In the article ,’All States in Europe are Moving Toward Secularism‘, we read about David Pollock’s speech praising the progress of secularism in Europe. (David Pollock is President of the European Humanist Federation)
In Pollock’s speech, which can be read in its entirety here, he says that a secular state is a state that is “neutral as between different religions and beliefs…not taking sides for or against religion or atheism, for or against one belief or another.” Secularism as such “is the best guarantor we have of freedom of religion or belief.”
The logical problem is that it is incoherent to speak of government being neutral towards religion and non-religion, or towards belief and non-belief. Frederick Mark Gedicks explained why this was in an article for the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, titled, ‘Religions, Fragmentations, and Doctrinal Limits.’ In the article Mr Gedicks explored the logical impossibility in the very concept of a government adopting a neutral posture towards religion and non-religion. While he was writing in the context of American government, his observations are equally pertinent to the question of secularism in Europe:
I mean, really, what sense can one possibly make of a rule that requires the government to remain neutral between a proposition and its negation? One may agree or disagree about what it could mean to be ‘neutral’ between various religions, but it is at least possible to have a sensible conversation about this. By contrast, there has always been something decidedly weird about the requirement that the government be neutral between religion and nonreligion, or belief and unbelief. Indeed, the requirement seems to constitute empirical proof that even the dumbest things can start to make sense if they’re repeated often enough.
Consider then what government neutrality might mean in the context of professional baseball. It is, of course, completely sensible to require that Congress be neutral between the Red Sox and the Yankees, or that the California Legislature be neutral between the A’s, the Angels, the Dodgers, the Giants, and the Padres, or, indeed, that Congress and all of the state legislatures be neutral with respect to all thirty major league baseball teams. But what could it possibly mean for Congress and the states to be neutral as between baseball and ‘not-baseball’?
For starters, I suppose, this would mean that baseball could not be treated any differently than not-baseball. So, Congress could not grant an exemption from the antitrust laws to baseball unless not-baseball got one, too. It would, therefore, be crucial to ascertain the referent of not-baseball. Would it be the National Basketball Association? Well, it is clearly not-baseball. The American Ballet Theatre? Also not-baseball. Fly-fishing? Watching public television? Cutting my lawn? All not-baseball. The Southern Cal defensive team against Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl? Still not-baseball (and also not-defense).
Logically, ‘not-baseball’ encompasses everything except ‘baseball.’ Accordingly, neutrality between baseball and not-baseball requires that every activity in the United States be exempted, like baseball, from the anti-trust laws and more generally, that every activity in the United States be treated the same as baseball. Not only is this nonsensical from a policy standpoint, it is nonsensical from any standpoint.
Get the picture? What Gedicks is saying is that if we are really serious about government being ‘neutral’ with respect to religion and non-religion, then our laws would have to interact with the entire portion of reality that comes under the “not religion” category (from the colour of my shoes down to the screw that popped out of my computer earlier today) in the exact same way that government acts towards religion, even as neutrality with respect to baseball would require that the state interacts with the Dodgers in the exact same way that it interacts with the Yankees (American teams, but I trust you get the picture). Even putting aside the problem that to decide what goes in the non-religion category is first to presuppose certain tacit religious presuppositions, we might ask whether our secularist policy-makers have really given adequate thought to what a consistent application of such neutrality would look like in practice. I think it’s safe to say that they haven’t.