Ronald A. Lindsay: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do

December 08, 2014

Despite the fact that the United States was founded as a secular state, government neutrality toward religion remains a tumultuous and controversial issue — a conversation-stopper in most public policy discussions. This week on the show, Lindsay Beyerstein welcomes Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, the organization responsible for Point of Inquiry. Ron joins us to discuss his just-released book, The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do, in which he explains how the language of secularism is the most ethical and productive language for believers and nonbelievers alike, the missing puzzle piece to fair public policy.

Ron Lindsay is both a lawyer and philosopher, as well as a veteran freethought activist, with several books and articles on ethics, philosophy, and secularism to his name. His particular background provides him with a unique understanding of how crucial the separation of church and state is for equality and stability, as well as how people can be persuaded that a society built on secularism is in everyone’s best interests.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, December eight, 2014. 

Hello and welcome to a point of inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is Ron Lindsay president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry and its affiliates, Reinhold APHC and Philosophy, as well as a JD. His new book is called The Necessity of Secularism Why God Can’t Tell US What to Do. Ron, welcome to the program. 

Well, thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be back on point of inquiry. Good to have you. 

So how do you define a secularism and why is it important for our society? 

I would say that in my view, there are two components to secularism. One is the familiar principle, familiar, I think, to most people of separation of church and state. In other words, the state should stay out religious affairs and religion stay out of government affairs. And if that principles followed, then we have a a secular state, but a secular state is although that’s necessary for secularism, it’s not a sufficient condition for secularism to have a truly secular society. We need a society in which religious doctrine plays no role in shaping public policy and in discussions about public policy. Public policy discussions should be carried out entirely in secular terms. And that’s what I mean by secularism. 

You differentiate between a secular state and and an officially atheistic or non-religious state, correct? 

That’s correct, because an atheist state is really just the flip side of a religious state. 

Instead of having religious doctrine officially enshrined as the guiding principles for the state, you’d have atheistic principles enshrined. And in my view, that’s just as wrong. It’s a clear violation of freedom of conscience. The government should not in any way pressure people to adopt a certain view about religion, whether it’s to accept belief in deities or to reject belief in deities. 

The secular state we tend to forget is kind of a historical novelty. Can you talk a bit about how the secular state came about? 

Sure. The United States was the first secular state. It came about principally because of thought during the Enlightenment, including political philosophers like John Locke, who realized that if we were to end the religious violence that had wracked Europe and also the early American colonies, we needed to get government out of religious affairs and vice versa. John Locke and some other thinkers of the Enlightenment profoundly affected the thinking of the founders of the American republic. So, in fact, the Constitution clearly established a secular state. I mean, it’s striking that there’s no reference, for example, to God anywhere in the Constitution. The only reference to religion in the Constitution is actually a negative one. Article six of the Constitution says that the United States will never have a religious test for any public office. That’s the only reference to religion in the Constitution. So it’s clear that the founders wanted a secular state that is a state that clearly separated religion from government. 

Suppose you’re a religious person and you’re asking, well, what’s in it for me? Why would I want a secular state if I’m religious? 

Well, you want a secular state and whatever you want secularism. And maybe I should talk about the other component of secularism. So a secular state is good because among other things, it ensures the state is neutral among religious beliefs and between religion and air religion. But I think you also want to embrace the other component of secularism, which is that we keep religious precepts out of any public policy discussion, because if we want to have a democratic government, and that presupposes that the citizens in the democracy will debate and discuss issues of public policy, there’s one clear prerequisite for people to be able to understand, evaluate and debate the reasons that others offer for their viewpoints. And as that, they have to understand each other. And the only way to understand each other, to engage in a meaningful discussion is to use the common language of secularism, because as soon as you inject religious doctrine into a public policy debate, essentially you’re shutting down the discussion with anyone who doesn’t share your religious beliefs. 

