Girly Thoughts

March 26, 2008

Separation of Religion and State, etc.

Filed under: Christianity,Gender,LGBTQ,Religion — judgesnineteen @ 12:39 am

This post and its comments got me thinking, as did reading Pharyngula lately. God that story about Richard Dawkins and the movie Expelled was hilarious. So, you can probably tell I’m not real big on Christianity. Rather bitter, actually. But I know, despite not being able to comprehend, that there are people who find a way to reconcile Christianity with serious human rights. I don’t mean just “it’s fun to submit to your husband so it’s not bad, and he’s supposed to love you so no worries”, I mean actual feminist, pro-LGBTQ Christians. I’m glad to have them on my side, that being the human rights side. Or to be on their side rather, since most of them probably got there first. If they’re not going to deny people their rights, I don’t see any reason for me to oppose them. I can disagree with them, but as long as we all believe in the right to freedom of religion, that’s not a problem.

I haven’t actually done my research on this, but I can imagine that people like this exist in all religions. And if that’s possible, then I see no reason to oppose any religion per se. That’s handy, because I do want to fall into that freedom of religion camp.

But what about the people who interpret a religion as against certain human rights, and still follow it? Well, I still don’t have the right to tell them what to believe, nor would I have much of a leg to stand on in trying to prove that I’m right and they’re wrong. It’s one thing to prove that evolution works; keep working on that. It’s another to prove that there is no God. And it’s even another to prove that one moral code is better than another. I know what seems plausible to me, what seems right to me (to a point, anyway), but I can’t tell people that just because something is really unlikely, they can’t believe it.  You can believe in anything you can think up, really.

But I can push for the separation of religion and state so that they can’t enforce their anti-human rights beliefs on other people. That depends, of course, on getting the state to protect human rights in the first place, which so far we haven’t fully accomplished. But we can keep working on that, and we can say no when any religion wants to enact state laws that violate human rights. That will include saying no to laws that would privilege one religion over another or force people to practice something that is specifically religious, because of the religious freedom right.

Problems come in when people interpret their religion as not just being against a certain right, but as being against the separation of religion and state itself. Actually, I think even when they are just against a certain right you could get legal issues. Like if a religion said, you have to sacrifice a human every year or you will go to hell. That would be problematic, because the law won’t allow it. The religious people can say, we won’t make anyone else do human sacrifices, we’ll just do them among ourselves, voluntarily. But the state would still see a murder. Or at best, a suicide. I guess they’d probably get away with it if they could prove that the sacrificed person sacrificed themselves all on their own, and the sacrifice was always “successful.” I don’t know why I’m trying to figure out how to get away with human sacrifice. Ok. So.

1. You have a problem when the religion says “you have to do x” and x is against the law.

2. You have a problem when the religion says “you cannot do y” and y is obligatory under the law.

3. You have a problem when the religion says “you have to found your state on this religion.”  Gentler but still problematic versions of this would include the concept that you have to get others to adopt and live by your morality.  If Christians would read the Bible they probably wouldn’t think this, but a lot of them don’t and do think that God made it their business to get other people to act Christian, by legal force if necessary.

So what do we do in those circumstances? Do we say, sorry believers, rules is rules? Or do we say, well, as long as it’s really suicide…? Or do we say, ok, anyone who belongs to this religion gets special laws just for them? Do we go so far as to set them up in their own state?

Problem with letting them self-govern by their religion to any degree: groups of religious people try to get each other to conform to what they see as the rules of the religion. And I think that freedom of religion is a constant right, not a choice you get to make freely once and then it’s over. And I think kids have the right to change the religion they’ve grown up in. So let’s say we have this happy group of Flying Spaghetti Monster worshipers. And then one of them becomes an atheist, or a Christian, or a Buddhist.  Or just interprets FSMism in a new way. The old FSM laws are no longer fair to her or him, the community is not friendly to the conversion. That’s a vote for no religion in laws.

Another problem, though, is that I’m Western, and when you’re Western it’s hard to know sometimes if your way really just makes a lot of sense and is built on reason and rationality, or if it’s just another cultural belief like any other cultural belief and saying it’s better than other cultural beliefs is imperialistic. I guess that’s why we need to think through all these scenarios rather than just assuming we’re right. And it’s essential to listen to other people from other cultures. But it’s tricky because you want to be supportive and open-minded, but then sometimes you really do think you’re right. Separation of religion and state is one of those issues for me, I mean that’s how I felt reading the comments about Sharia in the link to Feministe.

