Divisive argument?

What is a "radical secularist"?

I'm not sure, but I should probably thank Newt Gingrich for letting me know that I am not one (even though I would have assumed he'd have thought I was):

"In hostility to American history, the radical secularists insist that religious belief is inherently divisive and that public debate can only proceed on secular terms," he said.
I see nothing inherently divisive about religious belief. Or any belief, for that matter. Divisiveness results from engaging in conduct which divides people. If I am not allowed to worship in a mosque, church, or synagogue, I suppose that would be divisive, but the beliefs themselves don't divide anyone.

Is his argument that some people think belief in God is inherently divisive? I don't think that, but then I admit to a belief in God, so maybe I'm being too self centered. The problem with that is that many of my friends are atheists, and none of them have ever told me that my belief in God is divisive. Silly, maybe, but that's not the same thing. I tend to see divisiveness as involving ideas and things that alienate and polarize. People who, for example, want to use government force to make me cut out my dogs ovaries, I consider divisive. That's because they force me to take a strong side against them, along with all others who don't want the government telling them how to run their lives. You're either with them or against them and no in between. That is divisiveness.

However, I think there's probably a distinction between the negative divisiveness of the sort that results from threats to jail people who don't do what you want, and the type of ordinary divisiveness that results from some people thinking one way and others thinking another way. Catholics are not Protestants are not Jews are not Muslims are not atheists. There are natural divisions there, and the fact of different religions and non-religions is in that technical sense divisive.

Is that what Gingrich is talking about? I don't think so, as he seems to be complaining about people who think religious belief is inherently divisive. He calls them "radical secularists" but I think he can only mean atheists (and intolerant atheists at that) because people who have religious beliefs but think it is divisive would appear to be self-canceling. Radical intolerant atheists, on the other hand, might be expected to find all religious beliefs "divisive" because they find all who believe in religion threatening. (There are people like that, but I think they are a small minority of Americans.) What I can't figure out is whether Gingrich thinks these atheists are using secularism as a front for atheism, or whether he himself is attempting to conflate atheism and secularism. (Frankly, I suspect the latter.)

I don't see any contradiction between religion and secularism, and I don't think the founders of this country did either. Secularism simply means the recognition that there is a distinction between government and religion, and that neither can compel the other. This is reflected in the First Amendment's establishment clause ("no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"). In its time, that was considered radical secularism. Even now, some would consider this statement by constitutional author James Madison to be radical secularism:

The settled opinion here is, that religion is essentially distinct from civil Government, and exempt from its cognizance; that a connection between them is injurious to both...
Or this (from James Madison. The Federalist, Essay 51):
In a free government, the security for civil rights must be the same as for religious rights.
While I disagree wholeheartedly with those who would use secularism as a tool for enforcement of atheist beliefs by the state, I don't see what is radical about recognizing that religion and the state are two entirely different matters, best kept apart.

I've complained before about an increasing trend of using "secularism" as a dirty word and as a synonym for enforced atheism. I'd like to think that Gingrich's complaint is with state-mandated atheism, but the fact that he does not say that plainly worries me. Is he against ordinary secularism, against government taking a hands-off approach to religion? I don't know, but as I've said before, I think his "21st Century Contract with America" comes very close to calling for a religious test for office. (Which is unconstitutional.)

Why must he use "radical secularism" as a term for radical atheism unless his goal is to smear secularism? (And atheists, especially crooked atheists who masquerade as secularists.) And why say "radical secularists think religious belief is inherently divisive" unless the goal is to declare that no radical secularists could ever hold religious beliefs?

Was James Madison divisive?

Or is conflation of secularism with state-mandated atheism divisive?

For some time I've advocated an alliance between Christian conservatives and atheists, especially libertarian atheists. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but I think these two groups have a more in common than most people realize.

Perhaps that's what Gingrich and D'Souza and others fear.

I can't help notice that the two groups who most benefit from driving a wedge between religious and non-religious people are not the rank and file, but atheist activists and fundamentalist activists.

It's not religious belief that's inherently divisive, nor is it a lack of religious belief that's inherently divisive. What is inherently divisive is pitting these two groups against each other, by twisting secularism into government-mandated atheism, which it is not. The truth is that those who seek official government atheism are no more "secularists" than those who seek official government religion.

Atheism is simply one way of looking at the unknown, and expressing a disbelief in a deity. Belief in God is another way of looking at the unknown, and of course beliefs in God (or gods) run the gamut. What atheism, agnosticism and all religion they have in common is that they are ways of looking at the unknown. It would never occur to me that it should be my business to care about how others view the unknown. I might not share their views, but unless they want to kill me or put me in prison based on their views of the unknown, I see no logical or moral reason why I should involve myself in any way.

Government, however, involves the known. The physical and real. The temporal. The very word "secular" is time-based, and it involves matters of this world, not particular views of the unknown. It strikes me as eminently fair that government should neither intrude upon nor promote views of the unknown one way or another, because views of the unknown are personal matters involving individual conscience. They are not divisive unless the government were to take sides.

What I think is divisive is to speak of "secularism versus religion" as if there's a conflict.

Whatever happened to people with differing views of God who believed in secular government?

Of course, if we look at the overall historical picture, the conflict between secularists and religious traditionalists is as old as the American founding.

But surely Newt Gingrich knew that.

UPDATE: Reading the entire text of the Gingrich speech, I am more convinced that he believes secularism and atheism are synonymous.

And in California, the nation's most persistent secularist has renewed his crusade to strike the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.
He is talking about Michael Newdow, a famous California atheist activist.

