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Monday, April 23, 2012

The Age of Treason: Building a Secular Nation

by Anthony Nguyen

     Politics in America today, as is readily observable on almost any news channel, can be a very hyperbolic, partisan, and longwinded process. This aggravating process is only exacerbated by the religious ideologies that stand stalwart against nearly all opposing viewpoints. In the case of the United States of America, the religion “at fault” per se, is Christianity. This is not to say that Christianity itself or all of its followers are a hindrance to society; rather, the detriment is when Christian principles become entangled with the policies of lawmakers and inhibit progressive legislation. Whether it is the promotion of “intelligent design” in science curriculum, the outright denial of worldwide effects of human-induced climate change, or the exclusion of civil rights of counterculture groups, the combination of faith and politics very often leads to the widespread (and often accepted) promotion of dangerously antiquated beliefs. In short, American governmental policies that are based in religion foster an anti-intellectual environment, prevent adequate human rights, and inhibit rationalism and progressivism in the American society.

     Biological evolution is widely regarded in the scientific community as a valid theory, based on its wide array of comprehensive scientific evidence, which has resulted from decades of research in a variety of fields. Fossil records, radiometric dating, DNA sequencing, and genetic studies all attest to the authenticity of evolutionary science. However, the issue of importance in politics is not only the validity of biological evolution, but also the insistence of “intelligent design” as an equally valid alternative. The idea of intelligent design, in modern Christianity, postulates that the universe was created by a supreme being, or the Christian god. This idea would not be so harmful or even controversial if it were kept within the churches which supposed it. Alas, one of the fundamental tenets of faith is to spread ideology and dogma to all corners of the world. In the Bible, Mark 16:15 states,
“And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”  
     From this passage, one could see how determined and unyielding this religious goal can be. Of course, it was not long after the inception of biological evolutionary theory that the debate between evolution and creationism was brought into public and legal view. The highly publicized Scopes Trial in 1925 was the first trial that addressed these critical issues. The outcome of the trial saw the expansion of the teaching of evolution, as well as the devaluation of fundamentalist creationism in the public opinion. Multiple subsequent trials have dealt with the same issue, even as recent as the past decade. In 2005, the trial Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District was the first intelligent design related trial to be brought to the U.S. Federal Courts. The findings, delivered by Judge John E. Jones, were as follows:
“Teaching intelligent design in public school biology classes violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (and Article I, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania State Constitution) because intelligent design is not science and "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents. "” (Jones, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District)
     The Establishment Clause he refers to is the section of the U.S. Constitution denoting freedom of religion and separation of religion from government policies, otherwise known as the separation of church and state. Despite many similar rulings in favor of science and evolution, many American politicians continue to disregard the Establishment Clause and push for intelligent design taught in schools. In fact, a few current presidential candidates have even called for the abolition of the separation between church and state. These views are dangerous in that they encourage anti-intellectualism in what is a necessarily intellectual place of learning. The idea of intelligent design is not a testable hypothesis, is not based in any scientific method of inquiry, and – as stated in Judge Jones’ decision above – is therefore “not science.”

Many of the same proponents of intelligent design use the Bible as a justification for their beliefs. In turn, their beliefs are used as justification for their policies. In general, I believe it unwise and hazardous for personal religious belief to dictate policy. Take, for example, a leader who believes that his god has called him to war with another powerful militaristic nation (perhaps Russia, or China, or North Korea). His belief then becomes the basis for his action, and this action could hypothetically start a nuclear war. Thus, his beliefs no longer affect him individually, but they also adversely affect the lives of millions of others. However, a war need not be nuclear or even martial to impact the lives of people. The cultural war that occurs every day within the United States is as good of an example as any. A far-right wing of political leaders shouts out the tenets of “good faith” and would have their constituents believe that this country needs “restoring” and “fixing.” They point to their Bibles as undeniable fact and then formulate proposals for policy, checklist constitutions for a successful Christian nation. Homosexuals should never be allowed to marry, let alone serve in the military. Women should not have the right to choose abortion, and really should not even be able to use contraception at will. Children of all ages should be taught the word of the Christian god in public schools across the nation. Why would they take such stances? The Holy Bible, the infallible word of god, the basis of their beliefs has it explicitly written. The words on the pages told them so, or a voice in their head said that this is right and just. Such are the talking points of the right wing of politics as of late. Meanwhile, the aforementioned groups of interest watch the dialogue unfold. Gays, lesbians, women, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, generic non-believers, and many other minority groups can see very clearly that these policies infringe on their civil and human rights. It’s a politicized and televised display of unabashed bigotry. Much of this talk goes unchallenged in principle. The religion of these public figures has warped the political discourse into a very unsavory territory, that which disregards what were formerly known as “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

There are many defining features of a progressive society. Insofar as technological modernization is concerned, America is a shining example of a successful industrial nation. However, progressivism has its realm well beyond the borders of industrialization. Much political talk in the modern age could be focused on preventing war, fighting hunger and poverty in third-world countries, and developing breakthrough technologies that might revolutionize communication or travel. But a large majority of political discussion is truly the antithesis of progressive. Instead of talks of diplomacy or charity or innovation, the discussion centers around those hot issues: “should Steve really be allowed to marry Charlie?” “Global warming is a hoax perpetuated by left-wing atheist scientists!” “Our president is a Marxist, Communist terrorist from Kenya hell-bent on destroying America! And just where is his birth certificate?” When the dialogue reaches such unimaginable levels of inanity, one wonders if there is any possible progressive force left in politics that can reverse the trend. Now, it’s altogether unreasonable to suggest that any single person or idea could solve poverty or bring world peace, but progressivism isn’t utopianism. For a functional political body, the views and ideas must first be rational, then practical. We’ve got a long way to go before rational discourse is the norm, and eliminating faith from politics is just the first step in a reformation process.

     In The End of Faith, Sam Harris also argues about the dangers of religion. However, Harris frames his argument very broadly. He asserts that religion as a whole is dangerous, irrational, and should be unnecessary in human society. Personally, I believe that the more specific and attainable goals of discussion should focus on the negative impact of religion on American politics. It is evident from a brief scan of American history that politics is a very volatile field. So, I find it more reasonable and realistic not to attack religion as a whole, but to begin with its underlying problems in politics – namely that the policies based in religion should no longer be tolerated. The perpetrators of these policies deny the sciences of climate change and evolution; they deny civil rights to minority groups while perpetuating intolerance; they frivolously rant and shift the national focus away from progressive issues; they base it all on their faith. The danger of these rants and proposed policies is essentially in the nature of the society that they cultivate. Through these religious-based ideas, our government faces the bleak possibility of becoming a war-hawked, totalitarian theocracy. I believe that the biggest implicit danger that the United States currently faces comes from the overlap between religion and politics, and that immediate action is necessary to revert the national attention to much more progressive issues. Intellectualism and rational thought must be regarded above faith in this respect. If action is not taken, it might not be long before Orwellian prophecies of 1984-ish proportions begin to materialize from the militaristic, anti-intellectual, oppressive propaganda. After all, the mottos of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 begin to seem hauntingly appropriate in this context: “WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”