Antonin Scalia’s War on Secularists

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in a January 2nd speech at Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie, Louisiana, told the audience that the constitution does not require government to be neutral between religion and non-religion. The separation clause of the First Amendment prevents government from favoring a particular faith, that is true, but it is not intended as a rebuke of religion. Government, in Scalia’s judgment, can and should favor religion over non-religion

While the Louisiana speech has brought fresh attention to his views, Justice Scalia’s has stated them before, for example at Colorado Christian University in October, 2014, when he was awarded a honorary degree. Note the consistency of message in Dustin Wicksell’s Inquisitir story on that event and Debra Cassens Weiss’s synopsis of the Metairie speech for the ABA Journal. Key quotes from the two sources appear below:

From ABA Journal:

“Our country’s constitutional traditions do not require government to be neutral between religion and nonreligion (sic), Justice Antonin Scalia said on Saturday in a speech to Catholic high school students. . . .government can’t favor one religion over another, but government has been allowed to support religion over nonreligion (sic) for hundreds of years.”

Scalia also said the United States has benefited because of its support for religion. “God has been very good to us,” Scalia said. “One of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. … Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name, we do him honor—in presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways.” Debra Cassens Weiss, Scalia: God has been good to US because ‘we have done him honor,’ 

From Inquisitir:

“… the main fight is to dissuade Americans from what the secularists are trying to persuade them to be true: that the separation of church and state means that the government cannot favor religion over non-religion,” Scalia said.

“We do Him [God] honor in our pledge of allegiance, in all our public ceremonies,” he continued. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It is in the best of American traditions, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I think we have to fight that tendency of the secularists to impose it on all of us through the Constitution.”
Dustin Wicksell, Scalia: Government can favor ‘Religion over Non-religion’

I find Justice Scalia’s argument disturbing in many ways:

