The Necessity of Secularism
2015-01-15, Minor corrections 2021-08-29
Dear reader, I ask you to please follow along with me in a short thought experiment.
Let us begin by assuming that you have never in your life had any knowledge of religion, that you grew up in a family and in an environment where the idea of god(s) or any notion whatsoever of the supernatural was completely foreign – in other words, you are a virgin with respect to supernatural religion. Let us also assume that you have reached adulthood having acquired reasonable social skills, that you generally behave respectfully towards the people around you as long as they respect you. Although you do not pretend to be perfect (far from it!) you nevertheless consider yourself to be a good person.
One fine evening you are at a dinner party among friends, and there you make the acquaintance of of individual with a most extraordinary story to share: this individual tells you about an international association – whose existence was previously unknown to you – an organization which is rich, age-old and powerful (although somewhat less powerful currently than in the past) which advocates eternal torture, by fire, for any person found to have participated in a sexual act whose purpose was other than that of producing offspring. What would be your reaction? You would probably be incredulous, and would break into uncontrolled laughter as you consider the ridiculousness of such an idea.
But there is more to this story. Your new acquaintance explains to you that this same association also advocates similarly severe eternal punishment for any act of which it disapproves, from the most trivial to the most serious. A cold-blooded murderer guilty of the genocide of millions of human beings would receive the same punishment as an individual found “guilty” of having tasted the pleasures of the flesh. You find this not only incredible, but terribly unjust. But after several hours of discussion and the presentation of irrefutable proof of the existence of this organization and its policies, your new friend succeeds in convincing you that the story is unfortunately true.
It gets worse. This organization offers a way out, a loophole, to any person whom it otherwise condemns: the person simply has to make a sincere and contrite declaration of their “guilt.” Once this condition has been fulfilled, not only is the punishment cancelled, but there is even the possibility of a reward of eternal bliss! Whew! you say to yourself with relief, the situation is not as terrible as I feared. The atrocious punishment is thus easily avoided. But there is one further little condition, a condition whose implications are enormous: the confession of guilt is acceptable if and only if it is made in the presence of an official representative of the organization and formally approved by that representative. Otherwise, the eternal punishment still applies.
You take a few moments to reflect on all this and slowly, inevitably, the full horror of the situation begins to dawn on you: this association thus claims an infinite authority over the behaviour of the people it judges! If it finds you guilty, you get eternal torture; if it accepts your excuses, you are saved. Of course, for those who do not recognize the organization’s authority, its power to condemn is null and even laughable. But for those who do recognize it, who are sincerely convinced that the organization’s authority is well-founded, the implications are horrible. Obviously we have here an enormous scam, a cruel and monstrous way to manipulate the naïve.
Your dinner companion then explains a few more aspects of this disturbing story. Apparently this association justifies its policy of advocating eternal punishment by claiming that such a system is necessary for the preservation of society, that without such a threat people would be completely amoral. Yet this is the first time in your life that you have ever heard such an extravagant claim. In the absence of this threat, your own behaviour, as well as that of people close to you, has never been particularly deplorable.
Further, this association insists that its doctrines should be taught in public schools, to young children, of an age when children tend to swallow whatever they are told by any adult. You also learn that, in several countries, this organization is financed by taxpayers’ money – sometimes collected by direct taxation, sometimes indirectly through exemptions. To this revenue is of course added any donations made “voluntarily” by persons who are sufficiently naïve to believe its doctrines (such naïve donors generally having been indoctrinated at a tender age by their family or by school).
Could it get any worse? Yes it can and it does. This association, which continues to be highly influential in several countries, actively opposes – for reasons which are somewhat vague but evidently related to their doctrines – the use of simple measures to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Further, it opposes contraception, thus wantonly depriving millions of women of the means necessary to control their own reproduction, something which is a major weapon in the fight against poverty. Thus, this organization does whatever it can to increase the level of disease, misery and mortality in the world.
And as if that were not bad enough, your dining companion informs you of another piece to be added to this outrageous puzzle: the propaganda aspect. With all that this association does to spread sorrow and suffering, it has the unmitigated gall to declare loudly and constantly to anyone who will listen that its actions are based on tolerance, charity and love! Its spokespersons are clever and accomplished marketing experts who avoid talking too openly about their association’s harmful doctrines, but without ever revoking these doctrines. And it works! Not only does the association have millions of members, there are even large numbers of non-members who insist that we all have a duty to adopt a respectful attitude towards the organization and its disastrous policies.
After this long and alarming account told to you by a person whom you met by chance at a dinner party, what would your reaction be? I bet you would, as would I, be rather shocked. Without being an expert in international law, you might nevertheless wonder whether it might be possible to prosecute this organization for crimes against humanity. It would be obvious to you that this organization, which has the pretense of possessing great moral authority, is in fact completely and cruelly incompetent. You would insist at least that some measures be taken to limit the influence of this organization and to minimize the damage it might do in society, especially among the young. Measures such as: preventing its agents from having any influence in the public school system, and prohibiting the payment of any public funds, directly or indirectly, to the organization.
Congratulations! You have just invented secularism.
The promotion of safe sex practices, such as condom use, are to sexually transmitted diseases what secularism is to religion: a public health measure.