Episode 242 – “The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What To Do”

This week on CenterStage, Center for Inquiry president and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay probes the foundations of secularism.

On December 5th, 2014, the Center for Inquiry – Transnational at Amherst, New York presented a lecture by Ronald A. Lindsay, titled “The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do.”

In this lecture, based on Dr. Lindsay’s book of the same name, he contends that in a religiously pluralistic society, a robust, thoroughgoing secularism is the only reliable means of preserving meaningful democracy and rights of conscience, ensuring equal respect and protection under the law—for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Ronald A. Lindsay, a philosopher and an attorney, is president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of the essay “Euthanasia” in the International Encyclopedia of Ethics and of the book Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas.

To center stage, bringing you the best from the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit organization that seeks to foster a secular society based on science reason. Freedom of inquiry and humanist values. 

Presenting lectures and events at its headquarters in Amherst, New York, and in New York City, Washington, Los Angeles and elsewhere. There’s always something thought provoking and controversy along on stage at some center for inquiry. Join us now on center stage. 

Welcome to Center Stage. I’m Debbie Goddard director of outreach at the Center for Inquiry. Today on center stage Center for Inquiry, President and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay probes the foundations of secularism. 

And I’m Tom Flynn editor of Free Inquiry magazine. On December 5th, 2014, the Center for Inquiry Transnational at Amherst, New York presented a lecture by Ronald A. Lindsay titled The Necessity of Secularism Why God Can’t Tell US What to Do in This Lecture based on Dr. Lindsays book of the same name. 

He contends that in a religiously pluralistic society, a robust, thoroughgoing secularism is the only reliable means of preserving meaningful democracy and rights of conscience, ensuring equal respect and protection under the law for believers and nonbelievers alike. 

Ronald A. Lindsay, a philosopher and an attorney, is president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of the essay Euthanasia in the International Encyclopedia of Ethics and of the book Future Bioethics Overcoming Taboos, Myths and Dogmas. 

Dr. Lindsay is introduced by my co-host, Tom Flynn. And now Ronald A. Lindsay presents the necessity of Secularism Why God Can’t Tell US What to Do. 

I have the honor of introducing our speaker Ronald A. Lindsay his history with our organization is a long and proud one. In the late 1980s, he served as our pro bono attorney in Kurts vs. Baker. That was a suit brought by Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz to challenge practices of the United States Congress regarding legislative chaplains. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled against Kurts on the grounds that we’ve heard this one before. He lacked standing, but the case was not a complete loss. It had the salutary result that the U.S. Senate stopped appropriating taxpayer funds to publish an annual anthology of the Senate chaplain’s prayers. And yes, they they did that. You can just imagine how many people were falling all over themselves to read that book. An interesting side note, one of the three judges who heard Dr. Lindsay argue the ultimately unsuccessful appeal dissented. She was convinced she would have ruled in our favor. You might recognize her name. She was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Today, a justice of the Supreme Court. Well, today, Ronald A. Lindsay is president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry and of the Council for Secular Humanism and of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which explains why he insists on having three different offices. He’s the author of Future Bioethics Overcoming Taboos, Myths and Dogmas that was published by Prometheus in 2008. He wrote the entry on euthanasia for the International Encyclopedia of Ethics, published by Wiley Blackwell in 2013, and his new book, The Necessity of Secularism Why God Can’t Tell US What to Do has just been published by Pitch Stone Publishing. Ron’s book has been praised by, among others, Rebecca Goldstein, Steven Law, Barry Lynn, Phil Zuckerman and Herb Silverman. Rebecca Goldstein had some very good things to say about the book, and by an amazing coincidence, I happened to have them right here. This is Rebecca Goldstein and I quote, The necessity of secularism discusses one of the most vital issues facing America and the world. And it does so with the logic and respectful tolerance for differences. That itself expresses the very spirit of secularism, no matter what one’s views on the existence of God. This is a unifying book. I could only hope that it will be read by all those for whom it is intended, which is, in a word, everyone. Now, I do have to advise you about two other astonishing coincidences this evening in the first astonishing go as if it’s much that Ron will be speaking about tonight will be drawn from his new book. And in an even more incredible fluke, copies of the book will be available for sale following the duck. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Ronald A. Lindsay. 

OK. Well, thank you. Thank you for coming out the saving. Thank you, Tom, for that wonderful introduction. Debbie mentioned Tom is giving a talk here very shortly on the 17th. And I do urge everyone to attend that talk. He has given a couple times before, but he’s always updating the talk. In any event, you know, it’s something that happens from time to time. It’s become somewhat of a tradition here, kind of like almost like Christmas right now. By the way, I do want to take this opportunity to dispel one silly rumor I’ve heard about Tom, and that is that if you get close to Tom and say the word Christmas rapidly, five times, that will spin around like a top and turn red and green. I mean, that’s just silly. It’s not true. I’d say the colors more purple than red and green. But anyway, let’s get started. I want to accomplish a lot tonight. In fact, what I set out to do tonight is I hope to argue for and establish the thesis that set forth in the title to my book. In other words, I aim to establish the necessity of secularism and for good measure. I hope to establish the thesis that set forth in the subtitle to my book that is God cannot tell us what to do. That would be the case even if there were God. So let’s get started. And first, I’ll start with some facts. Some facts are kind of interesting in themselves, but also are very relevant to my thesis. 

