Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The New Atheism and Separation of church and state

I think my previous link to this article actually linked to the last page of it. Atheists listen up. For years atheists have been the foremost advocates of the separation of church and state. I have always been a firm believer in church-state separation, though I haven't always been happy with the extent to which, say, the ACLU pushes it. Atheists like Harris and Dawkins want to use the power of the state, especially through the public schools, to advance atheism and destroy religion. The do NOT believe in any recognizable form of the separation of church and state. In short, these people are the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of atheism. How they can decry religious persecution or the religious right is beyond me. If Christians tried to do for their faith what the New Atheists are trying to do for atheism, they would be rightly condemned as fanatics and advocates of religious persecution.

I will defend the separation of church and state against those of my own faith who would push is in the direction of theocracy. Atheists who believe in church-state separation should do the same with the atheocrats amongst them.


exapologist said...

What is it in particular that they want to do in public schools to advance atheism and destroy religion? And how does it violate church-state separation?

Victor Reppert said...

Harris says he want to proclaim the death of God in the public school classroom. They also don't think everyone should have the right to raise children in the Christian faith, that that is child abuse.

One Brow said...

Harris says he want to proclaim the death of God in the public school classroom.

That would be a clear violation of church and state.

They also don't think everyone should have the right to raise children in the Christian faith,

No, it is the claim of the article that this position is a consequence of a firmly-held position (which the article reveals Dawkins may not even firmly hold).

that that is child abuse.

Daekins says the argument can be made, not that it is conclusive or persuasive. It's quite possible he understands most reasonable people will disagree on the issue, and has no expectation of it being made law.

Yet the fact remains that the atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens is a brutally intolerant, proselytizing faith, out to rack up conversions. Consider, for example, the sloppiness displayed by all of the authors in discussing their political aims. Do they seek to defend the secular politics favored by the American Constitutional framers? Or do they have the much more radical goal of producing a secular society--a society in which the American people, as a whole and individually, have abandoned religion? The former is a liberal goal, the latter an illiberal one; and it is inexcusable that each book leaves readers guessing which objective its author favors.

This makes it sound like the process of seedking converts and trying to influence peoples opinions is inherently illiberal. While I agree it is just as easy to atheism too far into politics as any other point of view on religion, I'm not sure the seeking of converts is illiberal in and of itself.

Timothy David said...

I know Dawkins wants to teach the Bible as literature, because, of course, one needs to be familiar with (say) the King James translation of the Bible to understand numerous themes and references throughout classic western literature, but what Dawkins never says (or least what I have never read him saying)is whether or not the Bible would be taught as being MERE literature.

Dennett has suggested that world religions be taught more thoroughly in public schools, educating kids on where/how/and when the different world religions arose. I think this is a great idea, but I think it should include Atheism , and that Atheism should be studied with the same historical approach as any other religion.

I get the feeling (though I could very well be wrong) that thinkers like Dawkins and Dennett think that by teaching religion as literature and natural phenomenon , that it will undermine the validity of religion in general and Christianity in particular.
They are so passionately and militantly atheistic in their popular works that I have a hard time believing they don't have some hidden agenda in regard to public education. Like I said, though, I could be wrong.

exapologist said...

So Harris wants -- as, what, part of Federal Law? -- a requirement that public schools tell children, in no uncertain terms, that there is no God? If he's really advocating that, then that's surely a violation of church-state separation (or if not a violation of *church*-state separation, then something equally unacceptable).

However, I have no problem with discussion of the pros and cons of any important matter relevant to the functioning of democratic society -- I'm all for "teaching the controversy", whether it be (i) evolution vs. intelligent design, (ii) Christianity vs. other views, (iii) unregulated vs. regulated markets, (iv) competitive vs. cooprerative foreign policy, (v) liberal vs. conservative political theories, etc. Perhaps my only caveat is that if you allow (i), you better allow (ii)-(n), or I'm crying foul and creepy agenda-seeking.

Timmo said...


Actually, the separation of Church and State and freedom of religion raises some interesting questions about liberal democracy. In particular, why should there be freedom of religion in the first place?

