Secularism and the Question of Government in America

October 17, 2011

Honor, Political Theory


In this post, I will discuss the implications that atheism, and secular morality more generally, has on American society and government. In John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration”, he argues that Atheists should not be trusted because “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.” What Locke is arguing is essentially that society cannot exist without religion, and that the presence of non-religious individuals in society has a deleterious effect on the integrity of the system. This is a classic argument given by religious people as a reason to believe in God; if people don’t believe in him, there will be chaos. Without God, there can be no order and civility. How can a person who does not believe in an afterlife be trusted? It does not take much reasoning to see the errors in this hypothesis, however.

When one looks at the plurality of religions that exist on this planet, it becomes quickly apparent that most people are living by their own moral code. If one of the religions is correct (in our Judeo-Christian biased western world view, let us for the sake of example assume Christianity), then everyone else, all five billion other people, are living by non ethical standards, and are no better than atheists. If you are a non-theist (I use this term to approximate as best as possible anyone who doesn’t profess a particular religion, rather than more specific terms such as atheist or agnostic), then you logically hold that everyone is living by a moral code of their own fabrication.

What I mean by this is quite simple: How can atheists be said to have no morality, or be untrustworthy, when in fact all people, no matter what their creed, possess a unique sense of morality? What Christians mean by morality is simply their own particular set of arbitrary rules that they follow for fear of transgressing a higher power. Why should the Christian morality (and I mean this as a vague term considering the disagreements on even basic morals among different sects) be superior to any other? This is the product of a closed-minded, absolutist world-view. Instead of requiring individuals to follow the Christian morality or be considered untrustworthy, it should be more important that an individual be considered consistent in some set of beliefs about the world, whatever they may be, so as to easily determine his motives. If a man, an atheist, fears no higher power, and therefore is the sole determiner of what is right and wrong in his own mind, with no guide book to instruct him, he is guided primarily (and in some cases solely) by his animal nature. This fits with the imperative I defined; it is easy to determine the motives of an atheist. He is motivated by self-interest, by food, sex, social connection, power, and any number of other natural desires. One need only study biological anthropology to come to a better understanding of, and thereby more trusting relationship with, atheists and mankind in general. An individual who is untrustworthy is someone who is inconsistent and unpredictable.

I have yet to answer an important part of Locke’s argument; that society cannot consist of a group of entirely self-serving, non believing individuals. Interestingly, this is where history serves as an obvious counterexample. The basis of Locke’s own theories informed the spirit of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, and in so doing paved the way for the greatest success in secular nationbuilding the world has ever seen. Talk about irony! The United States is officially secular; that is, there is no state supported religious ideology. Opponents of this idea would be quick to say that on a pragmatic level, the U.S. is a nation of Christians headed by a Christian president, informed by Christian values. While this certainly is true to a great extent, one need look no further than the economic system by which the nation operates to decide the true nature of our country. Capitalism is an atheistic force; it encourages the collection and utilization of power by the strong and the systematic exploitation and abuse of the weak and disadvantaged. This does not sound remotely Christian to me. The alternative political and economic systems, for instance socialism and fascism, also arose as secular answers to the question of how power should be distributed. American society is built on the shaky foundation of the contradiction between Christian morality and the competitive forces of the capitalist system. Tocqueville maintains that it is precisely because of the religious character of the American people that democracy has been allowed to flourish; Christianity provides a check on the selfish nature of political liberty, in a sense. It is interesting that this contradiction, though seemingly a paradox, actually works to reinforce the system. People do not readily question the value of religion in their family lives and personal relations, and ignore the implications of what they are doing when they don the business suit or kevlar vest in pursuit of political stability and economic gain.

