“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and State.”
- Thomas Jefferson.
“A wall of Separation between Church and State” was a phrase first coined by Thomas Jefferson in his famous letter penned to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. The significance of Jefferson’s letter was that the phrase was not coined as an attack on religion in the United States, but protection for the freedom to be religious according to one’s own conscience. The Danbury Baptists in Connecticut were concerned that the powerful Congregationalist Church in the state may acquire a position of privilege and power and that their right to practice their faith freely, would be under threat. The same worry almost two centuries earlier had prompted the pilgrims to flee England, for a land in which they could worship according to their own conscience and without fear of state oppression. Jefferson wrote to the Baptists to reassure them that the constitution of the United States protected their right to believe and to worship, and would not empower another sect with state privilege above any other. Secularism protects and enhances the rights of the believers, to believer without fear.
Jefferson’s point in his letter to the Baptists was that secularism protects the right of individual interpretation of faith for the individual believer. Secularism concludes that belief is between the individual and their God, and has nothing to do with any Earthly power. If the individual wishes to dedicate their entire existence to their belief – including their choice of clothing, France banning the veil is the opposite of secularism – the secular state protects that right. Conversely, the Earthly power must not empower or permit privilege to a particular choice of belief, to the detriment of all others. A line of equality is maintained by state neutrality. We are equal regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, belief, and gender. From that position, we are free to test and elevate the boundaries of our own abilities and to seek happiness, without harming the same liberty for others.
If we imagine a small group of twenty believers of a particular faith, it is quite likely that each will have differences pertaining to interpretation of articles of faith, given that religious literature is so vast in scope even for one religion. They may be small differences or large important differences. In that situation, it would be absurd to say “Number 12 in the group has the inherent authority to punish those of us who don’t abandon our interpretation, and follow his interpretation“. It is obvious that no single individual in the group has that privilege of authority, simply because a faith is not an absolute science. We must start from the premise that all 20 have the equal right to belief. It is also obvious that if number 12 did institute a policy by which those who disagreed with him were punished, the differences do not suddenly go away. The individual beliefs will still differ, opinions don’t change, it is fear of punishment that will prevent those differences from being expressed, and so not only is the individual oppressed, but the right of all of us to hear dissenting views and not be told what we – as grown adults – should be allowed to hear, is similarly oppressed. Humanity is blessed with curiosity, and uniformity of thought is impossible, and attempts to argue otherwise are inevitably bloody and oppressive. Shia and Sunni, Catholic and Protestant; history teaches us that granting privilege to one interpretation, does not end well. If your faith relies on fear to survive, it not only has no right to privilege, it absolutely doesn’t deserve privilege.
An individual’s interpretation is anchored to their own experiences throughout life. As Jefferson noted; it is a matter that lies solely between an individual and his or her God. Only secularism protects the right of each individual within the group to disagree, to question, and to value each individual’s right to interpret their faith according to their conscience and without fear of oppression by any other member. If the personal belief of each member is strong, it will withstand the freedom of others to differ. Indeed, whilst secularism may diminish the privilege and supremacy of a single interpretation, it is the only mechanism by which religious liberty for the whole group is preserved and protected.
The great Thomas Paine expressed beautifully a concept in one sentence, that religious texts have failed to express through thousands of pages:
“Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.”
– Secularism guarantees equal rights as citizens under the law. If a Christian wishes the right to build a private temple of worship, the same right must be extended to Hindu’s, to Muslims, to Sikhs and so on. If, as an atheist, I wish the right to “offend” the beliefs of others, I must accept the right for others to hold views that “offend” my beliefs. You are free to believe that homosexuality is a sin, you are not free to restrict the liberty and equal civil rights of gay people according to your belief. Your belief plays no part in the liberty of others. You are free to believe that those who abandon their faith are evil. You are not free to restrict the liberty of those who abandon their faith based on your belief. Because again, your belief plays no part in the liberty of others. Similarly, if someone believes those who subscribe to your religion are a great evil and should be restricted and punished, they’re free to believe that, they’re just not free to enforce it through the state. We are all to be considered equal regardless of belief, or ethnicity, or sexuality, and of gender. This further enhances our security when questioning, criticising, and inquiring. The mark of a civilised society.
It isn’t just a single religion controlling the apparatus of state that leads almost inevitably to human rights violations. It is the tyranny of a single sect, of a single religion that tends to cause problems for smaller sects of the same faith. When Catholics held state power, Protestants were brutally slaughtered. When Protestants held state power, predictably, Catholics were brutally slaughtered. To end this ceaseless war between sects vying for power, required secularism and declarations of inalienable rights that no religion had a right to violate.
