What You Should Think About Organized Religion

December 25, 2007

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

–Jesus Christ

“It is impossible to prove a negative,” is a statement far from insightful. For example, “this essay is not written in the Klingon language,” is a negative statement that can be verified as well as any practical standard of proof would require. Proof of negative assertions becomes more problematic as discussions move from the specific to the general. “There are no polka-dotted swans,” is an eminently likely proposition. However, it is possible to remain reasonable while taking the position that the best available proof merely establishes that a polka-dotted swan is an extremely improbable phenomenon.

When it comes to belief in an omnipotent being, a negative position is even more difficult to prove. Not only is it plausible to argue that such a being could defy any efforts at detection, but there is even a case to be made that an omnipotent being would not be constrained by logic. For absolute atheists, these conditions are problematic. Of course, monotheists are challenged just as strongly by the inability to prove that there are not multiple omnipotent beings.  Then consider the challenges of proving that their specific concept of a supreme being is a generally accurate reflection of reality.

Some people reach their own conclusions about matters of the divine. Yet many more allow their beliefs to be shaped by cultural traditions or even the dogma of religious institutions. This can be extremely problematic. Among other things, the embrace of organized religion tends to promote an unhealthy sort of inflexibility. This often stems from the perception that beliefs promoted as ancient wisdom are largely consistent with actual ancient beliefs. Yet is that perception justified?

Never mind variations in the content of sacred literature from one era or even one century to the next. Applications of religious thought consistently change to remain compatible with underlying social conditions. Excessive delay in this process simply results in a popular movement away from old faiths in order to embrace younger traditions. An honest study of religious history turns up all manner of examples where a faith that failed to speak to the great questions of the day yielded popular support to new spiritual movements eager to address those questions.

Even within a particular faith, there may be tremendous change over time. In the Middle Ages, Christian organizations actually ran brothels, not to mention encouraging priests to marry. It was only after being challenged on the practice of selling indulgences, an issue that helped bring about the Protestant Reformation, that the Holy See sought to demand chastity among all orders of clergy. Up to and during the American Civil War, some Protestant churches taught that God had ordained white hegemony and black slavery. Today some of those same pulpits are used to advance the argument that God demands equal treatment for all races.

Secular thinkers sometimes unfairly criticize religion for being unable to change with the times. Science may have produced flawed understandings of reality, but it does so in a context of focusing on empirical evidence. Setting aside pseudoscience like global warming denial or “creation science,” real science is driven to change not by passions or politics, but by data that satisfies reasonable standards of proof. Even wild new ideas can be quickly adopted by science if they can be supported by hard evidence.

By contrast, social change and personal whims are the driving forces behind change in religious thought. The popularity of a belief about the natural world is not a factor in how much it is accepted by scientists. In recent history, attitudes about race, gender, and sexual preference have, and continue to, bring about change in religious practices and teachings. Looking back further, changing attitudes about government, sexuality, violence, and a host of other issues have left their mark on the ways of modern faiths.

Nearly all adherents to the teachings of an organized faith arrived at those beliefs by traveling one of two paths. The most common is inheritance. Early in life, perhaps even from infancy, a person may become immersed in rituals and indoctrinated in religious teachings. Rather than forming the capacity for sound judgement then pursuing answers to questions of theology and morality, a personal attachment to a particular set of answers is firmly imprinted on pliable young minds.

In other instances, faith is the product of experiences that coincide with an intense episode of personal distress. As emotions impair rational judgement, the wholehearted embrace of a new worldview (not to mention entering a new social circle,) can provide relief and support in a time of crisis. Sometimes the mechanism resembles a one-two punch as childhood immersion in a specific organized faith produces a sense of comfort in religious association that is reinforced by subsequent refuge provided by a religious rebirth.

Religious belief is not a uniformly pernicious influence. It provides real comfort to real people facing real problems. It can provide a sense of togetherness in times of increasing individuality and social isolation. It may even increase the intensity of the good feelings associated with personal triumphs or significant milestones in life. Perhaps other institutions and practices could serve these same needs. Yet it is hard to argue that, if all religious practice suddenly ceased, nothing worthwhile would be lost to humanity

Of course, religious belief is not a uniformly positive influence either. Different faiths offer different teachings. Many of these faiths teach that others are false. In some instances, religious leaders actively promote hatred of human beings associated with different faiths. In fact, the condemnation of difference may even involve extremely violent struggles over relatively subtle theological distinctions. When a difference of opinion emerges among scientific thinkers, observation and analysis are decisive. When a difference of opinion emerges among religious thinkers, sheer force of advocacy is the decisive factor, as empirical evidence is rarely available (and often marginalized when it is available.)

