Pro-Human v. Anti-Human: Why Religion and Government Don’t Mix

The following was authored by annalise fonza, Ph.D.  I am excited that she agreed to submit a guest post and I believe you will find her insights to be thought provoking and, in my opinion, on point.

One day after class, one of my students at Georgia State University mentioned to me that he didn’t think that it was possible to govern or make public policy without religion or the influence of religion.  His argument was that politicians cannot separate their religious views from their political views; that God via religion was the only way to morality, or the making of a good society.

It’s been about two years since that conversation, but I remember walking away wondering if he really thought that it was fundamentally impossible to separate one’s religious beliefs from the task of governance or policy making.  I remember being quite troubled that at such a young impressionable age this student found it impossible to believe that the making of a good society could not happen apart from a religious worldview.

Similarly, during this election season, we saw that Marsha Raddatz asked former GOP Vice-Presidential Candidate and Democrat Vice-President of the U.S. Joe Biden to discuss how their religious ideas and belief inform their views on abortion.  On the one hand, the question was quite interesting.  However, though I was interested in hearing their answers, I would rather have heard their responses in an off-the-record conversation, not in an official debate for the upcoming election.  Despite the fact that it is violated on a regular basis, the separation of Church and State is a Constitutional provision, and one that I think it necessary.

So, the effed up thing about these two examples, and why religion and government don’t or should mix, is both theoretical and practical in scope.  For the record, both religion and government are social constructions; that is they are both human inventions that have been established for the purpose of organizing society.  However, the aims of religion and government are fundamentally and structurally different.

Religion and the idea of God are quite other-worldly.  They are notions that are ultimately concerned with an alternative reality or even an after-life.

Government, which is also a social construction, is created for the purpose of organizing and supporting society, and it is ultimately this-worldly in scope.  Public and political leaders, who are responsible for crafting and enacting laws and policies, are concerned about the things in this life as we know it, and not with things beyond this earthly existence.  Therefore, while both socially determined phenomena, religion and government don’t share the same objectives, in theory or in practice.

It is imperative that politicians spend their time thinking about things that will affect our lives in the here and the now.  Being preoccupied with things that will affect us personally in some pre-determined time and space (heaven perhaps) after we cease to know this life is really not a governmental matter.

In practice, religion, especially via Christianity, is often a framework that renders many people absolutely useless at thinking for themselves.  How I know this as a former pastor/minister in the United Methodist Church.  And how I remember preaching a sermon and then being asked after the sermon, “So what do you think about the war in Iraq?”  I recall that my response to that question was something like this, “Well, sir/ma’am, the question is “What do you think about the war in Iraq?,” or “What does your faith encourage you to think?”  What I thought about it, even as a pastor, could never replace what she was thinking.

Unfortunately, many people maintain a belief in God without any real knowledge or understanding of what they believe or why they believe what they believe, and this is not good.  Data collected from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life confirms that “atheists and agnostics know more about religion that believers do.”[1]  What a waste of something, i.e., intelligence, that was allegedly given by God.

Of course, for nonbelievers or atheists it is possible to live a life that is free from dogma.  This is one of the fundamental differences between a theist and an atheist, and it is one of the reasons why I am proud to call myself an atheist, or, better yet, a freethinker.  It is important to think critically for one’s self.  The failure or inability to think for one’s self leads to many problems in life.

And as more people fail to do it, the more prone we are to have a very co-dependent culture.  Apparently, the founding fathers also thought that it was possible to live a moral political life without religious interference, and they knew the danger of basing political or governmental decisions upon religious doctrine or dogma that is culturally outdated and politically limited in scope.  For example, a good majority of theist beliefs were crafted or constructed within the last five thousand years, and thus from a time and place that was guided by mythological and polytheistic belief systems.

On the one hand, though I have a respect for the creation of such narratives for social and personal purposes from this point of view and for the part of human evolutionary history that it illuminates, I am aware of the limitations associated with those constructions. These religious worldviews are narratives.  They are not fact or based on evidence; rather, they are tales or stories that helped our early ancestors to make sense of life as they knew it.

Atheists, or those who do not believe in supernatural deities, operate everyday on the idea that there is no “Super Daddy” guiding things along, that what we make of life is what we make of it.  For us there is no need for mythological tales or stories when we have many forms of evidence and technologies that can lead us to better conclusions about life as we know it.  To the atheist it is quite possible to live a good life without God and without a narrow theory about the human condition that is mythological and polytheistic in origin, or, in particular, that we as humans cannot be trusted as is without supernatural help.