Where I do draw the line is at the kind of atheism-on-the-offense I see every once in a while. It’s rare, no matter what the Christians say. But it’s there. I understand, given all the crap atheists have to put up with. Like I said, I’m bitter, and I assume many of them are too. But professors preaching atheism instead of teaching science (science does not include religion, but does not necessarily preclude religion…like I said, you can always think up some way to make them both work, implausible as it may be) is not a good idea. First, ethically, because of freedom of religion. Christianity should not be taught in public classrooms, for sure. But nor should we tell people to leave their religion in public classrooms. If they want to believe that literally, the earth they’re standing on is only a few thousand years old, without any special loopholes to allow science to be right, ok, they’re going to have to at least get over it enough to write down the correct answer on a test.  But there’s no need to tell them religion is stupid.  Second, pragmatically, because then the over-defensiveness of Christian fundamentalists has some basis. They won’t stop even if they have zero basis for saying this stuff, but making them even a little bit right is counterproductive if we want moderates to help us work towards the separation of religion and state. If separation becomes seen as pushing atheism, it won’t happen. Third, again ethically, because that’s the same thing I won’t stand for from Christians.

Here’s what I mean by that: I’ve mentioned that sometimes real conflicts can arise between religions and the philosophy of separation. But sometimes, people could follow their religion and support separation, but they still don’t. Take gay marriage. This is a classic example (or will be when it’s old enough to be classic) of getting all huffy about something that has NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU. If gay people get married, heterosexual marriage stock does not go down. Heterosexual marriages will not collapse due to the vibrations that homosexual wedding ceremonies will send into the air. Churches will not be required to give homosexual couples their blessing. THE STATE (which the Christians that like to pretend to be persecuted know is not God’s representative on earth, although the Christians who like to mix the American flag with the cross might take some convincing) will recognize homosexual marriages, the same as it recognizes Jewish and Muslim and yes, even atheist marriages. Those marriages are not blessed by the Christian worldview, because Christian couples are supposed to be bound by the Christian God (although I’m sure there are Christians who disagree, but generally not the ones who are starkly anti-gay). And yet Christians don’t make a fuss about atheists being allowed to get legally married.* Nor should they care if gay people get married, because it’s just none of their business. They may disagree with it, they may not like it, they may feel uncomfortable knowing it’s happening, it may make them sad, but that doesn’t give them the right to infringe on other people’s rights.

The same applies to atheists who don’t like the fact that other people believe in things they think are ridiculous and even stunting to intellectual growth. If it gets in the way of an atheist doing his or her job, that’s different. You shouldn’t have to teach non-science in science class. But you don’t need to attack religion in an invasive way. I mean clearly I attack the Bible, but I acknowledge that people can come up with all kinds of ways of believing implausible things because none of us has a rule book that tells you what kind of arguments are allowed in religion. I think the “well God is bigger than our logic so even though sometimes I use logic to understand religion, when my logic is applicable but leads to an answer I don’t like I just assume it’s a case where God made it impossible for me to understand” argument is a really annoying cop-out, but I can’t prove that it’s wrong, and I don’t need to. I can just not believe it and other people can believe what they want and as long as they don’t try to get me back in the kitchen based on it, we’re ok. I won’t deny that I disagree with a lot of people on religion, and we can debate our different beliefs, but nothing should be hanging on the outcome of that debate. I mean maybe for Christians there will always be someone’s salvation in the balance, but for me, a religious debate would just be a way to pass the time, a way to think deeply, not something I need to do because it’s an affront to me that people who disagree with me exist.  (Not to be confused with the times when they try to violate human rights; then it is an affront.)

*Brainstorming the differences between accepted atheist marriages and unaccepted gay marriages: 1) the former is already accepted in our culture. Christians often ignore things that conflict with the technicalities of the faith but would be impossible to change in today’s society or that are already so normalized in their culture that they assume it’s fine/take it for granted. 2) gay marriages don’t create a male-female hierarchy. 3) related, gay marriages don’t get people pregnant (except they do sometimes, but many Christians think that’s even worse; can’t win sometimes). 4) gay marriages necessarily separate sex from procreation; but to be realistic, so do most atheist marriages in places where contraception is available. 5) acceptance of gay marriage would further acceptance of homosexuality, period, which would make many conservative men insecure. this isn’t a good excuse for them either, because atheist marriages presumably show acceptance of atheism, of marriage outside of God’s covenant, and they should think atheism is equally if not more threatening than eroded gender roles.

