On its website, the Freedom from Religion Foundation makes a bold statement: “The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion.” Along with the patently false claim that abolitionism was championed by atheists (rather than by the Christians like Lincoln and Wilberforce who actually championed it*), this claim comes as perhaps the most glaring example of a common piece of contradictory religious ideology in current political and social discourse in the United States today: the idea that some people are enslaved by religion, while others are somehow “free” from it. While it must be recognized that some religious belief systems are inherently oppressive, the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s statement is inherently flawed in that it fails to recognize the fact that all humans – all humans – are religious beings.
Upon hearing this claim, the rabid anti-theists immediately exclaim: “I am not religious!” As is usually the case, it is important for us to clearly define what we are talking about. The first definition for “religion” that shows up on Dictionary.com is: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” The second definition: “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.” There is not one aspect of these definitions from which anyone belonging to the Freedom from Religion Foundation – or any atheist or secularist – can escape. Each member of this group has his or her personal religion, regardless of whether or not it includes a belief in God or whether or not it can be quickly categorized as an “ism”.
Do atheists not have a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe? All do. It is true that some would say that the cause was accidental, the nature is strictly materialist, and the purpose is strictly relative, but they certainly have views concerning these things, and they have just as much of a tendency of passionately advocating those views as theists do. Do atheists never exhibit devotional and ritual observances? Certainly, they do. Many of them actually worship themselves, such as Anton LaVey’s “Satanists”, Ayn Rand’s Objectivists (“The sacred word: EGO.”), and the blessed (or cursed) few who manage to understand Nietzsche and take him seriously. Others, such as Karl Marx, advocate a more egalitarian and collectivist mode of human-worship. In less overt examples, many people worship various political ideologies, social philosophies, dietary principles, athletic teams, celebrities, recreational drugs, pornography, etc., evincing their devotion through the wearing of symbols, joining of movements, payment of donations to the cause, etc. Do atheists live their lives according to moral codes? Indeed, they tend to proudly remind theists of this fact whenever they get the chance. Even those who are hedonists and radical moral relativists still live by religious codes – it is just that those codes are not very socially acceptable. And of course, once atheists start forming groups to advocate their beliefs – outlining those beliefs in bold, authoritative statements – what they practice becomes not just religion, but the much-dreaded organized religion. (With the deadliest and most destructive organized religion of all time being that atheist religion set forth by the false prophet Karl Marx.)
The indignant atheist cries: “I believe in science!” This exclamation, however, only shows that he or she lacks a basic understanding of the definitions of both religion and science, as science is not something that someone believes in at all. While scientific arguments and evidence can certainly be used in religious discourse, they cannot form its core. This is because science is descriptive, while religion is prescriptive. As soon as one tries to wholly supplant religion with science, one turns science into something other than science, committing a fundamental mistake inverse and equal to that which is perpetrated by Christian Scientists when they attempt to tell us that Biblical Christianity is an exact science. For instance, biology helps us understand living organisms, but it cannot direct life. I once had a friend tell me that the meaning of life can be derived from science: that the pattern of evolution and growth that we see from human history and the fossil record can serve as a guide for our future. However, this is plainly wrong. We cannot look at the fact that biological evolution has occurred in the past and take that as evidence that there is something right, good, or of sublime value in continuing evolution. Any advocacy of continuing human evolution – whether biological, social, or technological – must come not just from an observation that evolution has occurred previously, but from a belief that such evolution is ultimately desirable. Any such belief exists entirely outside of science. Indeed, various scientifically minded environmentalists, luddites, and humanists might actually argue to the opposite effect – with their arguments arising from a reservoir of fervent religious belief that is no more or less scientific in nature than my friend’s.
In current political debate in the United States, the “freedom from religion” crowd would have us believe that one can take a non-religious stance in a fundamentally religious issue. On the question of officially sanctioned homosexual marriage, for instance, these activists vociferously argue that religious conceptions about the sanctity of marriage and the divine institution of marriage are irrelevant specifically because they are religious – even while they call for “equal love” and wave signs with symbols and pronunciations that are nothing if not religious. The concept of equal rights is intrinsically religious, whether it stems from a sense of divine parentage or a more materialist ideal. As is the idea of love.
Confronted with the claim that love is a religious concept, atheists commonly argue that this claim is ridiculous because it would necessitate that animals are religious, as they too experience love. However, this is not the case: it is not the experience of love that is a matter of religion, but rather, it is the conception, explanation, and idealization of love that makes one religious. A dog experiences biochemistry, but that does not make it a scientist. A dog experiences love, but that does not make it a priest. Experiencing love does not make humans religious, but elevating it such that it is meant to become a guide for our personal decisions and public policy does make us religious.