We happen to live in an unprecedented time in human history. I want you to think about that for a moment because but with respect to religious belief, large segments of the population of Europe and North America, other developed countries such as Australia and Japan, are non-religious. That is, they reject belief in God and gods and transcendental spirits of any sort. This is truly revolutionary as far as we can tell. Up until the late 18th century, belief in God or gods or spirits was nearly universal. I mean, you had the isolated philosopher that, you know, would sometimes expressed skepticism, usually in private, for obvious reasons. But what you know, skepticism really wasn’t much of a phenomenon. As I said, until the Enlightenment and even then, it wasn’t very widespread. Widespread skepticism is really simply a phenomenon probably of the last 40 to 50 years. Well, how how widespread? You know, it kind of depends what survey you look at. And surveys ask questions is different in different ways. I think it’s fair to say that in several European countries, such as Sweden, Denmark, interestingly, the Czech Republic, the non religious population is either majority or close to majority of the population. In other countries such as the United Kingdom, it’s way over 30 percent. The United States here is somewhat of an outlier. As many people who observe, the United States is probably more religious than many other developed countries. But even here, there has been a significant growth in the non religious population. This is the figures here from a survey conducted by the American Religious Identification Survey. As I say, it’s actually a conservative estimate, in part because the surveys, a few years old now think it was conducted in 2008. But even according to this survey, 12 percent of the population had no belief in God and another twelve percent, although they believe in some kind of vague spiritual cosmic force or what, have you had no belief in a personal God. So, in other words, roughly a quarter of the population either didn’t believe in God or thought God was not relevant to their daily lives. Again, this is a significant uptick from what the situation was just 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. By the way, one thing I’ll mention, I talked about surveys and how they the results depend on the questions you ask. One thing that may happen if you ever get a discussion, especially with religious believers, they’ll say, oh, this supposed trend toward nonbelief is exaggerated, because if you look the surveys that you see only like three percent of the people who say they’re atheist. And that’s true. A lot of surveys will just say, you know, Athie ism is two, three, maybe four percent. And that’s because there’s still a stigma attached to the term atheist. It’s still too often associated with the idea of immorality. Or if you’re an atheist, you’re dogmatic and won’t consider the possibility that there is a God. So if you ask. Outright, whether they’re an atheist, you won’t get too many people who say yes. On the other hand, if you probe the questions about their beliefs a bit more closely. That was one good thing about this survey. If you ask open ended questions about, well, what is it that you do believe? People will often volunteer that they don’t believe in a God. That is one call themselves atheist anyway. So what do these trends indicate? What can we expect? Will the 21st century see the waning of monotheism so that by, say, 2050 or 2060, people will no longer believe in God anymore than they believe in zoos? Or have we kind of plateaued so that the non-religious population will remain roughly the same as it is now, along with a religious population? Or will we actually have a rollback? Is this the high watermark for nonbelief? And we’re going to have a religious resurgence, perhaps sparked by Islam, which is gaining a foothold, as you know, in Europe. I don’t know the answers, those questions, because history tells us anything. It’s very hard to predict religious trends. If you are a Roman living in around 150 of the common era, I don’t think you would’ve predicted that Christianity was going to be the predominant religion, the Roman Empire, in 150 years. If you were living in the Middle East in the early seventh century of the common era, you certainly would have predicted that there was going to be a new religion coming out of the Arabian Peninsula that is going to sweep aside Christianity. So, as I said, it’s difficult to predict religious trends. The trends we do see are somewhat encouraging. If you’re someone who thinks nonbelief is something that’s good because the younger demographic, people under 30 tend to be less religious. The fact again, alluding to the American Religious Identification Survey, they did an update just a couple of years ago and that that survey indicated that for people under 30, roughly 30 percent of them were non-religious. But we have to keep in mind that religious belief is very resilient. Some people maintain that religion has a genetic basis. I tend to doubt that. But even if it doesn’t have a biological foundation, it clearly has deep cultural, social and psychological roots and beliefs that have have had a hold on the human psyche for thousands of years, probably are not going to disappear within the space of a few decades or maybe even a century. So what does that mean? I think the most likely result is that at least for the next several generations, we’re going to have a situation in which we have what I call a mixed population. We’re going to have a substantial part portion of the population that is non-religious and then a substantial portion of the population that retains religious beliefs. But of course, within that segment of population, there’ll be a diversity of religious beliefs. And this diversity, this religious pluralism is one reason, not the only reason, but one reason I think that secularism is necessary. But before I begin my argument for seculars, we probably have to get an understanding of what I mean by secularism. It’s kind of important, really, to have a precise understanding because in fact, a lot of people have a misunderstanding of secularism, especially if you talk to religious people. They just have kind of a vague idea of it. But that vague idea inspired some vague fears. All they really know is that secularism is some kind of insidious menace. 

