theguardian: by Andrew Brown —
It’s always amusing for an outsider to see the way in which Americans treat their constitutional documents as a sacred text, and then the knots into which they get tied when said sacred text seems to forbid taking any text as sacred. The separation of church and state is not just a doctrine about religion – it is one treated with the respect due to a sacred doctrine.
A decision late last week by the supreme judicial court in Massachusetts – that children may pledge allegiance to their nation “under God”, since no one is forced to do so – has cast light on what this twisted separation means in practice. Conservative websites are howling about how “atheists failed”; humanists will appeal. But, indeed, the court’s opinion is remarkably sniffy about humanism:
[O]ne student’s choice not to participate because of a religiously held belief is, as both a practical and a legal matter, indistinguishable from another’s choice to abstain for a wholly different, more mundane and constitutionally insignificant reason.
This is pretty clearly a judgment of humanism as “more mundane and constitutionally insignificant” when compared to, say, Buddhism – or some other religion that rejects the idea of God. But it still treats humanism as a religion in its legal claims. The content of its theological and metaphysical claims don’t matter. What matters is that those claims should not be imposed on the adherents of other systems.
Just because humanism is legal doesn’t mean that humanists can force kids at an elementary school in Boston to stop thanking the God they believe in.
Even the grounds on which the Massachusetts case was brought seem to concede that humanism is a religious stance like any other. It was brought by the family of a humanist child, which surely violates the Dawkins claim that children should never inherit the opinions of their parents: if there cannot be a Catholic or a Muslim child, how on earth can there be a humanist one? As the plaintiff’s lawyer said after losing the case, “No child should go to public school every day, from kindergarten to grade 12, and be faced with an exercise that portrays his or her religious group as less patriotic.”
Once again, humanism has been treated as a kind of religious grouping, if not an outright religion. I think this is quite right, but there is no reason to privilege its beliefs over those of any other sect. Humanist claims to have superceded “religion” should be treated with the same kind of scepticism as Islam’s claim to have superceded Christianity.
The trouble with that claim – that no religion should be privileged above any other – is that it makes sense only so long as we agree what a religion is. The closer we get to a definition, the more obvious it becomes that this can’t be propositional. There simply isn’t – and can’t be – an agreed definition of what is necessary to believe in order to be religious. What matters is how beliefs are treated. Anything can become a shibboleth, and anything can be used as a liturgy.
William James, the greatest American philosopher of religion, claimed that to take a statement as true was to act on it as if it were. And so when a defender of the separation of church and state acts on the belief, they tend to make it true. But of course it is defended and honored as if it were a timeless revelation. Especially in Boston.
Origional Post here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2014/may/14/atheists-religion-pledge-of-allegiance-legal