A measure of faith can be useful as an alternative to being consumed by the complexities of resolving all moral issues or surrendering to nihilism. Yet faith is counterproductive to the degree that it straightjackets ethical thought in hallowed, yet ultimately arbitrary, human doctrines. Perhaps no capacity for belief is more important than the capacity to believe in one’s own ability to have faith in erroneous conclusions. Whether the context is secular or religious, that capacity is essential to remaining in touch with reality and adapting to new information as personal growth, new experiences, and fresh discoveries provide access to increased knowledge.

In theory, participation in an organized religion may be just as harmless as participation in a social club. In practice, participation in an organized religion may be just as harmful as involvement with the most destructive political movements. If you are involved in such a faith, and you manage to take away from it only messages of love, peace, goodwill, tolerance, humility, etc.; then you may benefit from that involvement. Yet if such involvement also generates ill will toward your fellow human beings, compelling reason exists to recognize the flaws of any teachings or practices that add fuel to the fires of hatred.

What You Should Think About Religious Freedom

December 10, 2007

“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.”

–Sinclair Lewis

Last week I happened to catch Mitt Romney’s speech on faith in politics. As a contender in a partisan primary election, it came as no surprise that his message was carefully tailored to maximize its appeal to 21st century Republican voters. His embrace of diversity was not so broad that it included agnostics and atheists. Yet there seemed to be some sort of attempt to establish a theme following from the peculiar utterance, “there can be no religion without freedom and no freedom without religion.”

In the spirit of the season, I suppose Governor Romney should be granted a measure of charity. It could be said that religious practices dictated by force of law or other threat are not authentic. Given the choice between being crippled by stretching on the rack or professing my devotion to the faith of Torquemada, I suspect I would muster an articulate and convincing plea for spiritual salvation. Yet the devotion in those words would not reflect a devotion in my heart.

Christian practices supplanted pagan traditions in many parts of the Old World as a direct result of authorities wielding force to compel participation. Secret reverence for suppressed deities, nature spirits, etc. provides evidence that generations often passed between the forced imposition of Christianity on a community and widespread sincere belief in Christian doctrine. The underground survival of pagan practices, even in the face of the original witch hunts, reveals this to be the case.

Yet cannot sincere faith continue even where religious practices are forbidden? Are Chinese Christians, conducting informal services in private homes (much like the earliest generations of ancient Christians) not true believers? Wherever there is a state-mandated religion, or even state-mandated atheism, divergence from compulsory faith may be a genuine manifestation of faith. Religious practice might not be as easy or comfortable (or materially lavish) as it would otherwise be. Yet I believe some great figures in religious history would question if easy comfortable religious practice was truly better than adherence to a challenged faith.

For that matter, what is to be said about Christians in “liberated” Iraq? Saddam Hussein was a bona fide tyrant designated by some American leaders as a threat worthy of much more attention and resources than Osama bin Laden. Yet under Hussein’s rule, Iraq’s Christian minority peacefully coexisted with the Muslim majority. Christian churches were rarely vandalized, services generated little hostility, and the Vice President of Iraq took Communion on a regular basis. Now, years after George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished,” there are few parts of Iraq where civilians are not sure to draw persecution for overtly Christian activities.

The plight of Iraqi Christians provides us with a useful lens for scrutinizing both Mitt Romney’s remark and Republican rhetoric in general. Clearly “freedom” is not as simple a concept as it is made to seem by most political speech today. Saddam Hussein did use brutal methods, including techniques borrowed from Joseph Stalin’s playbook, to govern a nation harboring powerful cultural rifts between various Iraqi groups. Even so, he made good on a commitment to religious freedom in a part of the world where tolerance for other faiths is in short supply.

Perhaps there can be no genuine religious devotion without the freedom to choose the particulars of faith. Yet clearly religion can thrive in the general absence of civil or economic liberties. To suggest otherwise seems to reveal a failure to understand the nature of freedom, if not also the nature of religion. Of course, the flip side of Governor Romney’s remark is an even more dangerous misunderstanding. In declaring that there could be no freedom without religion, he reinforces the bogus Red Scare narrative holding that godlessness is a stepping stone to totalitarian governance.