After all, we do not allow freedom of medicine, engineering, or teaching: the state assumes the authority to restrict the practice of medicine, engineering, and teaching by issuing licenses to individuals which are qualified by its standards and by punishing those who practice without a license. Priests, rabbis, and other religious teachers are no less implicated in the good of the citizenry than doctors, engineers, and school teachers. One might be tempted to think we should issue licenses for the proper practice of religion/non-religion. If you believe that all religion is simply demonstratively bunk, as a matter of indisputable fact, just as certain medical practices are, then it is incumbent on the state to enact legislation protecting the rights of its citizens from teachers of religion.

However, I am a strong advocate of a sharp divide between Church and State and hold the belief that freedom of religion is a basic human right. This is because I think there is a "reasonable pluralism" concerning matters of religion. One of the foundational principles of liberal democracy is that the governing laws should be justifiable to all, that is, they should be publicly justified. To use Gaus' language (from his book Justifactory Liberalism), our religious beliefs may be personally justified, without, at the same time, being publicly justified. Thus, my religious beliefs can meet the epistemic standards required for my private beliefs to be justified, but my religious beliefs may lack the more stringent kind of justification required to justify my beliefs before the public. It is the latter kind of justification that is required in order to establish a state religion/non-religion.

So, the liberal basis for freedom of religion is the rather unique epistemological character of religion. People like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell share at least this with Harris and Dawkins: they are unable to acknowledge the reasonable pluralism about religion, and for that reason seek to use the power of the state to foist their private convictions upon the rest of us.

Ilíon said...

"In short, these people are the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of atheism."

(Much as I dislike appearing to defend Robertson about anything) I wonder: are you *sure* this snipe doesn't follow from your leftism?

Can you site even one instance where, say, Fallwell, ever said anything which can reasonably be understood as advocating some sort of theocracy?

Ilíon said...

Richard John Neuhaus in First Things: Religious Freedom Upside Down "The first freedom of the First Amendment reads like this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those sixteen words were subject to only modest debate or litigation until the 1947 Everson decision when Justice Hugo Black, writing for the Court majority, discovered that they mean that “neither a state nor the Federal Government . . . can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another.” This came as a great surprise to students of American history. In his magisterial 2004 study, Separation of Church and State, Columbia law professor Philip Hamburger underscored the ways in which Black’s long-standing animus toward Catholicism led him to turn the Religion Clause on its head. ...
In discussions of the Religion Clause, it is common practice to speak of an Establishment Clause and a Free Exercise Clause. In fact, however, both grammatically and in intent, there is one clause with two provisions—no establishment and free exercise. The first provision is in the service of the second. That is to say, the reason the government must not establish a religion is that having an established religion would prejudice the free exercise of religion by those who do not belong to the established religion. Since
Everson, however, and as numerous scholars have pointed out, the end of the Religion Clause, i.e., free exercise, has been subordinated to the means, i.e., no establishment. The result is that “the separation of church and state” (a phrase of Jefferson’s that is not in the Constitution) has come to mean that wherever government advances religion must retreat. ..."

The Uncredible Hallq said...

I want to know the source for the accusation that Hitchens wants to proclaim the death of God in public schools. As for Dawkins, One Brow nailed this one--there's no evidence he supports what you say, it's just been argued he would say it if he were consistent. I doubt Dawkins is even inconsistent. Is it inconsistent to be shocked at how some Neo-Nazis raise their kids (Google "Prussian Blue" if you have the chance) and think the law can't do a damn thing about it?

I don't understand why you have these lapses into laziness, Vic.

Ilíon said...

Consistency and honesty are two different things.

Victor Reppert said...

Harris is the one who says he wants to proclaim the death of God in public schools, not Hitchens.

One Brow said...

...until the 1947 Everson decision ... This came as a great surprise to students of American history.

This would be all the students of American history who had forgotten that the Father of the Constitution at one point opposed Congressional chaplains?

The Uncredible Hallq said...

Apologies for misreading the comment about Harris.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Reasonable pluralism? Personally justified? Aren't you admitting that religious beliefs don't concern themselves with reality (where the range of viewpoints is much lower) and are thus so much bunk?