This is not essential for the success of the system, however. The USSR was largely an atheist nation (ignoring of course their deliberate efforts to stymie Eastern Orthodox and Judaism), and was relatively successful. It is debatable whether the people of the Soviet Union were happy under this system (I would be inclined to say no), but nonetheless, the system of control exerted by the communist government was sufficient to contain the chaos of millions of self-interested individuals. Clearly religion serves usefully as a tool to ease the burden of controlling a populace, not as a necessary prerequisite. Against the unhappiness and nihilism that threaten to dismantle society, religion is a stalwart defender. As Marx famously said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” I would be inclined to agree with Locke and Tocqueville that religion is necessary for long term maintenance of a state so as to render the people complacent, but then the thousands of years of theocratic rule under the pope and the unhappy polities in the Middle East (the constant protests in Iran are evidence enough of the discontent and failure of that system) have not proved substantially more effective.

So this leaves us with a question. How best to organize a bunch of aimless, selfish individuals? Combine that with the cultural pluralism encountered in the U.S. in particular (Christians, Jews, Muslims etc.), and the situation becomes even more dire. This is of course the question that faces the U.S. now more than ever. In a time of unprecedented atheism (see: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/08/AR2009030801967.html?hpid=moreheadlines), it is extremely important that we come together as a nation (and ideally for the world when it is ready) to determine exactly how we should make compromises and find the least violent means of collaboration. The constitution in all its wisdom has prepared the grounds for a truly secular nation, and has been operating well until this point. It remains to be seen what sort of trends in belief the future holds for American citizens, but I hope that at some point people will trust a non-Christian president (or at least, one who openly admits to being an atheist as I suspect many of them have been).

I have several questions for readers: Coming from your religious viewpoint (if you are comfortable sharing it in a public forum), what is your take on Locke and Tocquevilles’ assessments of atheism, and religion in America? What do you envision as an ideal future for the U.S. in terms of how we deal with a growing pluralism in religious beliefs? And lastly, do you trust atheists in general?

[As a side note, I am an atheist, in case you didn’t guess. I am interested in the religious climate at UM for my own personal reasons, as I suspect that there are far more non-religious individuals here than at many other colleges, and especially compared to the general population. I find all religious beliefs to be fascinating, and am always interested in discussing anything with people of any background. Personally I hope that the United States maintains much of its religious traditions, but is also able to embrace others to enrich the cultural basis of our country.]

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About Brian Hall

I'm a sophomore at UM studying German, Arabic and Linguistics, and am pre-law.

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11 Comments on “Secularism and the Question of Government in America”

  1. tchung22 Says:

    I disagree on Locke and Tocquevilles’ assessments of atheism, despite my Christian beliefs. As you stated, “Locke and Tocqueville believe that religion is necessary for long term maintenance of a state so as to render the people complacent.” However, I find this statement erroneous. Individuals have their own morals and ethics even if they don’t fear a higher power. Additionally, the government each country has in place keeps its citizens in check. Even if they don’t fear going to hell, it’s not like atheists suddenly think they can do anything they want without retribution. The government exists to maintain order and complacency among all religions.

    Additionally, I believe that everyone has certain morals to uphold, whether or not they follow a certain religion. All the citizens of our nation were raised with at least some similar upbringings, whether culturally, morally, or in some other way. With this logic, I disagree that “promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist” because I believe everyone has a certain moral code they adhere to, despite religious beliefs.

  2. ianbaker2041 Says:

    I really like this post. I would not call myself atheist; I fall more into a modified deism associated with an unchosen religion (i.e. I do not consider myself more “Christian” than I would “Muslim,” for example). I believe that some intelligent God created the universe, set the natural laws, and let the world progress. I was brought up as a non-denominational protestant; as a kid, I went to church and did Sunday school. I sang the songs and repeated the Bible verses. I never felt any connection to it; something just didn’t click for me, so I turned away from it.

    With my religious views in mind, I do not think that religion is necessary for a healthy society. I’m not a “religious” person-I don’t go to church, I don’t profess a faith, and I don’t read religious texts because I don’t think it’s completely accurate. I do, however, have morals and personal beliefs that I stand on, and that should be more than enough. As you say, the laws of the Soviet Union (while certainly quite excessive) maintained order in the absence of a religion. While the Soviet Union ultimately did fail and was therefore probably not the best example, it nonetheless illustrates your point, and I agree with the argument you’re making. When extended to Locke and Tocqueville, I think it’s by now pretty obvious that I would disagree with their view that some religion is absolutely necessary to uphold morality in society. Anyone raised in a decent household, educated by a decent community, and taught in a good way will have moral values regardless of his or her religion. Morals do not have to come directly from one’s religious views.