It’s something that’s horrible because that’s what they’re told. Right. I mean, secularism, triumphs, horrible things are gonna happen. It’ll become illegal to pray. Religious people are gonna be herded into camps and white bread will be outlawed. 

All those things will happen if secularism tries. I exaggerate only slightly. 

I actually if you read some of the literature that’s out there. Secularism is portrayed as something horrible. I don’t know if you remember the title of the 2010 bestseller by the conservative intellectual Newt Gingrich. Well, he does it repeatedly in history, but I invent the title of the book was Overcoming Obama’s Secular Socialist Machine. Nice pairing, of course, of two, the fears that people have secularism and socialism. Well, you know, why did people have this misperception? Well, of course, they’re told that secularism is horrible. But in addition, I think there is a mistake that a lot of people make. They equate secularism with atheist. And then in turn, I think atheist means suppression of religion, which isn’t true. I mean, most atheist. Certainly atheists here at Center for Inquiry very much believe in freedom of conscience, and we’re not interested in suppressing anyone’s religious beliefs, but events, secularism is not the same thing as atheist. Secularism is an ethical, philosophical belief. Athie ism is a belief about the ultimate nature of things that it is. It’s a belief about what the reality is. The reality is going atheist, that there is no God, but one belief doesn’t. Until the other, you can embrace secularism and be religious. That there are millions of religious people in the United States and other countries who do embrace secularism. And that’s a good thing, because as we’ll see if we’re going to have a meaningful democratic society, we do have to embrace secularism. 

So what is secularism? Well, I think it has two components. 

The first component is something that I think is probably familiar to most people. It’s the idea of separation of church and state. In other words, the government should not interfere with religious matters. And by the same token, religion should not meddle with government affairs. And if this principle is followed, you will have a secular state. And its principle really should be, I think, non-controversial. You would think, at least in the United States, which was the first secular state, explicitly secular state. It would be a principle that would be accepted, unfortunately, in the United States. Ironically enough, there perhaps is more resistance to this idea than in some other developed countries. Some people maintain that, in fact, there is no separation of church and state in the United States. Quite to the contrary. And I’m sure people in this audience are familiar with this position. They maintain some people maintain that the United States is a Christian nation, that it was expressly founded as a Christian nation. Unfortunately, that viewpoint is actually sometimes reflected in textbooks that states such as Texas approves. Well, that argument is fallacious. In fact, it’s just nonsense. I’m not gonna go into all the reasons that the Christian nation advocates put forward. But what they argue is they make, for example, is that while the founders were Christian, therefore they must have wanted a Christian nation. Also, you know, the phrase separation of church and state doesn’t appear in the Constitution. So this whole idea that there’s supposed to be a separation church state, this is just a myth that, you know, your humanists and non-religious and various liberal religious people thought up. You know, the first reference to it was in this letter that that DS Jefferson wrote, but he only was going to outlier, didn’t really represent the views of the founders. 

Well, what about that argument? 

Well, it just is this sentence. It’s really nonsense. First of all, let’s take the position that while the founders were Christian, therefore they wanted a Christian nation. Well, you know, there’s been a lot dispute about the exact content of the beliefs of the founders. But I think it’s fair to say that many of them were Christian, at least nominally Christian. Many of them were DSR also such as Jefferson and Washington and Franklin, but. 

So what? So what if many of them were Christian? 

That doesn’t imply they wanted a Christian nation. I mean, there are many Christians today, as I mentioned, many religious people who are secularists. And there were many sectors in the 70s, 80s. In fact, one reason the founders wanted a secular state was that they were all too familiar with a bloody sectarian conflicts that had wracked the European content for a couple hundred years and also had caused disturbances and turmoil in their early colonies. So the fact that they were Christian doesn’t mean they could have been secular. And in fact, one interesting thing, and this really pokes a hole in the Christian nation theory, is there’s no reference to Jesus or to God in the Constitution, which is the founding document, of course, for a country which is very strange because you would think if the founders wanted a Christian nation, they could have easily done that. What did they simply neglect to put some reference to Jesus. Then there they go. Know hurry to put in a constitution together. And then a week later they realized, oh, my goodness, we forgot to mention Jesus Christ in the Constitution. Right now, of course, that didn’t happen. There’s as I said, there’s no reference to God, Jesus. And in fact, the only reference to religion in the Constitution is a negative one. Article six of the Constitution expressly states that no religious test so ever be required for any public office under the United States. So it simply defies belief to maintain that the founders wanted a Christian nation. Yet somehow they forgot to include a reference to Christianity in there. I mean, think about it. But very simple to go at just a few words. For example, the preamble they could have said in order found a more perfect union based on Christian principles and so forth and so forth then and do that. So I think that’s a very telling argument against the Christian nation advocates. Well, of course, now the Christian nation advocate is going to try to turn that argument around and say, OK, there’s no reference to God or Christianity in the Constitution, but there is no reference to separation of church and state. Therefore, they didn’t want separation of church and state. 

