Monday, June 27, 2011

The Myth of a Secular/Neutral Government.

Most Americans espouse a belief that government should be secular or neutral.  They believe the government should not favor any one group or institution over another and should treat them all fairly.  It shouldn’t favor Christians over Atheists or heterosexuals over homosexuals.  Unfortunately, that is impossible.  Given what the government is expected to do (make and enforce laws), it will always have to marginalize and discriminate against some groups over others.

While the idea that the government should stand as a neutral entity is appealing, it is impossible.  There is nothing that relates to people that is “worldview free” and this includes the government.  Every time the government does X, it discriminates against and marginalizes everyone who believes differently or thinks that X is wrong (I am using X as an all-encompassing term for a real or factious thing).

When the Federal Government legally recognizes heterosexual marriage and fails to recognize homosexual marriage, it is discriminating against and marginalizing everyone who wants/thinks/believes in homosexual marriage.  When the State of New York legally recognizes homosexual marriage, it is discriminating against and marginalizing everyone who thinks/believes homosexual marriage is wrong.  Even if the government took a stand off approach of not legally recognizing any marriage (A view I am sympathetic to), that would marginalize everyone who believes the government has a responsibility to promote a good society through the promotion of a marriage based family unit.  Every time the government makes a law against X, it is discriminating against everyone whose worldview supports X.  The opposite is also true.

When the government takes one position, it is by the nature of this act excluding everyone who believes something contrary to this position.  This is the true not just with homosexual marriage, but with virtually everything.  It’s true with important issues (promoting/allowing abortion rights marginalizes Pro Life people) and frivolous, stupid ones (declaring that the Earth is a sphere marginalizes the Flat Earth Society).  In fact, I’m marginalizing the Flat Earth Society by declaring that it is based on a stupid issue.  To some degree, it’s not a big deal for me to marginalize certain people and groups (like Mac gamers and decaff. drinkers) because I have no authority over them.  It doesn’t substantially affect Mac gamers and decaff. drinkers if I call them stupid.  It does affect people when the government marginalizes them because the government has authority over them.

The reason for this is that the government must make judgments about behavior (make and enforce laws) and it is impossible to make a “worldview free” judgment.  

A worldview is the framework of ideas and beliefs through which we understand and interpret the world.  Every person has a worldview, so there are a lot of different types of worldviews.  “Worldview” is a larger and more encompassing term than “religion” and so it is far more useful here.  Every religion has a (or multiple) worldviews, but not every worldview is religious (Atheism is a worldview, but no atheist who is worth anything wants to be called religious).  It’s analogous to “religion” being a larger and more encompassing term than “Christianity.”  It is far more useful and accurate to refer to dividing up worldviews, than it is to divide up religious and non–religious beliefs.  Whether a worldview is religious or non-religious it will always make metaphysical claims or axioms that cannot be proven (or at least are very very difficult to prove).  This is the main point and the main problem.

All worldviews start from axioms.  An axiom is a starting point that worldview argues from in order to get to its other beliefs.  Axioms are the foundations of worldviews.  Every worldviews has them and almost none of them can be proven.  For example, my worldview has an axiom that everything that exists is logically possible and as such, contradictions do not actually exist in the real world.  From this axiom, I build up to the belief that things like the laws of reason, causality, and logic are valid.  I cannot prove this axiom; I must use logic to demonstrate why it is valid.  But it is logically fallacious for me to use logic without first proving logic is valid.  I must “beg the question” and assume the existence of the thing I am proving in order to prove it.  This is why I cannot prove logic is valid and why it an axiom (or a properly basic belief).

So how does all this tie into the myth of secular government?  Simple, as the Government must make judgment calls (make and enforce laws) it must operate in a worldview.  Yet this fact is the very thing that a lot of Americans and American politicians don’t want the government to do.  All the calls for the government to be “fair” and “impartial” are really quite stupid and irrational.  Fair and impartial in sense of not discriminating between worldviews is impossible.

At practical level, everyone does understand this.  Whenever someone looks at a group of people and says that something they are doing/believing is wrong, that person is judging between worldviews.  When I say it was wrong for Nazis to kill Jews and it was wrong for the Aztecs to perform human sacrifices I am saying that my worldview (which says anti-Semitism and human sacrifice are morally deplorable) is superior to the worldview of the Nazis and the Aztecs.  By saying they are wrong, I am marginalizing and discriminating against Nazis and the ancient Aztecs.

By “secular,” some people actually do mean things that are non-religious.  However, a secular government in this sense is an even worse idea.  That type of secular government will end up marginalizing all the religious worldviews and promoting secular worldviews for no other reason than that they are religious or secular.  As all worldviews start from axioms, discriminating among them based on whether they are traditionally religious or not is stupid.  It’s not as if a secular worldview can be “proven” and a religious worldview cannot be.  Neither of them can be “proven” in this sense.

Some people, like the late philosopher Richard Rorty, suggest that in light of these points, we should forget about worldviews and just work together for the common good.  The problem with that is your worldview informs what you believe the common good is.  A strictly Christian worldview will condemn Abortion as a great moral evil because it is taking human life.  An agnostic or atheistic worldview would not strictly condemn it, but try to assess whether it is a useful tool for controlling population and other such things.  The point is that there are lots of places and issues where the very idea of what is good is informed by your worldview and as such, you cannot achieve consensuses with conflicting worldviews.

So the government cannot be neutral (unless it stops passing and enforcing laws), it should not be secular (that assumes secular worldviews are superior with no justification), and it cannot simply work for a “common good” (there is no shared “common good” among worldviews).

This is much more of a problem now than it used to be.  To a large degree, most people in America used to operate from a quasi-Christian worldview.  I question how “Christian” some aspects of it were, but there was a general level of consensus about most basic things.  Now there is not.  It is easy to be fair when most everyone agrees.  In order for the government to function, it has to discriminate against and marginalize some people.  Right now, it does this to murders, rapists, certain types of drug users, and other criminals.

To a large a degree what most of the American electorate is asking for (that the government not discriminate between pro and anti gay marriage/drug use/abortion worldviews) is impossible.  There is no solution or counter to this problem, because it is a simple fact of reality.  We have to discriminate between worldviews in order to survive and function, so does the government.


  1. unless the gov. removes itself from the picture... as in gives the approval of marriage to another organization. then it would be neutral again, so maybe thats what people should be asking for, the government to give up being in charge of certain things.

  2. Scott,
    I am sympathetic to that idea. It's very logically and emotionally appealing to say that it's not the government's business who or what you merry.
    The trouble with this is that the government is required to do certain things which require it to take a position on marriage. For example the government to runs foster care and adoption services. In order to make and enforce laws about these (and others) things the government has to take a viewpoint. Unfortunately it can't just opt out.