    Now to America. Yes, we are supposed to be a secular country, as that’s what the Constitution wanted. As you accept, however, we are a Judeo-Christian nation, so no matter how hard we try to root out religion from American politics, it will always be there. Our presidents have all been openly Christian, and there is a growing movement on the right to bring religion more heavily back into society. Clearly, something about Christianity matters. It seems to me that our presidents have historically been Christian because that is what makes the people comfortable. If the American public is more comfortable following a Christian president, then I don’t see that that is a problem. While I may not be religiously-driven when I go to the polls, if most Americans are, then that should not be seen as a problem. As long as the president keeps his religious ideas out of the laws of the nation, I don’t see a problem with it.

  3. isobelkraft Says:

    I guess I would consider myself a non-theist because I don’t feel the need to categorize myself into a certain religion (similar to the previous commenter). However, unlike the previous commenter, I didn’t grow up with any religious practices. My father grew up in a Jewish household and my mother grew up in a non-religious Jewish household (this might sound odd, but it’s somewhat common to say you have a Jewish background but you do not practice). So, together, they decided that our family would not practice Judaism. If someone where to ask me my religion, I would say my family background is Jewish but I do not practice.

    With that said, I do believe in the idea of fate and karma, things happen for a reason, and that events aren’t always random. But this is a personal decision, not something I adopted because of a faith I chose to belong to. I began to form this idea of the world out of attempts to ‘figure things out’ and because I felt comfortable with those notions. I feel better about life thinking ‘what goes around comes around’ and that the world isn’t just a chaotic mess of randomness. I believe this idea of comfort has a lot to do with the way Locke describes atheism and why all elected presidents have been openly Christian, as the author brings up. Locke, and some religious people today, find that atheism is out of their comfort zone. Instead of learning about atheistic or agnostic people and the views they hold, they decide to reject them.

    So, I do not agree with Locke and Tocqueville’s assessment of atheism. Although, I did not grow up by the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran, I still formed my own morality and ideas of the world guided by my parent’s lessons and my own experiences. I find myself to be a trustworthy member of society regardless of what congregation I belong to or what I call myself.

  4. cbeidler Says:

    Despite the fact that neither of my parents were particularly religious, I went to a Catholic middle school until 8th grade. Teachers practically spat the word ‘atheist’ when it was discussed in class, and they reminded us often that it was our Catholic duty to bring these people back to the Catholic faith. I had no idea how religiously diverse my community was until my freshman year of high school, when I entered the public school system. It shocked me that a majority of my peers were not Catholic… but what shocked me even more was how many of my peers were atheists!

    Even after 8 years of a Catholic education, today, I can’t say I really identify with any organized religion. I do believe in God, but the specifics beyond that are hazy. After my initial religious culture shock at the age of 14, I quickly learned/realized the reality of situation: religion (or lack thereof) is a private matter and who am I to judge? I’ve come across some pretty amazing people in my life, some of whom are believers, others who are not. On the other hand, I’ve also come across some not so amazing people, some of whom are believers, others who are not. Now, I’m not sure what kinds of atheists Locke and Tocqueville had come across. However, I am sure that for as many distrustful atheists they knew, they knew just as many distrustful believers. In terms of moral beliefs, I do not believe that these necessarily come from religion. Morals certainly can be taught through religion, but it is not the only way to do it. As I already said, neither or my parents are particularly religious, yet they still managed to instill a ‘moral code’ in my sister and I just fine.

    As for the government and the future of America, I feel as though we’re pretty good about dealing with religious pluralism because of our separation of church and state. Regardless of our presidents religious affiliation, as long as they keep them out of state business, it shouldn’t matter. I don’t think an atheist president is too far of a stretch at all!

