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Schouborg, Gary (2005). "The Separation of State and Atheism".



The Separation of State and Atheism


Gary Schouborg



Atheist activists want to take reference to God out of governmental proclamations in order to make the state neutral with regard to religion. Their goal is confused in three ways, failing to recognize that: (1) atheists are themselves people of faith; (2) atheism is itself a religion; and (3) religious neutrality in governmental proclamations is impossible. The Constitution that separates state and religion also separates state and atheism. However, the goal of atheist activists amounts to the establishment of atheism.


The conflict here is not, as commonly said, between believers and non-believers. It is between believers of two different faiths — that God exists and that God does not exist — neither of which can be proven. Atheism is therefore a religion alongside all the others, with its own distinctive, unproven body of faith. In forbidding the establishment of religion, the Constitution forbids establishing either theist or atheist faiths.


Atheist activists sometimes argue that theyíre not trying to establish atheism. That would occur only if they wanted governmental proclamations to state that God doesnít exist. What atheists want is to avoid implying anything about Godís existence one way or the other. Only this is governmental religious neutrality, leaving citizens free to refer to God however they wish in the privacy of their own lives.


This atheist argument would be unassailable if religious belief had only literal meaning. However, atheist activists miss the expressive meaning, which connects private with public lives and points to deeply felt experiences and values that both theists and atheists often share.


My nephew Rob recently supplied me with an example of these two functions of religious language — literal and expressive. Anxious about upcoming eye surgery, he finds considerable comfort in Isaiah 41:10 —


Have no fear, for I am with you;

do not be looking about troubled, for I am your God;

I will give you strength, yes, I will be your helper;

yes, my true right hand will be your support.


Literally, the passage proclaims the existence of a loving God who supports us in dealing with our particular challenge. Believers may understand this help to be external or internal.


External: God will work a miracle on our behalf, like raining down manna from heaven, smiting our enemies, or guiding our ophthalmologistís hand to operate successfully.


Internal: God will give us the inner strength we need to meet the challenge.


And of course believers may understand any combination of the two. For example, if we are believers we may focus entirely on the external meaning, so that we have no sense of our inner resources and believe that we are totally subject to whatever God wills. Or we may think it presumptuous to rely on a miracle and therefore may focus entirely on the internal meaning, so that we believe God will give us the inner strength to meet the challenge. Or we may both hope for a miracle and, if that is not Godís will, for strength to overcome the challenge or peace in accepting failure.


Expressively, the passage evokes our innermost resources, which enable us to calm ourselves, address the challenge, and even accept undesirable results. We might call this the poetic, psychological, or experiential function of the passage. When we open our hearts and minds to the expressive meaning of scriptural passages, we no longer merely hope for inner strength, but allow the words to evoke that strength within us — now.


On the literal level, theists are free to attribute any of these effects to a helping God, whereas atheists are free to appeal only to brain and psychosocial processes. But both sides can open their hearts and minds to the expressive meaning, sharing the same experience evoked by the expressive power of the scriptural language. Whether they do so depends largely on how the literal and expressive meanings involved interact in each individual.


Externally focused on a helping God who can influence external events, literal belief may draw our attention away from our own inner resources. Even internally focused on a helping God who can enhance our innermost coping powers, literal belief may draw our attention away from our current inner resources, leaving us hoping only for some future infusion of strength from God. In either case, whether externally or internally focused, we may be left with no inner experience of our own except a debilitating sense of emptiness. I take this to be the state that St. Paul referred to when he talked about faith being worth nothing without charity — the spiritual experience of finding life worthwhile even in the face of what our mind conceives of as an undesirable event. Atheists as well as theists can take inspiration from Paulís teaching that experience takes priority over belief.


On the other hand, literal belief in a helping God may awaken hope, the gateway to experience. Literal belief in miracles may awaken the hope that somehow God will make us happy. Even when such hope is riddled with superstition, it may nevertheless be healing to the extent that it awakens in us the suspicion that somewhere, somehow itís possible to be glad to have been born. This suspicion is all the more healing when our belief is internally focused, pointing to our innermost resources as the place where we can experience life as gratifying even in the face of daunting challenges. Atheists as well as theists share those resources.


Finally, literal belief in a helping God may not only inspire us to hope that we can find life gratifying under any conditions, but it may also have for us the expressive function of actually awakening our inner resources, rather than waiting for some external power to do it for us.


This expressive function of awakening our innermost resources is where theists and atheists can meet. For example, on the literal level, theists can interpret ďone nation under GodĒ in any way they choose while atheists can simply disregard it. But on the expressive level, both theists and atheists can agree that this nation depends on resources within each of us that are deeper than we can fully identify. On this expressive level, rather than quibble endlessly about the literal meaning, we can enjoy the sense of unity that comes from realizing that we all share these inner resources as human beings.


After all, belief itself in no panacea. The belief of either theist or atheist believers can help or hinder them in experiencing the gratifying core of life. As St. Paul taught, itís the experience that counts, not the belief. The belief is only a means to the experience.


Like any means, belief in a loving God may be useful or counterproductive. It may help us find the gratifying core of life or it may actually seduce us from that core, as we have just seen. The same is true of belief that no helping God exists. For like theists, atheist believers can so focus on their belief itself that their attention is drawn away from their own inner resources. Like superstitious believers, superstitious atheists can then mistakenly look outside themselves for their deepest happiness, differing with theists only in where they believe such salvation lies. On the other hand, just as the belief of theists can awaken them to their own inner resources, so can the belief of atheists when it reminds them to look within, rather than outside, themselves.


In a time of heightened sociopolitical conflict, the current conflict between atheists and theists is one we donít need. Taking reference to God completely out of governmental proclamations amounts to the establishment of atheism. For the elimination of religious language from public discourse sterilizes its expressive function for atheists and theists alike, insofar as reference to God reminds us that our nation depends on the deepest resources within every citizen, resources that we all share as human beings. If atheist activists could replace traditional religious language with equally expressive secular language, they would have a point. But they have not suggested this alternative for the good reason that, given the centuries old meaning that religious language has for most people, an expressively equivalent replacement is unlikely. Since atheist activists seem to see themselves as more sophisticated than their traditional brethren, surely they can bring themselves to ignore their literal differences with theists while sharing what they expressively have in common.