why religious zealots are afraid of secularism

May 11, 2010

With the National Day of Prayer finally found to be an unconstitutional outreach of government into endorsing a religion by courts, there’s been plenty of grumbling about the separation of church and state, and a seemingly endless repetition of the “we’re a Christian country” mythos. Of course, if we actually look at what the founding fathers of the United States said, we find that not only did they outright reject the idea that the nation they built was in any way, shape or form Christian, but they even signed a treaty saying exactly that to Muslims of what is modern day Libya, a treaty approved by Congress and publicly distributed in the States with no protests. So when the very same government bows before Christian fundamentalists who see the first sentence of the Bill of Rights as nothing more than a minor nuisance to be drowned out by prayers and invocations to God, that’s a very serious problem because the government passed legislation which is constitutionally unsound, and a particular religious group insists that it keeps doing so out of its need for self-affirmation and validation.

According to the First Amendment, the government simply isn’t allowed to endorse any religious movement, a notion today’s religious zealots either ignore, or pretend that it doesn’t apply to them. That’s why they vote on a candidate based on how many times he invokes the right deity, judge how well someone was raised by how religiously devout and outspoken he is, and believe that anyone not as devout as them will destroy the nation because he doesn’t live trembling in fear of God’s wrath. But why is it so hard to explain why the separation of church and state isn’t only necessary, but that it protects them as well? Why do they insist on throwing out old fallacies and outright fantasies about the United States being founded on their principles and their faith, even when every ruling on the subject for the last two centuries has unequivocally stated the exact opposite? It’s not very hard for believers to simply ignore what they don’t want to see, then run around accusing others of doing the same. To believe that you’re under constant surveillance of a wrathful, supernatural voyeur watching over you every second of every day with no proof that this is actually happening already needs an immunity to a few very basic facts. But in the debate about secularism, there’s something more going on.

First, an important thing to note is that the opinions we hear from religious fundamentalists might not be their own but rather, a recitation of talking points given to them by demagogues and pundits. Unfortunately, when a person chooses to simply rehash talking points, he generally fails to bring anything more than a quote to the debate since talking points are based for inciting a loyal base and boiling down complex issues into a catchy soundbyte, not to actually carry on a serious discussion. This isn’t limited to religious fundamentalists by any stretch of the imagination and it’s equally bad when agnostics or atheists decide to wage a quote war against fervent zealots. Since talking points are all about firing up the base, they tend to lack the kind of facts that need to underpin an argument. And since they’re usually exchanged by people who already believe pretty much the same exact thing, they serve to create an echo chamber where nuances, exceptions and evidence are thrown by the wayside in favor of ideology. This is why we get those inane repetitions of “Judeo-Christian principles enshrined in the Constitution” while those who chant it can’t even quote the right document. These aren’t the kind of well thought out and persuasive ideas we’re told they are. They’re products of echo chambers, endless repetition against the facts, and sometimes, an obvious, outright parody of a pundit’s style. The only evidence these talking point debates use is wishful thinking.

But the most important issue preventing fundamentalists from grasping the need for separation of church and state is because secularism is so alien to them. Secularists see religions as a collection of beliefs which are bundled into different flavors, divided and named by tradition and cultural history. Fundamentalists divide their world into the one true belief dictated to them by God and everybody who’s wrong and whose views are totally irrelevant to the discussion because they don’t worship the right deity or don’t worship it correctly. They crave a government which will pander to them, acknowledge that their beliefs are right and true, and follow their rules in a quasi-theocratic manner, ignoring the real dangers of mixing politics and religion. But again, they ignore these dangers because they believe they’re absolutely right and that their brand of theocracy will work while a supposedly false belief will be doomed to fail. To put it bluntly, we’re arguing with people who believe they’ve been given a direct line to the creator of the universe, claim a monopoly on morality and ethics despite serious scientific evidence against their claim, and demonize those won’t obey them as amoral monsters. They’re people with strong, yet brittle beliefs in search of official affirmation so they don’t start doubting their faith. Why else do the people who pray every day for just about anything and everything need the government to bow with them and launch into a toned down Evangelical prayer in an official emulation of Sunday mass?

[ illustration by Fabricio Moraes ]

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  • ottoman, BTIT

    The girls and I enjoyed your fine essay today. We (collectively) prayed 14 times while reading it – in secret as the Bible commands. Don’t these fundamentalists realize that open, public prayer is only an end in itself?

