While the separation of church and state is a norm in many western societies, it is often inadequately upheld in the marketplace of ideas. Claims that the country is a Christian country, and the controversies surrounding the teaching of evolution in schools suggest that some of the religious right have never fully accepted the separation. On the left, secularism is too often subordinated to cynical identity considerations. This was exemplified when the women’s march embraced sharia law proponent Linda Sarsour, and when Jeremy Corbyn referred to Islamist organizations such as Hamas (which violently enforces sharia law in Gaza) as “friends.” Some more centrist sources argue that the only robust justification for a state power can come from God, or that secular values are granted unwarranted advantages in western politics. These examples illustrate the widespread ignorance of the reasoning behind the separation of church and state.
Secularism is one of the key foundations of any liberal, prosperous and democratic society. I will focus here on the distinctions between secular and religious moral beliefs, and how they operate in the marketplace of ideas. I define a moral belief as approval of a certain value or values, which may include prescriptions as to how to achieve those values.
Morality and the Marketplace of Ideas
In the marketplace, different ideas compete for public approval. A properly formed moral idea should include two key elements: the values it serves, and why its prescribed actions further those values. The first is a subjective value judgment, while the second is ideally a value-maximizing action prescription. While there are no clear objective standards by which to compare values, there are objectively better and worse ways of achieving a given value. Thus, a moral argument can be countered by refusing to accept the stated value, arguing that the prescribed action will not achieve its goals, or by stating which values the action undermines, and how. A victorious moral argument in a functional marketplace needs to further widely held values in an optimal manner.
Let’s imagine an argument between a vegan and an omnivore. The vegan may state that animals’ well-being is of value, that eating animal products harms their well-being, and that therefore veganism is morally correct. The omnivore may reply that he does not value the well-being of animals, in response to which the vegan could try to link animal well-being to a value held by the omnivore. Perhaps the omnivore values the mitigation of human suffering, allowing the vegan to argue that humans and other animals share similar neurological systems that allow them to suffer, and that the rigid distinction between humans and other species is therefore baseless. In response, the omnivore might argue that veganism undermines the values of freedom and physical health, and question whether veganism is an effective way to improve animals’ well-being. Eventually the two might reach an agreement, a compromise, or, at least, an understanding. Their arguments could also influence other people, and thus play a part in the marketplace of ideas.
So how do religious and secular moralities differ? Compare the biblical prohibition against eating pork, and John Stuart Mill’s defence of free speech. Imagine that a person named Jeremy believes strongly in freedom of speech, on the basis of the arguments outlined by Mill’s On Liberty. However, one day, Jeremy discovers that On Liberty has been mistranslated, and that Mill’s book actually asserts that only those agreeing with him should be free to speak. While this could undermine Jeremy’s confidence, there is no reason for him to change his stance. Jeremy’s cherished values, and the effectiveness of free speech for achieving them, are independent of Mill’s opinions. By contrast, imagine a person named Ben, who does not eat pork because the Bible prohibits it. His behaviour does not depend on a human moral value, nor on how the prohibition helps achieve that value. Ben does not eat pork because he values God’s word, and sees avoiding pork as a way to honour that. However, one day Ben discovers that the Bible has been mistranslated, and God actually commands mankind to eat bacon on the Sabbath. Ben’s own morality now obliges him to eat bacon weekly. Unlike secular moralities, which depend on human held values and expectations of outcomes, religious morality depends solely on the will and authority of the divine.
While some argue that secular morality is essentially religious, I argue that religious morality is essentially secular, yet it falsely claims to be something more. Given the huge number of contradictory and unsubstantiated claims of divine revelation, and the exponentially greater number of incompatible interpretations of these claims, the probability that a given religious moral claim (an interpretation of a revelation) is truly divinely approved is extremely small. So if religious moralities are not divinely inspired, where do their values come from? They come from the subjective values of humans. They come from authors and interpreters: humans with no more divine authority than anyone else. Thus, unless strong evidence for divine approval is provided, a rational marketplace of ideas should treat a given religious moral belief on equal footing with a secular moral belief. However, religion cheats by relying on false appeals to divine authority. This might fool participants in the marketplace of ideas, but it also means that religious moralities are likely to end up undermining the human values behind them.
