Justified Belief and Church/State Separation in the light of 9/11:
Not just 'atheist issues'
Justin Vacula received bachelor's degrees in Psychology and Philosophy from King's College in Pennsylvania and is the co-organizer, spokesperson, and one of the board members of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society - a secular discussion and activist group of non-theists. Vacula received a large amount of media attention during and following his 2009 church/state battle in Luzerne County. He has also been featured in a chapter of the book “NEPATIZED! Behind the People and Controversies That Define Us and How Things Can Change” in addition to touring with the book's author. Vacula also maintains a personal website and blog at justinvacula.com discussing philosophy, atheism, and theism among other topics and writes articles as the Scranton Atheism Examiner for Examiner.com.
One can not deny that beliefs inform our actions. Our beliefs translate into actions that have the ability to inform others' beliefs, harm or help others, and establish our quality of life. While we may not be compelled to fly planes into buildings because of the beliefs we hold, this does not diminish the importance of holding justified beliefs.
Philosopher Jonathan Kvanvig, in his book “The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding,” writes “Without beliefs to guide decisions about what actions to perform, we would be reduced to the position of random selection of actions, hoping that one selected was useful.”
Philosopher Richard Taylor argues that truth is worth seeking because “it saves one from the numberless substitutes that are constantly invented and tirelessly peddled to the simple-minded, usually with stunning success... it saves us from these glittering gems and baubles, promises and dogmas and creeds that are worth no more than the stones under one's feet.”
While it is the case that we can not be “absolutely certain” about beliefs, we can proportion our beliefs with available evidence, argument, and reason in order to hold informed beliefs and make informed decisions in our daily lives.
Faith – belief held without adequate evidence, argument, or reason -- such as the terrorists who flew planes into the Twin Towers had -- as we reflect today, resulted in devastation. Faith is not a reliable means to attaining justified belief and is no good reason to hold a belief. If a belief held because of faith is correct, it was not correct because it was based on faith, but rather was correct for some other reason.
It is easy to see the consequences of faith-based beliefs when thinking about 9/11, but such consequences need not be so grand in order for one to care about holding justified beliefs. If we care about holding justified beliefs, we are far less likely to harm others and ourselves and are far more likely to contribute to humankind, help others, and help ourselves.
Care for evidence and need for justification for beliefs should be everyone's concern in all areas of life rather than simply holding beliefs because of tradition, utility, comfort, or indoctrination. One should not allow certain beliefs – no matter how cherished they may be – to be above criticism or at a different level than others not requiring justification.
If more people cared about holding justified beliefs and proportioning their beliefs to the evidence, we should expect more compassion and a more productive society. Author Sam Harris writes, “I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.” This, again, is not just a concern for atheists, but rather should be a concern for everyone.
If, instead of holding faith-based beliefs based on the Koran that inspired the attacks on 9/11 and instead, people were more skeptical about their beliefs, it might have been the case that we would not even be here today holding a 9/11 remembrance event. Even if the terrorist attacks would have happened for some other reason instead of a faith-based belief, this still does not diminish the importance of holding justified beliefs.
Looking into the future, instead of viewing faith as some sort of intellectually virtuous belief, we should be consistent in all areas of life and globally apply skepticism. We surely would not praise a person who had faith in some sort of alleged medical cure that is not backed by any evidence whatsoever
Another issue that is important for many atheists, although it should be important for every American citizen, is the separation of church and state. Many have false impressions of what this phrase, tracing back to Thomas Jefferson in his address to the Danbury Baptists, actually means. Separation of church and state does not only mean, in legal terms, that the government is barred from declaring an official state religion, but rather means that the government should be completely neutral in matters of religion; government should not favor religion over non-religion or favor one religion over another religion. Separation of church and state is important because, in the eyes of the government, all religious beliefs or lack thereof are viewed as equal.
Some Muslims and Christians, and perhaps others, unjustly believe that the United States is a 'Christian nation.' The unsubstantiated belief of the United States as a Christian nation fuels the myth of the 'war with Islam' and it would not be much of a stretch to say that this belief is a threat to national security.
While the majority of people in the United States may be Christians, this does make the United States a 'Christian nation' any more than a majority of Caucasians would make the United States a 'white nation.' One simply needs to read the Treaty of Tripoli, a document unanimously ratified by the United States Congress and signed by president John Adams, to realize that the United States, as the document itself says, “is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Separation of church and state, whether people realize it or not, is what guarantees freedom of and freedom from religion – and this falsifies the notion that the United States is a 'Christian nation' that is at war with Islam. We best not fan the flames of what are seen to be religious wars, misrepresent the secular character of our nation, or distort history.
It is also the case, because of the idea of the United States as a 'Christian nation,' that non-Christians are viewed as somehow being un-American or even worse, enemies of America trying to destroy the foundations of the county which some believe to be “Christian principles.” The United States, as the Treaty of Tripoli suggests, is not founded on the Christian religion. America, rather, was founded on principles of freedom, liberty, and Enlightenment values.
Further, the 'creator' mentioned in the Declaration of Independence -- which is not a founding document such as the United States Constitution and has no legal standing -- is properly understood as a deistic god, one which created the universe but has no concerned for human affairs. Mentions of 'natural rights' in the documents of the founding fathers are not, as some religious individuals think, references to a Christian or any specific god. Many of our founding fathers were either deistic or non-religious.
John Adams, in “A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” wrote that the original states were “founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in the favor of the rights of mankind.”
No matter what the founding fathers believed, their intentions was clear; they wanted a separation of church and state and made sure to make no references to God in the United States Constitution, but rather references to religion in the constitution -- that there should be no religious test for public office and that no law should be made respecting an establishment of religion -- separate religion from the government.
The need for holding justified beliefs and the principle of separation of church and state are very important to consider in the wake of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Immediately following 9/11, and even today, some also believe that all Muslims are terrorists and that all Muslims hate America. These false beliefs have led to violence, discrimination, profiling, and the like. Further failures in critical thinking lead people, even to this day, to levy conspiracy theories suggesting that 9/11 was actually an inside job by the United States government – a position that is not based on reason, argument, or evidence.
It is also the case that atheists – rather than the religious who may privately or publicly rebuke their 'fundamentalists' and 'extremists' -- are the ones who are loudest-speaking against the dangers that result from religion and faith. Those who may call themselves 'religious moderates' ought to speak about these issues and police those of their religions instead of distancing, insisting that the fundamentalists and extremists are of completely different camps, or even saying “they don't follow the true religion.”
We should all agree, even if we disagree on other issues, that holding justified beliefs and defending a separation of church and state is important. These are not 'atheist issues,' but rather should be thought of as issues for all American citizens to care about. Thank you.