Now, this is not the first time Bill O’Reilly and Dave Silverman have met up to create fireworks. Remember the tides thing? I do not know how much of Bill O’Reilly’s on-air personality is an act, or if he really believes what he says in segments such as these, but the things he says are believed by many people, perhaps (in some cases) because Bill O’Reilly says them.
So, O’Reilly claims that Christianity is not a religion, but is a philosophy instead. This is no different than the dozens of times I have heard Christians claim that their relationship with Jesus/God is not a religion, because religion is man-man and this is the truth.
Let’s start by granting that mere philosophical symbols and ideas are fair to display in government space. Much of what the Framers of the Constitution were doing, after all, is political and moral philosophy. Go to the Jefferson memorial and read the walls; that’s philosophy. Seeing images and carvings of Plato, Aristotle, or even religious and historically significant characters (such as Moses or Hammurabi) on government buildings is commonplace, because these figures play a part in our culture’s history—but so does religion, right? So what’s the difference?
OK, so let’s consider a non-Christian ideology such as Buddhism, which is fundamentally philosophical in many respects but also has many of the characteristics of a religion, especially where it is mythologized and supernatural components are included. Would an image of the Buddha, with some quotes from his attributed sayings, be fair game on government property? More relevant here, would Bill O’Reilly have an issue with such displays?
I do not knows what O’Reilly would think here, but my guess is he would be OK with it so long as it does not get in the way of his traditions. So long as Buddhists were not trying to usurp his holiday traditions, I don’t think he’d care. But should secular-minded people care? Should I care?
This is tricky, because the distinction between philosophy and religion is thin in many traditions, Buddhism included. I would say that insofar as any message on government property is not giving privileged or unequal support for any of the mythological, ritualistic, and supernatural aspects of any philosophy or religion, then there is no problem from a secularist’s point of view. That is, so long as Buddhisms presence in such spaces leans towards its philosophical roots, and not its specifically religious traditions, then I don’t think there is an issue.
But we’ll worry about that when Buddhists start becoming anything near a majority. So, probably never.
Unlike Buddhism, however, Christianity is clearly a religion. Yes, it contains elements of philosophy, but I am not sure any religious traditions do not include philosophical ideas. But the essential component to the overwhelming majority of Christian theologies is the relationship between humankind and “God.” Christianity is not a mere collection of rational concepts or methods about finding what is true, beautiful, or wise, it is a set of metaphysical claims about the nature of the universe which has many traditional rituals, stories, and moral teachings.
The major distinction here is the presence of theology. Theology is a type of philosophy–the religious kind–and so if a tradition has a theology it is clearly a religion.
To claim that Christianity is a philosophy is to amputate a significant portion of what it does for believers. Where a thinker such as Plato used logic and dialogue to make propositions and criticisms about ideas, Christianity does this but it does so much more. To imply that Jesus was just a philosopher is to say he was just a man with mere ideas about the world. This view removes the divine messages including the metaphysical significance of the (supposed) sacrifice and makes concepts such as eternal life, eternal punishment, or even ultimate meaning impotent.
Wait…does that mean that this segment of his show reveals that Bill O’Reilly does not believe all of the mythological and metaphysical components of Christianity? Does that make O’Reilly some sort of humanist? Because if he does not think that Christianity is not religious (thus has nothing to do with supernatural claims) then why all the god-talk?
Again, I think this claim that Christianity is a philosophy is part of a set of cultural/apologetic moves to distinguish Christianity from mere religion. It usually takes the form of “I have a relationship with Jesus/God, and religion is a man-made lie!” In this case, O’Reilly seems to be doing something similar. “Christianity,” he might say, “is not a man-made mere religion, it is the true philosophy given to us by god.” Well, if so, Papa Bear, then that makes it a religion.
I don’t think Bill O’Reilly has thought this through, so let’s consider him appropriately pwned.
And while this video focuses on the United Kingdom, the principles are pretty universal, and thus apply to the United States as well.
I have worked with Separation of Church/State groups and have done activism on this front, along side my atheist activism, for a long time. Because I live in a relatively liberal part of the country (and world), I tend to not feel the cultural necessity to keep the pressure on such issues as strongly, and local groups here are not as active as they are elsewhere (like they are in the Midwest, the South, and specifically Austin, TX). But keeping secularism as a goal and ideal is important to me, and I think we need to remember that there is a fight right now against religious privilege, who are framing it as the right to their religious freedom.
It’s not religious freedom that is being fought for by conservatives and their religious allies; it’s religious privilege. Secularism is the solution to religious privilege, and does not threaten religious freedom at all.