A friend once confided in me regarding her frustration stemming from her involvement with a man who did not believe in God. Their difference in belief had become a barrier in the relationship. She intimated to me that he had insisted that he could not believe in a being who he felt was essentially no more than an abstract concept, and probably a mere figment of people’s imaginations. However, he had also repeatedly insisted that, despite their differences, he truly and completely loved her, and that this love was the most important thing in his life. I voiced to her my wonder at the fact that her boyfriend could so readily accept the reality of love but not the reality of God. It is true that there is usually no communicable evidence that a believer can give to a nonbeliever when it comes to the existence of God, but could not the same be said of love? Where is love in the periodic table? What is its composition? When someone says that she does not believe in love, how should you go about convincing her of its existence and value – and why would it be important to do so? A strictly materialist view of the universe would dictate that love is nothing more than a certain pattern of synapses firing in the brain – with no greater intrinsic value than any other possible pattern of synaptic activity. Any meaning we may place on that pattern is no more or less ridiculous than the meaning a theist sees in the great pattern of order in the universe.
Thus, the protestor objects to Christians bringing their religious beliefs into the political arena – all the while defending himself with volley upon volley of religious arguments. Again, the fact that these ideas about love are not tied to a belief in God or the doctrines of any clearly defined sect does not make them any less religious.
“Perhaps love is a religious concept,” they may say. “We will give you that. But today’s social issues are actually about so much more than that. In the end, what matters the most is rights. The most important function of government is the protection of human rights, and that has nothing to do with religion.” Actually, though, there is hardly anything more religious than the concept of basic human rights. Let us look again at these timeless words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The idea that humans have fundamental rights that must be protected, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, is based upon a number of religious beliefs, such as the following:
- We were created. Statements about human equality presuppose an intrinsic value in humans: equality means nothing if we are all equally without value. By extension, our equal intrinsic value must arise from a common intrinsic purpose, as value is inextricably connected to purpose, and nothing arising as a result of an accident can have a purpose. It is therefore necessary to believe that we were created in order to believe that we have a purpose and an equal intrinsic value. This does not prove that we were created, but it illustrates the necessity of that belief for anyone who would champion egalitarian ideals.
- The human soul is a real thing. As humans exhibit stark inequality in all ways measurable by science, any indelible equality that exists among us must come as a measurement of something beyond our immediate physical experience. That is, we must have souls. Some would say that we have imaginary souls, but this is insufficient, as an imaginary soul would be no more meaningful and no more useful than an imaginary deity.
- Truth can be self-evident. Some things are simply true, and we should – must – feel the truth of them in our bones, regardless of whether or not we are presented with communicable evidence. For the establishment of fact, science requires communicable external evidence: to say that something is “self-evident” is to make an essentially unscientific – though still possibly true – statement. What scientist ever published his findings and, rather than detailing the evidence, stated simply that they were “self-evident”? Religion teaches that there are things that are true because they are true – and that the truth of them simply seeps into the soul. Science determines fact through trial and error, quantifiable data, and empirical reasoning. What great experiment did Thomas Jefferson perform to produce evidence that attests to any of the items mentioned in the Declaration of Independence? No such experiment was performed, and no such evidence exists. Therefore, the origins of the key ideals upon which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are based are more religious than scientific in nature.
Thanks to the proliferation of egalitarian values throughout the world, largely stemming from the rise of the United States of America against colonialism and monarchical rule, many of us take an assumption of basic human rights and equality among people as a given. However, this was a (literally) revolutionary idea when Jefferson penned these words, and there are many other competing worldviews out there. Nihilists would argue that nothing can have any intrinsic value, and so the equality discussion is moot to begin with. Fascists would argue that some humans are inherently superior to others, and that the further progression of the human race requires the neutralization of any genetic taints, whether they be individuals or entire nations. Monarchists would have us believe that there is something fundamentally wicked about rebelling against one’s ruler. Many people feel that their ethnicity or gender makes them superior. The reason for which such beliefs persist is that they can neither be proven nor disproven by science: they are religious concepts. There is no piece of unequivocal evidence that I or anyone else can hand to such people to “prove” that egalitarian values are “true”. Those of us who believe in egalitarianism can make a number of points through empirical reasoning, but on a fundamental level, we believe because it feels right, and for no other reason.