So let’s say somebody wants to have a debate about abortion and they’re bringing in the idea of the song into it. Does that then make their arguments unintelligible to anyone who is either atheist and doesn’t believe in the song or otherwise religious and doesn’t believe in a soul? 

Yes, it effectively cuts off the discussion at that point. Not necessarily unintelligible, but there’s no way to carry out that discussion with someone who doesn’t share those precepts. Religion operates as a conversation stopper. Once someone invokes a religious doctrine as a basis for their position on any public policy, they are effectively shutting out anyone who doesn’t share those precepts. So that’s the end of discussion. That’s why on many issues, whether it’s abortion or same sex marriage. Or assisted dying when religion enters into the discussion. Many people find it frustrating because essentially there’s no reply. If someone says they oppose same sex marriage because the Old Testament says relations between men are an abomination, that’s essentially the end of the discussion. What are you gonna say to that? 

Right. In the book, you talk about a scholar by the name of Stout who claims that we can have vigorous public debate where people are drawing in all of these theological ideas. Can you talk a bit about its view and why he thinks that’s possible? 

Yes. So I should say, as I discuss in my book, there are people who take a different approach and in fact, say that it’s not necessarily true that religion operates as a conversation stopper. And they say, in fact, that if you’re willing to argue within the perspective of the believer. So if someone comes to you again, to use my same sex marriage example, if someone comes and says, well, look, I know the Old Testament says that relations between men that’s an abomination is something that should be rejected. You can try to argue with that person from within the perspective of their faith. For example, you might try to cite New Testament passages that say that, you know, within God, there’s no man or woman, there’s no slave or free, et cetera, et cetera. That’s a passage at some same sex advocates actually have used to say that. Well, you know, that’s what the Old Testament says. But the New Testament has superseded that. The problem is, instead of religion being a conversation stopper, it actually creates a conversation that never ends. Because once you get into an abstruse theological discussion, I mean, you have to go into interpretation of biblical texts. You get into historical discussions. You get into theological discussions. Most people don’t have time to take a course in compare to religion every time they enter into a policy discussion. 

I also just don’t consider the possibility that something might be very good Christianity, that somebody might actually have a bang up Trump argument within our sect of Christianity for why we shouldn’t allow same sex marriage. And we might lose the argument just that sect of Christianity was unequivocally on the side of no same sex marriage. What does he say we should do then? 

Well, I think he would maintain that you still have to try to make an effort to argue within the confines of belief and maybe, you know, you interpret things a little differently. And that’s one of the problems I have with this whole idea of trying to argue from within someone’s religious perspective. 

Because at the end of the day, and this is something I point out in the book. If you’re going to rely on sacred texts, the problem with sacred texts is they are subject to different interpretations. That’s been proven throughout history. 

Also, some religions have strictures on who can interpret sacred texts. If somebody is religion, says women can’t interpret sacred texts or nonbelievers can interpret sacred texts. Wouldn’t I just lose by default? 

And some people might be precluded from the discussion. That’s true. On the other hand, even the people who if you look at any significant dispute over the last couple of centuries, there have been people on both sides of the dispute. It’s like slavery as an example. I mean, there were abolitionists, of course, who pointed to certain passages in the Bible. They point to the Exodus story, etc., as a basis for saying, you know, slavery is wrong. But the Southerners who supported slavery relied on the same Bible. They were all religious and they argued that the Bible justified slavery. And that’s true today with other issues, whether same sex marriage or abortion. People will find scriptural text that they think can justify their position. And let’s take the argument that, yeah, some people would say that the Bible indicates that women should be quiet. There should be Silje. There should take a back seat. Well, there are other people who will say, you know, progressive religious people use the term somewhat loosely. But in any event, people who will take a different position and say that will. No, you know, those passages in St. Paul, that’s actually Saint Paul giving his personal opinion. That’s not really God speaking. So, you know, God would not say that you should set women out of discussion. It’s a fool’s game, I think, actually, to rely on religious text because religious texts can be interpreted to justify any position. In fact, I have in my book a challenge that I give to believers and I say, look, give me any position that you think can’t be supported by the Bible. If you give me 24 hours, assuming I’m not otherwise occupied, I will find a passage that can justify that position. 