Why couldn't Gingrich simply describe Newdow as what he is?

posted by Eric on 05.20.07 at 11:21 AM










Comments

I'm glad to see you noticed this about Gingrich. But I'm afraid he's not alone. IMO, this divisiveness has permeated much of the GOP. Moreover, many of "our" pundits drive this divisiveness using issues like "family values" and "life"... where our opponents are called Godless, anti-family, and part of a culture of death. It's turned the GOP into something creepy.

Alan   ·  May 20, 2007 1:06 PM

I think that the key clause here is the second clause:

"the radical secularists insist that religious belief is inherently divisive and that public debate can only proceed on secular terms"

It's the public debate part that upsets Mr. Gingrich. He wants to be able to insert the argument that God says that abortion is wrong, or that gays are evil, into the public debate. Of course, he and his kindred do this anyway, but they often get the response that their religion has no bearing on a public issue, other than influencing their own vote. In other words, if Newt Gingrich tells me that abortion is wrong according to his religion, my response is, "So what? I don't embrace your religion, so your point is meaningless to me. If you want a public debate on the abortion question, you have to argue publicly valid statements, not personal ones."

I think that's what Mr. Gingrich's complaint is.

Froblyx   ·  May 20, 2007 2:20 PM

Well froblyx,

Did that just prove his statement TRUE????

You are only allowed to argue on "my" (secular) terms according to you. Not your (religious)moral ones.

So... the only argument allowed is yours.

Yep, I can't see at all how THAT could be considered divisive!

flicka47   ·  May 20, 2007 11:33 PM

There are arguments Christians want to make in public which are not based on Scripture or exclusively Christian beliefs -- but which radical atheists wish to dismiss, because they imply the existence of God. One example is Aristotle's concept that all things have a natural purpose (telos), including humans, and that frustration of that purpose is evil (how this applies to abortion is obvious.) This is a "religious" idea in the sense that it implies God's existence; but it isn't "religious" in the sense that only divine revelation explains why anyone would believe it.

Now, a radical atheist has a point when he says that he can't be expected to accept arguments for a law from a specifically Christian doctrine (although he has less of a point if he says that Christians should not accept such arguments, out of deference to him.) But labelling an argument "religious" and throwing it aside, when it's not specifically Christian, and was first made by pagan philosophers -- well, that's dishonest and irrational first of all; but it's also divisive and intolerant, for it really means that God must never appear in public, and all roads leading to Him must be blocked.

That said: I wouldn't read any dark meanings into Gingrich saying "secularist" when he meant "atheist". As I recall it was the atheists who were the first to confuse the words, because "atheist" was a slur they didn't want to be tarred by, and "secular humanist" sounded better in conversation. Gingrich was only following common usage, and you can't blame him for the distortion.

Michael Brazier   ·  May 21, 2007 1:29 AM

Gingrich has just as much right to his views as anyone else, but in the political arena whether they came from the God According To Gingrich does not give them any more weight than if they come from the Gods Gingrich Opposes, or the radical secularists/atheistic activists he condemns.

And if, for example, Froblyx tells me that smoking (or anthropogenic global warming) is a great evil according to his scientific research, my response might as well be, "So what? I don't care about your science, so your point is meaningless to me. If you want a political debate on smoking or or anthropogenic global warming, you have to argue from a political perspective, not a scientific perspective." Science says smoking causes cancer, religion says fornication is evil, but that doesn’t settle the question of whether I have the right to smoke or screw.

If your god says what I do is evil, that carries no more political weight than your science. (Or for that matter, my god, or my science.)

Whether one’s viewpoint is informed by religion or by science is not controlling on political matters, as politics is informed by what enough people want (as limited by the United States Constitution), not their reasons for wanting it.

This does not shut God or science out of the political debate; it only reflects the reality that they have no inherent right to be controlling on political questions simply by virtue of their religious or scientific nature.

Eric Scheie   ·  May 21, 2007 8:56 AM

First off, I'd like to point out that anybody is free to say anything in public debate. If Mr. Gingrich wishes to claim that the Bible declares all Democrats to be agents of Satan, he's absolutely free to do so. The issue here is not freedom of speech, but whether such statements deserve to granted any stature in reasoned debate.

"But labelling an argument "religious" and throwing it aside, when it's not specifically Christian, and was first made by pagan philosophers -- well, that's dishonest and irrational first of all; but it's also divisive and intolerant, for it really means that God must never appear in public, and all roads leading to Him must be blocked."

I disagree. The objection here is that such arguments rely on philosophical assumptions that cannot be rationally justified. I have no objection to a Christian asserting "It is my religious belief that Democrats are agents of Satan." I do object to his claim that his argument has any rational substance. It is a personal opinion no different from a preference for broccoli or a taste for Haydn. I don't object to the opinion, but if he tries to tell me that we need laws in favor of broccoli or Haydn, then I object.

And if, for example, Froblyx tells me that smoking (or anthropogenic global warming) is a great evil according to his scientific research, my response might as well be, "So what? I don't care about your science, so your point is meaningless to me. If you want a political debate on smoking or or anthropogenic global warming, you have to argue from a political perspective, not a scientific perspective."

There's a huge difference here between science and religion: science is rational. Now, if you care to dismiss rationalism, then you are consistent -- but then, what's the point of political discourse? If you have your opinions and there is simply no language that can change your mind, what's the point of communicating? In such a world, nobody talks politics, they just go to the voting booth and that's that.

This is the very essence of the culture wars: rationalism versus faith. On this battle hangs our fate.

Froblyx   ·  May 21, 2007 10:57 AM

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