Returning God to Schools and Government
As stated in an earlier essay (On Critics), I believe it is an important obligation for someone who expresses an opinion to disclose the biases that inform that opinion, so let me make some things clear at the outset.
- I am not an atheist.
- I am not opposed to religion.
- I do have some issues with organized religion, which is different.
Following the attacks of 9/11, there has been a renewed cry to return God to American schools and government. The Internet is abuzz with forceful reminders that our country was founded on Christian principles, that the president ends every speech with "God bless America," that "In God We Trust" is printed right on our money, and that the decline in moral values is largely a result of the prohibition against prayer in schools.
Proponents of religion in school and government jump on every crisis as a lever to push this point of view, and the 9/11 attacks are no different.
It sounds reasonable at first blush, but it's a bad idea. Why?
Because it's imposed religion that got us into this mess in the first place. Coming back with "Our God is better than your God," or "God is on our side, not yours," is not the smartest of strategies.
Without exception throughout history, every time religionists have gotten their hands on the reins of government, it's been an absolute disaster. It's true of Islamic fundamentalists like Sheik Omar and Ayatollah Khomeini, and it's true of our culture, too. We don't like to think of the fact that the Inquisition was one of the darkest and ugliest times in Western civilization.
A great deal of good has been done in the name of religion. At the same time, more evil has been perpetrated in the name of religion than any of us would like to admit.
Generally speaking, the evil has been done only when clerics have been in control of the government. The good has come when the clergy has conducted its business privately.
The Founding Fathers were brilliant when they mandated the separation of church and state. Church rule and priestly authority are by their very nature anti-democratic. The people don't get to vote on their religious leaders, whose authority is based on the same kind of divine right western society condemned long ago. You don't vote on religious doctrine, you just obey, and this kind of enforced obedience has no place in a democratic government.
Don't misunderstand me. If people want to obey their clergymen, that's their business and their right.
Where I have a problem is when they have no choice. Citizens under Taliban rule don't have a choice. British citizens prior to the 19th century didn't either.
We in America do have a choice, although sometimes we don't really have much say in whether we're going to get a religious lecture or not. I was at a sporting event recently where things were kicked off by a prayer from the official chaplain. He spoke to God and informed Him that all 2000 people in the event were racing for His honor and to bring glory to His name, and that everyone was profoundly thankful for His blessing and His protection.
I personally knew of at least three people in that audience who were actually racing for other reasons. I suspect there might have been a few more, but I'd be guessing. I also wonder how the Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists felt when the chaplain gave thanks to the Lord, Jesus Christ, on behalf of everybody present.
When I made casual mention of this, some friends told me that I shouldn't really pay attention to the fact that one particular God, Jesus, was specifically named, that he was really a stand-in for everybody's individual form of God, because they were really all the same, after all, and just called different things.
Part of the problem with mainstream religion in America is that the majority of its adherents believe that this person's statement is reasonable. To a Muslim, it not only isn't reasonable, it's an insult. To a polytheistic Hindu, it makes no sense whatsoever. To a Jew, it's just plain wrong, and to an atheist it's arrogantly presumptuous.
And as far as the very popular "Christian men and women, on Christian principles, founded this nation" argument is concerned, consider that this nation was also founded by slave-owners, women weren't allowed to vote, and it was legal to execute witches. So let's not pick and choose which of the founding principles we want to hang our hats on without embracing them all, and some were simply atrocious.
What the founding fathers thought and felt two hundred years ago is irrelevant. The only time anybody ever invokes it is when the fathers said something they agreed with, so we really need to get off that horse forever. One of the lesser known reasons a separation of church and state is in our Constitution is that church participation was mandatory in several of the original colonies and the new citizens rebelled against it.
There is also the argument that, without religion, we have no moral absolutes to anchor ourselves, no moral authority to teach us right from wrong.
You don't need religion to inform you that murder and stealing are wrong, and the only moral authority you need is law that is democratically imposed.
If you're not comfortable with that, consider this: The Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded demand honoring of the Sabbath. It's so critically important that it's one of the ten commandments.
Yet there are virtually no laws on the books in the country demanding adherence to it anymore. And, while we're at it, there are no laws prohibiting the taking of God's name in vain, either, which is another commandment.
At the same time, we freely condone killing in many forms, including war, self-defense, protection of property and criminal executions. All this, while another commandment says "Thou shalt not kill," period.
So let's get off that moral compass argument because it's not even debatable.
The practice of religion should be a private, purely voluntary matter. It has no place in a democratic government, and it shouldn't be imposed on anybody, implicitly or explicitly. To see where that leads we need only look at our present enemy, who feels perfectly free to murder innocent civilians because he feels his God commands him to, and we can't argue with that so long as we keep telling ourselves our God is on our side and so we're free to bomb the other guys.
Pitting our God against his God is not a smart way to go, so let's leave God in our hearts and just do what's right because it's right, not because we claim divine permission.