Well, that argument shows a misunderstanding of the intentions of the founders and also, frankly, a very lamentable ignorance about the intellectual history on which the founders relied when they formed the Constitution, as also ironic that this argument sometimes put forward by people who are members of the Tea Party, people who want they say they want a limited government because in fact, the founders, they didn’t want a limited government. The federal government is expressly limited to certain powers. And those powers are set forth expressly in Article one, Section eight of the Constitution, which specifies what the Congress can do, what kind of laws Congress passes, what authority the government has over certain things. So if you look at Article one, Section eight, it talks about the ability to impose taxes, something we’re all familiar with, ability to issue coin age, regulate commerce between states. Raise an Army and Navy, et cetera, et cetera. It’s completely silent on anything to do with religion. The government has no authority over religion. And likewise, they didn’t set up some sort of, you know, joint religious government committee to advise on public policy. What the Constitution established was a government that limited itself to civil, secular matters. So this idea that because there’s no reference to separation of church of state and the Constitution somehow shows that’s not what the founders wanted, is a is an example of the, you know, the proverbial failure to see the forest for the trees. 

The Constitution as a whole embodies separation of church and state because it expressly limits the government, the secular civil matters. So it would have been redundant to include a reference to separation of church of state and to bring home this point. I just mentioned the fact that not everyone is aware of James Madison, originally opposed the Bill of Rights. He’s often referred to as the father, the Bill of Rights, and rightly so, because eventually he was the principal sponsor of the Bill of Rights. But initially he didn’t want a Bill of Rights. Now, why is that? Because he thought if we had a bill of Rights, that would somehow imply that the government had the authority to regulate speech, to regulate the press, to regulate religion. And his position was, well, look, we’ve just set up a limited. 

Why would we try to. We don’t need a bill of rights because that would suggest the government has plenary authority over these matters. Now, eventually, he came around to the position, in part persuaded by Jefferson and some others that, yeah, yeah, we understand that. But, you know, people want assurance and maybe it’d be a good idea to have those rights expressly set forth. So, in fact, he became a champion of the Bill of Rights. But in his view, the First Amendment was really just restating what was in the Constitution already was reaffirming the principle that the government has no authority over religious matters. All right. Well, we could spend the whole evening talking about, you know, the fallacies of the Christian nation argument, but we have to move on because although separation of church and state is a necessary component of secularism, we need another component as well. 

Specifically, we need a society in which religious precepts play no role in influencing public policy. And in fact, religious doctrines form no part of any public policy discussion. And religious institutions have no privileged position with respect to any issue improving public policy issues. Why do I say this is important, indeed necessary as a component of secularism? What’s important if we want a truly democratic society as a society, in other words, in which government justifies its policies to its citizens. And moreover, a society in which as citizens debate and discuss public policy issues because there is one clear prerequisite for democratic discourse to be successful, and that is the participants in any public policy discussion have to be able to understand, evaluate and debate the reasons that others offer for public policy positions. That’s only way you can have a meaningful discussion, right? Well, you can’t do that unless the participants in the discussion have a common language. And introducing religious precepts and religious doctrines into a public policy discussion means you’re introducing a language that essentially is a private language that has meaning only for certain people, only for adherents of that particular religion. So to drive home this point, we would consider a hypothetical example. Let’s assume that some people decided that they would only express their public policy arguments using the language of higher mathematics. All right. 

I think it’s fair to say that would cut out many people from that discussion. I know we certainly have an impact on me. Right. You know, 98 percent of the people probably won’t be able to follow that discussion. 

It be a pointless discussion, but that’s actually a better situation than a situation in which religious precepts form part of the discussion, because at least with mathematics in principle, we could come up to speed on that. Right. Could take a remedial trigonometry course to take a calculus course and finally figure out what these some of these equations mean. But religious precepts and religious doctrines have meaning only for the adherents of a particular religion. And therefore, once you reduce introduce religious precepts into a public policy discussion, you’re effectively cutting short the discussion. That’s what makes discussing public policy issues with people who adhere to religious beliefs and insist on their beliefs. So frustrating. And we’ve had examples of that. 

For example, the debate over same sex marriage. Right. We’ll get into discussion with the religious individual perhaps. And that person will say, look, I’m opposed to it, because if you look at the Old Testament, it says that relations between two men are an abomination. Right. So if that’s an abomination, clearly same sex marriage is really just something beyond the pale. 

Right. Well, that’s a person’s position. Where do you go from there? 

What can you say to engage that person in meaningful discussion? You can’t. That’s basically the end of the discussion, because what are you going to argue with that person’s faith? Well, that’s not going to be get you very far. So once you introduce rid of religious precepts, you’re cutting short discussion on public policy. Now is the religious right that usually uses religious doctrines in public policy discussions. But I want to be fair, because sometimes that also happens with individuals on the religious left. For example, we’ve had discussions. 

