Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Some basics on religious freedom

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170 ft. Cross at Sagemont Church, Houston, TX. (cc) Luna715, Flickr.com.

According to a news article by AP, the Swiss seem to have just voted to affirm a policy of banning Islamic minarets, the onion-shaped towers commonly seen on mosques. The move comes as a right wing initiative in response to fears over the growing Muslim population in the area, and what is seen as possible unwanted cultural shifts in their society. The initiative’s co-president Ulrich Schlueer said, “Forced marriages and other things like cemeteries separating the pure and impure — we don’t have that in Switzerland, and we do not want to introduce it.”

This reminds me of France’s move to ban the Hijab head scarves in their public schools a few years ago. In both cases, I find these kinds of moves unfortunate and the result of fear – ironically, likely to only produce more fear, aggression, and isolation in the future.

Europe has a strong secular streak in its governmental system, and the United States, religious though it is, was remarkable specifically because of its secular constitution. Yet, there is definitely something different between the philosophies of American secularism and European secularism.

In Europe, the idea seems to be that the government is going to enforce secularism on the citizens to some extent. There are much more intrusive laws regarding so-called “cult” activities, laws against various symbols or forms of expression, and so on. Now, they’re telling people not only what styles of buildings they can build on their own property, but what they can wear on their bodies. Secularists in Europe would be wise to keep in mind that it is not religion that is a threat, but rather certain elements found in fundamentalist religion, such as: intolerance, dogmatism, domination, ideology, unfounded beliefs, fear, paranoia, etc. Most importantly, they need to understand these traits can find their way into any human institution, including government. There have been several instances where ‘political religions’ have arisen in Europe and beyond, and when wielded with the vigor of a religious movement, the ‘enforced secular state’ is just as much a threat as any traditional religion.

In the United States, a secular government is as equally valued and important as in Europe. The wall of separation between church and state has been a foundational principle of our government since its inception. But, here, the perspective has some important differences. With American secularism, the emphasis is on the state being restricted – rather than the state doing the restricting. In other words, American secularism is about reigning in the power of the government. It’s about telling the government that it cannot interfere in religious matters. Individuals are free to practice their religions, wear what they want, build the kinds of churches they want, and so on. This is all, provided they are not harming others. It is also provided assuming that religion does not try to infiltrate government, and thus use its power base as a way to extend the interests of any one faith. We have these sorts of legal issues come up all the time, where people will try to get their religious views mounted on court houses and so on. So, the wall is important, but my primary point here is that the main emphasis is on restricting the state.

For example, everyone knows the phrase “they took prayer out of schools” but what isn’t often appreciated is this: they didn’t tell students they couldn’t pray. What they did was tell their own employees (the teachers – agents of the government) they they were not allowed to lead other people’s children in prayer, because it was inappropriate for government employees to be doing that to free citizens. The same applied to the use of government property for the sake of evangelizing. The entire matter is about restricting the government from telling your children what religious practices they’re going to follow. Children themselves are perfectly free to pray, and many student prayer groups meet on school grounds in appropriate times (with the same facilities made available for other interests as well).

In another example, when I was President of the Humanists of Houston, I was interviewed over the matter of several gigantic white crosses that have been placed around various entry highways into the city of Houston. These crosses have been placed on church properties around the city, with the intent being to give the impression that one is entering a ‘Christian city’ as they enter.

I told the interviewer that we certainly don’t agree with the notion that this is exclusively a Christian city or that Christians should have some privileged position. We also didn’t find the suggestive nature of the large icons to be tasteful or respectful. But then I said – however, the crosses are placed on private church property, and were paid for privately. As far as was known, no other building code violations or signage regulations had been violated. No one is obligated to be tasteful or respectful, and I have no right not to be offended. Therefore, the crosses are perfectly within the rights of those putting them up. The interviewer kept trying to goad me into saying something like, “they need to be banned” or that we were going to try and get the government to force them down or something. But I stood my ground that (a) we didn’t care for the statement personally, but (b) it was within their rights.

There are a lot of places where I think the U.S. needs improvement, but when it comes to our take on secularism vs the European approach, I’m happy we seem to be on a better track. Europe is facing a lot of inter-cultural conflicts, fears, and other issues right now, and their reaction against religion will only stoke more. I hope instead they look more toward inclusion, but with a firm handle on foundational principles of religious freedom. There are some principles of individual liberty that should override raw numbers in a vote. If one maintains that, then one needn’t fear Islamic law making its way into the system. Let people wear, say, and build what they want, and that same stance on individual human rights will be there to hold the gate when the pressure swings the other way. But without that foundation of individual liberty, no one is safe. If the Swiss have the numbers to pass such laws today, simply on the basis of mob rule – then I fear for them when the demographic proportions have turned around.

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Written by DT Strain

November 29, 2009 at 11:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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