In Reason We Trust

Religion should have no place in government.

President Carrie Henson’s Comments at the June 20th, 2017 Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Meeting.

Religion should have no place in government. Before I begin to defend that proposition, let me be clear about what I am advocating: I certainly am not advocating that persons who are religious should be excluded from government positions, much less that they should be denied the right to vote. Nor am I saying that it is improper for government officials or voters to be inspired in some way by their religious beliefs. The source of one’s motivations is a matter of indifference to others, at least to the extent that this motivating source merely provides one with a general commitment to act responsibly and with respect for others in the moral community.

No, what principally concerns me and many other Secular Humanist’s is religion’s role in informing and shaping public policy and, in particular, in the use of religious tenets as a justification for public policy. Discourse about public policy should be framed entirely in secular terms, and decisions about public policy should be based entirely on secular considerations.

Why do I take that view? To begin, I am assuming that we are speaking about a democratic form of government, or at least a government of a country in which the citizens are encouraged to discuss and debate public policy and the government is expected to justify its public policy to its citizens. There is one clear prerequisite for democratic discourse to be successful: the participants in that discussion must be able to understand, evaluate, and debate reasons that others offer for their views. That is not possible if religious doctrine is offered as a justification for public-policy positions.

If you claim that you oppose same-sex marriage because the Old Testament states that homosexual conduct is an abomination, that’s the end of the discussion, isn’t it? There’s really nothing more to say. At this stage, there’s effectively no way for someone who differs from you to persuade you otherwise. There is value in discussion. When we can discuss the pros and cons of a particular policy, we may just arrive at a better decision. As indicated, discussion is foreclosed when one appeals to religious tenets or dogma.

You might ask why is it the case that reliance on religion cuts short discussion. Can’t we discuss religion just like we discuss other beliefs? In principle, perhaps. In reality, no. Just take a look at the assembly members as I speak today. Some show no interest in what I am saying and have already tuned me out. Perhaps they are praying for me instead or have just completely removed their consciousness from my voice entirely.

Even if these assembly members were willing to allow their beliefs to be examined critically, think about how involved the process of determining public policy would become. Every time someone offered a religious belief as a justification for public policy, we would become immersed in an incredibly complex discussion about whether the underlying religious belief is justified.

Let’s say someone favors abstinence-only education because fornication is a sin in Christian doctrine. To start off, we would have to examine the basis for the claim that fornication is indeed a sin. This requires interpretation of biblical texts that are not terribly straightforward or transparent in their meaning. Moreover, who is to say the Bible represents the commandments of God? We now know, for example, that the four Gospels set forth in the New Testament represent a fraction of the various gospels regarding Jesus that floated around in the first few centuries of the Common Era. How do we determine which statements attributed to Jesus actually represent the views of Jesus? Do we even know whether Jesus existed? Scholars have spent decades on such questions. And, of course, for those who do not accept Jesus as divine or even a divinely inspired prophet, there is the problem of proving to them that they should accept the pronouncements of Jesus as authoritative. How in God’s name do we accomplish that within the period of the time available for coming to a decision on a public policy such as the support of abstinence-only education? We cannot turn every public policy debate into a debate on religion unless we are willing to spend all eternity engaged in such debates.

Contrast this religion-laden approach to public policy with the secular approach. The primary goals of abstinence-only education are to reduce STDs and unwanted pregnancy. If abstinence-only education is effective in achieving these goals, especially if it is more effective than standard sex education, perhaps it should be supported. If it is not, then support may not be advisable. This is a question that can be resolved through empirical studies. Granted these empirical studies cannot be done overnight, but they require a finite amount of time and yield clear results, as contrasted with the lifetime of study that would be required to address obscure theological questions that do not promise to yield a definitive answer ever. In fact, studies have been carried out on abstinence-only education, and these studies show it is not effective. That should resolve this question, and it would resolve this question if we kept religion out of government.

As I said in the beginning, I am not arguing that religious persons should be kept out of government and, of course, I recognize that a person’s religious beliefs will influence his outlook. But if that person wants to engage fellow citizens in a discussion about the correct course of action to take, he must restructure his arguments in secular terms. There is nothing onerous about that requirement. In fact, it operates as a much-needed check on the soundness of one’s reasoning. If one cannot reformulate a religiously based moral belief in terms that a nonbeliever might find persuasive, one should pause to consider whether one’s views are correct. Perhaps you have misinterpreted God’s commandments. After all, why would God ask you to follow a rule that does not make any sense when you try to explain it to someone else?

I submit we need to go beyond sacred texts and religious dogma when considering the basis for public policy. Using some allegedly sacred writing from millennia ago—that provides us with the profound wisdom of a nomadic and barbaric tribe—as both the starting and end point of any public policy debate does not seem an especially promising way to deliver solutions to twenty-first-century problems.

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