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.” 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.