This is an interesting Segway into the idea that religion in general can’t tell us what to do. What makes you think that? 

I guess several arguments. And this is something that occupies a couple of chapters in my book. And I would say I guess I have three separate arguments for that. One, is that kind of a logical argument? One is a practical argument. And one is I would call to use a fancy philosophical term and epistemological argument argument about what we can know. The logical argument is really derived from Plato’s classic argument that he made a long time ago and the dialog. 

Euthyphro Plato’s character, Socrates asked, Do the gods approve something because it’s good or something good because God approves it? This question places the believer in a dilemma. If, in fact, we say that the gods approve something because it’s good, that implies that we have a standard. We humans have a standard for determining what is right and wrong. Independent of what God says. If that’s the case, then what God says is really irrelevant because we can make our own determination what’s right and wrong on the other side of the dilemma. If we say that, no, we can’t tell what’s right from wrong, good from bad. But instead, it’s God who determines those issues, then we really don’t have a basis for claiming that God himself is good because we don’t have any way of telling what’s good and what’s bad. Also, that position would imply that God can tell us to do horrible things such as torturing a child, and we’d be obliged to do that because that’s God’s command. So that’s that’s a logical argument against saying that God can tell us what to do. The practical argument actually has two aspects to it. I mean, how do we know what God’s commands are? They are essentially conveyed to us through revelation and those revelations are set forth in the doctrines and sacred scriptures of various religions. The problem is that the various religions don’t agree with each other about what God’s commands are. You know, the Jewish and Islamic gods say that eating pork is a bad thing. But the Christian God says that’s OK. The Islamic gods, as Friday should be the day that’s holy and reserved for prayer. The Jewish God says Saturday. Christian God says Sunday. The Catholic Christian God says contraception is a moral evil, whereas other religions say there’s no problem with that. So if you’re saying that morality is based on God’s commands, which God are you talking about? In the end, there’s no rational way to decide between these different revelations. And the other practical problem I write touched on, and that is if you look to religious texts as the basis for finding out what a revelation is. And that’s what the major religions look to the Hebrew Bible, the the Bible as a whole for Christians, the Koran for Muslims. Again, those texts are subject to different interpretations. So there’s really no way to tell what God is actually saying. And then finally, we get to my epistemological argument, and this is a fundamental problem. This is an argument I think, that’s original to my book. There is a key critical flaw with the notion of revelation itself. And again, two aspects to it. How is it that the revelations of God are communicated to us? If you’re a member of one of the major religions, you have to accept that critical revelations are communicated only to a handful of individuals. You know, if you’re a Jewish faith, it’s Moses for Christians, obviously Jesus in addition to the Old Testament prophets and therefore you Muslim, you have Mohammed who gives you the definitive revelation? Well, essentially, then, if you’re a believer, you have to accept that God has created what I call a cognitive class system. In other words, there are a privileged few individuals who get the word from God and how we should behave. And then are the buildings of the rest of us who simply have to follow what these prophets allegedly said. Well, one can tell immediately from a system like this that there are only a few individuals who’ve been privy, supposedly to God’s wishes. So that creates a number one system that’s inherently anti-democratic. Furthermore, how would anyone know whether it’s Moses or just the ordinary believer that they’ve actually received a revelation from God? God, by definition, is a transcendent being. That is a being that’s beyond our ordinary experience, because God is beyond our ordinary experience. We cannot compare the experience of a religious revelation to anything else. So that burning Bush that you see, that could be actually a demon talking to you. It could be an alien from another planet or more likely a psychological projection of your preexisting beliefs. There’s no way to confirm that a revelation has occurred. 

