|The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State|
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Neal Blanchett is an attorney in private practice in Minneapolis. He earned his B.A. from St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and his J.D. cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School. He served four years in the United States Marine Corps and three years in the Army National Guard.
If you took the time to read the recent federal court decision ordering the State of Alabama to remove the Ten Commandments monument from the State courthouse rotunda, you might have been a little mystified by the time the court spent discussing a definition of religion. And, after all that discussion, the court finally decided it didn't need to define religion. Placing a two-and-a-half-ton granite monument of the King James bible version of the Christian Ten Commandments sends a religious statement, the Court found, under any sane person's definition of religion.
So why did "Alabama's Ten Commandments Judge" and his lawyer spend so much time arguing that point? And why did they say their appeal will focus on the court's refusal to follow their demand that it "define religion"? Because doing so is the first step, they hope, to replacing America's reliance on reason with unthinking reliance on their supernatural and superstitious belief system. Reason and the scientific method free people from the need to believe in the supernatural and the occult. Reason weakens the influence of organized religion. Organized religion profiteers seek to undermine reason wherever they can. They believe that defining religion in America's courts is the first step in dismantling American faith in reason and replacing it with faith in their twisted religions.
Americans have always questioned religion; our Constitution requires a separation between government and religion: our First Amendment provides that "congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." American courts, aside from a few missteps, have steadily rejected persistent attempts to hijack our government for the benefit of one religion or another. These religious hijackers most frequently target schools, attempting to force schoolchildren and teachers to inject religion into the school curriculum. These religious hijackers, these American Taliban, would merge the religion and the government, believing the government has no legitimacy unless it follows the religious principles they espouse.
In schools gullible enough to allow teaching or indoctrinating children in one religious belief or another, courts have taken action. American courts have prohibited such practices as school- sponsored group recitation of prayer (like the Islamic madrasas) as part of the school day or as part of the official program at graduation or school sporting events. Across the country, and on a wide variety of issues, courts have reached the correct conclusion that schools may not teach or indoctrinate schoolchildren to believe any particular religious belief. In America we leave the teaching of religious beliefs to the personal choices of parents and the private institutions children participate in.
But in the separation of church and state, and the prohibition on religious indoctrination in schools, the American Taliban sees an opening. Schools do teach reason, critical thinking, and the scientific method. The scientific method has lead to our knowledge of evolution and the other forces that have created and shaped our world. This knowledge challenges the American Taliban, who believe that everything arises as a result of their supernatural deities' creation. If they can eliminate reason and the scientific method as a challenge to their beliefs, they can control the school curriculum, or at least prevent it from teaching kids a view that undermines their view. They can do this, they think, by establishing that reason and logic are religions. If reason is a religion, they think, then schools can be prohibited from teaching or indoctrinating kids in analytical reasoning, logical thinking, and the scientific method.
The important first step is to get reason defined as a religion. Ideally, they would start with something arguably simpler, like defining belief in evolution as a religious belief. That might be successful in a few particularly backward-thinking places. But, the Ten Commandments case is attracting wide attention now, so they're playing the argument on the stage they have. The argument goes something like this: atheists, secular humanists, and other like-minded groups are deeply committed to reason and rational principles. They structure their lives around these principles and order their view of the world in line with these principles. For people who don't worship in a traditional religion, beliefs in reason and logic take the place of religion. Therefore, reason and logic are religions; for many Americans, reason takes the place of supernatural belief in explaining the origin of life and the rules of existence. In the religious fanatics' view, anything that takes the place of supernatural belief must be religion. The American Taliban just have to get the courts to believe it.
They might do so by forcing the courts to define religion. They hope that some court will be careless enough to define religion in the broad terms they use. For instance, they would like courts to say that "religion is the view of the world around which people structure their lives" or "religion is the set of beliefs which a person believes before all others, beliefs which a person believes central to their existence and to the existence of the world." Under these clumsy and self-serving definitions, there is no separation between truth and religion. Anything that is true, and is believed, becomes religious.
Most people are smarter than that. Americans see the difference between reason and superstition. When a friend quits rubbing a rabbit's foot to get ahead and instead goes to college, it's not because they found a new religion, it's because they replaced superstition with reason. But to the American Taliban, anything deeply believed is religious. Those who deeply believe in reason are, according to the Taliban, followers of the Church of Reason. And if the government can't endorse the American Taliban's religion, then government can't endorse the Church of Reason, either.
The American Taliban's ultimate goal is to separate the government and reason. In the same way government is prohibited from acting for purely religious motives, they seek to prohibit it from acting for purely rational motives. Schools could not teach the scientific method, because it follows the tenets of the Church of Reason. Schools could not teach basic facts, because we know of those facts only through reasoning. If reason is a religion, and cannot be taught in our schools or endorsed by our government, then it is not clear what schools could teach or what government could endorse. But that's a key principle of the American Taliban. In the vacuum created if reason itself is cast into doubt, they'll be there, offering up their superstitious explanations for everything, seducing the uncertain with their unprovable convictions.
Defining religion broadly enough to include reason allows them to try to ban reason itself from schools. If they can ban it from schools, they can ban it from public discourse. Weakening the role of reason in public discourse is a step back from the Enlightenment and a step into the beginning of a new Dark Ages. Since the end of the last Dark Ages, religious extremists have been seeking, sometimes with great success, to increase the role of superstition, persecute proponents of reason, and return us to a new Dark Ages where superstition is all-powerful and human reason tolerated only to the extent it doesn't conflict with religion.
Until recently, it seemed the American experiment was steadily headed away from the Dark Ages, towards greater human accomplishment and greater human understanding of the world. Reason was seen as a good, and as an underlying tenet of life. But now we know that religious extremists are the enemies of reason, because reason leads to conclusions with which they disagree. Astonishingly, the anti-reason agenda in some respects seems to be gaining ground. The Ten Commandments legal defense is well-funded, despite the fact that it is clearly an attack on the Constitution. Most of those contributing to the attack on reason probably aren't aware of the destructive effort they are promoting.
As the Ten Commandments litigation unfolds, watch for the American Taliban anti-reasonists to push for a definition of "religion" broad enough to include reason. Watch for local efforts to weaken science-based education by attacking it as promoting the Church of Reason Watch for more arguments that reason is a type of religion, or that evolution or other scientific principles are religious principles. Remember that undermining reason is the first step away from American Enlightenment ideals embodied in our Constitution, and down the road to a new Dark Ages.
American Constitutional principles are easy to defend. We all know the difference between reason and religion -- religion depends on faith in the unknowable and unprovable, while reason relies on the knowable and provable. In the context of the Ten Commandments litigation, courts need not answer this question; the fact that the Commandments are religious is so obvious as to require no explanation. But if the courts do answer the question religious extremists are demanding an answer to, the courts should draft a definition of religion that distinguishes between reason and superstition. To fail to do so would be the first step in kicking reason out of schools, a prospect that would delight the American Taliban and rekindle their dreams to transform American schools into madrasas.