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A secular state is not an atheist state

datePosted on 06:00, February 3rd, 2009 by Anita

Like most New Zealanders I believe in a secular state, like most New Zealanders I have religious faith.

A secular state is one which does not privilege one set of religious beliefs above another, and in which religious institutions do not control its affairs. Yet more and more often I hear our state described as if it should be an atheist one – one where religious belief is not permitted to influence policy or action.

When people spoke out for and against section 59 from a position of faith their views were real and deserved to be heard and valued, not dismissed or ridiculed as religious.

When I argue against genetic engineering from a faith based position (humans have no right to alter the fundamental building blocks of other species) my view is real and deserves to be heard and taken into account.

When people speak out against a development from a position founded in spiritual beliefs their view is real and deserves to be heard and taken into account.

There are two reasons that our secular state must taken into account views that are founded in faith. This first is that our society was built on Christian principles and they remain entwined in our morality today, denying those foundations in faith would leave us unable to examine them. Secondly, the majority of the people who make up this country do have strong personal belief – ranging from Catholicism, to atheism, to Buddhism – when we speak the state must listen to our whole voice.

16 Responses to “A secular state is not an atheist state”

  1. fraser on February 3rd, 2009 at 07:23

    i suppose its all in how you define what an atheist state is.

    I see the state as secular = atheist, simply because if its not atheist it “believes” in a deity.

    so.. which deity?,
    and doesnt that then take a position that is biased to folks who believe in a different deity – or no deity at all?

    Then which faction of which diety – and so on…

    ——————————————

    “This first is that our society was built on Christian principles” – some of it yes, some of it no. some of it probably would of happened regardless. Did we not have society before JC? you know – the greeks, egyptians etc etc.

    Once again i know what youre trying to say, but i think that this is a much more involved and multifaceted argument than can be asserted in that one line.

  2. Lewis Holden on February 3rd, 2009 at 07:28

    “when we speak the state must listen to our whole voice.”

    Well, not when it comes to the head of State…

  3. Anita on February 3rd, 2009 at 07:36

    fraser writes,

    I see the state as secular = atheist, simply because if its not atheist it “believes” in a deity.

    I think that “atheist” is an active belief that there is no deity, so an atheist state is one which is based on a belief that everyone who believes in a deity is wrong and all faith based arguments are based on a fundamentally flawed premise and that people are wrong-headed for holding them. That way lies dismissing some of the views of most New Zealanders and privileging one belief structure (atheism) over all others.

    I think a secular state is closer to agnosticism – that is it is based on the belief that it is impossible to be sure whether a deity exists and if one does which one. That way it doesn’t privilege any religion above others, or religious beliefs above other beliefs, but it does accept that people may be justified in holding their particular religious (or atheist) beliefs and is able to listen to and value those beliefs.

  4. Anita on February 3rd, 2009 at 07:39

    Lewis Holden writes,

    Well, not when it comes to the head of State…

    Yep, the relationship between the Queen and the Church of England is one of the many ways our current state is entangled with Christian structures and principles.

  5. Pascal's bookie on February 3rd, 2009 at 08:08

    I disagree that secular means agnosticism in the way you describe it. It is not so much that the state ‘can’t be sure’ if God exists or not, but that the state ‘shouldn’t care’.

    The state should have no religious purpose. It should concern itself only with secular things, ie things that are wordly etc. If there isn’t a secular arguement for something, the state should butt out and leave it to the individual conscience.

    For any given policy area, individuals can use their religious freedom to do/think what they want. But if the only reasoning they can bring to bear is religious, then the state must not take that line. To do so is to endorse that religion, to the exclusion of others.

    A strict interpretation of state secularism, meaning that the state simply ignores and refuses to use religious reasoning, is the only way to protect freedom of, (not to mention ‘from’), religion.

    (sprinkle various ‘In my view’s, ‘As I see it’s, ‘to my way of thinking’s, and garnish with a two cent piece)

  6. fraser on February 3rd, 2009 at 08:13

    agnostic state – hmm. fair enough. its all about definitions of words that would create the difference here me thinks.