Off and on about capital punishment, and sometimes the argument you’ll get about capital punishment is a life is sacred. You know, God has made life sacred and therefore capital punishment is inherently wrong. It’s barbaric. What have you. Well, that may be good reasons against capital punishment, but if you’re relying on an argument like that, again, you’re cutting short the discussion. You know, you’re not going to make an argument that is really appealing to anyone else. In fact, what you’re doing is cutting short the discussion. So as many other people have observed, some philosophers, they you know, religion operates as a conversation stopper in public policy discussions. 

Now, you know, when this country first started, we were essentially more at least more ruled religiously homogeneous than we are now. Sure, we had 57 different varieties of Protestantism, but, you know, there was a kind of Common Core to some of their beliefs. And even when we began to get a significant Catholic population in the late 19th century and early 20th century, still it was kind of some shared background beliefs. So this problem of having different beliefs wasn’t as clear as it is now. But nowadays, as I mentioned the beginning, clearly we have a much more diverse population. 

So given that if we’re going to speak to each other, if we’re going to have meaningful discussion about public policy, we have to use a language that’s except a successful to all. And that’s the language of this worldly facts, not other worldly facts. But as you might expect, there probably some people who take issue with my position that we have to embrace secularism, especially in public policy discussions. 

I don’t know if you remember this book that came out in the 1990s book by Stephen Carter, who is a Yale law professor book, actually sold reasonably well. In part, it was actually endorsed by Bill Clinton who said that, you know, this is a book everyone should read. Well, one of Carter’s arguments was that it’s wrong to keep religious precepts out of public policy discussions because doing so, among other things, works a hardship on believers, because what you’re doing in that case is essentially forcing believers to restructure their religious precepts, their religious doctrines in secular terms. 

And I guess my response to that is so. 

So what? I mean, what’s wrong with that? If you think about it, that’s actually something that’s very good. I mean, if a person wants to engage their fellow citizens in a meaningful discussion about public policy, they should frame their arguments in terms that are meaningful and accessible to everyone. In other words, they should restructure their arguments in secular terms. There’s nothing owners about that requirement. In fact, it operates as a much needed check on the soundness of one’s arguments. If one cannot formulate a religiously based argument in secular terms, then maybe one should think that, hey, maybe I’ve mistaken God’s command here because think about this way. Why would God want you to follow an instruction or rule that you can’t explain to someone else? So, as I said, it’s actually a good exercise for religious believers to reformulate their argument in secular terms. Moreover, the idea that somehow it works a hardship on religious people is just ridiculous because secular language is the language of everyday life. There’s nothing special about secular language, just the language we use all the time. 

You get up in the morning, go to work, you talk to the bus driver. You don’t usually use religious terms. You use secular everyday language. You go to work. You work among your colleagues. You talk about your job duties. Talk about how horrible your boss is. Not not at CFI, of course. 

You talk in secular terms. You go to your doctor. You talk in secular terms. Everyone understands secular language. It’s the language we use all the time. The language of cause and effect and logical relationships. So it’s a language that people are familiar with already. They just have to apply it to public policy issues. Moreover, formulating one’s arguments on public policy issues in secular terms shows respect for one’s fellow citizens. Because if all you’re doing in a discussion on public policy is preaching your own religious doctrines, you’re really not participating in a discussion. You might as well just shut up and use your Bible or Koran or Book of Mormon as a weapon to beat people over the head with and say, accept my religious doctrines, accept my religious doctrines, accept my religious doctrines, because that is all you’re doing. Your message is except my were there just doctrines? Now, someone might question my key premise, because my key premise is that introducing religion into public policy discussions effectively forecloses any meaningful discussion. And in fact, there have been some scholars and at least one very credible scholar who has questioned my premise. That’s Jeffrey Stout, who’s a professor of religion at Princeton University and who, by the way, is an agnostic. He says that, in fact, we can argue with people who invoke religious doctrines in public policy discussions. What you have to do for purposes of the argument is argue from within their perspective what he calls eminent criticism. So in other words, when you engage in eminent criticism, you and this is a quote from his book. 

You either try to show that your opponents views or incoherent or you try to argue positively from your opponent’s religious premises to the conclusion that the proposal you want is acceptable. 

Well, what about this? 