In sum, I think their issue with gay marriage is a mix between just picking on who they can get away with picking on and regular old separate-the-genders-and-conquer-the-feminine patriarchy. I don’t mean to claim homophobia as a feminist issue as if feminism is the momma of the movements or anything, I just think homophobia and sexism are both the results of the same phenomenon whereby people want men and women to be considered opposites (oppressing those who don’t conform to gender roles, denying the existence of the intersex), from birth till death because God made them that way (oppressing transsexuals), and then want those opposites to pair up (oppressing those who don’t conform to heterosexuality), and want those pairs to form a hierarchy in which the man rules and the woman has babies (oppressing women, and men in a way too, and children too, actually; not to mention the slaves that used to be included in this happy home). Check Genesis 3 regarding “the man rules and the woman has babies.”

So I’ve written a way too long post and all I’ve really concluded is that if someone wants to do something you disagree with without infringing on other’s rights, you should leave them alone. Sorry I didn’t put that sentence at the beginning so you could’ve saved yourself some time.

PS – I had written church instead of religion in the phrase the separation of church and state, but I decided that the excuse “that’s just how people say it” wouldn’t convince me if the argument was about the generic he (although it kinda would if it was about the generic guys, but anyway) so I decided to change it. I trust you know what I mean.



  1. What I think is missing from this discussion that would develop your argument somewhat: is that science is just another philosophy, like religion. It has rules made up by men (mostly) who decide that if you follow those rules you get to the truth. These ‘rules’ may be logical, but only becuase we are socialised to believe that certain ways of thinking are ‘logical’. You can find equally convincing and repeatable, non-scientific explanations for pretty much all phenemenon. The reason religion shouldn’t be taught in science is that these are two different systems of thought that are frequently incommensurable, not because one is better than the other. Furthermore, many of the principles, such as the idea of a single unified truth (or an answer if you like), that are part of science originate in (Christian) religious belief. Finally, the morals, such as do not murder, do not steal (which directly led to ideas such as people have human rights to not be infringed), that form most states’ legal codes are also based on religion, so separating church and state becomes an incredible complex and in many respects fruitless exercise.

    This is not to say that it is not a laudable goal; just not a straightforward one.

    Comment by Feminist Avatar — March 28, 2008 @ 3:50 pm | Reply

  2. “You can find equally convincing and repeatable, non-scientific explanations for pretty much all phenemenon.”
    Can you explain what you mean by this?

    Logic is one of those things that messes with my head. On one hand, I can see the idea that we just decided that our logic is the one that’s right and we just believe that on faith, but on the other hand, it seems self-evidently right to me in a way that even morality doesn’t.

    Here’s a part I can respond to more coherently: how religion led to laws that led to human rights. Yes. It wouldn’t really bother me if we could tell, somehow, that the human rights we acknowledge are the “right” ones – in that case it wouldn’t matter that we originally got them from a source we should have stayed away from. But you saw the scare quotes around “right”, so clearly I don’t think that’s entirely possible. I don’t think human rights exist in the ether and we just have to find them, I think we make them up based on what we think matters. I think that it’s a good framework to work in because in general we can tell, with the help of science (uh-oh, haha) what people need to have healthy lives, and we can see those things as human rights. I do think, though, that a lot of these ideas are tied up heavily in individualism, which could be problematic, could be blinding people like me from seeing that this isn’t the only or best way. The other thing is that I personally believe that the religions themselves got those moral injunctions from the sense that the people had that it was wrong to kill or steal. So in a way, I think current ideas of human rights are coming from ancient ideas of “human rights”, except that there’s the complication of some people believing their set of human rights are God-given and perfect. But even those people ignore the ones they don’t believe in any more, so I still feel like, although we are definitely influenced by our cultural heritage which includes religions, we’re making up our own minds about what we think are human rights. Or, we’re listening to our culture, which at this point has more added into it than just that religion.

