I had an e-mail discussion with a theist recently sparked by the recent national day of prayer ruling in federal court. It became apparent to me that a large problem in discussions of church state separation issues is confusion between the issue of neutrality itself and the substantive issue of religion. Theists arguing with atheists about neutrality think that if they agree that the government should be neutral on issues of religion, the atheist have won the religion argument. That is not true.
Of course, there can be no neutrality on the issue of neutrality itself, But that does not prevent neutrality on all other issues. Perhaps the following three examples will help clarify the difference:
1. Country A is at war with Country B. Country C is debating whether to get involved. Citizens for A demand that the government of C support A. Citizens for B demand that the government of C support B. Citizens for the advancement of C advocate for taking the opportunity to attack and conquer both A and B. If the government decides to take no action and declare support for neither A or B, which citizen group won?
That question is a non sequiter. No one won on the substantive issue of who should be supported or attacked. The “winner” was a fourth group advocating neutrality. And that group may consist of people from at least two of the other groups. Supporters of A could still think their government should stay neutral and supporters of B could too. They may want A or B to win but they may agree that C should stay out of it.
2. The Christians think we need to pray to Yahweh for guidance. The Muslims think we need to pray to Allah and make women start wearing burqas. The Atheists think praying is a waste of time and energy and we should devote the time and energy to seeking practical solutions. Some Christians, some Muslims and some Atheists together agree that the government should not choose sides by acknowledging, supporting or discouraging any side. Three resolutions are introduced in the legislature:
a. We hereby declare that the guidance and help from Yahweh is our only hope and, therefore call upon the people to pray to Him for assistance in our time of crises.
b. We hereby declare that the resources and energy of the people are being drained and wasted in religious pursuits and we, therefore, call upon the people to cease all religious practice and observance and concentrate on practical solutions.
c. We recognize that our only hope is the assistance of Allah. We therefore encourage the people to pray to Allah for wisdom and encourage our women to wear burqas.
If the legislature passes none of the options who won? Does anyone really believe that passing none of the offered resolutions is a win for the atheists on the religious debate?
3. A nation’s congress is compromised of Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell, Billy Graham, Me and an atheist friend. The first question for a vote: Shall the government of this nation be neutral on matters of religion? Of course, Pat, Jerry and Billy vote against neutrality. And guess who votes with them? Stalin and Mao. They certainly were not for state neutrality on religion. Anyone who wants to use government to force their particular view on religion on everyone else – atheist, Christian, Muslim, or other theist -- will oppose neutrality.
The second question is: Which position on religion will we take. Guess how that vote goes? The preachers' votes against neutrality now come back to haunt them. But notice that the vote on neutrality itself was not an “atheist” victory. The atheists were divided on the question. Had the preachers sided with the other half of the atheists on neutrality, the second vote would not have occurred.
Agreeing that the government will not support or attack any position on religion does not mean the atheists win. It means those Christians, Muslims and Atheists who share the belief that the government should be neutral on religion won on the issue of neutrality alone. No one won the religious debate, it rages on among the people unsupported and unfettered by the government.
Why don’t we renew the agreement of our founders that none of us will seek to make the government a party to our religious practices so that all of the people can remain free to practice their religions (or lack thereof) without interference or assistance from the government?