There is much debate over the true religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Like the Freemasonry that served as a social network for many of them, individually they at least endorsed the existence of a higher power. In some instances this can be connected with strict observance of the practices of a particular sect. Yet for most of those hallowed men, no particular church attendance or other ritual behavior was regarded as a prerequisite to a life of virtue.

Most of them knew full well that great evil could be done in the name of Christ. Puritans and other radicals, not at all unlike modern Afghani Taliban, managed to set bad examples that went beyond the torture and murder of alleged “witches.” This nation was forged with keen sensitivity to the excesses of religious zeal and the pitfalls of intractable dogma propagated from the pulpit. Most of the Founding Fathers also followed suit with other Enlightenment thinkers in recognizing that great good can be done based on moral beliefs that exist independently of religious teaching.

Collectively, their words and their deeds both reveal the hope that this nation might be full of good acts and benefit from good leadership as a function of rational processes rooted in philosophy and science, not theology and scripture. After all, if a religious teaching illuminates a genuine moral lesson, then that lesson will stand on its own merits without any need for mortals to invoke the purported stance of deities on the subject. This reasonable restriction on moral thinking only seems weak or otherwise inferior to people who cannot overcome an attachment to unreasonable beliefs.

It is no more sensible to translate a personal incapacity to recognize achievements in the field of non-religious thinking on morality into disbelief in their usefulness than it would be to translate a personal incapacity to understand calculus into disbelief in the usefulness of rocket science. We may thrive without being a nation of philosophers just as we thrive without being a nation of mathematicians. Yet when the value of secular morality is rejected outright, the possibility of worthwhile social progress is also rejected. Non-religious thinking on morality is the only way any diverse society can go forward without instituting a state religion.

Even if one were so senseless as to simply eliminate or forcibly convert the millions of Americans do not view Jesus Christ as the savior of all mankind, Christianity itself is not a monolithic entity. Some sects really would ban alcohol, music, dancing, immodest attire, etc. Others impose strictures like a prohibition against military service or a refusal to acknowledge the dissolution of marriages. Many of the moral lessons dear to the hearts of some Christians are at odds with moral lessons dear to the hearts of other Christians.

In any working pluralist society, secular moral reasoning provides a common ground where no conclusion is cast aside but that it fails to make good sense in universal terms. In the late 18th century, among many different communities founded by European religious outcasts, it was especially clear that disaster would follow from letting articles of faith drive a national agenda. Our fundamental principle of religious freedom is as much a concession to practical reality as the embrace of a noble principle. A significant element of America’s success story is this independence of governance from ecclesiastical pressures.

The circumstances that drove Governor Romney to that particular speech paint a picture of this invaluable national asset under assault. For too long, to great excess, America’s political leaders have permitted faith and governance to become muddled in the public life. Countless citizens fail in their civic duty by embracing a falsified religious duty to evaluate candidates on religious grounds. This may be less a de jure violation of the 1st Amendment than President Bush’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives, but the nebulous trend is clearly a greater threat to authentic Constitutional governance.

If the Bible has any place in civic discourse, perhaps it should begin with these words attributed to Jesus himself — “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Many centuries before the Revolutionary War, there was a sensible (and to most Christians sacrosanct) call for separation between civic life and religious life. Like all religious conclusions worthy of advancing in political arenas, this belief stands strongly even when supported exclusively by secular arguments.

A religious commitment is innately a personal commitment. Within communities of faith, it may well also be a public commitment. Beyond communities of faith, in a broader society where many different faiths must coexist (ideally in peace,) dedication to religious teachings must give way to government action framed by enlightened secular moral thinking. By all means, do your best to live your private life and your church life as your faith demands. Insofar as you may have an American political life, your nation demands reason, neither supported nor encumbered by religion, should guide your words and deeds.

What You Should Think About Skepticism

November 24, 2007

“Just think of the tragedy of teaching children not to doubt.”

–Clarence Darrow

By the time the ancient Greeks took to formalizing thoughts on belief, they also managed to formalize thinking on doubt. An influential thinker from Elis named Pyrrho managed to witness firsthand many conquests of Alexander the Great. Some might argue that this association caused later scholars to place undue emphasis on Pyrrho’s legacy. Yet it was at least worthy of some note.

