Saturday, July 02, 2005

Feldman's Church-State Separation

Noah Feldman has written a piece for the New York Times outlining his solution to the Church-State Separation debate. In the article, Feldman argues that evangelicals feel excluded from public life by the legal insistence on secularism in the public sector:
Keeping nondenominational prayer out of the public schools may protect religious minorities who might feel excluded; but it also sends a message of exclusion to those who believe such prayer would signal commitment to shared values. Increasingly, the symbolism of removing religion from the public sphere is experienced by values evangelicals as excluding them, no matter how much the legal secularists tell them that is not the intent.

Feldman notes that recent trends make public life more secular while increasing funding for faith-based charities. Feldman's solution is to do the exact opposite: strictly ban funding of religious institutions, but permit greater freedom of expression for religious groups in state-funded enterprise. According to Feldman, as long as religious expression is not funded by the state and is not coercive, it should be allowed. In short, no coercion and no money.

It's an interesting idea, though it would be difficult to implement. Each side in the debate would have to cede ground to the other.

There's no doubt that this country is very religious, at least in identity. It makes sense that we should seek solutions that will promote national harmony instead of dividing us. From a secularists perspective, Feldman's solution has its merits. Ramming religion down young people's throats is usually counterproductive. Atheistic Europe, with its state religions, has proven this point quite well.

However, I think that Feldman gives religious people too much credit for being rational:
Legal secularists may fear that when facing arguments with religious premises, they have the deck stacked against them. If values evangelicals begin by asserting that God has defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, then, say the secularists, the conversation about same-sex marriage is over. But in fact, secularists can make arguments of their own, which may be convincing: if the state is going to regulate marriages, shouldn't they be subject to the same equality requirement as every other law? Some might even go further and ask the evangelicals how they can be so sure that they have correctly identified God's will on the question. They may discover that few evangelicals treat faith as a conversation stopper, and most consider it just the opposite.

Secularists may indeed discover that few evangelicals treat faith as a conversation stopper, but, probably, they won't. The religious worldview is not reasonable in the philosophical sense. Religious ideas are not bound together by a coherent and reasoned logical structure. The entire theological enterprise is held together by the authority of the church and its holy books, and nothing more. It is impermissible in religion to question the authority of the clergy or the veracity of ancient and self-contradictory books. Disciples spend hours each week chanting meaningless statements that are intended to strengthen their resolve and their commitment to take action without reasoning about the consequences of that action. They vigorously claim that, without religion, we would not know what actions were righteous, then, quixotically, claim that their religion is right because it leads to righteous outcomes. This is logically incompetent thinking. It is unreasonable.

According to the religious worldview, we must forgive sinners and we must not forgive them. Every life is precious and not every life is precious. How can this be? It's quite simple. The pious believe that their values come from their religion, but they are deluded because it is really the other way around. People stumble around in the philosophical darkness until they locate a religion that matches their moral inclinations - at which point, they are still in the philosophical darkness, but they stop searching for anything better. For the philosophically blind, the Bible is sufficiently self-contradictory and incoherent to permit almost any interpretation. Of course, once an interpretation has been selected by a particular cult, that interpretation becomes utterly inflexible.

Why is it that some Christians are pacifists who will never support the death penalty, while others demand the chair for killers and rapists? Why do some Christians work to serve the poor (believing that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to pass into the kingdom of heaven), while others believe that wealth is God's way of telling you that you're a good person? Why do some Christians pray quietly, while others make a public display of their piety? Why? Because you can find passages in the Bible that will support any position you want! For the most part, it's your gut feelings that determine your denomination.

Does the Bible lean more one way than the other? Yes. Jesus would never kill anyone, not even a murderer, not even in self-defense. There are, maybe, four references to homosexuality in the Bible, but hundreds of references to helping the poor. If the Bible says anything at all, it sides with the pacifists and social workers, not six-gun TV authoritarians holed up in their castles with billions in renaissance art in their basement.

In contrast to religion, secularism, with its reliance on science, provides a means to determine what is true and what is not (and what is nonsensical) without an appeal to an arbitrary authority. Without science and secularism, we would be reliant on those who deviously, foolishly, ignorantly, and arrogantly claim to speak for God. Every debate in a religious state (like Iran) ends with "because I said God says so, period."

However, in a democracy, there is still one authority that matters: the will of the people. Could I follow Feldman's prescription? It's not inconceivable, but I wouldn't go easily.

No comments: