A few weeks ago, I offered some thoughts on the rabid dogma of tolerance in the Air Force and America generally. The flurry of comments on my post have driven me to continue delving into this question:

“What is the salient difference between official religions and ideologies like atheism, Marxism, or libertarianism that precludes the former from having any connection with the State while allowing the latter free reign to determine the course of government policies, plans, and institutions?”

I’d like to examine this question by responding to a comment (the last in the thread if you are interested in reading it in its entirety) posted by Jonathan (his text in Air Force blue), with my apologies for the lateness of this reply.

Are we talking about the position government takes or the position one’s Church takes?

This is meant to be a discussion and evaluation of the position that our government takes in opposition to the traditional, and arguably orthodox positions of exclusivist religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

As far as government and philosophical foundations, instead of reciting tired platitudes, let me cite Allan Bloom, from The Closing of the American Mind, on the Founding and Religion:

“Hobbes and Locke, and the American Founders following them, intended to palliate extreme beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, which lead to civil strife….In order to make this arrangement work, there was a conscious, if covert, effort to weaken religious beliefs, partly by assigning — as a result of a great epistemological effort — religion to the realm of opinion as opposed to knowledge.” p. 28

Religion, or to be more specific sectarian and Revealed religion, is simply a matter of “opinion” over which government has no right to involve itself.

This statement gets at the heart of the issue. What is the support for the idea that Religion–sectarian, revealed, or otherwise–is simply a matter of opinion? Certainly traditional religions do not view themselves as simple matters of opinion that are expected to remain in the private lives of their adherents with no overflow to the society in which they are practiced. Many religions provide a comprehensive view of reality (the current buzzword is worldview, I suppose) that makes claims about all aspects of life–not only the lives of individual adherents but also the lives of all men. These claims touch on the origins of the cosmos and mankind, the nature and being of humanity, the purpose of human life, the direction in which history is moving and ought to be moving, the relationship between men and the divine, the existence, essence, and character of the god(s), and a host of other topics. These claims in nowise are presented as a mere opinion (if opinion mean “preference”, or “belief that is incapable of being proven to be true”); but are most usually asserted as knowledge–knowledge that must affect and direct human affairs, and if ignored will have disastrous public and private results.

Now, there is a vague “natural religion” that does undergird the Founding (that is a matter of “knowledge” and not opinion). For instance, there is a “nature’s God”; He grants men unalienable natural rights; He will intervene if we don’t respect such rights. Now, perhaps government does have the right to endorse these tenets, which no doubt, conflict with some ideologies — atheism, polytheism, etc.

Again, what qualifies this “natural religion” as a matter of “knowledge” as opposed to “opinion”? There is nothing vague about it since it makes the same sorts of explicit claims as official or revealed religions–claims about who God is, who man is, the purpose and direction of human affairs, etc. What is the telling feature of this religion that allows government to endorse these tenets without violating the sacred separation of Religion and State?

I suspect many believe this “natural religion” is enforceable by government because they believe that it is common to all mankind, i.e. all men will arrive at the same basic conclusions of this natural religion simply through the operation of reason. Thus, so the story goes, these reasonable conclusions are universally imperative and enforceable since they are common to all reasonable men; all dictates of official, sectarian, and/or reveled religions are superfluous additives that may be accepted or rejected in the same easy manner one accepts or rejects the universal “Would you like fries with that?”

In opposition to this view, I offer two things: First, all men do not arrive at the same basic conclusions as Western natural religion. This fact is confirmed by a cursory empirical examination of the conclusions of a few well-known men such as Hume, Nietzsche, Hobbes, Marx, and Pol Pot. Second, the natural religion of unaided reason is not a distilled and neutral version of all official, sectarian, and/or revealed religions. Rather, it is a comprehensive worldview based on certain philosophical assumptions, which makes statements on foundational issues that affect the lives of men, and therefore stands squarely in the same category as Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and every other official religion. It cannot appropriate special privileges to itself that are denied to those worldviews which are bold enough to honestly admit their philosophical assumptions; thus, it must defend itself in the marketplace of ideas alongside its competitors–and may the best man win.

“The Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” in the Declaration holds that men have Free and Equal unalienable rights of conscience. And not just Christians, but “Jews, Pagans, Hindoos, Turks, Infidels as well.” Therefore government must grant free exercise rights to all religions and otherwise treat all religions equally. This to me seems pretty close to an ideal of religious neutrality in government matters.