The man wrote no great philosophical work, but as with Socrates his students would boast of their association and labor to recall Pyrrho in his own words. This leads to historical accounts that blend earnest recollection with distortions meant to serve the agenda of philosophers promoting their own ideas. Still, it seems clear that the heart of Pyrrho’s teachings was that uncertainty is sound and right in ways that certainty cannot be.

His aim has been characterized as “emotional tranquility,” and he advocated suspension of belief. To him an ideal state of mind, given the term ataraxia, involved having no beliefs. Of course there is an amusing contradiction here. How does one pursue this ideal of having no beliefs without holding the belief that it is an ideal state of mind?

One account mocks Pyrrho as requiring the constant attention of handlers to prevent him from walking off cliffs or stepping in front of horsecarts due to an inability place stock in his own perceptions. In reality the man was almost certainly more reasonable. If his teachings were not as severe as the most extreme account, then they too may be thought of as a reasonable response to the problems of argumentative acrimony and divisive conflict.

In a world where life could be taken at the whim of a leader, flexibility in belief offers some survival value. In a world where political disagreements may tear a society apart, flexibility in belief may insulate an individual from the anxiety and pain of being an active partisan. Yet there seems to have been more to Pyrrho’s teachings than this. He laid the foundation for recognizing just how loosely beliefs may be anchored in reality.

From the ancient past to the modern world, this complex relationship has been the subject of much discourse. Robert Nozick was never shy about considering “brain in a vat” scenarios. Since all we know of the universe comes to us through our perceptions, there is no way to establish with absolute metaphysical certainty that our experiences are not part of some simulation that eclipses an underlying reality in which the individual is actually a brain in some alien stimulation and life support system.

It is fair to argue that what we know, and even beliefs about what we are, follow from the imperfect results of perception and analysis. Our senses and our minds can “play tricks on us,” leading to beliefs that depart considerably from what is real. Yet this sort of thinking can be taken too far. I favor use of the phrase “skeptics’ infinite regress” to describe this phenomenon in which a retreat from the very prospect of useful knowledge is fueled by contemplation of possibilities that are supported chiefly by appeals to the limitations of evidence . . . as opposed to something like evidence itself.

Walking off cliffs or into traffic because we doubt the reality of those phenomena seems as sure to be foolish as the term “foolish” is sure to be meaningful. I believe the greatest extremes of skepticism can rightly be pigeonholed as philosophical novelties rather than essential insights. Yet the broader phenomenon is clearly not useless. Just as an inability to believe would be crippling, so too would be an inability to doubt.

Belief and doubt are both fundamental phenomena that shape the way thinking beings relate to the world around them. The ultimate value of this thinking is heavily influenced by the degree to which belief and doubt are used to seek truth (or the degree to which they are used to avoid it.) For example, someone with a deep emotional connection to a particular political perspective on scientific question may level doubt at even the most rational analysis while eagerly offering up belief whenever it provides an opportunity to confirm a predisposition.

To use the term “skeptic” while engaged in irrational defense of a long-held viewpoint is somewhat misleading. This behavior is less an exercise of true skepticism as it is an exhibition of passionate belief. Mainstream perspectives on the 9/11 attacks, global warming, evolutionary biology, etc. are met with a great deal of “skepticism” but very little of the judicious manifestations of doubt that comes with real skeptical thought. Zealous adherence to contradictory beliefs masquerades as much more reasonable than it actually is.

The best application of skepticism is not in challenging beliefs one opposes, but instead in challenging beliefs one holds dear. A modern day skeptic does not cower behind a wall of media carefully selected to reinforce a single ideological perspective. Rather, the exercise of skepticism in our times involves reaching out to a diverse assortment of sources in the careful search for the genuine insights people with different opinions might possess. Faith in falsehoods follows from fixation on the findings of one faction.

You do not need to feel every individual raindrop to know that a storm is wet. Yet you also should not believe it is raining just because someone pissing on your leg tells you that it is so. To my personal chagrin, contemporary philosophical literature seems to trend toward novelties like the “brain in a vat” scenario more than it delivers practical wisdom like the appropriate uses of, and limits on, skepticism as practiced by a functional human being.

It can be argued that disengaging from reality has its uses. While subjected to torture, clinging to fantasy may be useful as a survival mechanism. Embracing it as a form of entertainment may also be satisfying. In times of great emotional distress, it can be argued that belief that could not withstand skepticism is a more desirable alternative than accepting great loss or crumbling in the face of great peril. Yet for any situation where measured philosophical discourse is appropriate, it seems clearcut that nothing offers better outcomes than making the best possible effort to engage with reality.