  • RaggMopp

    Theocracy is, by definition, the death of religious freedom. Secularism is not a matter of religious preference. It is a political position that holds that religious beliefs shall not drive legislation. This current foment about “a Christian Nation” was invented a few years ago by people who wish to see a theocracy instituted in the USA. Certain fundamentalist activists seem to believe that the Democratic Republic would be better if Jesus were in charge. Problem is they usually presume to speak for Jesus. What they can’t seem to recognize is that the Pentecostalists have about as much chance against the Pope as a snowball in, well, you know. If the USA winds up a theocracy, I’ll guarantee that the Imam will be the Bishop of Rome.

    They’re aggravated by secularists, which, by the way have included spokespersons for the Southern Baptist Synod, because they continue to thwart the success of the theocratists. Prayer in school, National Day of Prayer, science in classrooms, and on and on. They don’t give a damn what that holy document of secularists, the Constitution for the United States of America, says. How many Popes and Cardinals have denounced Democracy in the last thousand years? Too many to number. I wish they would think about the fact that there are six Roman Catholics on the Supreme Court.

  • Curious

    You make some very bold claims that really need to be backed up by citation. Surely as a scientist and fellow skeptic, you can understand such a request.

    1. You refer to “outright fantasies about the United States being founded on their principles and their faith, even when every ruling on the subject for the last two centuries has unequivocally stated the exact opposite”.

    I’ve found that generally, when a person uses such absolute words as “every”, “all”, “no one”, “everyone” etc., they’ve dispensed with logical thought, and entered either the realm of moralizing or spouting mere opinions.

    So would you care to provide just a longitudinal sampling of “every ruling” over the 200 year span you claim?

    Would you care to explain why these same courtrooms you say “unequivocally” found against a Christian founding nonetheless persisted for decades in requiring witnesses to “swear in” on Bibles? Why do many of those courtbuildings–many quite old–have stonework that depicts the bible, God, or references to that deity?

    It would seem you need to check your use of the word “unequivocal”.

    2. It is important to realize just how deeply the Judeo-Christian lexicon is immersed in our culture–even if you disagree with said belief system. A quick search of the “Congressional Record” (conveniently found on-line: http://www.gpoaccess.gov/crecord/index.html) reveals more than a thousand usages of the Golden Rule, and hundreds of references to the “Promised Land”, “Armageddon”, the “Apocalypse” and the Good Samaritan. That’s in the last twenty years. Even if you mess up the search and only search 2010, you’ll still get hundreds of returns for those Biblical terms.

    3. The 109th Congress self-identified as 92% Christian. In 2000, every single one of the state governors identified themselves in the same way.

    4. I think it’s entirely accurate to claim the Founding Fathers feared sectarian religiosity, but it is not accurate to say they wished to exclude it completely. The very man who coined the phrase “separation of Church and State” (in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association), allotted federal funds for use by Christian missionaries after his election (oh Tommy J!).

    Does the evidence really suggest that those who say “we’re a Christian country” are ascribing to a mere “mythos”?

    To be honest, I look at your piece, and the overwhelming evidence, and I rather suspect your thoughts (to use your own words) “aren’t the kind of well thought out and persuasive ideas we’re told they are. They’re products of echo chambers, endless repetition against the facts, and sometimes, an obvious, outright parody of a pundit’s style. The only evidence these talking point debates use is wishful thinking.”

    I would love to be proven wrong…

  • Curious

    To Ottoman BTIT: If Jesus only wanted people to pray in private, why did he perform official, public ritual functions?

    Such as 1) reading in the synagogue, 2) going to the Temple and calling it “My Father’s House”, 3) celebrating the feast of Passover and instituting a “new covenant”, 4) having religious debates in the public forums?

  • RaggMopp

    @Curious: Ref. your response to ottoman., BTIT. Seems to me you just took a flying leap off the ten meter platform on the word of a vagrant that there is water in the pool. I am amazed by the extrapolation that you assigned to ottoman’s post. Perhaps you should cite your sources when you launch into such a flight of fancy.

    I know where you got these anecdotes, but it is well precedented to quote chapter and verse when making a point from the Holy Bible. Even Pat Robertson does that.