Such an anti-human narrative simply cannot be a part of the governing process because governing should be pro-human.  Often, a belief in God or religion, no matter how good the intentions, requires a certain kind of acquiescence and acceptance that checks critical thinking and questioning at the door, but government officials, who are in the business of crafting public policy cannot leave their thinking caps at the door.  They must be involved in the task of government for the purpose of considering all the possibilities for humans and the planet; thus,  to be an effective public servant they must be willing to consider policies and possibility for public policies that don’t jive with their personal worldviews.  Believing in heaven, hell, Kolub or any other alternative resting place or state of being must not be a factor in governance.

Thus, my young student’s proposal, that you can’t have government without religious or religious ideology, simply cannot be supported.  We need leaders and shapers of government to be ultimately concerned with what is happening here and now, not in la-la-land or in a space or place that no one has actually experienced except in their dreams or in some other sub-conscious state that was induced, perhaps, by drugs or anesthesia during an operation.  A leader and thus good governance must be constructed from a conscious, this-worldly point of view, which is not preoccupied with things are that are beyond human control.  Furthermore, they must believe in themselves and the capacity of the human being to the point that they feel totally capable of making rational, sound decisions that will have a positive effect on the development of society as we experience it, not as we wish or hope that it could be.

If one believes that it is impossible to make political or governing decisions without a religious conceptual framework then what exactly is his or her objective?  What exactly is the aim of government in that case?  If one sees herself or himself from such a limited worldview, and as the product of a non-human, then we are not really building a democracy then are we?  And, if one is worthless without a “God,” or if the creation of public policy is impossible without religious bedrock to have merit or to make sense, then of what worth is the human being and all of her or his accomplishments?

Government, and the makers of governance, must be pro-human and resistant to other-worldliness and wishful thinking.  The more pro-human our government and less religious our leaders are, the more humane our society will actually be.

About Alton Drew

Alton Drew brings a straight forward and insightful brand of political market intelligence. Alton Drew graduated from the Florida State University with a Bachelor of Science in economics and political science (1984); a Master of Public Administration (1993); and a Juris Doctor (1999). You can also follow Alton Drew on Twitter @altondrew.
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6 Responses to Pro-Human v. Anti-Human: Why Religion and Government Don’t Mix

  1. Ken Ciszewski says:

    Alton:

    This is indeed a fascinating and insightful posting. I commend you for posting it. I will have more to say about it later.

  2. Ken Ciszewski says:

    “Religion and the idea of God are quite other-worldly. They are notions that are ultimately concerned with an alternative reality or even an after-life.”

    It would appear that statement is true, at least theoretically. If you look at modern Christian religion, and the way it’s conveyed by many religious leaders to the religious followers (consider Joel Osteen as an example), you might wonder about it, because there is great emphasis on how religion helps people in their daily lives in this life. Now, I like Joel Osteen, in that he is very positive and encouraging, and he reminds us that God wants us to have good lives, but that’s hardly emphasizing the after life–heaven, hell, purgatory, salvation, etc. (depending on what you believe). I can make an argument that much of modern Christian religion has become high secularized and very much concerned with this world. And therein lies a problem: at least some fundamentalist Christians want to make their way the ONLY way when it comes to things like social morality. That’s not an after life issue specifically, it’s a present day real world desire to have power authority over others, to be able to tell them what to do!!! There is the implied notion that “unbelievers” will not make it into heaven, but from what I see that’s not a primary concern. Power, authority, and control are the primary concerns. And frankly, in support of the basic thesis of the post, such desires can be extremely anti-human, or at least not very pro human (humane)

    Now, look at suicide bombers who happen to be followers of Islam. In theory, their actions against “unbelievers” gain them a place in the after life with 72 virgins! However, the motivation of the leaders to offer this “reward” for killing other human beings is to kill other numan beings! There’s absolutely nothing humane about that, as far as I can tell. While this is an extreme example, I think it makes the point.

    I think the post is pointing to something that’s been called “secular humanism”, a concept many religious leaders find abhorrent, because their God is not involved in it.

    I also agree witht the post in that we need to be thinking human beings, not closed minded or brain washed, when making decisions. As we become more enlightened, more compassionate, less selfish and greedy, we will hopefully make better decisions for those whow are part of our society.