The limits of perception and cogitation provide us all with good reason to question our own beliefs. That so many of our beliefs are filtered through many others’ perceptions and cogitations make this sort of questioning all the more worthwhile. It is the true skeptic who seeks out the best challenges while constantly learning from encounters with unexpected information. There are also terms for people who wallow in a single group’s orthodoxy and self-congratulations, but to me it seems misleading when they call themselves “skeptics.”

What You Should Think About Satan

October 31, 2007

“I do not fear Satan half so much as I fear those who fear him.”

–St. Teresa of Avila

As the nation’s very young go from door to door in search of candy and the nation’s young-at-heart venture off to costume parties, it seems to me an opportune moment to discuss the subject of my favorite Rolling Stones song. Satan has a curious place in American culture. Never more than a minor player in Christian scripture, some sects have transformed him into an immensely powerful and important figure just short of being God’s equal in cosmic stature.

It seems that cultural austerity outside of church was not enough for the Puritans — establishing stronger contrast between the mundane and sacred demanded particular intensity from religious services. They incorporated the drama of fire and brimstone into their routine existence. Perhaps some audiences do find the hyperbole of devil-obsessed preaching more gripping than sermons about peace and love. Yet there is a downside to dwelling on theological evil. It all too often provides cover for actual evil to be done in the world.

Any sensible perspective on some of America’s earliest colonial communities makes it easy to see that professional witch hunters, with their zeal for torture and execution, were a real blight on society. Reasonable people should not need be told that witchcraft was a fiction spawned by the press of heavy stones or the touch of hot irons rather than a reality generated by broomstick-riding bringers of pestilence. Pagan traditions may be undergoing some resurgence in modern times, but earnest believers in practical wizardry are just as ridiculous as the devout Christian convinced his mojo would enable him to walk on water.

Yet the blight of Puritanical extremism continues to leave marks on modern American culture. Among the worst of these marks is the continued popularity in some sects of religious teachings that villanize other people. Links between Lucifer and Satan have much more to do with interpretations of scripture than any content therein. However, the tale of Lucifer holds that the fallen angel suffered after claiming the power of God for himself. Is there no lesson here for mortals who presume to judge the saved and the damned by their own haughty sermons?

Clearly that lesson exists, yet it is equally clear that this lesson is widely ignored in many circles. Ancient literature is largely ambiguous about subjects like premarital sex, homosexuality, and the sanctity of human zygotes. Not only have preachers and their flocks presumed to have absolute answers about matters like this, many go the extra mile to proclaim they have knowledge of who surely must be damned to Hell. In a very real way they presume to wield power that their own most sacred texts specify in no uncertain terms should be the domain of God alone.

It seems in faith, as with politics, all too often engaging dark human emotions enables leaders to cultivate popularity that they could not find by relying on honest rational discourse. Those of us who do not follow the teachings of any organized faith may find it odd to suggest religious activity should be more rational. Yet the only real difference between talking about faith and talking about any other subject is that faith is bounded by assumptions that are inherently beyond the scope of empirical verification. Within those bounds, surely there is value in remaining rational. After all, no theists deny that reason and related faculties are God-given gifts, but any particular institutional teaching or interpretation of scripture is clearly the product of mortal efforts.

The same is true of many other belief systems that feature some being to serve as the primary focus of evil. Having similar roots in religious history, Islam and Christianity also have strikingly parallel narratives on many subjects. Shaitan is not exactly a fallen angel, but he was condemned for his pride in the face of the supreme being. In Islam, he serves as an agent of the temptation to stray from whatever path is thought to be pleasing to Allah.

An overwhelming majority of Muslim clerics do not approve of bombing crowded civilian markets. Yet in terrorist camps and a few other dark places, some people claiming to be religious leaders glorify violence while stirring up hatreds in their followers. An overwhelming majority of Christian clerics do not approve of bombs exploding in civilian markets either. Yet in some dark places, people claiming to be religious leaders glorify violence while stirring up hatreds in their followers. The common thread begins by linking other human beings with the Devil, then asserting a duty of mortals to carry out judgements by playing God.