Can we have public policy discussions in which religious claims are meaningfully debated? In theory, perhaps. But in reality, no stouts. Advice to adopt the perspectives of the believer and argue against the believer based on the believers own premises assumes that the believer is constrained by the standards of logic and evidence that apply to secular arguments. But religious belief is not something that’s usually held to the same standards of consistency, rationality and evidence as our other beliefs on which public policy are based. Let’s just take an example. You know, one religious example. You know, Christians believe that Jesus was both divine and human, something that on the face of it appears to be a contradiction, something that you cannot rationally explain. In fact, Christians also say that this is a mystery. Right. Something that will be revealed to us somehow in the afterlife. We’ll understand it. Well, so obviously that belief isn’t held to the standards of rationality and logic that we apply. And that would be true for any religious doctrine that’s introduced into a public policy debate. Because once you press them on the reasons for that belief, they can always fall back on faith. And if faith means anything, it means not having to supply reasons for your belief at the end of the day. You can’t argue with someone’s faith. Furthermore, even if adherents of religion were willing to allow their beliefs to be examined critically and they’re probably at least a few religious believers that fall in that category. Just think about how involve the process of determining public policy would become. Because every time that someone offered a religious belief as justification for public policy, we’d have to become immersed in a incredibly complex discussion about whether the underlying religious belief was justified. Let’s say someone favors abstinence only education because of a belief that fornication is against what Jesus commanded. You know, fornication is a sin under Christian doctrine. And this is a, you know, obviously an argument that has actually been made in public policy discussions. Well, how would we engage in imminent criticism under stouts model? Well, to begin, we’d have to try to examine the basis for the claim that fornication is a sin, as this person maintains. This would require exegesis of biblical texts, which are not terribly straightforward or transparent in their meaning. Moreover. Who’s to say that these biblical texts represent the commandments of God? We know, for example, that the four canonical gospels are set forth in the New Testament, represent only a fraction of the gospels that were circulating the first few centuries of the common era. So how do we determine which statements should actually be attributed to Jesus? And do we even know whether Jesus existed? As you may know, that’s actually a question that some historians and scholars debate. And of course, for those who don’t accept Jesus as divine or as a divinely inspired prophet, there’s a problem of proving to them that they should accept the pronouncements of Jesus as authoritative. So let’s think of all those questions that are involved in a discussion in which you try to argue from within the perspective of the religious believer. How in God’s name are do we accomplish all that discussion? All that analysis in the time that it takes to resolve a public policy issues such as the support of absence only education. We can’t turn every public policy debate into a theological debate unless we are willing to spend all eternity engaged in such debates. So the problem with stouts theory is that if religion is not a conversation stopper, it starts a conversation that never comes to an end. So contrast that religion laden approach with a secular approach to the same problem. Other words, the problem of abstinence only education. And is that something that’s going to be effective in preventing, let’s say, Estes’s or pregnancy? If abstinence only education is effective in achieving these goals, especially if it’s more effective than standard sex education, maybe it’s something that should be supported. If it’s not, then support may not be advisable. Well, how would we resolve that debate if we restrict ourselves to secular terms? Well, that’s a question that could be resolved through empirical studies. Granted, these empirical studies can’t be done overnight, but they require a finite amount of time and analysis as opposed to the lifetime of study that will be required to analyze theological questions and which would probably never yield a definitive result, ever. And in fact, as you probably know, studies have been shown out that have been carried out that show that abstinence only education is not effective. And then the fact standard sex education is the most effective way to prevent Estes’s unwanted pregnancies. That’s how we should resolve public policy questions by looking at facts, by engaging in reasoning. They are secular based. 

All right. 

So to some extent, I think I’ve established the underlying thesis of the title of my book. Now it’s time to turn to the subtitle. And that, of course, provides an additional reason why we should not allow religion to intrude into public policy debates. And that is God can’t tell us what to do. What do I mean by that? Well, first, let me start off by refreshing your recollection about a dialog that Plato wrote a long time ago. The dialog, Euthyphro, I say refresh your recollection, because this audience, I assume the by many people familiar with the argument that set that set forth in Euthyphro, what is what is Plato doing this dialog? Well, he uses the character Socrates to pose this question as something morally right because God commands it or does God commanded because it’s morally right. And this poses a dilemma for those people who think that we can base morality and therefore also public policy that has moral dimensions on God’s commands. Because if, in fact, you say that, well, you know, God is commanding something because it’s the morally right thing to do. That shows that we humans have the ability to determine what’s right and wrong, good and bad, based on our own independent reasoning. So we don’t need God to tell us what to do. We can figure that out for ourselves. If you take the other horn of the dilemma and say, well, no, no, no, that’s not the case. Something is only good or bad based on what God says, then you’re saying that human beings have no ability to determine good from evil, right from wrong. In which case, how do we know that God is good? Because we don’t know what’s good. All we know is, is being is giving us these commands that we have to follow. For all we know, they’re are arbitrary commands. He could be commanded us to do something we think is just horrible. But how would we know whether it’s right or wrong? So that’s a dilemma that Plato posed. And I think I don’t think religious belief believers have ever had a proper answer to that. Furthermore, although there’ve been some people who’ve tried to avoid this dilemma, especially people in the natch natural law, traditions such as Thomas Aquinas, under natural law tradition, they’ll say that, well, no, it’s actually true that humans can determine some things on their own using the reason some things are right and wrong, some things that are good or bad. But God is there to kind of supplement our natural law abilities, our ability to reason about things. All that does is move the dilemma back one step further, because for the things that we can reason about on our own. Well, again, God drops out of the picture. We don’t need it. Right. We don’t need his commands. And therefore, the things we’re supposed to we need God’s commands. We have the same problem. How do we know that what he is commanding is actually something good? If we can’t if we have no independent basis for determining whether it’s good. So these are problems with the divine command theory of morality. And of course, that’s the theory that religious believers rely on when they try to inject their moral beliefs into public policy discussions. But there’s another flaw that I think is actually more profound. That’s a different flaw than the one that. 