Recentconversations (and subsequent private email correspondence I have not published) with Dr. Robert Benne have gotten me thinking about the relationship between skepticism, secularism, and public policy. It is a subject of interest to me, and one I think will be interesting for the atheist community, and governments everywhere, in coming decades.
Today, I don’t want to try and address this issue in any detail, but I want to throw out a few questions I have been considering.
What is the relationship between skepticism and secularism? Does a skeptical analysis necessarily result in a secular worldview? To me, this is a similar question to whether skepticism, especially when properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism (I say yes). So, does skepticism, when applied to how we make decisions for the public, result in a secular process necessarily? I am leaning towards yes, and I think this is why I am so interested in the issue of Jeffersonian separation of church and state (or separation of religion and government, which might be a better phrasing) and the role of secular thinking in public affairs.
Further, skepticism is a set of methods which relies on scientific analysis in addition to logic. If skepticism leads to people being secular, does that mean that if we are to ask those who create public policy to use skeptical analysis in their decision-making, we are asking them to be secular? I think the answer is yes. I also think this is a good thing. For too long have we tolerated Congressmen making arguments based upon scripture, personal belief, etc.
I don’t know how religious opinion can survive such an environment, and I don’t know how to reconcile the issue of religious liberty with this. I am not interested in encroaching upon personal rights of belief. However, when those personal beliefs are to be implemented as policy or effect policy, they have to be vetted. I don’t want parochial views to be influential, without some secular support for them, upon public policy. In other words, I want public policy to remain secular. Allow people to choose how to live their lives, unhindered by scripture or parochial moral views which they do not subscribe to.
Those who try and argue that this is a Christian nation, or who want to apply sharia law to places like Britain, must demonstrate reasons why the ideas which emanate from their worldview should be prescribed to society at large. I don’t envy them that task, because I think it is fruitless. In the long-term, perhaps the very long-term, those religious opinions may disappear. Until then, we need to make sure that those opinions don’t work their tendrils into the lives of the rest of us.
Today’s post is a response to the vast majority of what he wrote to me.
He starts, after some initial introductory comments, by complimenting my civility. Wait, I thought I was one of those gnu atheists who are uncivil…
I appreciate your civility and attempt at fair-mindedness in your response. Those virtues were not present in many of the vitriolic and contemptuous responses from what you call “the atheist community.” I doubt if there is such a thing as an “atheist community” because there are atheists of all stripes, running from open-minded, classical liberals to those as dogmatic and nasty as any hide-bound fundamentalist Christian. I received a lot of responses from the latter group, so I appreciate your reasonableness.
This is a problem that our community (and it is a community) is dealing with. We argue amongst ourselves more than we argue with the religious world, I’d bet, over issues such as tone, accommodationism, new/gnu atheism, etc. A recent issue with how to behave towards women has sparked an upsurge in conversations about feminism and the atheist community just in the last week. We, as a community, only share a lack of belief in any gods. Outside of that we disagree about any potential subject (including what to call ourselves, in many cases). But we are a growing community, evidenced by the various groups, umbrella organizations, and online discussions which are interconnected. We have a while to go before we are more solidified, assuming that will ever happen.
I think there is still a confusion in your response between the separation of church and state and the interaction of religion and politics, which was the main topic of my op ed. When you inveigh against those Christians who want to exercise their religiously-based moral values in the political process—as in the restraint on abortion or resistance to gay marriage—you use separation of church and state language (and suggest that the efforts are somehow illegitimate) when in fact it is an interaction between religion and politics.
One of the reasons for this is that for those of us fighting for the separation of church and state, the distinction between that and the separation between religion and politics is nonexistent, or at least insignificant. And while the strict legal church/state (or religion/politics) fight is a little different than the issue of keeping parochial religious opinions out of public policy, they are part of the same basic concern. For many of us, church/state and religion/politics (or government, more often) are interchangeable sets of terms. This is one of the points of disagreement within our community, but many of us view the separation of parochial religious opinions and public policy to be paramount. Many of us,, in fact, are opposed to religious people imposing their religious views on public policy because there simply is no secular reason to support said views. Where the courts and precedent will end up on this, I cannot say. However I believe that trying to keep public policy based upon secular reasons as much as possible is the best way to go about this issue for the sake of everyone, including religious people.
I, for example, am strongly opposed to the government defining marriage based upon religious ideas. For me, the definition of marriage (as an example) is NOT the union of ne man and one woman. That definition is only accepted by many because religion has usurped the cultural phenomenon of legalized santioning of people merging their lives for reasons of property, financial advantage, love (that is a recent historical reason for marriage, and not traditional in any way) etc. The conservative definition, ironically, is relatively new and culturally unsupported by actual practice in the world.
