Atheists: Let your conscience be your god

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Recently I was invited to participate in a Religion and Law Conference at Florida State University. Almost all the other speakers and attendees were legal or religion scholars, from disciplines in which I’ve had no formal training.


My only “credential” to speak was as a former plaintiff in a South Carolina Supreme Court victory for atheists. In a conference session called “Legislating Conscience,” I described (to much amusement and agreement with my position) the legal roadblocks South Carolina had placed in my path in its failed attempt to maintain god belief as a requirement for public office. The conference, though, was not a “kumbaya” weekend because I disagreed with many speakers on issues they supported.

Almost all attendees were religious liberals, whose conference papers I’d roughly place in three categories: (1) objection to favoring mainstream religions over minority religions; (2) approval of selected government support for religion; (3) disputes over what legally constitutes a religion.

I agreed with all the cases presented in (1) and disagreed with all the cases presented in (2). My position was that government should never favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion.

The most interesting discussion for me was about (3), disputes over what legally constitutes religion, because I found all the attempts to define religion problematic. One speaker defined religion as “a sincerely held non-rational (i.e., faith based) belief concerning the nature of the universe.” Why, I asked, should our government privilege irrational beliefs over rational beliefs? Of course there are both theistic and nontheistic religions, the latter placing more emphasis on what adherents view as rational beliefs.

Written By: Herb Silverman
continue to source article at washingtonpost.com

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  1. Religion is a nutty belief that gets special legal privilege.

    What is very peculiar is such beliefs get precedence over rational ones. If you can give a religious reason for exception to a normal dress rule you will have much better odds than if you give a rational one, ditto refusing military service.

  2. What do people think about this phrase?
    “government should never favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion.”
    When I read it I agreed with it, but wonder if government should have anything to do with religion, let alone favor it? People might cry foul if government stopped funding community projects run by churches, but then again public money is being controlled by churches. At least the atheist communities keep growing every year.

    • In reply to #3 by A3Kr0n:

      What do people think about this phrase?
      “government should never favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion.”
      When I read it I agreed with it, but wonder if government should have anything to do with religion, let alone favor it? People might cry foul if government stopped funding…

      My suggested answer: If you have government by laws, you have to define the relationship between government and other institutions; its privileges, limits and exceptions. In the same way limits are placed on freedom of expression or movement. Police can not enter your home without a warrant (officially, unofficially they can trick or force their way in but usually you can’t prove it against organized perjury) but there are exceptions for exigent circumstances.

  3. The “Lemon Law” of which the Silverman speaks is one of the many stupid opinions of SCOTUS. In Lemon, the Court, perhaps sensing that its prior decisions were hopelessly inconsistent and undecipherable, tried to formulate a test for the analysis of the constitutionality of a challenged statute:
    1. The statute must have a secular purpose.
    2. The primary effect of the statute must not advance or inhibit religion.
    3. The statute must not foster excessive government entanglement withreligion.

    A moment’s reflection will reveal how artificial and unweildly these criteria are and why the court often does not refer to the Lemon case as precedent today. In Lemon, the state had taken pains to make sure that religion and the school were not entangled. The court found that by monitoring the situation to ensure non-entanglement, the arrangement necessarily entangled the church and state. Catch 22.

  4. We can have faith in different things. For example I can have faith ( a degree of certainty from her actions and behaviours) that my wife is being faithful to me and since I do not feel a need to test the proposition by any rigorous means it remains an act of faith. I can have faith in ideals such as natural justice or at a stretch since I cannot prove it absolutely, faith that there is no god which is the best position I can arrive at on the lack of evidence from those who say there is one.

    But to be a religion by definition we have to say is not just faith per se as this leads us to the preposterous argument often trucked out by theists that atheism is the same as religious faith. It is much different. To be a religion by definition it must offer some redemption and salvation for the belief and making the right proficiations (hard to fake acts of commitment) without which the redemption is not achievable. All religions are characterised by some stronger or weaker version of this meme.

    Losing susceptibility to this ploy the believer will quickly desert their god and find another more suitable which is why we have xtianity in the first place and why we have so many different versions of abrahamism

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