolerant religion which shares with intolerant religion the same fatally flawed, promiscuous, faith based approach to belief justification.

Which beliefs we adopt is important. For example, beliefs that deny freedom of expression with violence are not equal with beliefs that respect freedom of expression. Atheists who argue that the range of beliefs that are justifiable is related to the belief justification method are being reasonable and are doing nothing wrong. Children are taught to hold a religious belief on the authorities of tribal identity, tradition, holy book, theology, and faith instead of by overall currently available evidences. They are then arguably ill-equipped as adults to dispute religious extremists who cite the same authorities. If Berlinerblau wants to dispute this argument then he should engage the argument. Instead he throws negative adjectives at two people for daring to make this argument, and falsely caricatures their argument.