It’s interesting in Islam, the story of Mohammed getting his first revelation. Even Mohammed didn’t know that it was a divine intervention. And the story that he goes into the cave and wrestles with, who is the guy who was praying? The Archangel Gabriel in the story comes back to his wife and says, I think I’m losing my mind. And she decides, no, silly. You’ve got a revelation from God. 

Exactly. That’s exactly what happened. Again, according to Muslims themselves, that Mohapatra himself had doubts about whether it was a true revelation and of his wife who actually persuaded him to accept it. 

So in a way, his wife was the first Muslim even before Mohammed Rice. 

It’s kind of interesting giving the status of women in Islam that actually mabern a woman that got the whole ball rolling. But that’s kind of an interesting historical aside. But, yeah, it pinpoints the whole problem with revelation. And that is there is no way outside of a faith commitment to no reason to accept a revelation as being some sort of communication from God. So, as I say, a one critical problem in the book is God can’t tell us what to do, in part because. We can never know when God has actually spoken to us. 

And it seems like existing stable religions tend to like to backstop it and say that, you know, the time of revelation ended because it would just be too chaotic to have people getting revelations all the time. I mean, the Mormons, as they were solidifying into a faith, people would get revelations every time they wanted to change some bit of policy. And the church and the Mormons finally decided, no, wait, we’re going to confine this to Arlete. 

Yeah, it is. That is a very interesting aspect. Again, that points out this situation where if you are a believer in the major religions with Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Mormonism, you have to accept that certain people had the privilege word. And yes, you can talk to God in your prayers, but you can’t come up with a new doctrine that would contradict the accepted view of Mohammed or Jesus or Joseph Smith. 

Joseph Smith’s wife tried really hard. She had a revelation that women should be allowed to have multiple husbands, too. And they were just like, no, no, you didn’t. 

Right. Right. I know. Yes, I know. That’s that’s one of the interesting facts of Mormon history that is not usually stressed by Mormons themselves. The Mormon faith is a little bit interesting because they do believe it’s possible to have continuing revelations. But again, that is channeled through the president of the organization who does have the status of a prophet. So there is one person in the Mormon faith who can change things at least a bit, and that is the president. So that, in fact, is why and the eighteen nineties Mormons gave up polygamy because the prophet at that time said, oh, a God has said about polygamy, never mind, go back to monogamy. And then of course I think was the 1970s. 

The president at that time had a revelation that yes, African-Americans are human beings and we can accept him as priest within our church. So the Mormons do update their revelations. But again, it’s channeled through just one specific person. 

Are the Catholics updating their revelations when the pope speaks? Ex cathedral on faith and morals. 

Interesting question. Yes. The pope supposedly is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. They’ve done that actually not very often. In fact, I think and only a handful of cases if they actually invoke the doctor of infallibility. And furthermore, although they can, my understanding at least they can supplement existing doctrine, but they cannot contradict prior doctrine, which I guess would pose a problem if a pope claimed to be making in an infallible pronouncement that said, oh, you know, the whole idea about Jesus being both God and at the same time, forget that that doesn’t make any sense. I think that would pose a problem problem resulting in the pope being forced from office by. But they have supplemented things. For example, I think the first infallible doctrine was the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which I think was just promulgated around it. And in the 18th 70s, I think that was around the time that the pope declared that. And there’ve been a couple of other doctrines. But as I said, they supplement existing revelation. They don’t supplant. 

So in the book, you sketch out an alternative. If we can’t rely on any particular theology or our own revelations from the supernatural to tell us what’s right and wrong, what are we left with, where do we start in terms of deciding what to do? 

Well, I think if you reflect on a human experience and if you reflect on how humans have behaved throughout history, you’ll recognize that there is actually a core set of norms that all human societies have accepted, which some philosophers refer to as the common morality. And I think one of the problems that people have with morality is they have this whole idea that is a Top-Down thing, right, that somehow we get directions from God or someone else, and that’s how we’re supposed to behave. And that’s why people think if we don’t have God to tell us what to do, oh, we’re going to have a situation of nihilism. Everything’s gonna be subjective. Morality will just be whatever people feel like doing. But that’s not how we should look at morality. We should look at morality as a practical enterprise, something that serves certain functions. And what are the functions of morality? 