    Comment by judgesnineteen — March 28, 2008 @ 4:30 pm | Reply

  3. 2nd part first. I agree. I think we need to make the best decisions we can based on the culture we live on, with an awareness that not everbody will agree, and that when people don’t agree that we seriously consider, not necessarily accept, their point of view, even if it at first seems disagreeable. I just get uncomfortable when people, and not you particularly but I have come across this a lot, make statements about how religions should stay out of politics, out of governance etc, with no awareness of how central religion has been to our culture and heritage, and thus is not easily extractable. You can’t just get rid of it as it’s part of who we are; we need to learn how to move forward from it.

    1st part second. Other cultures have different logic systems from our own, but can still explain, for example, how the body works and create medicines to treat diseases. How they understand the body working looks very different to our own and we would consider it to be nonsense, but they would say the same thing about us. Science is based on an assumption that you have evidence that you can observe, that you can use observations of that evidence to explain what is happening and you can use those explanations to make real world applications. In fact most logic systems work exactly like this (there might be others that don’t, but I am not familiar with them) but what counts as evidence differs and what counts as explanations differs across systems, and ultimately we can argue til we are blue in the face that they are wrong, but we can never ‘prove’ that our system is better.

    A practical example: the Cree (who are a tribe up North somewhere) tell a story about a man who loved bears and was associated with bears and who dies. Two days later a bear walks into town. This is unusual because bears are generally scared of people and avoid towns. The Cree would say that the bear either was or was sent by the man who died. We would say this is coincidence. But, ultimately, they have a coherent scenario and evidence (the bear) for their claims.

    We say that gravity is caused by the spinning of the earth. We have some evidence for this because when we spin things very fast we can create small gravitational fields. We make a leap a of faith between the evidence (the gravitational field) and the explanation (that it is caused by the spinning)- it might seem an obvious leap or even a very small leap- but it is still there. The Cree make a different leap- to us it seems a big leap- but why should our way of thinking about the world is better or more right that anybody elses. (That too is a big leap!!)

    I hope this makes sense. What I think most people don’t like is the idea that we can test things in other systems and get the same results- but in this case medicine is a good example. We used to have an entirely different model of the body, but we still managed to get medicines that worked everytime (or as much as our own do). Why were they wrong if their system worked?

    Comment by Feminist Avatar — March 28, 2008 @ 9:03 pm | Reply

  4. “In fact most logic systems work exactly like this (there might be others that don’t, but I am not familiar with them) but what counts as evidence differs and what counts as explanations differs across systems, and ultimately we can argue til we are blue in the face that they are wrong, but we can never ‘prove’ that our system is better.”

    I think it’s really interesting that I had noticed this about religions before (that is, explanations of why one is true or why a particular action is morally right or wrong), but never applied it to science. I guess that’s because I’ve only been exposed to one kind of science, while I know about several religions. I’m still trying to think this out…I think it’s really interesting but I’m going to have to sort my thoughts out a little.

    Comment by judgesnineteen — March 29, 2008 @ 10:54 pm | Reply

  5. Ok, here’s what I’m thinking, feel free to point out any problems. It seems to me that what makes science science is having falsifiable hypotheses, and relying on observations via the five senses. Therefore, information you get from prayer or something, along with hypotheses that aren’t testable or falsifiable, aren’t necessarily wrong, but they aren’t admissible as science. So if you could test whether or not the bear was really that man, like by seeing if the bear knows or recognizes something the man would have known (if you can figure out a way to do that), then ok, I’d call it science. If not, I wouldn’t. I don’t see how someone could say that unfalsifiable hypotheses just form a different but equal type of science, because they’re less helpful for figuring out the world, since you can’t use them to narrow down possible explanations or create more detailed models for phenomena. In science, because you can do tests and interpret results, you can keep refining your guesses, although you can never prove them. With the medicines, I would imagine that people could, by luck or by a less formalized system of testing and interpreting results, find medicines that work as well as ours do, but I suspect that we have more medicines that work that often that people used to.

    I could imagine a separate and equal science based on observations that don’t come from the five senses, ie, stuff going on in your mind. I can’t imagine it working very well, but since we don’t have any assurance that our senses tell us the truth (whatever that is), I can’t see a reason to rule out other sources of information. But of course, the two types of science would need to remain separate as they rely on different principles.

    I’m wondering if you’re pointing out that although what I call science should include everything based on sensory observation with falsifiable hypotheses, people in certain cultures are still only willing to entertain the hypotheses they like. I can understand that, but if it’s something else, I’m confused. Very interesting discussion though!

    Comment by judgesnineteen — April 1, 2008 @ 12:42 pm | Reply

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