  • A political opinion is promoted under the guise of legal scholarship. This is deceptive. Scalia is speaking as a political advocate.
  • Justice Scalia does not detail his definition of religion. We don’t know which self-avowed religious assemblies are included and which excluded by his definition.
  • No attention is given to Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, Paine, and others’ commitment to the values of the Enlightenment, their anti-clerical as well as anti-monarchical views, their deism, and their trust in reason, experience, evidence, and science. The founders clearly thought that a free people of self-educating citizens could govern themselves in a democracy without the intervention of king or priest.
  • The deism Jefferson and others favored referred to “nature’s god,” not an organic, anthropoid, personal being. Deism points to the rationality and scientific lawfulness that give structure and unity to nature. No wizard behind the machine is assumed. Frank Lloyd Wright stated the idea well when he answered: “Yes, I believe in God. I call it Nature.” So did Jefferson. So did Einstein.
  • The nation was founded as a secular democracy that recognizes and protects the right of citizens who happen to be believers, the large majority, to freely practice their religion without government interference or help.
  • Justice Scalia’s ecumenicalism is curious, not just because ecumenicalism is more often associated with liberal purveyors of tolerance, diversity, pluralism, and secularism—the folks on the receiving end of his friendly chastisements—but also because it lacks substance, vigor, and punch. Mr. Scalia is a proud Catholic and a supporter of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But what then is this generic “religion” as against “non-religion” he speaks so knowingly about? Is this not the vapid ecumenicalism of President Dwight Eisenhower when he opined that religion is good for us all, and it mattered not what that religion is called. To the contrary, one gets the impression that Mr. Scalia cares very much what religion we’re talking about. His concern is mostly about Christianity, isn’t it? If this is not the case, perhaps he should try out his talk in broader venues, at Mosques, temples, meeting halls, and smokehouses.
  • Justice Scalia is on record in the Smith Case as voting against the right of American Indian tribes to use peyote in their traditional religious rituals. Freedom of religion is not protected in this instance. European traditions of government and religion apparently trump Native American notions of religion. Is this not hypocritical?
  • Justice Scalia’s category of “non-religion,”against whose dangerous membership “religion” is to be privileged by government, is even more curious. Who are they, one wonders? Voila! There is the answer in the speech at Colorado Christian University: it is those nasty “secularists,” people who go by such names as freethinkers, skeptics, rationalists, humanists, agnostics, atheists, and unbelievers. That’s a large group, and it includes me!
  • I would like to defend ‘nonbelievers’ from Scalia’s categorical indictment. They simply don’t believe in god or anything else. They are not aggressive about it. They don’t assert: there is no God! They just don’t care, one way or the other. They probably don’t even want to be secularists! So let’s leave them alone!
  • I take Justice Scalia’s opinion to be a personal prejudice and not so subtle permission to discriminate against atheists, humanists, and their intellectual compatriots. His counsel is intimidating and divisive.
  • Justice Scalia might consult the website patheos.com, whose tagline is “hosting the conversation on faith,” for an alternative approach to his. Patheos gives atheists a faith desk of their own and welcomes them into the discussion. Very smart, welcoming and civil too.
  • Justice Scalia makes belief in God a defining characteristic of religion, conflating religion and divinity. In my book, Abdication: God Steps Down for Good, I advocate for a religion that honors the sanctity of life. A deity is not strictly needed for that. This issue is therefore important to understanding me, as well as to understanding Scalia. I use a definition of religion formulated by the French sociologist and anthropologist Émile Durkheim, from his book Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). He defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them.” He considered sacredness the important characteristic of all religion, but not belief in a deity.
  • “One of the reasons God has been good to us,” Justice Scalia asserts, is because “we have done him honor.” This is a breathtaking thesis, the foundation perhaps of our national sense of ‘exceptionalism’ that has enticed us into so many military adventures as apostles of democracy and guardians of world order. If Scalia’s argument is parsed and its presuppositions laid out, he asserts that: A. God has been good to us (we Americans, our country); B. because “we as a nation have done him honor;” C. “in presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways;” D. in comparison with the “countries of the world that do not even invoke his name;” E. who, by deduction, must be faring worse than we the favored ones; F. by the agency of a wise, supreme Male being with all the attributes of (in Christopher Hitchens apt phrase) a “celestial dictator.”
  • “Master Scalia,” my civics teacher would have said, ”This is a most interesting thesis, but incomplete and unacceptable as it stands. Would you please make a list by decades of the good and bad outcomes that have befallen our nation, and identify which ones had the beneficence of God behind them and which did not? For example, where do slavery, the destruction of the Twin Towers, and the various wars we have fought fit into the picture? Please also explain why God would gift rewards and not punishments to us, or do you believe He gifts both? Why would he intervene with us and not in all nations?” My science teacher would require in addition a well-designed experiment to test Scalia’s hypothesis.
  • It seems relevant to note that listening, hearing, obeying, understanding, praising, worshipping, following, beseeching, kneeling, and praying are the kinds of attitudes believers typically take toward their gods. Honoring, undoubtedly an appropriate attitude for a nation and its people to take toward parents, military heroes, and judges, sounds vaguely inappropriate as a nation’s favored regard toward God. Our most fortunate nation status seems to be getting us a lot of presumed goodness on the cheap, for very little citizen effort. It sounds a little hokey to me, particularly when some of the honoring—names on money, pledges of allegiance, etc—didn’t commence with the signing of the constitution. A few words stamped hard on filthy lucre is about the last honor a self-respecting god might want!

In sum, I find Scalia’s viewpoint dishonest, inaccurate, hurtful, dangerous, divisive hypocritical, and fantastic. If political advocacy is his passion, perhaps he should step down from the Supreme Court and join the lecture circuit full time. It pays very well I’m told.

In closing, I remind the reader that I too, like Justice Scalia, am a “theist,”as well as an enthusiast for religion, but only of a god who physically exists, as you and I physically exist, and of a religion devoted to the sacredness of life. Sadly, I haven’t found a deity that meets the physical existence test yet, and I find the religions that cohere and aver around the monotheisms of Abraham tribal, aggressive, inclined toward war, and negligent of the environment. That is the reason I have in all good humor advised the gods that people imagine and pray to in those monotheisms to vacate the office for awhile, until humanists, with the help of science, clean up the planet and return it to hospitable standards.