Well, essentially, it’s it’s a way for us to live together in peace, live together in peace, Worcester’s stability and security, and also to have a situation where we foster cooperation and collaboration with each other so we can better our conditions. 

So the common morality would be norms like telling the truth, treating people well, who treated you well, refraining from excessive violence and cruelty that can. 

Yeah, exactly. The basic norms of the common morality. You actually probably very few, maybe like a dozen or so. But yes, don’t steal. Keep your commitments. Tell the truth. Don’t harm someone without some good reason for doing that. Don’t kill other people. Work collaboratively with people if you can do so without any significant detriment to your own well-being. And those of you look at any human society. Those are the norms that human societies have fall because that’s the only way that people can live together in peace and to have a functioning society. The major changes there have been obviously changes throughout human history in morality, but the major changes have not been to those core norms. Instead, they’ve been. The scope of morality, in other words, the individuals who are included within one’s moral community, because if you look at early human history, at least what anthropologists tell us is that we were divided first into tribes and these tribes were often at war with each other because they simply had no basis for cooperation or collaboration, a lot of mistrust. Once they started engaging in trade, which was probably the way the human communities first started work with each other, there was then a basis for collaboration. And then the scope of morality slowly increased over time, with the biggest transformations actually coming within the last couple of centuries when slavery was ended, which was a human institution that was around so as we know, since the beginning of human culture. But it was finally put a stop to actually just within the 20th century. And then these subordinate status of women, women were kind of half people, you know, they were included within the scope of the human community. But clearly, in almost all human cultures had a subordinate status. And again, that’s been a huge transformation within human society within the last couple of centuries. Still clearly an unfinished project. But women do have a better position today than they had, say, as short a time ago as like, say, seventeen hundreds in Europe. 

Do you think that this kind of radical moral equality of all humans and maybe other equally sentient beings is part of the common morality? If it were fully worked out and fleshed out, if we fully understood what it was, that it would turn out that in order for the communal morality to really work, you have to have this radical egalitarianism among sentient beings in terms of their rights and obligations. 

I think a strong argument can be made for that. If, in fact, you again, if you look at morality as a practical enterprise, if that’s the case and there is some basis for cooperating with other individuals, because you do need that at the beginning. 

And again, this is the problem that early human societies had. There was, you know, a lot of mistrust, really no way to figure out how to have regular contact and communication with other communities. Well, then you could have a situation where people go resort to violence. Well, that’s not the case. If you have a way to engage with other people, then the best way to do so is to include everyone within the scope of the human community, because that is the best way, obviously, to get the most collaboration from people, to treat others as equal, to treat them as your peers, to treat them with consideration. And that is a way that we get everyone cooperating toward goals that benefit all of us. The alternative, obviously, to morality and to ethical behavior is violence. 

What do we say to religions that say we reject this kind of equality? We think that we have a moral and religious duty to make men rule over women or similar kinds of things, to make people of a certain race relevant people of other races. And we believe in this in terms of religion. What do we do to communicate with them and convince them? 

Well, there’s a couple different approaches. One would be simply a kind of frontal assault on their beliefs. I use the assault term metaphorically at all. 

I mean, physical violence, just logic, bombing, not actual. But I’ve been trying to persuade them that their religious beliefs are wrong. And that’s one tactic. Depending on the situation, I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to that. 

I mean, as someone puts forward an argument for their beliefs, I think certainly atheists can counter that argument, should counter that argument. But the reality is that people who are very strong in their religious beliefs, many of them are not, can be persuaded by arguments for atheist them. And that’s why I actually put forward as an alternative the argument for secularism, trying to make these people understand that if they want to work with other people in a particular society, they can’t rely on their religious precepts as a guide for conduct, because, again, if they do so, they’re shutting out of the conversation. 