Plato recognized. 

And I think it shows decisively that we can’t rely on God to tell us what to do. 

And the problem is this. We don’t know when God has spoken. Because how do we know what God’s commands are? How do we know the contents of those commands? How are God’s command supposedly transmitted to us through revelation. Right. 

Which is usually understood as a communication from God or some supernatural agent appointed by God, such as the agent, Angel Gabriel, or some other figure through which some significant truth is revealed to the human community. Whatever the particular mode of sharing, whether it’s God himself or some angel, the distinguishing feature of a revelation is that it involves a privilege access to the divine, such that a claim that a revelation occurred cannot be verified or disconfirms in the standard way that reports of ordinary events are confirmed or just confirmed. The way in which the Book of Mormon was revealed to Joseph Smith illustrates nicely the core problem with Revelation. Smith was the only one who had the ability to translate the Book of Mormon from so-called reformed Egyptian into English, which he accomplished by using a seer stone placed until the bottom of a large hat. The hat was then drawn tightly around Smith’s face. So no one else could view the stone and the letters that is supposedly revealed. Well, such a scene fairly calls out for mockery, but it’s really no different in principle than the revelations that form the basis for Judaism, Christianity or Islam, because there’s always some prophet who claims to have had a transcendental transmission from God, whether from a burning bush, a rock in the bottom of the hat, or fear of Mohammed from having Gabriel visit you and your dreams. In all these situations, that core message is not accessible to others. So what does religion in effect, do? It sets up a cognitive class system in which we have prophets who claim to be in touch with God and then the rest of us, all the billions of the rest of us who don’t have any way of verifying their claims. By the way, the Prophet and the Middle’s L. Ron Hubbard in case you don’t recognize him. So when we look at religion this way, we see that it’s actually inherently anti-democratic. Instead of reasoning together about public policy issues, we’re supposed to defer to some individuals, most of whom are now dead, who had access to this transcendental knowledge, who had privileged access that the rest of us don’t have. If we need further evidence that we can’t rely on revelation to tell us what God commands, we have the undeniable fact that his supposed revelations clash. Given these disputes over revelation among believers, revelation becomes useless as a means of determining God’s commands. 

You know, different religions have different revelations. One, God prohibits alcohol. I know that God says it’s permissible. One, God demands male circumcision. Another one says you can hang onto your foreskin. One guy prohibits divorce. God is fine with that one. God prohibits contraception. Another, God has no objection. One, God prohibits the consumption selfish. The other says, bon appetit. One, God prohibits work on Saturday, another on Sunday, one on Friday. And another, God says, hey, you can work any day of the week. That’s a God we have here at CFI. 

Furthermore, the problem is even deeper than this because yes is so you have gods of different religions saying different things. But even within one religious tradition, you have deep differences of opinion because what do the religious rely on? Yes, they rely on these revelations that came from this discreet set of prophets. And then these revelations are set forth in sacred texts and then these sacred texts are trotted out as a means of justifying public policy. When you hear this all the time, ad nauseum. Right. Unfortunately, members of Congress, you know, they cite scripture for immigration policy or some other policy. Well, the problem with scripture is sacred texts is that they’re all malleable. You can interpret sacred texts any way you want to interpret to justify any public policy position you want. And you don’t think that’s true. Just look at the history of public policy disputes over the last couple hundred years. Think of slavery. Slavery, fortunately, as an institution, which I think most people now regard as important. But in the 18th 40s. In 1850. D. Yes. You had abolitionists, some of whom relied on scripture, but you had people who defended slavery. Southern clergy defended slavery. They refer to the same Bible, they referred to the same scriptures as the abolitionists. They just interpreted the Bible differently. And you can do that all the time. Whatever your public policy issue is, you’re going to find it, find a passage in scripture, whether it’s the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Koran, that will justify your position. The fact in my book, I set forth this challenge. I tell the reader, give me any position you want, just pick out something, maybe something you think is absurd. Give me 24 hours to look at some scripture, Bible, Book of Mormon, the Koran, and I will find a passage to justify that position. Scripture is an infinitely malleable and therefore it is totally useless as a guide to public policy. So given the unreliability of revelation, we can never be sure when God has issued a command or what the content of that command is. God can’t tell us what to do because we don’t know what he said. If he said anything in a religiously pluralistic society, if we are to live together in peace, if we all work together for a productive society that benefits everyone, that provides fundamental rights to everyone, we we have to reason together as a community. We can’t rely on God to tell us what to do. We have to figure that out for ourselves. And to do that, to understand each other. To talk to each other meaningfully, we need to adopt a common language. And that is the language of secularism. Secularism is not only a good thing. It is a necessary thing. Thank you. 

Be happy to entertain any efforts. There are some if you have questions, we just ask that you ask them into the microphone and the microphone is now open. 

Have a question regarding your statistics and your first slide, OK? With twelve percent of the population not living in any gap. All right. Do you hear those same statistics for Russia with a history of 70 years of suppressing? There are two tracks, church. 

