Has become untethered

A couple of snippets on religion / secularism and US politics from recent reading that I wanted to save somewhere, and in public seems as good a place as any.

First, Barack Obama (who I’m apparently closest to out of all the presidential candidates), quoted by David Hollinger in a review of The Stillborn God (subscribers only) by Mark Lilla in the London Review of Books, 24 January 2008:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all … Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

Nothing earth shattering to me there but sometimes having a single paragraph of common sense stated simply is a handy thing. Next, Garry Wills, from an article on Mitt Romney and JFK in the New York Review of Books, 17 January 2008:

…those who think (like Kennedy) that “religion is seen merely as a private affair” are, Romney said, “intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong.” …

That secularism is a religion is a position fiercely held by some on the right. They use it to say that separating church and state breaches the First Amendment, which forbids the establishment of a religion. In their topsy-turvy arguments, the First Amendment thus forbids the separation of church and state.

This is fascinating, and a position I find hard to even hold in my head. By the time I get to the end of the paragraph the start has become untethered and I have to start again.


  • There's an argument to be made that, say, in France, laïcité sometimes displays of the characteristics of a religion, for instance in the recent headscarf/religious symbol debate. There's also an argument that US constitutional provisions like the 'no religious Test' clause ought to be interpreted according to contemporary English practice, in which public office and university membership was restricted to oath-swearing communicant Anglicans. But there's nothing close to French laïcité in American culture; in that context, invoking secularism as a pseudo-religion is actually bound up with the idea that it's a foreign, and possibly even French tradition that must by definition be resisted.

  • This is a confusion over epistemology. Science is based on evidence, religion on faith. They are fundamentally contrary. It could be argued that atheism is a religion in that they 'believe' there is no God; it's up to them to prove it. i.e. It is based on faith, so it's a religion. Fair enough. However there are two major problems that arise when you apply this to the debate going on in America. Firstly, secularism is not atheism. It's a political not a theological standpoint. And most importantly religion really shouldn't be using the scientific burden of proof argument. For obvious reasons. Either way, the religious right are screwed when it comes to arguing that secularism is a religion. (By the way I'm not saying religion and science cannot be reconciled. You could be a religious scientist who believes science answers the how and religion the why for example. But this doesn't help us argue that science, or secularism, or smoking or whatever is a religion.)
    Interesting post by Nick S. He is surely right to say that the founding fathers were not secularists in the modern sense; and that 'freedom OF religion' not freedom from religion was their guiding principle. In that way the American separation of church and state is (arguably) different from the French idea of laicity. Yet I can't understand how laicism could in any way "display the characteristics of a religion". This is the same fallacious argument which the religious right use. Just because I don't belong to a religion doesn't mean I belong to a 'Don't belong to a religion' religion.
    P.S. Thanks Phil for the link to the Rickstones School photos. Mehta Nastukashi de shu? Cheers.

Commenting is disabled on posts once they’re 30 days old.