Church-State Separation for the Impoverished Imaginatio

Shawn Dawson

Among the many frustrating experiences that face humanists, arguing for church-state separation must be one of the worst. I have personally argued till I was blue in the face trying to overcome the intransigent incomprehension of some of my religious acquaintances who could not seem to grasp that something is wrong when church and state are not separate. Gradually, after several such encounters, an idea came to me. What if the problem lies not in their ability to grasp such concepts as “the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18), or in their ability to follow a chain of fairly straightforward reasoning, but rather in their stupendous poverty of imagination? The hypothesis seems at least worthy of investigation and, thankfully, suggests a readily available cure. So, for the sake of tolerant people everywhere, I propose the following thought-experiment for the improvement of the religiously impoverished imagination.

A Familiar Situation

Imagine that you are a Christian living in a country in which most of the inhabitants are Muslim. Now, this state is a democracy and has enshrined in its law and constitution protections for freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and so forth, as well as a specific prohibition against the establishment of any state religion. However, a number of common practices disturb you. The national anthem refers to Allah and implies that the country is a Muslim nation. In many public speeches, the leaders of the government ask for Allah’s blessing and proclaim that Muhammad is his prophet. Moreover, in some public schools, officials and teachers periodically lead the students in prayer to Allah. Finally, as you drive along the public highways, you see many signs on the outskirts of various towns and cities that declare, “____ is a Muslim town/city.”

As a Christian, what would you think about the situation? How would you feel? I think you would justifiably believe that the state is privileging Islam over Christianity, that it is not protecting your rights, and that it is in fact failing to uphold its own laws and constitution. You would worry about your children—will they be made to feel uncomfortable and isolated in school because of their minority religious beliefs? You would wonder where it will all lead. Will Christians soon become second-class citizens? Are they already?

Imagine further that you and other Christians got organized and took your complaints to the government and the schools. The reply you received, however, was not what you had hoped for. Government officials say, “There is no establish–ment of a state religion. Our citizens enjoy perfect freedom of religion. Christians are free to pursue their religion in private. The fact that we refer to Allah, Muhammad, and Islamic tradition in our speeches and elsewhere merely reflects the historical fact that we began as a Muslim nation. Moreover, we believe that it would be infringing upon the rights of our Muslim majority to deny them a public voice in government.”

School officials say, “We are not denying you the right to raise your children as Christians or trying to inculcate them in Islamic ways. We believe that praying to Allah in school allows children to develop their own spirituality.” Would you not conclude that there is something seriously wrong with this situation? Add to this the fact, let us suppose, that for many people the term Christian is virtually a dirty word and that to be openly Christian and run for office is political suicide. Would you not start to wonder if most people in the nation did not actually value freedom per se but only freedom for those who think like they do?

The Moral of the Story

Some people may think that my example is arbitrary, sensationalistic, or even opportunistic, given recent events in American history. But it is not. Even though it is something of an amalgam, my scenario closely mirrors the situations in America, Canada, and other countries. If you do not like my example, pick a different religion as the favored one or as the minority one and vary the specifics accordingly. Or if you want to be really radical—if you dare—imagine that “the minority religion” actually represents the nonreligious and the favored religion is Christianity. I hope you will then start to appreciate that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion, and that the only freedom worthy of the name recognizes and respects the freedom of others. Now, is church-state separation really so hard to grasp?

Shawn Dawson

Shawn Dawson is a humanist living in Canada. He is a contributing author to the anthology Voices of Humanism (edited by Gary Bauslaugh) and has been published in periodicals such as Free Inquiry, Humanist Perspectives, and Skeptic.


Among the many frustrating experiences that face humanists, arguing for church-state separation must be one of the worst. I have personally argued till I was blue in the face trying to overcome the intransigent incomprehension of some of my religious acquaintances who could not seem to grasp that something is wrong when church and state …

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