My project this week is to defend secularism.
I am going to start off doing a poor job of it. I am going to show how the traditional defenses that secularists use tend to fall into a trap. They use a narrative where, for most people, God is the ultimate justification for all moral claims. This means that, when secularists use their traditional arguments (or argument fragments), the type of reaction they can expect from their religiously-minded listeners is, at best, a respectful, "You really don't see how you are contradicting yourself, do you?"
Ultimately, secularists will usually use one of two following defenses for secularism.
One of those common defenses is to treat the proposition, "THOU SHALT NOT MIX CHURCH AND STATE" as a fundamental moral principle that needs no justification.
But where do these fundamental moral principles come from? And, if we know the source, does it make sense to argue that this principle fits with that source?
In treating this as a fundamental moral principle, the secularist is ultimately suggesting that secularism functions the same way as divine commands. The principle gets its authority from some supernatural entity or force. However, the theist at least attempts to offer a justification for how a commandment gets its authority. Why must we obey this rule and not some other? Because God is the author of our commandments, and that gives them divine authority.
However, if we go this route, secularism is self-refuting. If the only way to defend secularism is to appeal to God as the final justification for all moral values, then the defense of secularism is non-secular. On the other hand, if we remove this justification for all moral values, then all moral claims (including secularism) are without foundation.
The other common defense comes from an appeal to scripture . . . um, I mean . . . the Constitution. "It is written in the Constitution that we must not mix church and state; therefore, we must not mix church and state." It is as if whatever is written in the Constitution must be obeyed, for no reason other than the fact that it is written in the Constitution.
Of course, the response to this is simply to say that the mere fact that something is written in the Constitution is not a good enough reason to follow it. The reason to follow the Constitution itself must come from some other source.
The ultimate source of Constitutional legitimacy is God.
Oh, yes, I know that the Constitution says, "We the People", but from where do "We the People" get the authority to create a Constitution?
The answer to that question can be found in the Declaration of Independence. We get the authority because God has endowed us with certain inalienable rights. That among these rights is the right to create governments. So, again, your defense of secularism by appeal to the Constitution either appeals to God as the giver of the authority to create constitutions or it denies the legitimacy of Constitutions.
Either way, secularism is incoherent.
Of course, both of these responses assume that God is the authority of all moral value - which means that all moral justifications are inherently non-secular. It is not an air-tight objection to secularism. However, it does create a problem for the secularist, and one that causes her arguments to fall on deaf ears.
At this point, I need to start to specify what it is that secularism claims - or, at least the version of secularism that I will be defending.
Like many words, "Secularism" is used in countless different ways by countless different people. Each person picks a definition that suits their purpose. It may even be the case that this term is so loosely defined that it does not serve a purpose. One person can be arguing for secularism while another argues against it. Yet, the two people actually agree on all matters of fact. They just defined the terms differently so that what one person is for actually has little in common with what the other person is against.
So, let me simply state the proposition that I will be defending. While I hold that it captures much of the common use of the term "secularism", I will not debate whether it is the one true and accurate definition of the term.
The principle that I am calling "secularism" states that religious arguments or premises shall never be used as a justification for legislation. Either when defending or rejecting a piece of proposed legislation, legitimate arguments for or against that legislation never appeal to strictly religious premises.
In saying this, I am not saying that all religious conclusions must be rejected. We are not going to reject capital punishment simply because the Bible is in favor. We are, instead, going to debate the merits and demerits of capital punishment and make a decision based on the secular arguments - where the fact that scripture endorses or prohibits it is irrelevant. Only the secular arguments matter.
I also want clarify what I mean by secularism by offering an account of what is really going on in the case against secularism - taken from the point of view of somebody that holds that there are no gods. (I also reject the premise that gods are the final justification for moral value, such that if there are no gods there is no justification for moral value. However, that is a different story.)
I know that, as an argument, this will seem question-begging. However, it is not my intention at this point to defend a conclusion, but to clarify a meaning.
One of the things I mean by secularism is to reject the view that the church is - or ought to be - the state (that they ought to be the same thing) or, for purposes of this essay, that the church holds ultimate authority and that the state is subordinate to the church.
Of course, we seldom hear people assert directly that the state should be subordinate to the church - though many of their arguments carry a strong implication. Instead, what we hear is that we should be a nation "under God" or that the state gets its legitimate authority ultimately from God. (Of course, this leaves open the question of whether the chain of authority is God-state-people, or God-people-state.)
But there is no God.
There are only people who claim to be able to tell us what God wants. In the real world, all claims that we obey God are actually claims that we obey particular religious leaders. A claim that we are to be a nation "under God" is really a claim that we are to be a nation ruled by religious leaders. This is - in terms of real-world effect - what a rejection of secularism entails.
In the United States, we also have to contend with the fact that we have no single dominant church. Instead, we have an oligarchy of religious leaders. Every argument about the separation of church and state can be preserved by recasting it as an argument for the separation of religious oligarchies and state. The fact that we are dealing with multiple religious leaders forming a religious oligarchy rather than an individual church is morally irrelevant.
Their quest for power - their quest to control the state as well as the church - rests with promoting the idea that the state gets its ultimate authority from God, "And if you want to know what God wants, just ask us."
Secularism rejects this practice. It says that the government is not going to appeal to "the church" (or to a religious oligarchy) claiming to be the voice of God for legitimacy.
In the posts that follow, I am going to defend secularism. I am going to argue that, in legislative matters, an appeal to religious matters is never legitimate. I will also argue that one can hold as a background belief the idea that all moral claims (like the claim that we ought not to use religious arguments in discussing the merits and demerits of legislation) may have their final authority in a divine being, but that this belief has no practical relevance. You cannot make any legitimate inference from that premise to any conclusions about what the law ought or ought not to be.