Sunday, July 7, 2013

Lucky for you, the U.S. is not a Christian nation

In the United States, we’re supposed to have a strict separation of Church and state.  Our founding fathers specifically established our country as a secular nation that was neutral on religion. The very first part of the first amendment reads, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ No where else in the Constitution (our system of laws) is religion mentioned (artfully crafted messages to King George don’t count).

In other words, the government is not allowed to tell us how or when to worship.

Nonetheless, some people wish the United States were not a secular nation. They’d like the U.S. to adopt a national religion, which they think will be theirs. I say, let’s play along. 

If we’re going to establish a state religion, the obvious question is: which religion should it be? Traditionally, that answer was ‘whatever the leader’s religion happens to be’. However, we live in a democracy so perhaps it should be majority rule. Fair enough.

At first glance, it may seem as if the majority of citizens would welcome the United States officially adopting the Christian religion. According to the latest data by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, that group makes up 78% of the populace, if you count all Protestants, Catholics, Mormons and their offshoots. However, the dissimilarities between those groups is so great that it would be meaningless to lump them together. We're going to have to be a little more specific if we expect our citizens to follow any particular set of laws. 

Within Christianity, the largest religious affiliation is Protestant (44%). Great, we’re all Protestants. Of course, different Protestant denominations have quite different rules. I mean, do we all have to speak in tongues like the Pentecostals? Can we not go to the doctor like Christian Scientists? Do we have to be pacifists like Quakers? Or what about one of the other two dozen Protestant denominations? They disagree on some pretty fundamental things, like whether gay people can be ministers, whether you can shop on Sunday and whether your faith requires you to handle venomous snakes. Maybe we need to look at the biggest subgroup within Protestantism and go with that. That means we all get to be Baptists (11%). I hope nobody minds that we will no longer be baptizing infants.

Except, hold on a minute, if we’re no longer considering all Protestants as one block, that gives Catholics (24%) a considerable lead. In fact, even the unaffiliated (atheist, agnostic and ‘nothing in particular’-16%) outnumber the Baptists. Since we said we’d go with majority rule, I guess the United States will be a Catholic country. Evolution and cosmology are in, contraceptives and divorce are out. 

The 76% of the country who aren’t Catholic probably aren’t going to be too happy about this, and I suspect that a fair number of people who are Catholic won’t be that excited about it either, once the government starts enforcing Catholic dogma. But there’s one thing I do know. Religious people will find the new regime a lot more oppressive than we atheists will. 

Don’t forget, once the government establishes a religion, all citizens would be expected to follow that religion. If that’s not the one that you happen to adhere to, you could be in big trouble. Face the consequences of the state for failing to obey their religious laws, or face the consequences set forth by your particular religion.

Even if we went with majority rule, at least three quarters of the country would be deeply unhappy with any particular set of enforced dogma. The fact that there are so many factions within each denomination (which I didn’t even address) suggests that only a tiny minority of people would actually agree with any particular state religion.

As an atheist, I may consider being forced to attend Mass to be a nuisance and a waste of time, but I won’t lose any sleep over it. Depending on the penalties, I may even choose to lie and pretend that I find the rituals meaningful. Again, it’s no more than an annoyance to me. If you’re forced to practice a religion that you strongly believe will result in divine retribution against you or your loved ones, can you say the same?

The great thing is that, thanks to the wisdom of our founding fathers, we don’t have to have these battles of conscience. As long as the government is secular, we can all practice our own religions as we see fit. Once again, neutrality means we all win.

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