I don’t have statistics that are as reliable because the survey I cited up there again was when the American Religious Identification Survey, which was a very thorough and comprehensive survey. I’m not sure a similar survey has been carried out for Russia. There have been some surveys that have been carried out. But Russia is one of those countries where it’s difficult to carry out surveys, in part because people are very reluctant to express what their beliefs are. So there’s been a lot of speculation. I think it’s fair to say that much of the population of Russia is religious. That probably was so even under under communism, even though people were afraid to say that. And I have had that question come up, though, when I was talk about this book with other people, because I made the claim that the level of nonbelief nowadays is unprecedented. And people said, well, what about Russia? Russia was an atheist country from 1917 forward. Well, that was top down atheist. Maybe there are a lot of people who said they were atheists, but that was atheist, that was imposed by the government wasn’t really a reflection on believes that people arrived at independently. What we’re seeing now in developed countries, in free countries is that people on their own are arriving at the conclusion that there is no God. So there’s a big difference there. 

And in fact, you know, the the fact that, in fact, atheist in Russia was top down is indicated by the resurgence in religious belief that happened as soon as communism fell out of power. 

Aaron. Hey, so I think your argument for the necessity of secularism is great. But I guess my question is, what do you think we should do about it? How do we get that dialog to change? 

Because it doesn’t seem to be necessarily the dialog being secularism. We’ll get people to buy my book. 

Right. That’s that’s a first step. 

But right now it is, you know, because I was actually asked this question, been asked this a couple times, you know, my saying that, you know, we should prohibit in some fashion your religious beliefs from coming up in discussions. Obviously, no, we can’t do that. That be a violation of freedom, expression, freedom of religion. We have to try to persuade people that on several grounds that it’s best to confine discussions to a common language. Is that going to be easy to do? No, but it has happened again. There are many religious people who are secularists who understand that if we’re going to have a meaningful discussion about public policy, if we’re gonna have a meaningful democracy, we have to engage, confine our discussions to secular language. And there are several reasons you could put forward if you had a discussion with a person. One is just prudential things. Again, if you want a meaningful discussion, if you want a discussion that doesn’t stop, as soon as you invoke a religious doctrine, you’re going to have to have a discussion based on secular terms. Also, self-interest. If you’re gonna take the position that religion is OK to inject into public policy discussions, you might remind the person, well, look, we have a very pluralistic society now is not like when everyone was, you know, Protestant. We are prosperous Catholics, Jews, increasing Islamic population. Do we want a situation where public policy is decided by which religion get its adherents to the polls? Probably not a good idea or another way. Another thing that could happen is if we have religion injected too often into public policy, we’ll actually have separate laws for different religious communities, something that has happened, at least to some extent in the United Kingdom, where Sharia law, although it’s not supposed to take precedence over regular United Kingdom law, is recognized at least for purposes of arbitrations. So there there are harmful consequences that result. If you insist on including religious doctrine in public policy discussions. So is it gonna be easy to persuade some religious people to accept this viewpoint? No, I don’t think it’s impossible. The alternative and I address this in the last chapter of the book, and it’s something that I probably get some pushback on from some nonbelievers is why are you just arguing for secularism? Monch argues right now for atheists. Right. You know, we should just tell people that belief in God is mistaken. It’s wrong. That way they’ll become secular because they’ll abandon their belief in God. Well, you know, I’m not necessarily opposed to arguments about whether there’s a God or not. In fact, I think, you know, if certainly if some religious person is putting forward an argument for belief in God, you’re perfectly within your right to counter that argument. You should counter that argument. But that, again, is only gonna work on some people. All right. You know, if, in fact, someone is so dedicated to their religious beliefs that they’re gonna refuse to adopt secular language when they’re having a public policy debate, they’re also likely going to be immune to any argument against the existence of God. So I think it’s actually easier to persuade people that secularism is something they can adopt, that in fact, it’s not a threat to their religious beliefs. You can still be religious and be secular in terms of your orientation and what you bring to discussions about public policy. Again, many religious people are secular. So that’s another way, I think, to approach the issue. But to tells religious people this is a threat to your beliefs. You want to believe in God. Go ahead. That’s fine. Well, when you come talk to us about whether we should have same sex marriage, assisted dying, what have you, you need to talk to us in language that’s accessible to everyone. 

We have heard Ronald A. Lindsay present the necessity of secularism. Why God can’t tell us what to do. Presented at the Center for Inquiry Transnational at Amherst, New York, on December 5th, 2014. 

The original recording was engineered by Cody Harshman. The music was by Adam Fields. Postproduction was by Inquiry Media Productions. 

This has been Episode 240 to visit us again on center stage. We have heard Ronald A. Lindsay present the necessity of secularism. Why God can’t tell us what to do. Presented at the Center for Inquiry Transnational at Amherst, New York on December 5th, 2014, the original recording was engineered by Cody Harshman. 

The music was by Adam Fields. Postproduction was by Inquiry Media Productions. 

This has been Episode 240 to visit us again on center stage.