Christians, like others who have deeply held moral values, have every right to push for those values in the legislative and legal processes. You may disagree with them and will have to contend with them in many ways—arguments, political organization, etc. It will be in the rough and ready democratic process that these things will be worked out. That sort of democratic process is being worked out on the issues mentioned above. Sometimes it is also worked out in the judicial realm, though it is dangerous for judges to legislate and usurp the legislative process. That is what has been happening too often, and that overreach makes the courts look too politicized.
I don’t want to address the issue of “activist judges” here, because that’s a rabbit hole too deep for this conversation at the moment. I will ask you to consider this from another point of view; would you be comfortable with Muslim representatives implementing something like sharia law into our policy? Are you paying attention to what is happening in Europe concerning this issue? Is it sufficient that the majority may accept something to make it policy that effects the whole, especially when many are discriminated against as a result?
I agree that Christians should argue the case for their preferred public policies on as common ground as they can, but sometimes it may have to be on more particular religious grounds. It is a question of prudence and effectiveness. But as the Norwegian bishops put it when the Nazis tried to compel them to announce racist policies in their country, “we have to obey God rather than man in this case.”
But if there is no god, then the Norwegian bishops were just saying that they must obey their man-made laws over those of another set of men. That is part of the problem with this issue from an atheist’s point of view. There is no reason to appeal to God at all because we do have real reasons to reject such policies. This leads me to the most important aspect of our disagreement here:
Actually, Shaun, there may not be universal rational grounds for anything. Once reason was spelled with a capital R and purportedly could discern the Good, the True, and the Beautiful on autonomous grounds. But postmodernism has pretty much finished that. Reason is much tamed now, mainly being instrumental in character.
I am not a postmodernist. I reject the postmodernist, relativist, “all-perspectives are valid” view. I agree with Sam Harris, who in his most recent book tells us that science is the best (no, the only) tool that gives us real effective answers. Postmodernism has put a hiccup in the liberal worldview that I hope it transcends soon, because it is philosophically sophomoric, politically problematic, and just plain incorrect. Reason is not tamed; reason is tempered by the realization that we cannot have absolute certainty about our answers, and we must remember that all conclusions are tentative (even things like general relativity, the current explanation of gravity). Science is a empirical and probabilistic enterprise, but it is effective and achieves results. The skeptical methods utilized by science and rational thinkers is the best tool we have yet devised to determine truth. Methods of revelation, pure insight, and even pure philosophy (my field) are all problematic and inferior to science in every way. This is why I don’t want religious opinions being pushed towards public policy; it is based upon bad methodology, poor reasoning, and is not supported by skeptical inquiry. When it is shown to the light, it dies.
Reason in this more modest sense draws upon cultural streams that have been dramatically shaped by religious traditions. You are indebted to the Western Judeo-Christian tradition for your values. Your “universal” rationality would not work so well in other societies—Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, Communist.
I am not claiming that we know or have some universal rationality necessarily, I’m claiming that if one is to be found, we must use skeptical analysis to find it. Religion, and the vast majority of its conclusions, simply fail at this. Therefore, we need to keep it away from public policy. This is not precisely what Jefferson had in mind, and in defending church/state the argument is somewhat more nuanced, but as a rationalist, atheist, skeptic I am arguing that religion would be better to be grown out of. The fact that so many representatives pander to religion tells me that either they are lying to us for sustained power or are not the pinnacle of intellectual and emotional maturity. In other words, they are indeed representatives of our current society.
That concludes my reply. I will be interested to see if this conversation continues, and what will come of it. I still think it is good to keep open dialogue with people with whom we disagree. I hope my civility was sufficient still.
I ran into this article from a local Philadelphia writer today. I must say that I was a bit flabbergasted by it. What a disgusting piece of writing this was. So full of hate, misinformation, and lack of compassion and love that I thought it was written by his straw-man atheist.
Let’s see where he starts:
Here we go again – another new political building and another new lawsuit brought about by atheists without anything better to do. Is being an atheist really so boring that for fun they spend thousands of dollars on frivolous lawsuits just to get their name(s) in the paper? How dreadfully pitiful. One almost feels sorry for them.
If you don’t know what he’s talking about, it is the issue of the lawsuit concerning the carving of the phrases “In God we trust” and “One nation under God” on the visitor center at the capital. And right, we are just doing it because we are bored. We are so lonesome and desperate for attention that we have to mess with him and his ilk. We are so pathetic.