There are two ways in which government may grant free exercise rights to all religions and otherwise treat all religions equally. One is the way of Religious Tolerance, equally denying the validity of all official religions by denying their claim to be worldviews capable of possessing facts or making knowledge statements about reality. This way grants free exercise rights by relegating official religion to a safe playground in which no one can get hurt because no one is allowed to draw connections between their religious beliefs and public imperatives. Another way is the way of Dynamic Interaction, equally affirming the validity of official religions by accepting their claim to be capable of making knowledge statements about reality. This would be accomplished by welcoming all official religions into the marketplace of ideas and allowing each religion’s claims to stand or fall based on a reasonable, unbiased, and objective evaluation of its merits; recognizing religions to be that which they claim to be (and giving them opportunity to defend that claim)–comprehensive views of reality, possessing knowledge of the real world in which we live.

Proponents of the way of Religious Tolerance would have us believe that the salient difference between official religions and secular ideologies is that the former are matters of opinion or values which, a priori, cannot enter the realm of knowledge and cannot, therefore, be allowed a voice in the shaping of law, strategy, ethics, and functions of public institutions such as the military or the government. In opposition to this view, I argue that there is no salient difference between the two which should preclude the former from having a voice in the public sphere. There is no intrinsic feature of official religions that ipso facto bar it from being a viable player in the shaping of public policy. Both official religions and secular ideologies make the same types of claims, based on the same types of assumptions, and have the same types of effects on the lives of those who live under their rule.

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Posted by Tex

3 Comments

  1. Sorry for my late response. I’ve had a busy week.

    First, I agree with you that there is nothing necessarily special, in an epistomological sense, about religion being consigned to the realm of “opinion.” And yes, revealed and sectarian religions do claim to be “knowledge” and not “opinion.” And in the marketplace of ideas, they have every right to assert this claim.

    I was merely making an historical reference to the doctrines which underly our founding thought, why we have free exercise and disestablishment of religion in the first place.

    Bloom too recognizes this. He and the other East Coast Straussians, although they defend liberal democracy, don’t necessarily believe in the capital T Truth of such claims, even though the theory which gives rise to liberal democracy does claim to be the capital T Truth, and hence universally applicable.

    The following sentence is what follows after my original quote from Bloom:

    “But the right to freedom of religion belonged to the realm of knowledge. Such rights are not matters of opinion. No weakness of conviction was desired here. All to the contrary, the sphere of rights was to be the arena of moral passion in democracy.” p. 28.

    A few other things: Even if one doesn’t believe that as a matter of Truth, revealed and sectarian religions are matters of “opinion,” there is a sort of “utility” about such a system. Because religion engenders so much passion — passion that will make men go to fight noble wars on the one hand or blow themselves up as terrorist suicide bombers on the other — such passions can lead to terrible civil strife and persecution. The Founders’ theory, if one accepts it, effectively “solves” the religious problem that so plagued the West before the emergence of liberal democracy.

    As far as your last paragraph is concerned, I support, as a matter of constitutional policy, free speech and free exercise of religion. It seems to me that whether we view the Bible as the absolute Truth, a bunch of bunk or somewhere in between does not matter as long as all — the orthodox and the unorthdox — equally have free exercise and free speech rights. You have the right to tell me I’m going to Hell and I have the right to blaspheme your religion.

    Religious equality and disestablishment are harder matters. I believe in 1) No state or federal officially established Churches, and 2) government policies must otherwise be neutral between the religious sects (again between the orthodox, and the pagan) and between religion and irreligion.

    If government programs have a nexus between Church and State but still don’t run afoul of such principles of neutrality and equality, I have no problem with them. For instance, vouchers that are available on a generally applicable, neutral basis.

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  2. Jonathan,

    Thanks for the response.

    The utility of the dominance of the secular worldview is not found in its ability to balance religious claims in the marketplace. It solves the problem by denying the validity of any of them.

    Whether or not this was the intention of the founding fathers is one thing. Whether or not it is correct is quite another thing. For the record, I’m more interested in the latter, since the truth of the matter seems more important than the historical question.

    I think the dogma of Tolerance is one means to free exercise of religion and free speech. I think it ultimately makes religion and speech meaningless, however, because they are free only because they are invalid. It would be like letting everyone carry guns only if the guns were all pop guns. How worthwhile is that freedom?

    I think the way of Dynamic Interaction is another means to free exercise of speech and religion. It arises our of a desire to know the truth, and so sees the exercise of speech and religion as indispensable in allowing men to pursue and discover what is true.

    I don’t think religiously neutral government policies are possible given the fact that religion is more than a particular sect or church but rather an overarching worldview. I think the government should cease hiding behind the cloak of neutrality and own up to the assumptions and opinions that drive their decisions. Whether these reasons fall into the category of official religion or not is irrelevant.

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  3. Hinduism is a cool religion that is also oriented towards peace and prosperity.**:

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