Indeed, the fight isn’t between secularism and religion – religion is protected and freed by secularism and anyone wishing to oppress rights based on someone’s belief, is by definition not secular – the fight is between secularism and a particular individual’s interpretation of their religion to the often violent exclusion of all others. If, in the group of 20, 19 of the members all believe one interpretation to be correct, but you don’t, those 19 still have no inherent right to force you to live by their beliefs. You have the right to criticise the beliefs of the 19, to believe differently to all of them, and to worship freely according to your conscience only without fear. You have a criticism of the Bible or Qur’an? Then say it, or keep it to yourself, or write it, or express it in anyway you wish. No one has a right to prevent you from that. Your expression of your faith – as long as it doesn’t interfere with the liberty of anyone else – is yours only. Secularism is therefore the only mechanism by which the smaller sects, and the individual believers are protected. A real world example, would see the natural rights of the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia currently facing oppression, completely protected. The barriers to freedom and equal rights for Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia are the necessary result of one sect opposed to Shia beliefs presuming a place of privilege that they do not deserve. Shia Muslims in Saudi are prevented from obtaining high office. Shia parents are banned from using certain names for their children. Saudi schools teach children that Shiites are a Jewish conspiracy, and need to be destroyed. I struggle to describe this hideous manipulation of the young minds of children, as anything other than abuse. The Shia minority in Saudi Arabia face oppression, for no other reason than the Salafi leadership doesn’t believe what they believe. The presumption on the part of the leadership, is that their belief is inherently privileged. It is a position maintained by force, and if a privilege must be maintained by force, it is wholly illegitimate.
If a religious authority in a non-secular country suddenly decries an aspect of your daily life, or something you consider sacred to you, as a violation of the state’s religious principles, you are in danger of the state punishing you. Your human rights are in the hands of the religious authority. In a secular state, if the same religious authority were to decry an aspect of your daily life as a violation of their religious belief, they’d be free to say so, they wouldn’t be free to punish you for it. Your liberty and right to believe differently is preserved and protected. No single religious person or group has a right to punish you for not accepting and living according to their beliefs. Secularism recognises this and trusts you as an individual to come to your own conclusions and beliefs freely and without fear.
It is clear to me that a faith loses its integrity the moment an individual is forced to accept it at gun point. When I hear the claim that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the World, I choose to discount not only those children considered ‘Muslim’ by way of being born to Muslim parents, but also those who live in countries in which it is illegal to leave the faith, or to openly question or criticise the faith. At it stands, apostasy is illegal in Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, UAE, Somalia, Afghanistan, Saudi, Sudan, Qatar, Yemen, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Jordan, and Oman. Apostasy in Jehovah’s Witness families is enough for a child to be disowned. It is supremacy by way of threat. If we were to hold a gun to someone’s head, and instructed them to say that they are in fact a giraffe or I’ll fire the gun, we wouldn’t then suggest the giraffe population was clearly growing. The integrity of an individual’s faith is diminished entirely when it is actively forced upon others. Similarly, a child isn’t to be considered of a particular faith. They have not reached an age by which they can rationalise, critique, and accept or reject religious precepts. Their minds are a sponge, and if a particular religion is indeed correct, teaching a child to be critical and curious will lead that child to the religious truth of that faith anyway. It should be obvious to all that a faith enhances its integrity if those who find it, find it through their own free inquiry and will, rather than indoctrination and threat. Secularism is an idea based on free inquiry, expression and will. The opposite, is indoctrination and threat.
Secularism begins and ends with the idea that the beliefs of an individual are sacred to that individual, and have no inherent right to trespass upon the liberty of others. A Sunni majority has no inherent right to force Shia to live by the dictates of their interpretation of Islam, Congregationalists have no inherent right to force Baptists by threat of state punishment, to live according to the dictates of their interpretation of Christianity. As a non-believer, no religious faith or sect has the right to threaten me with state punishment, if I do not adhere to, or if I criticise or satirise their religious guidelines. Similarly, I have no right to prevent or restrict your liberty in believing anything you choose to belief and worshiping where ever you choose to worship, as long as it isn’t forced through the mechanism of state. We are equal citizens deserving of equal protections. Progress – both individual and societal – is the product of free inquiry, debate, expression and compromise, and not forced adherence. If you believe a slightly different interpretation of your faith, than what is demanded of you by the authorities, then feel free! Express it! Secularism encourages that discussion. Indeed, as secularists, we believe only you have the right to decide what it is you believe, and how you express that belief. The chains between you and those wishing to regulate your thoughts, are completely smashed. To paraphrase Jefferson, the state should not be in the business of regulating your opinion and your expression; to do so is by its nature oppression. For that reason alone, secularism is good for those who are religious.