    Theres a whole lot more faith vs atheism stuff we could go into – but that would quickly get off topic even when trying to stay on topic (and pretty dull, with no clear winner on the day – etc etc)

    so i will leave it there

  7. fraser on February 3rd, 2009 at 08:23

    hmm – edit not working (probably my connection)

    anyhoo – what PB says puts across what i was getting at in a better fashion

    (ive seen you do that numerous times PB – how do you do it? :-)

  8. Pascal's bookie on February 3rd, 2009 at 09:05

    Heh. Just the right amount of drugs? Personally I blame the parents.

    Anyway, thanks :)

  9. Anita on February 3rd, 2009 at 11:13

    Pascal’s Bookie writes,

    The state should have no religious purpose. It should concern itself only with secular things, ie things that are wordly etc. If there isn’t a secular arguement for something, the state should butt out and leave it to the individual conscience.

    The state should have no religious mandate or function, nor should it privilege some religious beliefs over others. Its role, however, is to serve its citizens and create a country which meets the needs of, and is consistent with the moral codes of, those people.

    Take the death penalty as an example. We can construct arguments around the death penalty on the basis of effectiveness as a deterrent and/or prevention, on its non-reversibility and so on. But the real reason we don’t have the death penalty in NZ is that the vast majority of us believe it would be just wrong – it just feels wrong. I think that’s a perfectly valid reason for a state to not have the death penalty; the population believes it is morally wrong, does it matter whether that belief is based in “religious” or “ethics” or “humanism”?

    As an aside, I also think most of our “human rights” rhetoric is founded in Christianity, many would argue that “human rights” is a secular absolute, but dig far enough and its founded on individual belief structures. This is part of why we struggle to preach human rights to non-Christian countries, our rhetoric is rooted in Christianity even though we have convinced ourselves otherwise.

  10. George Darroch on February 3rd, 2009 at 12:24

    The majority of the people who make up this country do have strong personal belief – ranging from Catholicism, to atheism, to Buddhism – when we speak the state must listen to our whole voice.

    I don’t think so, actually. The majority of the people have strong beliefs, but these aren’t necessarily strong religious ones. They may be held with a vague religious backing, but generally fit within a worldview rather than specific doctrine.

    The proportion of the population who are actively religious is small and continues to decline. This isn’t to say that the opinions of a religious minority are not important, nor that non-religious beliefs aren’t better or worse. I just think you’re mildly overstating the position that religious morality and belief has on political positions of NZers.

  11. Ari on February 3rd, 2009 at 14:09

    The proportion of the population who are actively religious is small and continues to decline. This isn’t to say that the opinions of a religious minority are not important, nor that non-religious beliefs aren’t better or worse. I just think you’re mildly overstating the position that religious morality and belief has on political positions of NZers.

    Well, at about 35% of New Zealanders identified as non-religious in the 2006 census, so I think Anita is broadly right to say that religion has a large influence on society here and that people’s beliefs shouldn’t be ignored just because they’re religious. (We’re a secular state after all, not an atheist one.)

    That said, I think we can and should usually demand more comprehensive public debate that goes above the level of “I just don’t like it”, which to me is essentially the message I read when someone feels their religious principles are justification for public policy.

  12. Quoth the Raven on February 3rd, 2009 at 15:02

    Ari, Anita – Those census numbers are misleading. Those people may identify themselves as Christian, but how many of them actually have as Anita says strong personal belief. Numbers on church attendance would be more illuminating. I’m guessing that church attendance would be 2-3% as in much of Europe. And then even those that profess Christianity and attend church often when pushed on the matter have a very limited knowledge of the Bible. Further, I believe those people on the census may equate a belief in god with Christianity which is simply not so. A belief in god does not make you a Christian. I think it would be more accurate to call these people theists and have theist included as a category in the census. So to say that the majority of people hold strong personal beliefs in this country is wrong. Whether atheist, agnostic or theist as the majority of people are that “belief” is not usually strong.
    Anita – Atheism is not necessarily a belief at all and most atheists do not treat it as such. From wikipedia: It is also defined more broadly as an absence of belief in deities, or nontheism. I think most people in their definitions and self-identification have some broad overlap between atheism and agnosticism. Isn’t Buddhism atheist/nontheist for most?
    I personally think on the issue of secularism that it ought to be one where religious belief is not permitted to influence policy or action. Once again from wikipedia: “Secularism is the assertion that governmental practices or institutions should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.” To me any imposition on anyone’s freedom due to someone’s relgious beliefs what ever that may be is wrong and not secular. So for instance any laws against abortion, marriage, sexual acts, recreational drugs, &c if guided by someone’s relgious beliefs is not secular. As such New Zealand is not a secular nation.

