The Course of Reason

The Moral Case For Secularism

July 18, 2011

A discussion with a fellow atheist/secularist, Cody Hashman, (who I’d like to give thanks to for posting my article on the issue of Muslim prayers in Toronto schools on The Course of Reason blog) has brought up some interesting points about how we should argue for secularism.

I shared my thoughts on how Canada is an interesting case when it comes to Church and State separation. There is no official separation enshrined within our legal system.Therefore, it puts secularists at a disadvantage when attempting to argue against the mixing of religion and government. However, Hashman provided a take on this situation that shines it in a favourable light for Canadian secularists.

He describes the situation as both a burden and a tool of liberation. While it is difficult to not have access to a legal argument, it forces us to expand our arguments to the realm of morality. American secularists, Hashman suggests, tend to get stuck making legal arguments. As a result, the mentality becomes, “I don’t care what they are doing as long as they aren’t breaking the law.” But what if what they are doing is still viewed as morally-objectionable by secularists? What if their activities involve discrimination against women, gays, minorities, non-believers, etc.? Even if they are doing so in a private setting without state sanction, is it moral? No, of course not. Legality and morality are not one in the same.

Another failing of the legal argument is that it leaves the doors open for the law to be used against secularists. If a law was ever passed that made prayer in school mandatory, with a punishment for those who do not bow their head, then the secularist arguing from the legal perspective would have no counter. Those making the legal argument should be wary of the fact that the law can be used against them.

Now none of this is to say that it should be argued that people be forced to not engage in religious practices in a private setting. Far from it. After all, that would require a legal component, which is what is being contested in the first place. People should be free to engage in the manner they see fit in a private setting. However, secularists should engage in public debate about why they find such practices objectionable. It may go a long way to influencing public opinion. Change should not be forced but that does not mean the seeds of change cannot take root and slowly grow.

By not having the legal argument option available to us, Canadian secularists are forced to work to develop and hone the arguments for the moral perspective. The movement will be stronger for it.

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo.



About the Author: Chris Burke

Chris Burke's photo
Chris Burke holds a Bachelors in Environmental Studies: Honours Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. Next he will be working towards a Masters of Environmental Studies in Sustainability Management. He's an active member of the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers of Waterloo student group. In his spare time he enjoys reading and playing music.




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