Everyone who doesn’t accept their religious precepts, they’re only talking to themselves, essentially. And that is a recipe for dysfunction within that particular society. 

How does this work into your ideas about religious conscientious objection and accommodation where people of faith want certain LB’s that they don’t have to pay certain taxes, don’t have to belong to certain programs, don’t have to do certain things when they raise their children? How do we accommodate stuff like that? Or do we? 

I think we can accommodate religious beliefs to a certain extent within a secular society. The issue is really does the accommodation impose a burden on other people? 

Are there certain accommodations that really do not affect others? Simple things like, you know, if a student wants to wear a scarf or something to class, that’s not a big deal. I don’t see that as harming other people. And I think that’s an accommodation we can make. Same thing with prisoners. Prisoners will often say, well, I want a kosher meal or I want a halaal meal or, you know, something that conforms with my religious beliefs. 

Again, I don’t think it imposes a huge burden on the state to accommodate that. Where I would draw the line is what the person’s actually doing is imposing a burden on other people. A clear example that it actually is the recent controversial. Case, the Hobby Lobby case that was decided by the Supreme Court. You know, it’s one thing to say you don’t have to take contraception, right? Because if you have an objection to contraception, you think it’s evil for some reason. Fine. We’re not going to force you to take contraception. But in the Hobby Lobby case, what these corporations were saying is essentially they want to decide what health care their employees have. And, you know, they didn’t want their women employees to have access to contraception. To me, that’s a misuse of the idea of conscientious objection. It goes beyond accommodating someone’s personal religious beliefs and actually turns into a vehicle for people imposing their religious beliefs on others. 

I have an interesting hypothetical for you. I’m curious to know what you think. My friend who lives in Western Canada asked me this question and I realized I wasn’t sure when I thought about it. In this province, there’s a law that says that everybody has to wear motorcycle helmets. And a guy who is Sikh says he should be exempt from wearing his motorcycle helmet because he wants to wear a turban and he doesn’t see turbans, is compatible with motorcycle helmets. And I really couldn’t figure out because in general, it seems like clothing. But then on the other hand, the argument for motorcycle safety is that you’re not allowed to kill yourself by not wearing a helmet for any reason because it affects other people. And if we gave him a religious exemption, wouldn’t we have to give everybody who didn’t want to wear a helmet and exemption because it would just be considered a self regarding behavior, not a matter of public safety? 

I would agree. Actually, I don’t think there should be an exemption in that case. And you could say, well, that imposes a burden on the person, how these beliefs about the need to wear a turban. Well, there’s a choice about whether to go buy a motorcycle or not. If, in fact, you want to ride a motorcycle, I think you need to obey the general rule about safety requirements. One of the traditional philosophical arguments about helmet laws was that was paternalistic. But it’s really not because, in fact, if you have an accident and have a serious head injury that is imposing costs on others, as everyone knows by now, health care costs are eventually spread over. Everyone rides. We have to pay for the emergency room care, et cetera, et cetera. And obviously, a serious head injury is much more expensive to deal with than a minor head injury. So I would say in that case that it’s up to the person to choose. I mean, if they are very religious and need to wear the turban by itself, the turban doesn’t impose a burden on anyone. So it’s fine if someone wants to wear a turban or a veil. That’s their business. But they have to decide then whether they want to, you know, go by motorcycle or by public transportation or get the money for a car. 

And religious people are actually practiced in coming up with secular, rational justifications for things. I mean, usually when when pressed, they can come up with ideas that are intelligible to secular people as to why their preferred morality is something that we should be persuaded by. 

I mean, it’s certainly true that skilled religious people, people who are used to debating these issues can sometimes come up with convoluted arguments for their positions. Here is where I draw the line between what I think is proper and improper if, in fact, someone is putting forward a religious argument. Then, as I say, that’s improper. If they reformulate the argument in secular terms and can make that argument in terms that are understandable to the rest of us, then I think that’s fine, even if their motivation is a religious one. 

