Remarks on State/Church Separation


Presented at The North Texas Church of Freethought May 5, 1996

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

That's how the First Amendment reads. The Fourteenth Amendment extended this obligation beyond Congress to the states as well, which transformed the principle of separation of state and church from a restricted constraint on the federal government to an expansive principle covering government at all levels from dogcatcher to Senators and Presidents. That's the idea, anyway. Never mind the "National Day of Prayer" proclaimed this past Thursday. Oh, yes — President Bill Clinton, proudly following in the tradition of previous occupants of the Oval Office, and in his official capacity as Chief Executive of the United States and the Commander-in-Chief of America's armed forces, said that you should pray to God. Be glad he didn't tell you to slaughter a ram and burn it up on an altar in order to send a biblical "sweet savor" aloft! And to those who say President Clinton is a political opportunist, I say that, at least so far, he has not tried to win the favor of the doll and stickpin industry by proclaiming a National Day of Voodoo — though Congress recently over-ruled the FDA and declared acupuncture needles to be "medical devices."

Ceremonial Deism — the Supreme Court's excuse for "In God We Trust" being put on our money long after the heyday of Deism — is one thing. But being told what and how to worship is quite another. We have a long way to go, don't we? Just remember this: if we lived in an ideal world, there would be no need for freethinkers.

We're mostly concerned about obvious and egregious violations of the Establishment Clause: kids being forced to pray to Jesus in public schools or suffering persecution because they don't, 50 foot tall concrete crucifixes in public parks, marking highway fatalities with crosses ... that sort of thing. It doesn't please us when public officials behave like clergy either.

But everyone has the right to their opinions on religious questions. If we want that right for ourselves, then we obviously have to recognize it for others, even public officials. If we want to be able to go to a public park and think our thoughts and express what we believe, then we have to tolerate others doing the same. Although even the U.S. Supreme Court hasn't been very clear-headed about it, this is why creches on the lawn of City Hall make a kind of perverse sense when there's menorahs and reindeer around too, because if seasonal symbols are going to be displayed at all, the government shouldn't be singling out religious seasonal symbols for exclusion. (Besides, few things are more effective than having Baby Jesus up next to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at demonstrating how very similar they are!)

Of course, there are some forums where we think that any sort of significant religious expression is inappropriate. The public schools are one such place, because they represent a captive audience of children who have been sent there by their parents for a specific purpose. No one sends their kids to school to be harangued — even by other children — about their religious opinions, no matter what those opinions are. Yet, of course, we have people who train their children to proselytize their playmates, and teachers and administrators who encourage such bad manners, usually while complaining about society's declining morals. How do we get it across to some people that we already respect their right of conscience and simply expect the same consideration by keeping such places as the public schools completely secular? Denying the access of god(s) to certain places is not at all the same as denying god(s). The extremists claim that the schools teach atheism. Yet they have no idea what the schools would be like if we did teach atheism there. For starters, we'd have Thomas Paine'sAge of Reason as a textbook.

These questions should lead us to realize a curious thing about the First Amendment. For in order to have state/church separation, which is to say, for everyone to have freedom from other people's religion, you have to know what religion is. And if you want to ban governmental establishments of religion, you have to know what establishments of religion are. To my mind, this is the weakest part of the wall: deciding what belongs on the "church" side. To the extent that the government determines that one thing or another is or isn't a religion, isn't that a Constitutionally impermissible encroachment on the church by the state?

Like speech and the press, which now include telephone conversations and radio and television broadcasts and ought to include computer networks like the internet, religion means something a little different now than what it meant to people in the late 18th Century. For at that time the notion of god(s) was still thoroughly entwined with philosophical and even scientific thinking. No one had offered a decent alternative to the Argument From Design, for example, or the notion that something or someone was needed as a Final Cause for the workings of nature. There was also still a widespread impression that natural processes had a kind of purpose or end that they were aiming towards. This is called teleological thinking. This was the age in which the German philosopher Leibniz supposed that, with all its pain and evils, this was still "the best of all possible worlds."

Things are quite different today. So much so that we can scarcely imagine a time only a hundred or two hundred years ago when theology had any relevance to philosophy or science. The idea that evolution is going somewhere in particular, for example, is history. When we see a few scientists comparing the Big Bang concept to the "Let There Be Light" pronouncement in Genesis, it is more of a poetic allusion than anything else. The emancipation of the sciences from divine rule that Isaac Newton began has been almost completely accomplished. To be sure, there are still those that preach the "God of the gaps," which is to say a role for the supernatural in the many areas of science where we remain ignorant. That God has to be wedged into cracks and crevices is testament to the ascendancy of human reason. Even so simple and impersonal a God as that of Deism has become an obsolete excrescence of human understanding. Freethinkers today, many of whom might have been Deists in the time of Jefferson, now entertain theologies that are somewhere along a continuum from a puzzled ignorance to a skeptical enlightenment to a weary and somewhat impatient indifference.

Oh, yes, we have a theology, a very simple one: Not! We see no reason for believing in the supernatural, or in anything that's not rationally related to our experience. But there are no particular doctrines that are necessary to religion. Buddhists don't believe in God, for example. Most Jews don't believe in an afterlife. And if one or another superstition isn't necessary to religion, then none of them are necessary to religion. I am absolutely convinced that just as science has been cleansed from mysticism, so can religion. Just because we reject god(s) and devil(s), fairies and leprechauns doesn't reduce our religious stance to zero.

Thomas Paine said: "My religion is to do good."

And Abraham Lincoln said: "When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion."

The reason this works is because the whole point of god-belief — so they say — is that it has practical consequences. Boy, does it have some consequences! But whereas the doctrines of believers lead them to definite — and rigidly dogmatic — conclusions, our denial of such nonsense (they admit it's non-sense when they say it takes faith to accept it) leads us to begin just about where they leave off. That is, where their analysis stops — they don't dare go any further after being told what their god(s) want — that's where we begin. Our concern is to directly consider how we ought to behave towards others, how we can best raise our children, and how to go about living happy and productive lives.

Now I know I've ranged all over today. And there are aspects of what I've said that I'd like to return to in the future. But I want to leave you with this idea that beliefs — faith beliefs especially — are an ending. While freethought is a beginning. Remember that when you next find yourself in a position to share your beliefs with someone. Don't share them, in other words. Because that's not how you got to where you are. Don't share your beliefs. Share your thinking. Share your doubts. Share with others, when you can, what's really enriched your life and the only thing that can make this world a better place.

© 1996 by Tim Gorski