  5. Matthew Vlasic Says:

    Very provocative post. I’m not exactly sure how I would classify myself in terms of my religious associations. I have grown up with two Christian parents and I am Christian, but I have not been persuaded or even that strongly encouraged to take on the religious beliefs of my parents. I’m not very religious, however, I am spiritual and faithful, which I believe to be very important. Even though I don’t know the Bible back and forth like many Catholic followers, I have a strong sense of Christianity’s origins and history and I have an immense amount of faith in God. In my opinion, my faithfulness is not a public matter. Just as others have said, it is one’s personal choice whether to be immersed in a religious lifestyle or to just have faith or whatever form of belief that is satisfying to one’s self.

    Like the other commenters, I don’t think it is fair for Locke and Tocqueville to look down upon those who have not taken up a set religion with predetermined beliefs and faiths. I completely trust atheists because believe that part of our world revolves around imagination and letting one’s self create his or her own faith. Yes, religion is a great motivational, guiding light for billions of believing humans, but for those who do not see it as something to live by, why does it matter? While I recognize that religion can be truly inspirational to many people, I find it unacceptable that some religious people can’t bring themselves to identify or even tolerate atheists. If one genuinely values his or her religious beliefs, then wouldn’t it just be easier to maintain them and not feel the need to deem others incompetent? Atheists are still civil human beings who, for the most part, follow society’s beaten path just like everyone else and obey legal rules. If atheists have not found a particular religion to identify with or do not ever want to involve themselves with a certain religion, then that is their choice and it rarely affects others unless they let it affect them. Similar to what another commenter said, being religious and having strong morality are not mutually exclusive. As far as I’m concerned, if one has a supportive and loving family and is educated (or even if this person doesn’t have either of these things and is just a downright good person at heart), then he or she could easily have strong morals even if he or she is an atheist.

    In the U.S., it seems like people might be becoming more flexible and accepting of non-believers and minorities of any category in general. Our presidential candidates are becoming increasingly diverse (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, etc.) and it would not shock me to see a non-Christian president in the next 50 years or so. Ultimately, I think that an atheist president is a long shot for a while to come, but I agree that having a non-Christian president is a strong possibility in the near future.

  6. arielleshanker Says:

    Though there are many topics in your blog post that I’d like to comment on, the issue that seems most pressing to me is your claim that capitalism is an atheistic force. Certainly, the sociologist Max Weber differs with you on this point, as he discusses in his book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” In this work, he asserts that the Protestant ethic, which is comprised of belief in a calling and predestination, altering one’s work behavior, creates the spirit of capitalism and provides the basis for capitalism to come into being. Eventually the Protestant ethic becomes so pervasive over time that it becomes broadly cultural and not necessarily religious. If people believe in both a calling and predestination, an idea that your salvation or damnation has been preordained derived from Calvinism, people’s work behaviors will change in that they will begin to work methodically and without the pursuit of a specific end. This systemization of behavior produces changes in behavior conducive to the development of capitalism.

    While our capitalist system is no longer seen as religious, it definitely has its roots in religion. Its characteristics have morphed to become part of secular culture. Another concept that Weber mentions in his argument on the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism is capitalism as an iron cage. The iron cage, as detailed by Weber, represents the social structure of capitalism that was formed by Puritans that we subject ourselves to only because it has become the secular norm. Weber argues that creation of a capitalist society frees individuals from constraints of traditions, but imprisons them into an iron cage from which they cannot escape. It symbolizes how once a capitalist society is formed, it is nearly impossible to participate outside of it.

    So although capitalism may no longer have religious significance, capitalism’s binds are stronger than ever.

    • Brian Hall Says:

      Thank you for this very insightful contribution; I had not really considered capitalism as anything other than an innately secular force before. Certainly one could argue that capitalism has its basis in early protestant values; many proverbs in the Bible deal with work ethic and defamation of the lazy (e.g. Proverbs 10:4, He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich). The problem with the Bible of course being its extreme ambiguity on most reasonably broad topics; at the same time as it encourages self-sufficiency, it also encourages giving to the poor and defames those who are rich (neither of which is an inherent value of capitalism).

