Several months ago, while read- ing my morning newspaper, I was quite struck by a letter to the editor from an evangelical Christian. It had to do with same-sex marriage. He asked roughly the following question: Why should I have to keep my reli- gious views to myself, when discussing politics? Doing so essentially leaves the field open for secular humanists to dictate public policy. Yet secular humanism is a belief system that is also controversial, so why should they get to have their way?
Although posed in the form of a question, the author clearly did not intend it as such. In fact, in funda- mentalist circles, this line of thinking is often regarded as a knock-down argument against the separation of church and state.
I don’t think it’s a very good argu- ment, but I do think it’s an excellent question. It’s a question that deserves, and yet never seems to receive, a thoughtful answer.
First, however, I’d like to mention what a bad answer to this question would look like. It is not adequate for the secular humanist to appeal to the fact that religious beliefs are based on faith, whereas secular humanism is based on reason. This amounts to say- ing, ”œWe get to have our way because we’re right and you’re wrong.” This is never a good starting point for debate in a democracy, and the fundamentalist has a powerful reply: ”œNaturally you think you’re right and we’re wrong. We think we’re right and you’re wrong. Thus your views are controversial, just as our views are. And since neither of us is going to accept the other’s perspec- tive, shouldn’t the majority decide?”
Thus, appealing to the inherent superiority of secular humanism is a non-starter.
The real problem with the funda- mentalist argument is the assump- tion that when the religious segment of the population refrains from press- ing for public policies based upon explicitly articulated articles of faith, the field has basically been ceded to secular humanists, who then proceed to do whatever they like. What funda- mentalists fail to notice is that, just as they are expected to show some restraint when entering into discourse in the democratic public sphere (such that the arguments they advance be ones that in principle could be accept- ed by all citizens), the secular human- ist is subject to exactly the same constraints.
In other words, Christians who feel that they are not allowed to say what they really think in political debate can take comfort from the fact that neither are secular humanists.
Allow me to illustrate this thesis through reference to my own case. As an atheist, I have my own private opin- ions about the value of religious belief. The most accurate assessment of reli- gion I have ever encountered is by Sigmund Freud, who wrote that, ”œThe whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that anyone with a friendly attitude toward humanity must be pained to think that the great majority of men will never be able to rise above this view of life.”
Generally speaking, I think people who believe in God are sadly unedu- cated, victims of wishful thinking, or too stupid to think their way out of a paper bag. This, however, is my private opinion, one that I am scrupulous to avoid revealing when engaged in any sort of public dialogue (except here, of course, where I am pulling back the veil merely to illustrate my more gen- eral thesis).
Fundamentalists can take comfort from the fact that if people like me really said what was on our minds, and really got to have our way in govern- ment, without having to compromise to accommodate the deeply held spiri- tual convictions of our fellow citizens, the country would look a whole lot different than it does now. (Again, it is important to recall that when I say ”œdeeply held spiritual convictions,” what I actually mean is ”œincorrigible stupidity and ignorance,” but this is never stated explicitly, out of defer- ence to the norms of civility that struc- ture democratic dialogue.)
For example, I privately applauded the recent decision in France to ban not just headscarves from schools, but also yarmulkes and crucifixes. Yet while my inner atheist admired this sort of muscular secularism, my all- things-considered political judgment was that the French government had gone a bit overboard.
Or consider the case of Columbia University professor Brian Barry, who argues that creationism ”œis too intellec- tually corrupting to be taught in any school, whether public or private.” While I happen to share his assessment of the intellectual merits of creation myths, I would never recommend that, as a matter of public policy, teachers in private religious schools be prohibited from retelling them. Barry has been severely criticized by other secular humanists (myself included) for mak- ing such intemperate suggestions.
Thus Christians who feel hard done by because they are asked to tone down the Jesus-talk in public should take solace. It is a cross we must all bear.