  13. Danyl Mclauchlan on February 3rd, 2009 at 15:41

    I think most people in their definitions and self-identification have some broad overlap between atheism and agnosticism. Isn’t Buddhism atheist/nontheist for most?

    I remember talking to the Buddhist Abbot in Stokes Valley, who occasionally attended pan-religious conferences and was always amused when (inevitably) the closing speaker emphasised that, whatever their differences, at least they all believed in God – when of course the majority of the Buddhists present did not.

  14. James on February 3rd, 2009 at 16:42

    As Raven said Atheism is a LACK of a belief in a God….a negative.All People are born Atheists by default….the concept of a deity being learned later.

    Anitas right about a secular state not being an Atheist one….it’s actually nutrally objective….caring not a jot for any varible outside of the fact that a person is a human being with rights.The colour,race,creed,sex,religious belief etc etc of a person/persons are irralavant to the narrow task of rights protection.If human being A is violated by B thats whats important…not anything else.

    But when the State starts allowing these varibles to influence how it deals with people (hate speech laws,anti-discrimination etc) it becomes an enemy of the very people its supposed to serve and protect and sets group against group with the inevertible results…see the infighting here in NZ, Maori vs everyone else,Active Gays vs Conservatives,Christians vs anyone with a raw sense of humour…..

  15. Ari on February 4th, 2009 at 14:36

    Ari, Anita – Those census numbers are misleading. Those people may identify themselves as Christian, but how many of them actually have as Anita says strong personal belief. Numbers on church attendance would be more illuminating. I’m guessing that church attendance would be 2-3% as in much of Europe. And then even those that profess Christianity and attend church often when pushed on the matter have a very limited knowledge of the Bible. Further, I believe those people on the census may equate a belief in god with Christianity which is simply not so. A belief in god does not make you a Christian. I think it would be more accurate to call these people theists and have theist included as a category in the census. So to say that the majority of people hold strong personal beliefs in this country is wrong. Whether atheist, agnostic or theist as the majority of people are that “belief” is not usually strong.

    Right, I agree with you there and hadn’t assumed that religious belief is especially strong here. (I would’ve said that it isn’t, most Christian religions and churches are bleeding members, and the increase in other religions is probably due to immigration)

    I was more intending to point out that if only 35% classed themselves as non-religious then we’re not exactly a highly agnostic country, either :) It’s also worth pointing out that a lot of people who don’t call themselves christians actively actually believe in what are called “judeo-christian values” by American conservatives. In that sense I agree with Anita that religion has a broad influence on society even though we are increasingly secular, and possibly one of the more secular countries overall.

    As Raven said Atheism is a LACK of a belief in a God….a negative.All People are born Atheists by default….the concept of a deity being learned later.

    You’re confusing atheism with agnosticism. Athiests are actively sceptical of God and/or religions, and it’s a position that needs to be “learned” as much as a religion does.

  16. James on February 7th, 2009 at 12:08

    You’re confusing atheism with agnosticism. Athiests are actively sceptical of God and/or religions, and it’s a position that needs to be “learned” as much as a religion does.

    Wrong….Atheists mat be either actively sceptical,totally indifferent or totally ignorant of the concept of God at all.A ‘theist’ is someone with a positive belief in the existence of a God/Gods…..an “A-theist” is by definition someone lacking a belief in the same….a negative view.

    There is no such thing as agnostisism….these people are really atheists as they can’t be said to hold a positve belief in a God so are Atheists by default. (see George H Smiths excellent book “Atheism: The case against God)

    Read this piece that makes this case well..

    http://nogodzone.blogspot.com/2007/04/long-row-of-zeros-still-adds-up-to.html

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