One might think that the assertion that all humans are religious is also an assertion that all humans are necessarily irrational, believing in things that cannot be proven. However, this is not true. Certainly, people do come to believe in falsehoods after having sought the truth through religious channels, but this is only because they use religious channels incorrectly, just like any scientist who incorrectly employs the scientific method. Religion, correctly applied, is not characterized by the random acceptance of ideas as truth without evidence. Rather, it is characterized by the pursuit of truth by means of experiencing objective evidence that cannot be directly communicated from one person to another in the form of data, such that said truth could be described as self-evident. Imagine an extreme and frightful circumstance in which either a confluence of coincidences or an ill-intentioned conspiracy has resulted in you being suspected of a murder you did not commit. You have no alibi. There is physical evidence that seems to suggest that you did it. A plausible motive has been found. Witnesses attest that they saw you commit the crime. However, you know that you did not commit the crime, and so you know that all of this evidence is somehow being misconstrued. Does the fact that you cannot prove what you know to be true make you a fool? Certainly not. The prosecution may say that you have no evidence, but the truth is that you actually have the most reliable evidence there is – you simply cannot communicate that evidence to others in a reliable manner.
In a similar way, I know that there is a God, that humans have souls, that we have a clear and meaningful purpose in life, and that God speaks to us. The evidence of these realities has been made clearly manifest to me. However, like the poor soul in the previous example, I lack evidence that is directly communicable – that can be simply handed over. Unlike the previous example, though, in this case, everyone is capable of directly experiencing the truth of these matters themselves. They simply have to be willing to go through the necessary process to do it. In this way, true science and true religion are the same, as they both rely upon evidence. It is simply that said evidence comes in different ways and for different purposes.
Naturally, faced with the reality of the unavoidable involvement of religion in politics, one might wonder how this fact can be reconciled with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Does this not mean that religion has no place in government, but in private life alone? Yes and no. What it means is that the government cannot force you to belong or not belong to any particular religious group. It also means that the United States is not a theocracy: there is not supposed to be any single religious organization that commands a preferred position in government. (Legislation does not have to be approved by Joel Osteen.) However, this does not mean that religious values and religious concepts can never be applied to law. Indeed, as previously stated, even though our laws are not tied to a particular religious order, organization, or establishment, they are based upon essentially religious ideals. Also, it does not mean that religious people must act as if they are not religious: one cannot expect a Catholic to take office and suddenly stop acting and thinking like a Catholic. Making any requirement to that effect would amount to a direct violation of the very clauses that are supposedly being respected. Additionally, having any unofficial expectation to that effect would be contradictory for many anti-theists, as one of their principal complaints against theists is that we often do not live according to our stated beliefs. Why criticize people by accusing them of not living according to their stated beliefs if you are also going to tell them that they are not allowed to live according to their stated beliefs?
Your religion is whatever guides your life, whatever you gladly give your time to. Your religion is whatever is most important to you, and that for which you would shed blood and tears. Your religion is whatever keeps you up at night. Your religion is whatever you love or hate. We all have our religious views – all of us. Some of these religions include a belief in God, and some do not. A supposedly “non-religious” humanist may feel that my belief in God is irrational because it does not come as a result of communicable evidence, but I would say that his belief in and valuation of humanity is irrational because it directly contradicts his random and materialist conception of the universe. I once had a coworker tell me that all religions were evil. And yet, he exhibited a level of devotion to alcohol, cigarettes, noncommittal sex, and conspiracy theories that is far beyond the fervor shown by most churchgoers.
When people such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation say that they are opposed to the interference of religion in government, what they are actually doing is attempting to obtain institutional primacy for their own religion over others by dressing it in drag and saying that it is not a religion. As our government – and indeed, any government – is founded upon religious principles dealing with things like humans’ place in the world, humans’ responsibilities for themselves and for each other, and the basic rights that humans have, the idea that religion should or even can be removed from government and politics is preposterous. I believe what I believe. You believe what you believe. Some beliefs are true, and some beliefs are not true. False beliefs can often be proven false, but not always, and even when they can be, people often still believe what they want anyway. Such behavior is not limited to those who believe in Deity. What we have to do is sit down together and work out our conflicts in belief civilly, without appealing to legal loopholes or inconsistent interpretations to gain an unfair institutional advantage. It is hypocritical to tell your opponents that they are not allowed to frame policy based on moral values even as you attempt to do the same. (Anyway, what policy is not based on moral values?) It is immoral to force one’s religion on others under the thin claim that its specific positions on various religious issues make it something other than a religion. There is a place in the human psyche where religion goes. No conscious, functioning person has a vacuum there: it is just a matter of what you allow to inhabit that space. To be human is to be religious. I have never met a human who was not.
(*One might point out the fact that the Bible was used both in opposition and support of the institution of slavery, but then again, so was science: Charles Darwin was a favorite figure for those who sought to uphold the institution of slavery.)