  3. annalise says:

    Ken, thanks for such a thoughtful comment. It is interesting that you refer to secular humanism and that I am calling for it. Actually, my introduction to secular humanism has been very minimal. Here is the basis for my thinking, and this I learned not from humanist literature, but as the result of a thoughtful and critical engagement with history and religion. My thought is this: that we as humans have everything we need to live good and moral lives; and, that being human (and improving upon our humanity each and every day) and thus being humane to others should be the basis for much of what we do. Unfortunately, many religious or spiritual paradigms don’t teach or encourage this kind of human and social repsonsiblity without the intervention of a supernatural, higher power, or non-human influence. And, I would say that many, if not most, public and elected officials subscribe to these types of religious paradigms and then articulate those philosophies, covertly and overtly, in their governing activities. Gosh, we need 1) to challenge those activities and representations for being what they are – as religious and therefore otherworldly and often inappropriate as far as governing is concerned; and 2) we need to encourage the non-relgious to be more actively involved in the governing process so that the religious don’t always garner the last word when it comes to making public policy. In other words, we gotta play to win!

  4. Ken Ciszewski says:

    My point was that your ideas would sound to some like secular humanist ideas.

    I agree with your point that “…being human (and improving upon our humanity each and every day) and thus being humane to others should be the basis for much of what we do.” As to your second point, “…many religious or spiritual paradigms don’t teach or encourage this kind of human and social responsibility without the intervention of a supernatural, higher power, or non-human influence…”, I think that is nominally true, but I’m a lot more cynical about it than you are, because I’m NOT convinced that there is that much teaching of “…human and social responsibility …” by politicians (or anyone else, for that matter) WITH the intervention of the high power. When was the last time someone mentioned Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan with regard to being humane and helpful to others? It strikes me that, based on Jesus’ statement that the second great law is to “Love one’s neighbor as oneself”, this parable could be considered central to Christianity because it relates to the Christian love that Paul the Apostle talks about in one of his letters (this one is often used in marriage ceremonies because of what it says about love of others).and tells us that our love for others must be for all other human beings.

    Now, if we’re going to tell people “…that being human (and improving upon our humanity each and every day) and thus being humane to others should be the basis for much of what we do…”, we might need to explain why this idea is better than, say, acting like highly competitive social Darwinists who grab what they can get and let the devil take the hindmost, as the saying goes. It may not be obvious to some why being more humane is better for our society than not being so. Judging by the current behavior of any number of people, especially some business leaders, it appears that the latter idea holds great sway in the modern world.

    I like your basic idea to challenge governing philosophies based on religion alone as often inappropriate. The problem I see is that such a challenge will likely seem threatening to those espousing the religious view, and there will be a lot of backlash as a result. I feel we need a logical and clearly thought out social and moral philosophy that explains why and how “…being humane to others should be the basis for what we do.” That may or may not carry the day.

    To paraphrase something Henry Kissinger once said, the problem with negotiating with religious fundamentalists (he was referring to Islamic terrorists, I believe) is that it’s very hard to get God to show up at the negotiating table. When people believe “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”, they are rarely open to challenge or even discussion.

    But as you say, nonetheless, we need to try.

  5. annalise says:

    Ken,

    Indeed, we need to try and that was/is my point. I’m really not bothered by the fact that those with a religious worldview will offended or pissed off. Trying to appease those with such a worldview is uesless in my opinion. The basis for a Christian worldview is not necessarily rooted in being a good Samaritan, rather it is believing that one is “saved” via the atonement of the Jesus who was called the Christ. This is the central tenet of Christianity, and without it there is really no basis for believing in a savior God. That being said, without the belief that one needs to be saved then one has to have a renewed sense of self and thus what is the human condition overall. And, if the human condition is good from the start then we can continue that it is possible to be a responsible human being in conjunction with other responsible human beings.

  6. Ken Ciszewski says:

    Annalise–you’re right about the salvation doctrine as you define it, and in fact it appears that salvation doesn’t necessarily lead to being a Good Samaritan, the evidence of that is all around us. The conception of “justification by faith” would appear to give even less incentive to do good works, certainly not more.

    Even so, it would be interesting to point out to Christians that their Savior instructed them to be good Samaritans, just to see the look on their faces! It would amount to using their beliefs against them in many cases!

    It’s like what happened when Charlie Rose was interviewing a religious leader who was talking about God’s plan for us. As it was explained to me, this religious leader was not too happy about President Obama being reelected, whereupon Charlie Rose asked if indeed, that was part of God’s plan for us. I have been told the subsequent silence was deafening.

    Your point about “…the human condition being good from the start…” also rings true, since the so called “fall from grace” of man is what supposedly requires a savior in the first place. All of us are imperfect, and should try to do better (be more humane, human), but very few are actually evil per se. By encouraging and expecting good from others, and having the courage and perseverance to do good instead of harm ourselves, we improve the chances of creating a better world.

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