Take the Jewish tradition of kosher butchery. It seems likely that kosher slaughter methods were originally meant to minimize the suffering of animals, and were effective at doing so. However, nowadays there are new methods of butchery, which are more effective at minimizing suffering. Kosher slaughter still follows the old methods, and attempts to make kosher conform to modern standards are met with uncompromising resistance from religious believers. This shows how religious morality can undermine the human values responsible for it, because it prevents believers from questioning the efficacy of religiously prescribed actions, and replacing them with better alternatives. Thus, religious moral beliefs that rigidly prescribe certain actions are objectively worse than truly secular beliefs based on the same values, unless they somehow prescribe the most effective action that is humanly possible.
The marketplace of ideas can successfully lead to compromises, in large part because people generally hold similar fundamental moral intuitions—though to varying degrees. For example, conservatives tend to value authority more than liberals, who favour fairness more than conservatives. But everyone seems to value authority and fairness to some degree, and neither are held as absolute, which makes compromises feasible. Conservatives and lefties can compromise because none of their conflicting values override all other concerns, and they can understand each other, since they share the same fundamental moral intuitions. Yet it is not clear how moral values based on appeals to divine authority can be compromised, since the will of the divine is taken as absolute. As Anselm of Canterbury puts it: “I ought not to oppose the will of God even to preserve the whole creation.”
Unsurprisingly, it is fairly difficult to find theocratic states free from religious strife. Even seemingly minor religious disagreements—such as those between Protestants and Catholics or Shiites and Sunnis—have devolved into armed conflicts both within and between non-secular states. The conflicts between, for example, Protestants and Catholics can be framed in terms of fairness (Protestants resisted ecclesiastical corruption), and authority (Catholics supported the Pope and tradition). This conflict between fairness and tradition is handled far more peacefully by liberals and conservatives. While religious claims generally cannot be compromised, the peace and prosperity found in most secular countries today suggests that conflicts between differing moral beliefs can be peacefully resolved. Thus, as long as religious morality is justified in terms of divine authority, it undermines our ability to peacefully reach compromises, agreements and understandings.
Cheaters Must Not Dominate the Marketplace of Ideas
The marketplace of ideas is meant to help people agree on common values, and to optimize the actions to achieve them. Those values and actions may then transform into norms, or even laws. In a functional marketplace, a society’s norms and laws reflect its most widely held values, and changes come about through a dialectic, democratic process. In a dysfunctional marketplace, changes in norms and laws come about through force and deception, and need not serve that society’s common values. A well-functioning marketplace of ideas is critical to ensuring a peaceful democratic society, as opposed to a conflict-ridden and tyrannical one.
Like most marketplaces, that of ideas is undermined when it is overrun by cheaters—which leads to a tyranny of unvetted ideas. If the marketplace of ideas is overrun by competing appeals to divine authority, it will lose its ability to demonstrate our shared values, and help us fine-tune our actions. In which case, changes to laws and norms will come about mostly through force, rather than agreement. The marketplace therefore ought to be protected from cheating arguments, which make false appeals to divine authority. Religious moral beliefs therefore have no place in the marketplace of ideas. Since politics involves using coercion to achieve certain values, these values ought to be based on a functional marketplace of ideas, where imposters are rejected out of hand. The state apparatus needs to be kept separate from religious morality.
That is not to say that the moral beliefs of religious individuals have no place in politics or in the marketplace of ideas, or that religious ideas are the only imposters on the scene. Many religious individuals are deeply moral and have good moral ideas to share, and there are plenty of imposters among secular ideas. But, in order to participate in the marketplace of ideas, moral beliefs—including religious beliefs—need to be justified in terms of their human values and have the efficacy of their action-prescriptions argued for and tested. Every legitimate moral belief ought to.