Of Golden Geese and Sacred Cows

I write these words in July, during a week in which the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Senator Barack Obama, has repeatedly emphasized his Christian faith. For example, Obama has declared that after he placed his “trust in Christ,” he learned that Christ “could set me on the path to eternal life when I submitted myself to his will.” Obama has also stated that not only does he not intend to eliminate Bush’s faith-based initiatives, he actually plans to expand this program. Obama similarly has contended that the values expressed “in our churches and synagogues” (what, no mosque?) should also be expressed “in our policies and in our laws.”

Given the many different and inconsistent values that find expression in religious beliefs, one might be forgiven for being puzzled over exactly which values Senator Obama has in mind. The value of teaching the religious doctrine of intelligent design instead of science-based biology? The value of believing that blastocysts have the same moral status as adult humans? Or perhaps the value of persuading people to forego consuming a hamburger and a milkshake simultaneously, lest they incur God’s wrath?

The sophisticated secular humanist might claim that we should not be overly concerned about what Obama, or any politician, says about the significance of religion. Politicians live by the vote. They must pay lip service to religion in order to get elected.

That last observation is probably correct. But—leaving aside the devaluing of our public discourse that results when we make hypocrisy and insincerity an integral part of such discourse—I maintain that we should be troubled that in the twenty-first century, American politicians still feel compelled to pay obeisance to religion. There has been much discussion in recent years regarding the increasing secularization of the West. However, although adherence to religious belief has declined dramatically in Europe, there has been substantially less of a decline in the United States. For whatever reasons—and I will let the sociologists and historians provide the explanations—the United States remains an anomaly. It is the only first-world democracy where religious belief remains strong and politicians feel obliged to incorporate religious references into their speeches, if not religious doctrines into their policies. Not only has religion not been excluded from the American public square, but it continues to dominate it.

Furthermore, religion’s continued dominance of public discourse is not limited to politicians. Surveys in the past decade inform us that less than 10 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal God. But although many distinguished scientists openly admit their lack of religion and support humanist or freethought causes, as the listing of distinguished scientists in the International Academy of Humanism confirms, most scientists keep mum on the topic of faith. Politicians rely on the vote; many scientists rely on grant money. The thought process of the silent scientists can be described by using a shamelessly mixed metaphor: Why kill the golden goose by attacking sacred cows?

Those in the media are typically just as reluctant to whisper a critical word about religion. Notwithstanding the recent commercial success of several books critical of religion, both print and broadcast media remain very deferential to religion.

But does this deference shown to religion by politicians, scientists, journalists, and others in public life really matter? After all, humanism is not a missionary movement in the sense that our primary goal is the conversion of the religious to irreligion. We do not loiter in hospital corridors waiting for the opportunity to shove the affirmations of humanism or The God Delusion into a dying patient’s hands. Does it really make any difference to us if Senator Obama or anyone else believes that he will have eternal life if he has faith in Christ, Allah, Jehovah, or any other purported deity?

Not really—if such absurd beliefs were all there was to religion. Presumably, we do not like to see anyone build a life around a false hope, but if someone’s commitment to an illusion were a sufficient justification for devoting significant time and effort to getting that person to question and examine her/his beliefs, we would be busy shaking the fantasies out of many an entrepreneur, lover, and Chicago Cubs fan. If religion were purely a personal matter, then there would be less need for organizations such as the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry.

But both history and contemporary events demonstrate that many religious do not see their beliefs as a purely personal matter. To the contrary, the religious actively seek to convert others and, failing that, to impose their views on others, whether directly or indirectly—such as by building Ten Commandments monuments in public parks or by placing “In God We Trust” on our coins. Moreover, it is not just government support for and endorsement of their beliefs that many religious desire. They aspire to base public policy on their religious beliefs, such as prohibiting assisted dying, continuing the ban on gay marriage, restricting or eliminating access to abortion, banning stem cell research, teaching creationism in public schools, promoting abstinence-only sex education, and so forth.

Opposing deeply misguided efforts to mine the Bible, the Qur’an, or other sacred writings or religious doctrines for insights on public policy is where secular humanism can and must make a difference. We need to work to maintain a secular state and to base public policy on secular concerns and empirical evidence. Humanism does not necessarily make you a better person. However, properly applied, humanist principles do result in a more informed, reasonable, and sound public policy.

As indicated, our goal is not to convert the majority of Americans—or the world generally—to humanism. Not only is that not a realistic goal, but it is not necessarily an objective worth pursuing. We simply need enough committed humanists to form a critical mass; in other words we need enough humanists to secure the foundations of a thoroughly secular state and to ensure that discourse about public policy is framed entirely in secular terms. It does not trouble me that Senator Obama is a Christian; it does trouble me when he and other policy makers assert that it is necessary to turn to religion for our values and public policy. Religion per se has nothing to contribute to democratic discourse. One cannot debate dogma.

Of course, in providing an alternative to religiously inspired public policy, we must go beyond mere critique of religion. Objective critique of religion is important not only for its own sake—as humanists we are committed to objective examination of all truth claims—but also because we need to demonstrate why religion leads us nowhere. However, we also need to demonstrate how humanism can lead us somewhere. Many cling to religion even when they have grave doubts about the veracity of religious claims, because they believe that only religion can provide moral guidance. It is incumbent upon humanists to show how human values and appropriate public policy can be grounded on human experience. In short, we need both an unsparing critique of religion and a relentless commitment to developing a humanistic ethic.

The work of the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry are vitally important. We are not that concerned about what fantasies people may have about life after death, but we are very concerned about life before death and the baleful influence that religions continue to exert in shaping our lives and the lives of everyone around the world.

I write these words in July, during a week in which the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Senator Barack Obama, has repeatedly emphasized his Christian faith. For example, Obama has declared that after he placed his “trust in Christ,” he learned that Christ “could set me on the path to eternal life when I submitted …

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