“God is love” is another common thread that runs through monotheistic traditions. In fact, it is said of many faiths that their essence could be distilled to that single sentence. Though he is merely a minor character various scriptures, Satan becomes prominent wherever clerical leaders make the choice to abandon a message of love and seek personal popularity by advancing a message of hate. Those who call for their followers to abandon compassion, mercy, and humility have elected to advance a message that cannot credibly be associated with the deity they claim to revere.

In some ways it seems that the root of much evil is the predisposition of some groups to characterize other groups as evil. Hatred is by nature unreasoning, but many times it is not spontaneous either. It can be cultivated, and this cultivation is a skill unto itself. The pages of history are littered with gratuitously bloody wars, brutally oppressive regimes, and campaigns of terror all driven by divisive beliefs that characterize other ethnicities, faiths, or nations as fit targets for violence in light of their evil natures.

No ethnicity is predominantly evil. No nation is predominantly evil. Not even any faith of significance is predominantly evil. There is real evil in the world, and often it is in the actions of those inspired by arrogant leaders commanding others to stamp out what they have judged to be evil. Our laws, and even our armies, may rightly be put to use preventing harm or neutralizing threats posed by those who do harm. Given a rational fact-based approach to assessing threats, exercise of power in this manner will tend to make the world a better place.

To the degree that our laws or our armies are put to use fighting evil, we run a very real risk of perpetrating very real evil. Whether you look to one of the world’s most sacred texts for personal guidance or you look at them all as collections of stories infused with ancient wisdom, there is something to learn from studying Satan. Those ancient stories speak pointedly to the folly of presuming mere mortals are fit to substitute their judgement for divine judgement. Even if taken only as metaphor, it is clear that a Hell on Earth tends to be the consequence of framing the exercises of power as some sort of quest to smite evil.

I believe there is also something to be learned from studying how mere mortals invoke Satan and related concepts in their teachings. If you do practice a faith, and along the way you seek wisdom from clerics involved with that faith, pay careful attention to the frequency and context of their talk about the Devil. If that theme is common, if it is used as a means to inflame hatred, if the echoes of it drown out appeals to peace or tolerance or love . . . then you would do well to look elsewhere for wisdom.

One can only speak generally when talking about an entire large group of people. Generally speaking, human beings are not intent on making other human beings suffer. Generally speaking, human beings are not intent on killing other human beings. I am in no position to prove to theists that the Devil does not exist. Yet I do know, as history proves with relentless consistency, that a fixation on attacking others labeled as “evil” brings much pointless killing and hatred into the world. If Satan does indeed exist, he can only smile at each instance when a preacher demands the faithful take it upon themselves to judge in the name of the divine, then act against others based on those judgements.

What You Should Think About Religion in Politics

October 10, 2007

. . . but it is very important for people not to be haughty in their religion, and there’s all kinds of admonitions in the Bible — haughtiness, rightfulness is a sin in itself.”

–George W. Bush

One of the most disturbing trends in modern American politics has been the legislation of morality. Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas) displayed a profound lack of good sense when, faced with a concerned citizen’s question, he expressed a belief that political leaders have a duty to “legislate morality.” I believe this approach slightly misses the point of legislation and completely misses the point of the American Revolutionary War, not to mention other great American civic achievements like the Bill of Rights.

It is understandable why some people might have difficulty seeing this area as problematic. For many, a morality derived from religion is the wellspring of all that is thought to be good. For far too many of those, this includes the capacity to judge others as evil. It is unreasonable to expect all Americans, or even that minority motivated enough to participate in elections, to have a coherent philosophy informed by post-conventional moral thinking. On the other hand, for a leader of millions to lack such a useful faculty of judgment . . . is our political process really that bereft of selectivity?

Of course it is, but that is beside the point. My concern is that this nation, with its cultural foundation established by colonists intent on practicing religious beliefs at odds with life in an increasingly urbane England, should never go down the path of inflicting punishments on citizens unwilling to abide by religious strictures. Without really thinking about it, one might well believe this is an argument for legalizing murder and rape.

Of course, it is not, and that is very much the point. Legislation to ban murder and rape can be justified without any appeal to religious thought. Society as a whole is safer and more prosperous to the degree that innocent people can be protected from physical assault. Independent of any appeals to tradition or scripture or theology, there are enough strong arguments to constitute a compelling case for the criminalization of violent attacks.

