Commandments in the Court

Copyright © 2003 by John Carroll



There's been a lot of hoopla about removing the Ten Commandments from the Supreme Court building in Alabama, which were installed by Roy Moore, the Chief Justice of that state, to remind people that the law of the land wasn't the highest law. The highest law, of course, was God's law -- and not just any God, but Justice Roy Moore's particular version of the Christian God. As an atheist who tries to be a decent person, I was pretty offended by the things being in the building anyway, but even more offended by the people supporting that arrogant judge. They were so sure they were right and the rest of the world wrong, as they prayed and pranced in support of their concrete tablet and told the TV people they were answering to a higher power. I could only think of one comparable group off the top of my head -- the Muslim fanatics of the Taliban. They were just as sure they had the truth as the Christians in Alabama -- and every bit as tolerant of those who didn't believe their truth.

Religion in politics is an old conflict, so let's look into this god thing as it's played out through history, and to the extent we know anything about it, how it's played out through prehistory and see if there are any lessons to be learned. The earliest nations were all religious ones -- every last one we've found a trace of has been ruled to a considerable extent by clerics, priests, or whatever you call them -- the people who had the true truth. Ancient Egypt was a religious state, and during certain eras, Pharoah himself was not just in touch with the gods, he was a god himself. All of ancient Egypt seems to have believed in the Sun God, Ra. It was the most sophisticated nation on earth at the time, and its people had no doubt about Ra. Certainly he was a true god. But nobody believes in that old god now. And not every religious person believes in the god of the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim tradition. Do the Hindu and Buddhist believers think the Christian god is the one true god? Hardly. They have their own beliefs. Are they bad people or stupid people? Of course not. They're just people, some good, some bad, some smart, some stupid -- like people everywhere. And they have no more proof for their beliefs than the Christian right has for its beliefs. The fundamentalist Christian "proof" tends to be circular. "How do I know what God said?" Answer: "It's in the Bible." Question: "How do I know the Bible is the word of God?" Answer: "Because God said so." Question: "Where did God say so? Answer: "In the Bible." Because logic doesn't work, they invoke "faith," which they consider a virtue. It's the virtue of believing that for which one can find no objective evidence.

It happens I think I have better answers than the Christian right, though I have no quarrel with anyone who disagrees with me. I don't think anyone knows how the universe came to be in the first place, much less why. I don't think humans are smart enough to figure that out. Maybe they'll surprise me one day, but they haven't yet. Human logic evolved to deal with the kinds of things that got human genes copied in a hunter- gatherer world. There was no advantage to evolving a perfect metaphysics, if such a term even make sense. There are certain physical laws we seem to know imperfectly, but well enough to use them, and they tell us all living creatures evolved from a common ancestor by a process of natural selection. I can defend that proposition far better than anyone can defend fundamentalist Christianity. But it doesn't give me infinite wisdom. And neither does the Bible give such wisdom to the vain, self-centered folks who insist it does. Six thousand years from now, if there are still people to worry about gods, the god of Abraham and Isaac and Jimmy Swaggart will be forgotten -- an odd passage in history like the Sun God, Ra. There'll probably be some other divinity to lead believers, but who knows?

But isn't religion a necessary part of being human? Doesn't every culture have some kind of religion? Most anthropologists and other social thinkers insist that humans are necessarily religious -- though not necessarily Christian. But ask one of the remaining Hadza tribesmen in Tanzania about God. The Hadza have been a hunter-gatherer people with no obvious religious activities at all. In the old days when a Hadza person died, they didn't even bother to bury the corpse. It was just dead meat to them, and they walked away, leaving it behind in the forest. The living person they'd known had ceased to exist. Ask the Hadza hunter about what happens to a person after death and he'll tell you the dead one rots or gets eaten by scavengers and eventually vanishes. Tell him about life after death, about heaven and hell, and he'll say, "How do you know? Have you died and come back?" He may be an illiterate man, but he's a natural scientist. If he sees credible evidence, he'll believe, if not he won't. Apparently the Mbuti Pygmies live similarly non-religious lives, or did until civilization encroached on their world. Not every group of humans believes in a god. Some early humans apparently did and others didn't, but civilization grew up with gods. There must be something about the human animal that makes it susceptible to religion in certain environments, and civilized societies are such environments.

Maybe the reason religion and civilization go so well together is that if the law comes from some all-knowing, all-powerful being, and that being makes one human a ruler, then one must do what that ruler says, or suffer dire consequences. Or maybe the main reason for religion in civilized society is that it sets one society against another. People with the right religion are "us," and everyone else is "them." It determines one's tribal allegiance. Unfortunately, that makes the non-believer the enemy, which is bad if there are people of many religions living in a single religious state. It doesn't make us go to war. We normally do that for economic reasons, but once we do go to war, religion makes us more patriotic -- at least when it has strong influence on the State. We fight with more passion, and sometimes more fear of our god than of the enemy if the state is based on the religion. And if the state is based on religion, those belonging to the state religion will have more to say about who gets which resources and who doesn't. Within a nation, coercive power in religious hands leads to unfair treatment of those of other religions or no religion. It divides the nation and makes it weak.

Which is one reason modern states have pretty much taken religion out of coercive government. Most still have some official religion or another, but the states that can't tolerate the non-believer don't do very well in a world like ours. Saudi Arabia, for example, takes its law from the Koran and demands that all who live there be Muslims and practice that religion. Everyone there lives under clerical law, and bad things happen to dissidents. It's a wealthy nation, but it can't take advantage of the talents of nonbelievers, and if it let them in in great numbers, there would almost certainly be civil war. So long as everyone's the same religion, a coercive state religion can be good for social order, but most nations are populated by people from a variety of religions. Those nations manage to maintain domestic tranquility by taking religion out of the law enforcement business. England may have the Queen as the head of its official church, but you can be a Catholic in England, or a Jew or a Muslim, or a witch, or an atheist, and still get pretty much the same treatment under the law. They don't kill people for adultery or for writing nasty things about their god. The bishops have clout, but they can't arrest anybody, and the police won't arrest anybody for believing in the wrong god or not believing in any god. And while life there is far from perfect, the British tribe seems to maintain civil order pretty well. Tolerance is indispensable in multi-religious nations.

So when I see people quivering with righteousness on the steps of a courthouse in Alabama, I find that frightening. They'd put god in charge of all of us in a minute -- not just any god, but the "one true God" they happen to believe in -- the god who will save them, but not me or the other heathens. Given their druthers, they'd make belief mandatory and disbelief a criminal act. No thank you. I'll take the secular state. You can believe what you like, and I can believe what I like. America is a society of many religious beliefs, so let's isolate religion and government from one another. The mixture is poisonous.

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