Oh, right. They are the ones that are spending thousands of dollars to engrave their phrases on the building which we object to for legitimate reasons. I’ll get to that. But first, let’s see what our loving and compassionate Christian friend has to say further along in his article:
Did you know that “In God We Trust” is the official motto of the United States? It is.
This is correct. However, it has not always been so. The phrase did not appear on our money until 1864, and the motto was changed to this in 1956 in an act of Congress. It was not right to do then, and it is still not right. This is an issue of concern for atheists for two reasons; one is that it keeps on being used as an example of why atheists can be treated like second-class citizens. The other is that it excludes us in the first place. It is divisive of our citizens to have something official that does not represent all of us.
Oh wait, our loving Christian friend does not care about that:
First of all you’re correct that the engravings will exclude you. This is the intent. We want you excluded. Keeping idiocy out of the mainstream is a healthy goal.
Um…hmm. I don’t know what to say to that. He admits to wanting to exclude us. Man, that really sounds like dislike, at very least. Idiocy? Why are atheists idiots? Isn’t that the cultural debate we are having now? Has the government sided with you officially? When did this happen? And even if we were idiots, doesn’t the constitution protect our rights anyway? I mean, even if there were clearly a god (there isn’t clearly a god), our rights as citizens are protected nonetheless.
Let me quote the holy Gospel according to the United Constitution:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
And then the Gospel according to Matthew (22:21):
Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s
Ah, yes, this is indeed a Christian nation. All that debate during the writing of the Constitution in this very city of Philadelphia, where many times a proposition to include Jesus in the document were rejected. Jefferson’s idea of the wall between church and state, as he described in his letter to the Danbury Baptist church, indicate this:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
What does our esteemed Christian Life examiner have to say about such things?
Because of the glorious and unique foundation of Christian principles, precepts and beliefs this country rests upon and due to the indelible imprint the founding fathers gave us by using them in our constitution and declaration of independence, these kinds of engravings and inscriptions will never be eliminated from our government.
Well, first of all the only use of anything god-like was either in the use of the dating system, references tosome vague ‘Creator’ and ‘providence’ in the Declaration of Independence (which has no legal implications for us anyway), and the things I just mentioned above which seek to create a secular nation. Secular meaning without respect to any religious view, not without religion.
And that is precisely the point. The reason that these phrases don’t belong on a government building is that they are not only divisive, but they are not in line with the founders of our nation as they agreed in the Constitution. Those founders discussed these things and the only time religion and god are mentioned in the Constitution are in keeping a separation from the religious beliefs of individuals from the government which is supposed to represent them.
Doug adds the following:
In another gleaming example of her intellectual shortcomings, Gaylor said, “They want this engraving up there because they think God is the foundation of our government. Boy, are they misinformed.”
I could print hundreds of pages with quotes from our founding fathers to modern politicians proving her wrong, but why when she’s so obviously a lunatic? (Please cue up Lunatic Fringe by Red Rider)
Here’s the thing. Many of the founders were Christian. Many legislators and lawyers are today. That does not matter. The fact is that when it came to forging a document to create a basis for law in our society, what they came up with makes it very clear that not only no religious test will be permitted, but that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, which Jefferson was kind enough to elaborate on for us above.
And granted, Jefferson’s comments outside the constitution can be held with the same skepticism as the Christian fellow-founders that he disagreed with, but the fact is that nowhere in the Constitution is it made clear that the laws of our nation are derived from a god, but instead it says this:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Nothing about God, but “we the people” instead. What I think is going on is the people that argue God is behind this argue that EVERYTHING is from God. But this question is precisely what different citizens disagree about. And since the Constitution does not address this issue, government has to be neutral about the question, even if the people who are supposed to be the representatives are not neutral themselves.
Sure, culturally this nation is steeped in Christian ideas. But this must be kept separate from the government. I will never try to prevent a person from practicing whatever his conscience wills in his or her private life, but a government building is not that private life. A government building is public, and I’m part of that public. Excluding me because I disagree with the majority violates the essence of the Constitution.
And it does not matter how many of us are atheists, agnostics, etc. It does not matter if it is 15%, 5%, or .5%. The point is that by excluding us from our Constitutional rights, people like Doug Billings are invoking the same kind of thinking that allowed rights to be kept from minority races, women, and gays throughout our history.
But Doug isn’t done yet:
No American with any sense will stand for this attempt to whitewash our American religious heritage and Little Miss Annie and her FFRF will remain on the fringe of society because of their own choices, not because the mainstream puts them there. This is the thing about fringe groups – they choose to be on the fringe. No one forces them to be there.