So if they think Jesus said we should give to the poor and they say we should give to the poor so that the poor will thrive and our society will be equal and they’ll be economic growth because the poor can buy goods and services, that would be OK even if ultimately why they wanted to help the poor was because Jesus is example. 

Right. Because we can’t look into a person’s motivations and not be true for whether the person is is religious or non-religious in democratic discourse when we’re debating public policy. Yes, we may suspect that a person has a certain motivation for making an argument. But in terms of dealing with that argument, we deal with that argument on its own terms. So if, in fact, a religious person is putting forth secular reasons why we should adopt a certain policy, then that’s fine. We engage with that person in the common language of secularism and debate the pros and cons of that position. And maybe, in fact, that person can can give us sound reasons for that policy. At the end of the day, then it doesn’t really matter what that person’s motivation is, if, in fact that person has good reasons. Now, a lot of times when religious people do this, when they try to reformulate their arguments, the secular terms, their arguments are wanting. I mean, there’s, again, to allude to same sex marriage. The principal motivation, I think, for opposition to same sex marriage really has been a religious one. And once you take religion out of the picture, what is the argument against it? The opponents of same sex marriage have had a very difficult time coming up with some sort of secular rationale. They’ve tried it, but it has usually failed you labor in some allusions to. Well, you know, same sex couples may not be as good at raising children, but there’s no empirical evidence to support that speculation. 

Also, lots of hetero. Married couples don’t have children or can’t have children. 

Right. Exactly. So, I mean, the whole idea that somehow marriage is an institution that’s geared toward supporting raising children. If you follow that to its logical conclusion, then we would only allow people who can bear children to get married. That’s obviously not the case. So, as I said, yet, when religious people try to formulate their arguments, secular terms, a lot of times it’s a failure because they can’t come up with secular reasons. And I think that the arguments about same sex marriage really emphasize that there hasn’t been a really at least I am not aware of a good secular argument for prohibiting same sex marriage, which is why a lot of courts have found that there’s simply no rational basis for banning it. 

On a practical level, to achieve a secular society where our deliberations are on secular terms, in terms of people speaking on the Florida legislature or writing court opinions and things like that. Is there a way to constrain people from using religious reasons or does it have to just be more social suasion? So we just criticize politicians who get up on the floor of the Senate and quote scripture. Are you envisioning some kind of policy change to make that out of order or something like that? 

No, it really is a matter of social suasion. I mean, we have to appeal to the prudence and self-interest of believers and also just the rationality. 

I mean, we can’t have a law that prohibits use of religious precepts in public policy discussion. Obviously, that would be invasion of free speech. So we we have to, you know, persuade people that the only practical way to have truly meaningful democratic discourse is to adopt a common language is secularism. And we should, given the proper occasion, criticized people who rely on religious doctrine, especially if they’re public officials, and then point out that, you know, when you do that, you’re shutting out significant portions of the population and you’re appealing to something that we can’t discuss because we have we can’t argue about a faith based belief. So, as I said, is is a matter of social suasion and again, to some extent self-interest. I think especially now this is one of the motivations I had for this book. We are in developed countries. Developed countries are becoming much more religiously pluralistic, even within religious populations, as much more diversity. So that in both in Europe and to some extent in North America, Islam, for example, is gaining a foothold. And then we have a phenomenon that really is unprecedented in human history. We have substantial portions of the population in developed countries that are nonreligious. So if, in fact, we are going to have a discussion that encompasses everyone, we have to embrace the common language of secularism. If we don’t do that, then we’re ultimately going to how public policy will be decided. It will be depend on which group can get the most voters to the polls and to religious people want that. Do they want public policy? Decide on whether Muslims vote, know more often than Präsident Christians or Catholic Christians or more often than atheists? I don’t think we want society divided or fractured along the lines of religious belief. 

That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the show. 

I really enjoyed our conversation and thanks for having me. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.