Wherever there is a public display of the Ten Commandments or a politician who invokes the name of “Jesus,” there is usually some over zealous atheist who cries out for a separation of church and state. The concept of a separation between church and state is drawn from the language of the first amendment. The first clause of that amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This clause essentially prevents congress from both establishing a state religion and from prohibiting the people the free exercise of their personal religion. The purpose of such a clause was more to prevent religious persecution (from which many of the colonists were fleeing) than it was to ban religion from the public square altogether. Be that as it may, the American nation was intended to be a place in which people of all faiths (or no faith) would be welcomed to practice their personal preferences toward religion.
There is a lot of wisdom in what the founding fathers did when they came up with this amendment. The militant atheists usually like to point out that religion is the cause of much violence, suffering and death in the history of mankind. Christians are quick to point out that there has been an awful lot of violence, suffering and death from the hands of atheistic philosophies as well (e.g., the Soviet Union, communist China, etc.). However, this does not negate or excuse the fact that religion has been the cause of much pain and suffering in the world. Look no further than the crusades or the wars in Europe during the Reformation period or the Islamic jihads of recent days. Again Christian apologists are quick to note that more people have died at the hands communist regimes than in all the ‘holy’ wars put together. Again, I say, that’s not the point. Death by religion is just as evil as death by communism; let’s not quibble over numbers.
Here’s the thing: Religion, especially the revealed religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) tend to be authoritarian. The scriptures of each of these faiths hold complete sway over their adherents because they contain the very words of God (or Allah or Yahweh). To disobey them is to disobey God himself. Now it is clear even from a cursory reading that the Christian scriptures do not advocate violence, but rather they command a love of God and neighbor. The same can be said of Judaism. Muslim apologists make the claim that Islam is a religion of peace. Yet despite what the scriptures of these three faiths teach and the howls of protest from their followers, great violence has been done in the name of these faiths.
It’s one thing when an isolated Christian or group of Christians get together and decide it is God’s will to blow up an abortion clinic, or a group of Muslims decide to fly a plane into a skyscraper. These acts of fanaticism are bad enough, but what makes matters worse (much worse) is when you couple this fanaticism with the almighty power of the state. When the isolated occurrences of violence happen, we tend to acknowledge that these were twisted individuals who were warped by evil men to commit these atrocities. But what happens when the evil men doing the warping are those in control of the reins of power? You get the crusades or worldwide jihad.
Having said all that, I must whole heatedly concur that I wish to maintain the separation of church and state. The last thing I want is over zealous Christians or Muslims exercising authority over the rest of the populace. However, I think religion gets a bad rap. It is not religion per se that is the problem. It is the abuse of religion that leads to the evil of which the militant atheists speak. Because the revealed religions are authoritarian in nature, they are ripe for abuse by power hungry tyrants intent on expanding their sphere of control and influence. What could be more glorious than fighting (and killing) for a holy cause?
Yet religion is not the only thing that can be abused by tyrants. In fact, it is my contention that due to the shrinking influence religion had after the 18th century enlightenment, new ideologies arose that could entrap the minds of the masses and be abused for great evil. Again, we go back to all of the evil committed in the name of socialism or fascism or communism. These are all atheistic ideologies and they are all authoritarian ideologies to boot. It all comes back to that “A” word: Authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is the concept that one group of people — whether they be priests or kings or bureaucrats — has complete control over the masses. The only way that a small minority can control a large majority is through some authoritarian ideology; be it faith based or non-faith based.
So, yes, let’s maintain the prohibition of the establishment of a state religion. While we’re at it, maybe we can erect a wall of separation between atheism and state, or communism and state, or socialism and state. The common element in all these ‘separations’ is the state. In fact, to be perfectly accurate, ‘death by government’ is the leading cause of death in the history of mankind. The crusades? Death by state-controlled religion. Islamic jihad? Death by state-controlled religion. The holocaust? Death by state-controlled fascism. The communist purges of Russia? Death by state-controlled communism. Get the picture? The institutionalized state is public enemy #1. It will use the guise of religion if it suits its purposes. If not, it will pick some other authoritarian ideology to maintain control of the people: Communism, socialism, nationalism, atheism, etc. The ultimate goal of a free, civilized society should be to reduce the power of the state as much as possible (perhaps even eliminate the institutionalized state altogether). A minimal state that only serves to protect the rights of a free people will be one in which people of all faiths (or no faith) can live together in relative peace and harmony.