When it comes to American public policy, only universal good makes sense as a touchstone for validating new laws. Of course this good need not extend across the literal universe, but it must apply to people of any faith. This includes people with no faith whatsoever. Respect for the Constitutional assurance of free religious practice provides a technical basis for upholding this standard. Respect for those victimized by predictable outcomes of legislative morality rooted in any specific faith or religious doctrine provides strong rational basis for upholding this standard.

It is not unreasonable to characterize the United States as “Christian” on a cultural level. Most of our institutions respect Christian holidays, and in most communities talk of religion implies that the subject is Christianity. However, it is both unreasonable and untrue to characterize the United States as a Christian nation in any legal sense. With painstaking care, the founders of this nation set out to establish a secular government in which a plurality of religions, in spite of disagreements in areas like virtue or sin, could co-exist in peace and harmony.

Every time a public figure drags religious convictions into a political discussion, it is (at least) a very small betrayal of our domestic tranquility. In those instances when it is not insincere pandering, it also manages to be a betrayal of reasonable civic discourse. One of our most popular Presidents, John F. Kennedy, went to great lengths during his national campaign to establish that, while he was earnest in his faith, he would never allow a religious concern to drive him to act against the best interests of this nation or its people.

Today, particularly with one of the two entrenched parties, it seems as if candidates are tripping over each other to demonstrate how quickly they would let their faith take precedence over their commitment to secular governance. While a sizable chunk of our own nation applauds some public figures’ refusal to accept the role of biological evolution in shaping the human form, the rest of the civilized world (perhaps along with the rest of our own population) looks on in stark dismay. Even if there were to be a President Huckabee, I doubt grant money would dry up for continued studies into archeology and natural history on subjects more than 10,000 years old. However, I wouldn’t expect policies from that White House to promote great strides in American biotechnology or science education either.

At this point perhaps some readers are thinking, “well, as a good Christian, I have nothing to worry about if public figures indulge in legislating their personal morality.” However, this is a much trickier matter than it seems at first glance. Just what is a Christian? By this I do not mean to indulge the sectarian invective Mit Romney has been receiving lately. Rather I want to call attention to the wandering standards of America’s most vocal Christians.

A religious movement that could be thought of as an ancestor to modern evangelical churches was at the heart of alcohol Prohibition. Though the faithful read scripture holding that the first miracle of Jesus involved transforming water to wine, the misery associated with alcohol abuse left many Americans convinced that the stuff should be banned. As enormous congregations formed around charismatic leaders, all manner of potential social movements could have emerged. What did emerge was a monstrous beast of political activism that led directly to one of the biggest and most painful failures in the history of American domestic policy.

The funny thing is, I believe most evangelical Christians no longer feel that there is anything wrong with alcohol commerce, or even with taking a glass of wine at dinner. The Bible didn’t change. In fact, personalities involved in megachurch leadership didn’t even change much. What really changed was that firebrand preachers no longer could maintain credibility while calling for tougher alcohol laws. Hindsight ended a movement that would never have picked up steam if informed by foresight.

Yet to possess that foresight, one must recognize that religious morality, even that held by a majority, is still a personal thing. If you believe God doesn’t want you to eat citrus on Tuesday, then by all means don’t eat citrus on Tuesday. At the same time, consider the consequences of a nationwide Tuesday orange and grapefruit ban. Does it do any good to people of faith who would voluntarily abide by the restriction anyway? Does it do real harm to people who believe differently and might enjoy a juicy vitamin-rich snack between meals?

In short, if any sort of taboo has a place in the lawbooks, it is because the allegedly sinful act is also a genuinely hurtful act. Organized religions tend to be pretty consistent about promoting humility. It requires a great failure of humility to believe that badges and guns have any place in compelling strangers to abide by your own church’s notions of right and wrong. The essence of maintaining order in a society of many faiths involves drawing this distinction and insuring that the personal nature of faith does not bleed into public policy.

To many, speaking of religion on the campaign trail may seem like a sign of personal virtue. In the context of a tolerant society blessed by cultural pluralism, it is quite the opposite. Exploiting the sympathies of religious voters may not be the dirtiest possible tactic, but it is an alternative to making a case for election into our secular government based on secular argumentation. It deliberately leads others astray from the political culture expressly insulated from religious doctrine by the Founding Fathers themselves. Simply put, making faith a matter of political consequence could only be pleasing to a deity that was intent on undermining crucial principles on which the United States of America was originally established. Does anyone believe God is truly against us in that way?