Right, just like nobody forced you to be part of the mainstream (if you are in fact there). What does that have to do with anything? So those on the fringe don’t matter? People with unpopular opinions are just SOL? That reminds me of groups like the Taliban. I imagine if the phrase was “In Allah we trust” you may feel differently about this. Then, perhaps, we would agree that this phrase doesn’t belong there. But you fail to see, Dougy boy, that “In God is trust” is sectarian and divisive.
It’s time for the fringe groups to stop wasting money and time. They have a right to believe whatever they want and they can choose to remain on the fringe. They just don’t have the right to tie up our courts with frivolity and stupidity.
No, there is where you are wrong. We all, including you Dougy, have the right to believe whatever stupidity we want to. The fact is that the government has to be neutral on whether any of them are actually stupid. We have every right to sue where we see a violation of rights, just as you would do if the phrase “In no gods we trust” were carved on a government building.
And if you did sue because of that, I’d sign on with you. Because I believe in fighting for the rights of everyone, not only those with whom I agree. And if you would not sue, then that’s also your right. My view is that these legal issues are of minor concern…except that people like Doug will perpetually use the presence of such phrases on government buildings as support for their discrimination.
I willfully agree that there are problems with our culture and nation right now. I submit that there even moral issues that need to be dealt with. I think we need to take steps in order to find solutions to these problems. However, the following is not representative of the right approach to looking at the problems or providing solutions.
WHEREAS, the people of Oklahoma have a strong tradition of reliance upon the Creator of the Universe; and
WHEREAS, we believe our economic woes are consequences of our greater national moral crisis; and
WHEREAS, this nation has become a world leader in promoting abortion, pornography, same sex marriage, sex trafficking, divorce, illegitimate births, child abuse, and many other forms of debauchery; and
WHEREAS, alarmed that the Government of the United States of America is forsaking the rich Christian heritage upon which this nation was built; and
WHEREAS, grieved that the Office of the president of these United States has refused to uphold the long held tradition of past presidents in giving recognition to our National Day of Prayer; and
WHEREAS, deeply disturbed that the Office of the president of these United States disregards the biblical admonitions to live clean and pure lives by proclaiming an entire month to an immoral behavior;
NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that we the undersigned elected officials of the people of Oklahoma, religious leaders and citizens of the State of Oklahoma, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world, solemnly declare that the HOPE of the great State of Oklahoma and of these United States, rests upon the Principles of Religion and Morality as put forth in the HOLY BIBLE
Proclamations like this are a waste of taxpayer money (at least it is not mine, in this case), are discriminatory, and present no realistic help to anything at is an attempt to legislate morality, even if it has little to no teeth. It takes very conservative values and proclaims them as a representation of all people in the state of Oklahoma. It says to the homosexual citizens, those who enjoy pornography, and other ‘debouchers’ that they are the cause of the world’s problems.
It implies that these people have earned the wrath of some bronze-aged megaloaniacal bastard of a god, and so they should be condemned and lambasted. It is disgusting, petty, absurd, and frankly immoral.
The problems in our nation are the result of poor education, projected fears and insecurities, as well as greedy and unethical practices by those who control wealth and politics. This list is not exhaustive, of course. Those who maintain a faith in a worldview that is unsubstantiated, fearful, and discriminartory, such as Sally Kern and her ilk, are doing much more to perpetuate the problems than alleviate them.
Religion, while not all bad, will tend to bring out these aspects of human nature. Maintaining religious ideologies such as the conservative Christian worldview that believes in sin and a judgmental and vengeful god are the source of our cultural problems is but one symptom of the sick culture, not a solution to it.
Proclamations such as these only act to appeal to an electorate that is ignorant, hateful, and who oppose civil rights, science, and reality. It only can keep these people from becoming better informed. It only does harm.
WHEREAS people of reason do not accept the parochial moralities of bronze-age mythology, and instead seek to understand reality on its own terms; and
WHEREAS the history of Christianity’s role in America has been a part of some of its culture and not its law; and
WHEREAS the problems of our culture, being many and complex, have many and complex causes that we have no reason to believe are related to any gods, Christian or otherwise; and
WHEREAS discriminatory beliefs concerning sexuality and gender are the result of conservative ideologies centered around Christian congregations which are not shared by all citizens; and
WHEREAS The president of the United states, as well as all other elected officials, both federal and state, are not obliged to capitulate to the moral opinions of the few;
NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that we the undersigned defenders of reason, fairness, and citizens of the United States, appealing to the reason of people everywhere, solemnly declare that the HOPE of The United States of America rests upon the genuine and honest work of people who use the best methods of analysis, investigation, and honesty in the pursuit for truth.