Religious Pluralism Requires a Secular Democracy

by Lorna Salzman

In much the same way that secular law protects multiculturalism, the only possible means of protecting religious pluralism is to have complete separation of religion and state.

In some ways the argument over separation of church and state (the word church used here to represent religion in any and all forms) resembles the arguments over Science vs. Religion. In fact, religious fundamentalists pursue their anti-evolution tack with the hope of making cracks in secular institutions, including schools, the medical profession, libraries, and the intellectual underpinnings of these sectors.

Their attacks on evolution are especially important from their point of view, because if they succeed in discrediting evolution, or silencing its proponents, they have promoted their religious cause most effectively. This is because evolution, when properly understood, promotes a material view of human existence.

This material view, which most of us accept, implicitly accepts the belief that since the human brain is a product of evolution like all our other organs, the products of our brain - thought, beliefs, values, ethics - are not pre-ordained and therefore not authoritative. The corollary of this is that the belief in god is just another invention of our brain. Thus, a belief in evolution is anathema to religious credos and dogmas. Those who believe that an accommodation can be made between science and religion are looking for an easy way out of an acrimonious debate, when no such exit exists. Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. The same is true of secular vs. religious states.

The pluralism of religions that exists is often a source of friction, discrimination and violence, but only in those countries where existing ethnic groups - often identical to religious groups - lack any kind of overriding impartial force. In looking at history, including western Europe under the Catholic church, which dominated most of European history until the 18th century, non-Christians were repeatedly persecuted (though some say Islam in Spain was more tolerant). The more recent argument over the former Yugoslavia is instructive; a totalitarian society under Tito held back what were clearly long-simmering ethnic hatreds which turned into major human rights crimes a few years ago.

A religious state - a state where religious law is the law of the land - cannot protect minorities of any kind. Why? Because organized religion relies on three basic things: Revelation; Interpretation; Enforcement.

Anyone who questions or resists these is automatically treasonous, anathema, heretical, in exactly the same way as someone who goes out on the street, pulls a gun and shoots someone, in defiance of the secular laws against murder. In a religious state, there is no recourse, because personal, family, community, cultural,social and political behavior is prescribed in the Revelation ,and because certain individuals are vested with the supreme power of Interpreting and then Enforcing what their holy book says.

Their judgement cannot be questioned, even though there may be multiple interpretations occasionally that temporarily cloud the issue. Jokes have been made about rabbis arguing minute points of talmudic law. But ultimately one argument prevails and the others accept it; the validity of talmudic law, however ultimately interpreted, is never questioned. There is no one and no thing higher than the "appointed" interpreters of religious "law" and Revelation: rabbis, priests, the pope, imans, etc. Even where there are institutions of justice, these operate under the same laws, and the rules of evidence and defense are simply invented by these same people. There is no broader concept or principle of inherent human rights, equality, due process, etc. What they say goes. It is authoritarianism writ large.

Enforcement, too, is prescribed by the Revelation document, though if you read the fine print carefully, you begin to see that what were broad generalities in the original could easily be re-interpreted in later times. For example, thievery is often punished in some religions by cutting off the thief's arm. One could easily imagine that the original punishment for thievery was something like "Deprive the thief of future means of stealing". One guy says this means cut off his arm; another says no, just put him in jail, hang a sign around his neck saying THIEF, exile him from the town, don't let him into your store, etc. In the bible, I think Abraham cleverly avoided god's fiat to sacrifice his son, because presto! Abraham finds a goat behind a bush and assumes that will be an acceptable sacrifice. He was least the bible thought he was right. They let him get away with it, so presumably god agreed.

The point is that under religious law, there is no appeal, no recourse, to ANYTHING but the original Revelation document, and to those who have the power to Interpret it. The individual cant take it upon himself to interpret it (though Abraham did and they let him because the idea of killing your child was obviously inconceivable and they didn't want to circumvent god's law, so an exception was made).They have the power to allow or exclude evidence, or admit it selectively (men are believed, women are not). Men can accuse wives of adultery but women can only prove their innocence by producing three witnesses. There is no IMPARTIAL judge or body of law.

It is a fantasy to think that such arbitrary and capricious Revelatory law will be able to protect minorities and their rights, because inherently religious states must suppress dissent and heresy. To not suppress them means to allow anyone the means to challenge their authority, not just the laws themselves. No one in history has ever implemented or allowed laws that would threaten their authority.

No one, that is, until the appearance of secular democracies and constitutions which explicitly allotted certain powers to some...and at the same time created balancing institutions and processes to oversee or curb those powers when executed arbitrarily and capriciously and when applied in a discriminatory manner. THIS balancing was the creation of secular law, which overrode religious law and which provided recourse and due process to those who questioned or challenged religious law.

Anyone who thinks a religious state would be benevolent, egalitarian and flexible is living in a fantasy world. If we lived under a Catholic state - as Italy formerly did and as Poland is today - there would be no divorce, no birth control, no abortion, and no freedom to promote those views. The press, academic institutions, books, courts, etc. would all be governed by church law. Even Israel, basically a secular state, has special exemptions and privileges granted to orthodox Jews, such as not serving in the army, though orthodox law does not override most of civil law.

Some progressive Moslems deny, or come close to denying, that the Koran countenances the oppression of women. These of course are denied the opportunity to express those views IN THEIR OWN COUNTRY, but not in the US. The fact that they are denied these rights, much as Rushdie was denied the right to write a work of fiction and was actively threatened with death, indicates not just that these countries are backward and need to be brought into the 21st century with regard to human rights. It indicates a completely sincere (though perversely misguided) belief that nothing in the world but Revelation exists. They believe this. They cannot intellectually conceive of any kind of law but religious law. The notion of a separate secular law or system is incomprehensible. We are not talking the same language or the same reasoning. With this kind of stalemate there is no compromise.

Imagine the position of women, gays, blacks, atheists, and others in a religious state. Imagine the limitations on and punishment for daily behavior and acts that offend that state (that is, that religion embodied in the state). Can anyone truly believe that gender preference, homosexual partnerships, atheistic statements and women's complete equality in all sectors of life would be protected, guaranteed? Who would guarantee these? The religious Revelation document? Those same documents that fundamentalist Christians, Jews and Moslems rely on for their fanatic behavior and oppression of non-believers? Those chosen to interpret the meaning of the Revelation document? Who would enforce those laws? How would they be enforced? By declaring aberrant beliefs and behavior - that contradict the interpretation of the Revelation by the Interpreters - blasphemous and therefore ILLEGAL and PUNISHABLE by the same law contained in that Revelation document, punishable by whatever interpretation the Interpreters put on the document. Cut off the arm, they say. Case closed.

Whatever the faults of western civilization, or the US, or capitalism, and there are many, we and western Europe have the protection of secular and civil law. Maybe it is sometimes ignored or not enforced properly or equally, but that is not inherent in the system; it is the result of the imperfection of individuals and the obstacles they face in getting the law enforced. This is why we have public interest groups, consumer groups, environmental groups. But at least we have them. Under a religious state we would all be equally oppressed. Human rights, not to mention the rights of animals, would not exist as a concept much less a practice.

The separation of church and state is, in my opinion, the most important achievement of modern times. Had it not occurred, we would all be living in the Dark Ages that cover most of the middle east and many parts of Asia and Africa. And we would not have the luxury of criticizing or opposing that system. If we did, we would put our lives on the line. Think about that.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.