Why Democracy Requires the Separation of Church and State

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Responding to GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry’s recent woefully misguided comments about evolution, Richard Dawkins, a Brit [1] and a guy who probably understands evolution about as well as anyone on the planet, had this somewhat puzzled aside about U.S. presidential politics:

The population of the United States is more than 300 million and it includes some of the best and brightest that the human species has to offer, probably more so than any other country in the world. There is surely something wrong with a system for choosing a leader when, given a pool of such talent and a process that occupies more than a year and consumes billions of dollars, what rises to the top of the heap is George W Bush. Or when the likes of Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin can be mentioned as even remote possibilities. [2]

That “something wrong” – and a common denominator identifying Bush, Perry, Bachmann and Palin – is the intrusion of faith-based worldviews into the president-selection process, the fundamental commingling of religion and government.  More and more, the GOP primary process looks to be won by the guy or gal who can out-Jesus the others.  And this country’s continuing resistance to the truth of evolution by natural selection as the explanation for everything in the biosphere is a handy and telling example of the incompatibility of a modern democracy with religion.

First it must be emphasized that monotheists’ fear of evolution is justified.  The cascading implications of Darwin’s theory for Christians are neatly laid out by Paula Kirby in her response to Perry’s comments:

Evolution poses a further threat to Christianity, though, a threat that goes to the very heart of Christian teaching. Evolution means that the creation accounts in the first two chapters of Genesis are wrong. That’s not how humans came into being, nor the cattle, nor the creeping things, nor the beasts of the earth, nor the fowl of the air. Evolution could not have produced a single mother and father of all future humans, so there was no Adam and no Eve. No Adam and Eve: no fall. No fall: no need for redemption. No need for redemption: no need for a redeemer. No need for a redeemer: no need for the crucifixion or the resurrection, and no need to believe in that redeemer in order to gain eternal life. And not the slightest reason to believe in eternal life in the first place. [3]

Daniel Dennett even more succinctly refers to Darwin’s theory simply as a “universal acid”, a metaphor that emphasizes how it eats down through all the myth, fantasy, supposition, presumption and wishful thinking about our species and our place in the universe.  It reduces the Christian-exalted status of mankind to a puddle of goo.  Why would Christians not oppose it?

But it is also what makes sense of biology; it is the unifying principle of all life that is now, and ever was, on Earth; it is “the single best idea anyone ever had” (Dennett again).  Without it, plants and animals and viruses are just a chaotic jumble of specifics, an avalanche of facts, without organization or meaning.  And man is a complete mystery.  Why are our eyes inside out?  Why do we have a “tailbone”?  An appendix?  So many hip fractures as we age?  Why do the separate parts of our brain work against each other and how do they work together to give us a picture of “reality”?  Why do we want to have sex with strangers and run up credit card debt and consume too much beer and pizza?  All mysteries without the explanation of evolution.

And religion loves a good mystery, indeed thrives on it.  When lightening was a mystery, we had the Lightening God, as the saying goes, etc.  The overwhelming explanatory power of evolution, its capacity to solve those old riddles of humanity, this is reason enough for U.S. Christianity to attack it.  Once evolutionary theory shows why sex is fun, Christianity’s go-to position that sex is bad is a much tougher sell.  When there are no mysteries, only problems to be solved, there is no need for magical explanations.  Evolution vitiates the explanatory value of, and thus marginalizes, religion.

So if we think of a modern democracy as a way of bringing the most good to the most people, do we teach evolution or not?  Do we want our children to grow up understanding this essential truth of life on Earth or do we want to keep them in ignorance of it to preserve their ability to believe in certain religious doctrines?  This involves a fundamental question for any nation-state, including ours, because how the next generation is educated determines how that society progresses through time.  Is it better for a representative government to act, as best it can, in accordance with facts, or in accordance with the faith-based beliefs of the majority of its citizens?

Facts have one huge advantage over faith-based beliefs:  they are accessible to everyone; they form a common ground upon which everyone can meet to argue for their positions, to build their truths.  This is why science should be a unifying force in a society.  The chemistry lab experiments we did in high school will yield the same results all over the country, indeed the same results in Cairo, Illinois, as in Cairo, Egypt.  Everyone can learn what science is, how it discovers and organizes facts, how it generates theories to make facts meaningful and predictive.  Every student can, should, look at the facts and theory of evolution by natural selection critically, and if any student can punch a hole in the theory – for example, by finding the fossil of a rabbit in Precambrian rock, as the biologist J. B. S. Haldane suggested – she will win every science prize the world has to offer and be on the cover of most of its magazines.  And this will be true whether she lives in Cairo, Illinois, or Cairo, Egypt.  Such is the common ground of fact.

