Fear of Theocracy and Secularism …

I read this post over at Metamagician, and part of it bugged me. Now, Russell Blackford is, in my opinion, one of the more reasonable of the Gnu Atheists, so much so that he might not really be one at all except that they seem to think he is (Coyne calls Blackford “Brother Blackford” all the time). Now, I’ve had issues with Blackford when he gets angry, because he seems — to me, at least — to say some rather odd things when angry. But I take that more as proof that anger is not a good thing, and not necessarily as a strike against him.

Which is why this surprised me, since it seems fairly calm and measured but struck me in an entirely uncomfortable way:

The ACL denies that it wishes to impose a theocracy, but it certainly supports laws that are based on esoteric or otherworldly moralities associated with Christianity. That in itself is enough to worry about.

So, in wondering about whether or not the ACL wants to impose a theocracy, supporting laws based on esoteric or otherworldly moralities associated with Christianity — meaning, if one parses out the prose, that they advocate for laws that reflect the Christian morality that they, you know, actually have — is used as a sign that even if they don’t want an official theocracy, their views still in some important way cross over the line of secularism and impose religious values on the rest of society.

At first blush, this almost always seems reasonable, and it’s often hard to see why this isn’t. Until you remember one thing about democracies: in a democracy, in any matter where conscience is required to settle a vote, a decision, or a law, people are not only allowed but are required to decide based on their own conscience, whatever that conscience or moral belief is based on.

Except that this underlying impression that basing any such decision on religious reasons is somehow not acceptable means that that holds unless your moral conscience is guided by religion, at which point you are not only not required to base your decision on your religious conscience, but are in fact not even allowed to do it. And all of this in countries that, in fact, recognize freedom of religion as a protected right, meaning that people are not supposed to be treated differently based on their religious beliefs. And here we have a case where if your conscience is guided by your religion your conscience is therefore suspect and is not allowed to guide how you decide your vote or what laws or policies you vote for or advocate for.

Now, I don’t base my moral decisions on religion, but instead follow a philosophical approach. But I don’t see any reason why I should be allowed to, say, advocate for laws based on my Stoic moral beliefs and others should be allowed to advocate for laws based on their humanist beliefs but just because some people base their advocacy on religious beliefs that’s suddenly not okay. My Stoic beliefs and humanist beliefs are no more rational or rationally supported than religious beliefs, and again we are supposed to — in a democracy — vote and advocate on the basis of what we believe no matter what the reason is for that belief.

So, then, why is the New Atheist form of secularism so concerned with people basing their democratic decisions on religion? Well, I think Blackford inadvertently gives us the key: the fear of theocracy. The New Atheists start from a confrontational stance, forged in light of attempts to get creationism into schools, to restrict science on the basis of religious moral concerns (see stem cell research), to restrict freedoms on the basis of religious morality, and in light, of course, of 9/11. And when you look at the world, it’s not a baseless fear. The religious outnumber the non-religious by a large amount, and in many countries one at least broad religious denomination is dominant. And we’ve seen secularized states collapse before; Iran being an example that went from mostly secularized to religiously dominated in a surprisingly short amount of time.

This, then, is the fear that the New Atheists are reacting to. In a democracy, if your majority block is religious, politicians will try to appeal to them by making laws appeal to their religious sensibilities. And in that case, even secular states and politicians might turn democratic states into defacto theocracies; acting on the basis of religious interests because that’s the voting block that dominates. And that’s presuming that they don’t just change the laws to make it a theocracy in the first place.

Thus, religious involvement in politics is potentially threatening, leading to religious morality and sentiments dominating simply by force of numbers. And so religion must be cut from public life completely, while good “secular” philosophies and moralities are allowed free play.

Now, note that the most successful countries at secularizing did not, in fact, do this. They treated religion like anything else, and as far as I can tell there was no major push to keep religion out of public life. Sweden, for example, still has a state religion; Canada still maintains separate Catholic schools in a couple of provinces. All there was was an underlying and insistent focus on that bad word for Sam Harris and that other bad word for New Atheists: toleration and accommodation. This led to a notion where religion and politics were not in constant conflict, and so people were allowed to settle in to what was important to them. In prosperous, free democracies, religion became less important. It may resurge, but the success those countries had was based on insistence on tolerance for all beliefs — including non-religious ones — and accommodating religious beliefs to ensure freedom of religion.

And what we can see in Europe is that when you take the tack that the New Atheists want to take, conflict erupts. When you attack religion, take the accommodation out — even to a reasonable level — you make it look like the state is, in fact, attacking the religion, you put religious people on the defensive. They are unlikely to accept a world where their religion is treated differently than the approved secular philosophies, even if those philosophies advocate things considered absolutely horrible by their own moral standards. A world of, in their minds, moral decay where the state and state-approved philosophies insist that they are not allowed to do anything about it — even point out that state. They will then get defensive, and rally around the religion, and oppose secularization … and then you have massive conflict. And if it proceeds to the state where you either have to choose religion or secularism, then you have a war, a war that can end in either a completely secular state with religion as a second-class philosophy if it exists at all, or a theocracy.

If the New Atheists make it seem like an intermediate state is not possible, that it’s either no religion or a theocracy, many religion people will sadly accept the theocracy over losing religion completely. And thus they may well bring about that which they fear so much.


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