    I agree that the admonition to go into your closet to pray is only one of many contridictory exemplars, and I don’t claim to know what the answer is, but ottoman BTIT violated no known proscription, and in fact drove a nail thru the head of a host of televangilists.

  • Greg Fish

    … would you care to provide just a longitudinal sampling of “every ruling” over the 200 year span you claim?

    Aside from the Treaty of Tripoli and the Bill of Rights, there’s Reynolds v. U.S., (1879) which says that personal religious beliefs are not an excuse to break a secular law, Engel v. Vitale, (1962), which rules school prayer to be a violation of the Constitution, and there’s also McCreary County v. Kentucky ACLU and Van Orden v. Perry., (2005), which found that you can’t display the Ten Commandments in a courthouse unless you treat the display as a purely historical notion in a secular context.

    There’s also a case you may know of, Killmitzer v. Dover, which found the teaching of creationism or anything like creationism in science classes to be illegal. Yes, this is a very small sampling, but there are reference lists offering more cases. To come up with a true longitudinal sampling would take months.

    Would you care to explain why these same courtrooms you say unequivocally found against a Christian founding persisted for decades in requiring witnesses to “swear in” on Bibles?

    Last time I was in court, no one was ever asked to swear on anything. If you choose not to swear on anything, your testimony will be just as valid and if you lie, you would be just as subject to perjury charges as someone who did. A lot of “God” references are products of the Cold War and McCarthyism which have stuck around are are just now being addressed in a long series of court cases.

    Why do many of those court buildings–many quite old–have stonework that depicts the bible, God, or references to that deity?

    Because this was, and still is, considered to be art. No one should be arguing that a nation which is an extension of Western culture and history doesn’t have anything at all to do with Christianity when it comes to the arts or people’s traditions, but that’s a cultural issue, not a legal one. Just because there’s religiously inspired artwork on a stone step or a brick facade, doesn’t mean the judges will consult the Bible to make their rulings. And if they do, they decisions can, and do get overturned.

    It is important to realize just how deeply the Judeo-Christian lexicon is immersed in our culture – even if you disagree with said belief system.

    So what? Does this now mean we have to legislate based on how many times we’ll be able to find a reference to religious lexicons in our cultures? This is a bandwagon fallacy pure and simple.

    The 109th Congress self-identified as 92% Christian. In 2000, every single one of the state governors identified themselves in the same way.

    And when we drill down, how many are Catholic, Methodist, Baptists, Unitarians and Evangelicals? Christianity is a very big umbrella for a wide host of related beliefs. Oh and once again, we have a bandwagon fallacy. Popular does not mean right.

    Does the evidence really suggest that those who say “we’re a Christian country” are ascribing to a mere “mythos”?

    Yes, because they’re confusing a nation’s laws with its religious traditions. Never did the lawmakers of the United States endorse an official religious denomination for the country’s citizens, and the courts routinely declare bills and proposals to be violations of the secular principles of our laws. This is a country in which the majority of people profess some form of Christianity, not a country that relies on the Bible to make laws. In fact, only two of the Commandments even have a law for them.

    If Jesus only wanted people to pray in private, why did he perform official, public ritual functions?

    Preaching to a group of followers who wanted to hear his musings is a public, ritual function? Plus what about Matthew 6:6 and its message of private prayer?

  • RaggMopp

    Greg, Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. vs Dover Area School District, et al. found that so called “Intelligent Design” is a thinly veiled dodge to get Creationism into public school biology (science) classes. Creationism had long ago bit the dust. Sorry, can’t quote that one just now, but the point of Kitzmiller v Dover was whether Intelligent Design is Creationism. The Federal District Court dealt Intelligent Design a resounding whack up-side the head. The court said, in effect, “Hell yes it is!”

  • Zetetic

    @ Curious:
    Out of curiosity….
    How exactly would you feel if (hypothetically) you were living in a society that pressured you in public to pray to Ball, Orin, Ra, Zeus, Alla, or any other deity that you don’t believe in, just so as to appease their own need to enforce conformity to reinforce the echo chamber of public faith? I’d be willing to bet that you’d not be to keen on that.

    The problem with such allowing such public expressions of piety is that even mild forms such as “In God We Trust” becomes used as a justification to expand and pressure others into conforming the the echo chamber of whatever the dominant religion happens to be. The relatively recent changes become referred to as “tradition” (as though that in any way justifies such practices) while the older, and often more secular, traditions get ignored.