Secular Humanism and the Separation of Church and State

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Secular humanists believe strongly in the separation of church and state. A Secular Humanist Declaration says

Because of their commitment to freedom, secular humanists believe in the principle of the separation of church and state. . . . Any effort to impose an exclusive conception of Truth, Piety, Virtue, or Justice upon the whole of society is a violation of free inquiry. Clerical authorities should not be permitted to legislate their own parochial views – whether moral, philosophic, political, education, or social – for the rest of society. Nor should tax revenues be exacted for the benefit or support of sectarian religious institutions. Individuals and voluntary associations should be free to accept or not to accept any belief and to suppose these convictions with whatever resources they may have, without being compelled by taxation to contribute to those religious faiths with which they do not agree. Similarly, church properties should share in the burden of public revenues and should not be exempt from taxation. [1]

A Statement in Defense of Secularism declares

American democracy draws its special vitality from the First Amendment, which incorporates the principle of a separation of church and state. In essence, the United States is a secular republic; this means that the government cannot establish a religion. It cannot favor religion over non-religion. [2]

The American Founders are often credited with creating a separation of church and state. The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” [3] Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association which gave Jefferson’s interpretation of the First Amendment. [4] In that letter, the third President of the United States wrote,

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god [sic], that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reference that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. [5]

The student first noted why secular humanists desire a separation of church and state. First, they favor such separation, for they do not believe in Deity. They have said, “We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of new thought.” [6] In Humanist Manifesto II, they wrote

As non-theists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity. Nature may indeed be broader and deeper than we know; any new discoveries, however, will but enlarge our knowledge of the natural.

We can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species. While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves. [7]

Adolf Grunbaum, a secular humanist and the Andrew Mellon Professor of Philosophy of Science, Research Professor of Psychiatry, and chair of the center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburg said, “I have remained a lifelong atheist for two reasons: I do not know of any cogent argument for the existence of God, and I think there is telling evidence against it.” [8] Second, since they do not believe in the Divine, secular humanists want to be fully free from any divine obligations. “Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.” [9]

We appreciate the need to preserve the best ethical teachings in the religious traditions of humankind, many of which we share in common. But we reject those features of traditional religious morality that deny humans a full appreciation of their own potentialities and responsibilities. Traditional religions often offer solace to humans, but, as often, they inhibit humans from helping themselves or experiencing their full potentialities. Such institutions, creeds, and rituals often impede the will to serve others. Too often traditional faiths encourage dependence rather than independence, obedience rather than affirmation, fear rather than courage. [10]

In Defense of Secularism declares

We regret Clinton’s repeated statements that “freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion,” which seem to defend the propriety of treating the non-religious as second-class citizens. We question his stated preference for spiritual leap-taking in place of “some purely rational solution of a problem.” On the contrary, we submit that if America discards rationality we are truly rudderless, helpless against sectarian strife when differing groups may seek to impose their peculiar spiritual visions on American life. [11]

Third, humanists remind their readers of the disaster wrought in the name of religion. For example, “The lessons of history are clear: wherever one religion or ideology is established and given a dominant position in the state, minority opinions are in jeopardy.” [12]

In turning to a Christian response, the student emphasized that God, not man, establishes government. When Nebuchadnezzar was filled with pride, a voice from heaven told him, “You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Dan. 4:32). Paul told the Roman congregation, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Rom. 13:1). Such biblical statements stand in sharp contrast to the American heritage.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed [13]

The Preamble of the United States Constitution reads,

We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The student then turned attention to the purpose of God ordained civil authorities. [14] God expects governments to punish wrongdoers. Speaking of governmental authorities, Paul wrote, “He is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). Peter exhorted his readers: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

How should governments punish wrongdoers? First, governments need to base laws upon God’s standards. On this point, the wall of separation between church and state as popularly defined becomes quite problematic, for humanists do not want any religious basis for law; for example, they do not want abortion to be wrong because God values human life, they do not want homosexual marriage to be wrong because God says homosexuality is wrong, they do not want gambling to be wrong because of what God has said about greed. However, both Peter and Paul both speak of government’s punishing those who do wrong. How shall “wrong” be defined? Since “wrong” is used in the context of Scripture, should “wrong” not be defined by God’s standards?

Second, governments need to execute the death penalty. Such an ultimate price, according to many, denies dignity to condemned individuals. However, that penalty upholds the dignity of man made in God’s image. After the Deluge, God told Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen. 9:6). Governmental authorities do “not bear the sword for nothing” (Rom. 13:4). When Pilate reminded Jesus that he had power to crucify or release him, Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (Jn. 19:11); Jesus, although he had committed no crime, recognized the state’s right to put to death.

Third, governments need to require restitution, for such is a biblical principle. “If the stolen animal is found alive in his possession – whether ox or donkey or sheep – he must pay back double” (Ex. 22:4). “If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and he does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held responsible if the other gets up and walks around outside with his staff; however, he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed” (Ex. 21:19). After Jesus’ entered his house, Zacchaeus said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Lk. 19:8). The principle can also be seen from what Paul said concerning thieves: “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (Eph. 4:28).

Governments not only exist to punish the wicked, but they are also to reward the righteous. “Rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you” (Rom. 13:3). Governors are sent by the king “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Pet. 2:14).

Governments need to reward the righteous through keeping law and order. Paul urged Christians to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2). In order to provide believers the opportunity to live “peaceful and quiet lives,” governments needs to provide an active, well-trained police force and provide for the national defense.

Governments also need to reward the righteous through fair taxation. Christians must pay their appropriate share of taxes; Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mt. 22:21). However, taxes must not be used for activities which Scripture has not authorized. God has only authorized government to punish wrongdoing and reward the righteous; in other words, the administration of justice is the only God-ordained function of civil government. Therefore, Christians’ taxes should only go to the administration of justice, not welfare, government subsidies, and the like.

[1]Ibid., 12.

[2]In Defense of Secularism.

[3]Constitution of the United States, Amendment I.

[4]Steve Mount, “Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter,” The U. S. Constitution Online, (accessed October 7, 2005)

[5]Thom Jefferson, “Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.” January 1, 1802.

[6]Humanist Manifesto I, Sixth.

[7]Humanist Manifesto II, First.

[8]Adolf Grunbaum, “My Exodus to Secular Humanism. (Brief Article),” Free Inquiry 19 (1999): 25.

[9]Humanist Manifesto I,Sixth.

[10]Humanist Manifesto II, First.

[11]In Defense of Secularism.

[12]Kurtz, Humanist Declaration, 12.

[13]Declaration of Independence. Emphasis added.

[14]Important in the formulation of the student’s thinking are two works: Robert L. Waggoner, “Theism v. Secularism,” 48-63; and Dennis Woods, Discipling the Nations (Franklin, TN: Legacy Communications, 1996), 121-179.

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