      I would argue that while capitalism initially was immediately compatible with (and in some ways essential to) the sustainability of a deeply religious, Christian society such as the Puritans, the modern form of capitalism is far from compatible. The reason I say this is that in a small settlement of British immigrants in 17th century America, reliance on hardy principles of self-sufficiency and limited or non-existent welfare were required for survival. Because there was an almost limitless source of opportunity for every man willing and able to work his fair share of the land (except in Virginia w/ Jamestown), there would have been limited labor disputes, and virtually non-existant moral conflicts (aside from the witch burning and slaughter of the Native Americans, but, well, shit happens). This is especially relevant in a society that believes in pre-destination, which as you mentioned i s conducive to social role stratification. If one already believes he is inferior to those supposedly pre-destined for heaven, he will already be willing to accept a lower economic and social class to begin with. This is not a psychological or social condition unique to Christian societies, however, as virtually every major world civilization has developed trade and role differentiation as a natural part of human social development (e.g. the Varnas in Hindu society; certainly the lowly Shudras would have been made to believe they were inferior to the enlightened Brahmin priests). The only difference between free trade along the Silk Road in Asia and modern free-market trade is simply scale. One can also see the emergence of modern capitalism in traditionally non-Christian polities such as Taiwan.

      The reason I maintain that modern capitalism is incompatible with many inherint values of Christianity is that participation in capitalism in modern times inevitably means competing against others in a way that might be considered malicious. Certainly there are many professions out there that do not require a cut-throat determination to climb to the top, and these tend to be ones towards which many devoutly religious individuals gravitate (e.g. ministers). It seems odd to me, however, that all of our presidents have been Christian when that position inevitably involves a daily struggle with the dirty hands problem. It is very difficult to make the case that one has the position of presidency (or any position of power or wealth) thrust upon them, so one cannot take the moral high road of claiming they had no choice. If one is so calloused as to believe their actions in this world have no bearing on how they are perceived in the eyes of the God they believe in, (and the virtual entirety of our 300 million person country is like this), I think there is seriously something wrong with their understanding of their own theology.

      I agree on the basic level that the social and economic structures currently present in western society are the result of over a millennium of Christian influence, but not that capitalism specifically in all the forms it exists in the world is an inevitable or desirable outcome of Christian political thought. It seems to me that the teachings of Jesus follow a much more socialist vein of thought than anything else (though certainly there exist inconsistencies there too).

  7. dcmiller93 Says:

    Brian, that was a great post and I’m really glad I decided to read it even though my initial reaction was to take the tl;dr approach. There was a lot of content in your post and many things that I would like to respond to, but I’ll choose to just touch on your overarching point about the relationship between atheism and leadership in the United States. I actually came to the blog tonight so I could make my posting debut on the same topic, but from the perspective of a comment made at last night’s GOP debate by Newt Gingrich. It’s a lengthy quote, but I’m including it because I think you’ll find it interesting and it is relevant to your line of reasoning.

    Context: Anderson Cooper asked the candidates whether they believed a person’s religious faith should be considered when judging their aptitude for office. Rick Santorum answered first, but then here’s some excerpts of what Newt said:

    “Well, I think if the question is: Does faith matter? Absolutely. How can you have a country which is founded on truths which begin, we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights? How can you have the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which says religion, morality and knowledge being important, education matters. That’s the order: religion, morality and knowledge.”
    “I, frankly, would be really worried if somebody assured me that nothing in their faith would affect their judgments, because then I’d wonder, where’s your judgment? How can you have judgment, if you have no faith? And how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?”
    “Who you pray to, how you pray, how you come close to God is between you and God. But the notion that you’re endowed by your Creator sets a certain boundary on what we mean by America.”

    Now, as a Christian myself, I agree with what Newt says here and I agree with Locke as well, at least in the way that I’m interpreting their comments. I don’t think atheists are any more prone to evil than the rest of us, Christians included (though I readily admit a lot of those who identify themselves as Christians pretend to the contrary *cough* crazy diag preachers *cough*), but it is important to have a set of values on which a leader can be firmly grounded. This is the point I think both Locke and Gingrich are trying to make.