Faith-based beliefs permit no such common ground.  In parts of Cairo, Illinois, the attack on the World Trade Center was the most heinous sin imaginable, committed by the irredeemably evil minions of a devil-driven cult, for whom no punishment, eternal or otherwise, is too great, no suffering sufficient.  But in parts of Cairo, Egypt, that act was the highest form of sacred good, instant martyrdom, a ticket to Paradise.  Unlike fact-based truths, even when the mass homicide of thousands of noncombatant civilians is the fact, religious truths depend upon where you live, who your parents were, what priest/preacher/imam/rabbi you encountered during your impressionable years.

In any nation governed through a representative democracy, there will probably, perhaps inevitably, be one or more important faith-based beliefs held by a majority of citizens.  Those beliefs will not be seen as truths by citizens with minority faith-based beliefs and, just as with the WTC attack, there will be no way to reconcile these different beliefs.  It is definitional with faith-based beliefs that they are not amenable to modification; typically, compromise of such beliefs is anathema, backsliding, contrary to the best interests of the tribe.  And since these beliefs are not founded on fact, they are unconnected to any common ground.

But, to be effective, a representative democracy must base its rules on truths shared by a substantial majority, nearly all, of its members.  When it fails to do that, unrest looms.  This is the great good of free public education for all the nation’s children:  if we all learn roughly the same basic facts of history, math, science, art as children, we are more likely to be able to meet on the common ground of those facts as adults when we need to argue out the separate positions we have come to.  If we do not share those basic facts, if we do not have that common ground, our group decisions as adults will be based on whatever majority beliefs, whether fact-based or faith-based, are prevalent at the time.

If those majority beliefs are fact-based, education remains a path to common ground.  This is what changed our shared truth about cigarette smoking, in my lifetime, from something all hip, attractive adults did to a pathetic addiction of losers.  This striking cultural change was possible, even though it involved a highly addicting substance, because the common ground of medical fact was not disrupted by any faith-based beliefs.  No substantial religion (although a few tiny ones), for example, incorporated smoking in any sacrament.  Religion has been kept pretty much out of the ongoing efforts to legislate and regulate smoking out of existence.

But when those majority beliefs are faith-based the absence of the common ground of fact has dire consequences.  Because we as a nation are greatly ignorant of the facts supporting evolution by natural selection, faith-based anti-evolution instruction – whether “intelligent design” or other forms of creationism – continues to be inflicted upon the next generation of Americans.  Because we are ignorant of the history and science of climate and weather, faith-based denial of the human contribution to global warming is rampant.  Because we are ignorant of the factual basis of sexual orientation, faith-based homophobia rages across the land.  And, worst of all, because faith-based beliefs have occupied the mind-space that should hold that common ground of fact, no rational discussion, no genuine debate, about these issues is possible.

So, if we allow religious beliefs in the discussion, how can our democracy arrive at consensus positions that accommodate the world around us, protect this “pale blue dot” that shelters us from the vast, hostile universe and ensure the rights of all our citizens, all of which promote the common good, the good of all our tribes?  Religions are tribal; their beliefs form a tribal common ground and address the common good of the tribe, not the nation.  But our government must act for the common good of all of us and no religion is compatible with that requirement.  The only way to protect the common good is through continuing and diligent efforts to engender a common ground of fact and to separate religion and government.

Skip Christensen – 9/3/11


[1] And, to make fundamentalist Birthers hate him even more,  Richard Dawkins
actually was born in Kenya.     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Dawkins   Accessed 9/2/2011.


[2]  Richard Dawkins, Attention Governor Perry: Evolution Is a Fact, The Washington Post, On Faith, August 23, 2011.    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/attention-governor-perry-evolution-is-a-fact/2011/08/23/gIQAuIFUYJ_blog.html    Accessed 9/1/2011.

[3] Paula Kirby, Evolution Threatens Christianity, The Washington Post, On Faith, August 24, 2011.   http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/evolution-threatens-christianity/2011/08/24/gIQAuLVpbJ_blog.html   Accessed 9/2/2011

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3 Responses to Why Democracy Requires the Separation of Church and State

  1. K. Poleet says:

    Well, I’m not that smart, so I’ll have to rely on the words of Thomas Jefferson:
    “Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

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