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CWaC Round 1 – The case for Secularism

Welcome to Conversation With a Christian, Round 1.

Steve and I haven’t discussed marriage equality at all before now, but I suspect that a lot of his arguments will be religious in nature. In anticipation of that, then, I want use my first post to make a case for secularism in general, before moving on to marriage equality in particular.

First… the case for Secularism.

So, why is secularism a good idea, in a modern democracy such as Australia? Why should we base our laws solely on that which can be justified by reason? There are, in my opinion, four very good reasons.

1 – What about those who don’t believe?
Let’s say there exists an act, let’s call it X. It is admitted by everyone, atheist and theist alike, that X causes no objective, real world harm, excepting the breaking of a faith-based law, and the offending of a deity. How should we deal with X, as a modern, ostensibly secular, society that needs to enact laws that apply to everyone? Should the state enact laws against X that apply even to those who don’t believe in the faith that condemns it? Should the number of faiths or people that condemn X make a difference? Should we take into account the level of god’s alleged offence, or the number of years a particular faith has been around?

These are important questions, and it would seem that almost all modern democracies have answered them with a rather emphatic “No”. If they hadn’t, it would now be a crime to:

  • Worship a god other than the Christian variety;
  • Make a graven image;
  • Take god’s name in vain;
  • Dishonour one’s mother and father;
  • Work on the Sabbath;
  • Lie; and
  • Covet your neighbour’s goods or wife.

In fact, in our own country, only two of the Ten Commandments are to be found in the criminal code (murder and theft), and it’s no coincidence that those are the two that also happen to have very good, non-religious arguments that support them.

It’s clear that there are a great many religious laws that, as a society, we have decided should only apply to those that want to follow them. That is, I trust you’ll agree, a good thing. I for one am very glad that we don’t arrest people who try to ordain women, force people to be audited for thetans, or prosecute people for pushing a pram outside the bounds of a thin piece of elevated wire at a particular time on the weekend (seriously).

I hope you are glad of that, too. There is no doubt that the three things I just mentioned are very important to the followers of the religion from which they originate (Catholicism, Scientology and Orthodox Judaism), but if the offence finds justification solely within the pages of a Holy book, then there it should remain.

2 – The invention of argument
The year is 1820. A convicted con man named Joe wants to take another wife, but the secular laws of his state currently prevent him. As a disloyal horny misogynist with a vivid imagination, what should he do? Should he have a frank discussion with his wife about his desire to expand their sexual repertoire? Should he retake his workplace’s Sexual Harrassment training? Or should he invent Mormonism?

We all know what happened. Joseph Smith invented some ridiculous story about a set of golden plates with god’s latest and greatest revelation, and, 192 years later, we had a Mormon running for President of the United States. And if you think that the days of invented religions are behind us, think again.

If faith-based arguments are valid, it becomes very easy to justify whatever it is that you want – as easy, in fact, as inventing a faith.

3 – The problem of absolutes
When it comes to sin, the major religions don’t tend to allow much wriggle room. I mean, it’s not like abortion is OK if the life of the mother is in danger, or homosexuality is OK on Tuesgay. Do you remember the fuss that was made over Pope Benedict’s “concession” on condoms? To anyone with the smallest inkling of common sense, allowing the use of condoms by an HIV-positive man within the confines of marriage amounts to nothing more than an extremely obvious yet astoundingly narrow relaxation of a rule that shouldn’t exist in the first place. To the world’s Catholics, however, it was a great, magnanimous demonstration of wisdom and compassion.

Allowance for shades of grey (hopefully more than 50) is essential for fair and reasonable government. To the writers of faith-based laws, it’s a sign of weakness.

4 – Which faith is right anyway?
We know that not every faith can be right, and that they often contradict each other. There are even contradictory beliefs within the same faith. Just within Christianity, we can look at priestly celibacy, or homosexuality, or the ordination of female clergy, or the ordination of sexually-active homosexual female clergy. Each is allowed under the progressive watch of the leaders of the Uniting Church, but not their (stubbornly orthodox) Catholic equivalents.

With so many faiths shouting to be heard, to whom should we turn our ears? What if one faith condemns marriage equality, and another embraces it with sequinned arms?

So, in conclusion…
… secularism is the way to go, and we shouldn’t make laws unless there are very good, non-religious, reasons for them, right? Right.

Over to you, Steve!

Category: CWaC, Marriage equality


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