Our Humanity, Naturally

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Government Neutrality Is not "Anti-Religion"

Understanding church-state separation

One of the hallmarks of the Religious Right is its consistent inability to understand the concept of government neutrality on religion. In its eyes virtually all institutions, especially those governmental, are assessed as either "for" or "against" God, with the middle ground of neutrality not an option.

This poses a problem for Secular Americans, who generally don't seek a government that is anti-religion, only one that is neutral. Unfortunately, whenever secular groups or individuals attempt to encourage governmental religious neutrality, predictable cries will be heard from the Christian Right that religion and God are "under attack." The proposed neutrality is seen as yet more proof that never has a majority population been so oppressed as America's Christians.

Therefore, in an attempt to illustrate the difference between government neutrality on religion and government bias against religion, the list below examines several popular church-state issues from both perspectives - neutrality and anti-religion bias. Bear in mind that nobody is suggesting that government should actually reflect an anti-religion bias, but the examples are provided in order to show what such bias might look like. Here they are:

 

The neutral action: Prohibiting school-sponsored religious instruction in public schools, whether in the form of Bible instruction, "creation science," or any other means of injecting God or religion into public school curricula.

What real anti-religion bias would look like: If schools affirmatively taught that there is no God, that all theistic religion is wrong, then the Religious Right would have a valid claim that schools are "anti-religion."

 

The neutral action: Prohibiting public schools from sponsoring any kind of prayer exercises. (Contrary to popular myth this does not stop individuals from praying on their own free time, because it only prohibits government sponsorship of such exercises. As such, alarmist cries that "God has been kicked out of schools" are entirely overblown.)

What real anti-religion bias would look like: If schools prohibited children from praying on their own, even during their own free time in a manner not obstructing others, that would be "anti-religion."

 

The neutral action: Removing "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, returning to the original wording of ". . . one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

What real anti-religion would look like: Rather than just remove the "under God" wording, a truly anti-religion government would insert wording that would make an affirmative anti-religion statement, such as "one nation, godless, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." As outlandish as this seems to believers, the current pro-God version seems just as inappropriate to many nonbelievers. This shows the wisdom of simple neutrality, where nobody's beliefs are disrespected.

 

The neutral action: Ending government sponsorship of the National Day of Prayer, an annual event that was created in modern times by religious conservatives for the primary purpose of pushing a religious agenda into the public sphere. A National Day of Prayer that is sponsored by various churches, rather than the government, would be fine, but secular citizens (and many religious citizens as well) don't like their government sponsoring a religious event like an annual day of prayer.

What real anti-religion would look like: An anti-religion government would sponsor a National Day of Blasphemy. In fact, a day in recognition of blasphemy, though not government-sponsored, already exists. Every September 30 infidels of all stripes from around the world celebrate Blasphemy Day, a day that recognizes and appreciates free speech and the freedom to criticize religion.

 

The neutral action: Scrapping the clearly religious national motto that was adopted in 1956, "In God We Trust," and returning to the excellent motto crafted by the founders, "E Pluribus Unum" (meaning "Out of many, one").

What real anti-religion would look like: There are many ways that a government could declare truly anti-religious sentiments.  A motto such as "In God We Don't Trust," for example, would be unambiguous in this regard.

 

The neutral action: Ending the practice of sending tax dollars to churches in the name of "faith-based partnerships." Every year millions of tax dollars are funneled to churches for social programs and similar purposes. In practice there is little oversight, even though the money is not supposed to be used for proselytizing or any other religious purpose. The religious organizations are not even subject to the discrimination laws that nonreligious entities must follow. These programs are often taxpayer-funded cash cows for religious organizations.

What real anti-religion bias would look like: If government were truly anti-religious it would not only not funnel money to churches, but it would impose a special tax on religion, forcing religious organizations to funnel money to the federal and state treasuries.

 

These examples show us that church-state separation is not a matter of oppression for any religious group, but a means of ensuring that all religious views enjoy a level playing field. When the Religious Right complains about such fairness and neutrality, it only demonstrates that it expects special treatment for its views, and that anything less will be seen as unfair.

Interestingly, when religious conservatives claim that "majority rule" should allow a pro-religion bias, one must wonder whether they would concede that, should nonbelievers ever attain a majority in America (a plausible hypothesis given general trends), this would justify an anti-religion bias such as that described in the samples above. Probably not. And this demonstrates why all sides should agree that neutrality should be the goal regardless of who is in the majority.

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David Niose is legal director and former president of the American Humanist Association.

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