Those who go by the names of secularists, atheists, rationalists, skeptics, freethinkers, inquirers, unbelievers, humanists, and the like have something in common that gives them a powerful presence in civic conversation, democratic institutions, and social progress. They judge the truth of their statements against standards of evidence and reason. They speak tentatively and conditionally. They seek truth. They don’t think humans evil and damned. They are not ruled by fear and a false need for certainty. They are comfortable with uncertainty. They change their minds as the facts require. They say  “I don’t know” when they don’t know. Religion, as important as it may be in individual identity formation, cultural continuity, and social order, is based on faith in ancient events that may not have happened, or happened in a very different way. Religion claims certainty where little certainty exists. This difference in attitude is the most important defense of secularism, and the reason secularists are so valuable in a democracy. We need to guide our affairs by good will, reason, evidence, and science, now more than ever.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

January 13, 2016

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

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9 thoughts on “Antonin Scalia’s War on Secularists

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  1. “Disturbing,” to my mind, merely begins to frame the ongoing political radicalization towards the concept of the religious “right!” ~ Scottie

  2. Brilliant analysis, Will. Seems hidden agendas and inconsistencies are leaking out all over the place as mainstream society moves into a brasher/thrasher mode of discourse that is full of platitudes. Declaring we have a grasp of THE truth is such a different tone than inviting a mutual and respectful exploration of evidence and ideas. You, as always, model the way – living the questions!

  3. Will: As always, you bring important things for exploration to the surface in such a magnetizing way that I want to respond, even if I don’t feel quite equipped reply to such thickly layered ideas, for I’ve been spinning on a wobbly axis of uncertainty for sometime now. (My muses are set for a cerebral taffy pull, soon, but that’s another poem for another time 🙂

    What sort of a shadowy stream of deliberately confounding plonk has Mr.Scalia packaged for us, that attempts to both denigrate and deny the spirit of our constitutional traditions? As a person of hope (whose faith relies on the evidence of same) I cringe at how cramped and how trampled upon I feel, especially when you do us the ‘pleasure’ Will, of amplifying the prejudicial burden he has attempted to hose onto the garden of thought of each and every citizen,

    As for God or the lack thereof, I imagine the throne of life awaits a timely enough, sacred intention of humanity with which to sustain it for present and future days. Still, in order to realize and increase a sustaining sacredness–and democracy– it seems imperative that we begin to hold one another in higher regard, and just as critically,to include the well-being of the earth’s natural resources, and the entire population of its remaining creatures.

    In the midst of this Anthropocene time of natural and human-made calamity and sorrow I would be grateful for continuing conversations that can open the door to the power of language, how it is controlled, who controls it, and how it has the potential to free humanity to elevate and radicalize hopefulness into a well-deserved deity all its own.

    With an abundance of hope it seems possible to alter our language to create a renewed appeal for courage, and for the creative thinking and doing that facilitate the ideas that make courage visible, viable,and life-giving. I envision an increase in a language of hope, of words that lift people up and into the heart of themselves. I dream that we’ll become worlds of words that engender good will, freedom of thought, ideas that sparkle with invention, and shining with possibility for something better-including a healthy democracy, that can be made for today,but sustains for tomorrow. Too, it is helpful to think of well-worded people as being more than able to understand and decode the word-meisters who prey upon us with highfalutin rhetoric, or more disgracefully, downright lies.

    Thank you for pulling me up for air, Will. The deep diving world (induced by too much world news) has me growing little fins and a tail, and needing Haroun’s Sea of Stories to buoy myself up with.

    Meanwhile, world news and all, I remain a bastion of semi-depressed hope.:-)
    Love, MoMo

    1. Sherrie, This is a wonderful, nuanced statement. I love what you say. Nothing is more important than hope—I quite agree—and the recovery of language by well meaning people, taking it back from the destroyers of truth and meaning, is the route to the recovery of our democracy and of our spiritual lives. Thanks so much. Will

  4. Apologies for the numerous typos and punctuation errors above. Using a telephone keyboard was not the optimal choice for writing to your blog. 🌈 MoMo

  5. Very well said, Will. Your continuing articulation of insightful comments leaves me feeling that I am not alone in the secular wilderness.

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