    That being said, I don’t think atheists should be disqualified for the presidency.

    Instead, I would contend that, in the case of the American atheist, though they don’t believe in God, they most likely have a values system that has been shaped by the Christian values upon which their society was based. Had America been originally rooted in a strictly humanistic ideology, there would be no basis of “morality” other than that which we observe in nature, survival of the fittest. But this is not the case. Even the most staunch atheist would probably still espouse Christian morality (the “Golden Rule,” “Love one another,” etc.) on the basis of the social norms it has spawned.

    It’s an interesting conversation to be sure, and I appreciate you bringing it up. I’d love to have a back and forth with you on this or any other topic because, like you, I’m fascinated by other belief systems and its a rarity to find two people who can discuss and disagree with humility and respect.

    -Daniel

    • Brian Hall Says:

      While I certainly agree with you that one needs to have a consistent set of beliefs about the world, whatever that may be, in order to function at a basic level in society, I don’t think that Christianity is the only way to come by those values. If one examines Confucianism in China, for instance, one will find a system of societal values that prizes things other than strictly darwinist ideals derived from nature. They had a handle on the concept of altruism at least 500 years before Christianity came along (and another 600 years before the first appearance of Christianity in China). It is theoretically and realistically possible to create a humanist society.

      I would also agree with you that atheists who live in Christian societies tend to follow Christian values. I think this has more to do with both convenience and the pervasive effect that exposure to a set of ideals during childhood has on life-long values than anything else.

      Speaking from experience, I was raised Christian and went to church until I was 12 (I never really believed in God after about age 6-8 as far as I can recall, though it’s a bit hazy for me what my specific philosophy and world view were anytime before about age 14, so I can’t say with certainty what I believed back then). I am always interested in opportunities to go to new and different religious gatherings. I have enjoyed contrasting the experience of my grandparents’ conservative methodist congregation with that of my dad’s more liberal Universalist-minded mega-church for instance. There’s a part of me that always feels guilty attending religious services though, as in the back of my mind I can’t help but acknowledge that the reason it’s so interesting for me to examine religious practices of any kind has more to do with cultural fetishism than anything else.

      That said, I always enjoy having my beliefs questioned through religious debate for the same reason Mill says we should always listen to all viewpoints; we may very well be wrong, and who doesn’t want to know the truth?

  8. maddycaroline Says:

    In terms of my religious beliefs I am not an atheist, yet I don’t follow any type of organized religion. I was born into a catholic family and from years of sitting in church listening to a priest lecture on the sins of man, I came to realize that I really didn’t believe any of it. Yes I believe there is some kind of higher power, but I find the bible and other such texts create many problems in society that could be avoided if the practice of religion was organized in a different way.

    Yet, just because I am not associated with any one religion does not mean I am any less capable of participating in government and therefore cannot be trusted. I, like most people, still practice the part of religion that involves charity and helping others but I avoid involving myself in the part of it that involves listening to a priest preach why homosexuality is wrong. Atheists are no less trustworthy than anyone else, and in fact may be more so. I assume that most atheists believe the way they do because of logic and scientific fact, and those who go by the rules of science not god give no reason to be mistrusted. The facts are what they believe, not the assumptions and stories that cannot be backed up by those facts.

    Religion does not make a nation neither better nor worse by way of the government. In some countries or areas religious beliefs and identification create the problems, while in others it is the resolvent. Just because a leader might not associate himself with any religion, especially in a country such as ours with no real religious affiliation, does not mean he is not fit to run the government. I greatly disagree with Locke and Tocquevilles’ views on atheism, for they are completely wrong in dealing with modern governments. Perhaps back in their time when most countries had a set religion and church and state were still not separate then it would apply, but in no way does it work today (at least in the context of the United States).

    Atheists are no less trustworthy than those who actively practice religion. It is like saying those who are of mixed race, and don’t associate themselves fully with either, are less trustworthy than those who do. In the modern age, it is utterly ridiculous to use such ideas in the context of government because they simply no longer apply.

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