An Attempt to Think as a Free Thinker

Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood KolischWith thousands of devout Muslims protesting the enforced Muslimization of their government in Egypt, and since thousands of sincere Christians refused Tea Party pressure to Christianize our government, I need to think about whether I am actually opposed to organised religion, as I’ve always thought I was, or only to the church meddling with the state — to religion claiming control over practical decisions and intellectual realms that, since the Enlightenment, have been taken out of its control.

Voltaire’s untranslatable and invaluable slogan, écrasez l’infâme! — stamp out the abomination! — didn’t refer to religion, as militant atheists would like it to. It referred to policies and activities of the Catholic Church. His passionate hatred of the Church’s interference with free thought didn’t keep him from being a deist, or from accepting the last rites of the church he was born in. L’infâme is not religion but the misuse of religion, religion made into control, degraded from power-to into power-over. L’infâme is the meddling priest and priesthood, the church that declares itself a holy supergovernment above political government, claiming mindless obedience from the individual consciences which are the essential element of a state evolving towards democracy and freedom.

The United States Constitution does not mention God. The only blessings it invokes are those of Liberty. This nation was not conceived “under God.” The men who wrote the Constitution generally acknowledged the value of religion in its own sphere as a powerful force in maintaining community and a guide to spiritual practice, sometimes to moral choice, but firmly maintained the distinction between the religious and the political domains and asserted its necessity in the First Amendment.

Efforts to blur that clarity by permitting or demanding intrusion of prayer and invocation of God into the doings of the government have grown a great deal in the last sixty years. The drive to make America a Christian state have been strengthened by right-wing identification with fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, seeing religion not as a freely chosen community of thought and practice but as unquestioning compliance with priestly teaching and command, sets up religion as the opponent of any community or government except that of its priesthood and the politicians who serve them.

There is no way such an all-or-nothing hierocratic rule can work with democracy. This is the tragedy of Israel, and may yet be that of Egypt.

A church that controls the army and police is enormously powerful. But any fundamentalist priesthood can bully and frighten even the reasonable majority of church members into accepting fanatical extremism, traditionally by keeping half the congregation, women, ignorant and disempowered; by threatening and carrying out punishment for disobedience and heresy; and by activating and harping on sectarian prejudices and hatred.

Unfortunately — and this is what is troubling my conscience now — they can also rely on the prejudices of members of different sects or other religions, and of the non-religious, to supply the scorn and contempt that binds any group into a community full of hatred and self-righteousness, ready to turn self-defense into blind aggression.

An ingroup depends on outsiders to maintain it. There’s no Us without Them, whether we declare them, or they declare us, to be the outsiders.

Israelis who support Netanyahu, the extreme wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the reactionary-religious American movement currently represented by the Tea Party, all act on the self-generated conviction that theirs is the only valid religion and that it must guide political action. But their fanaticism is also a product of liberal prejudice, which too often lumps all Jews together, or all Muslims together, or all Christians together. To identify the many peaceable believers with the few dangerous fanatics is to think as a militant — Us eternally against Them — and so deny any compromise, any hope of peaceful coexistence, let alone democratic collaboration.

It behooves free thinkers to refuse to let the aggressive misuse of religion prejudice our minds against any and all religion. The best answer to the people who want to force us into divisive sectarianism may still be the steadfast silence of the Constitution.


17 December 2012


For an editorial detailing the increasing religiosity of American political discourse, see “The God Glut,” by Frank Bruni, at the New York Times.

In this piece, Bruni doesn’t mention that practising Catholics form a majority of the Supreme Court, at least two of whom (Scalia and Thomas) are members of the highly secretive, extremely reactionary Catholic society Opus Dei (Sotomayor couldn’t be if she wanted to, since Opus Dei, “the work of God,” excludes women). To what extent are such justices influenced by the dogmatic policies of the Vatican? Should justices be expected to state the issues on which they consider their church a higher moral authority than the law and to recuse themselves from judging such issues? Is anyone asking that question? Religious bias in any judge in any court should be the subject of attention and protest. Voltaire, we need you. We need you in the media. Now.




An Attempt to Think as a Free Thinker — 10 Comments

  1. The separation of church and state that the founding fathers mandated is one of the great social experiments of all time. It is surely one of the cornerstones of the American success story, and I shudder when we chip away at it. I would argue that we are long overdue for a pruning back of the state support of religion, and would support the removal of religious exemptions (the one that Mitt Romney used to dodge the draft), tax breaks, regulatory loopholes, and so forth. For instance, all the brouhaha about gay marriage would dial down, if we could distinguish clearly between state-supported unions and religious marriage ceremonies. (FWIW C.S. Lewis recommended this, a generation ago.) Let the separation be utter and complete.

  2. This is why I love Ursula LeGuin: clear-eyed, dispassionate social criticism on (of course) the right side of the issues. This is also why fantasy matters: fiction rooted in “reality” can take on these kind of issues, but because the story is grounded in “reality,” readers are still inside their everyday thinking box. A story grounded in fantasy – an alternative reality – provides a bigger box. Fantasy is a means to think outside the “reality” box without directly challenging deeply held beliefs that shut off thinking. Fantasy is insidious: it nibbles away at the subconscious. And LeGuin is the high priestess of insidious fantasy…

  3. One reason why UKL is one of my favourite authors is her commitment to thinking things through, seeing both sides, and generally trying to convey the nuances. Thus, while our views on religion are different, I’m always intrigued by the questions she raises on that topic. So I just want to point out that a bit more complexity here: Netanyahu is a secular Jew, his party is secular, they are running a joint list in the coming elections with a party that is even more secular, and those who will vote for that list represent a wide spectrum of religious commitment, from Orthodox to atheist. So: yes, religion and state is a big issue here in Israel. But so is ethnic nationalism – of both Jews and Arabs. And nationalism does not necessarily coincide with strong religious commitment or with the positions of religious leaders.

  4. Thank you, Mrs. Le Guin! I may assure you that there are quite many Christians (including some Roman Catholics) who find mixing religion with state issues very troublesome, both because of Matthew 22:21 (“give back to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s, and to God what is God’s”) and out of respect for the will of their fellow citizens. The problem with fanatics, of religious sort as well as of other types, as far as I can see, is not related to the fact that they think their religion/convictions/… to be better than those of other people (otherwise they would have rather changed their views); the real problem lies in the fact that they consider themselves infallible and do not respect freedom of other people to choose differently.

    As for the American Supreme Court, I think I understand why you are worried – even though I consider myself a Roman Catholic, I have my own doubts about Opus Dei (and, living in Poland, I can see my Church interfering with State way too much). But on the other hand, wherever justices come from, they will always bring with them all that shaped them into grown-up humans, religious and anti-religious biases included. Thus there is a great risk of shifting prejudice from what happens inside Supreme Court to the stage of banning selected groups of people from sitting as its members. It may start with Opus Dei but then you never know where it ends. I would rather ask how it happened that so many Catholics were nominated to the Supreme Court in a society in which Catholicism has fewer followers that Evangelical Churches. But then it may still be just a statistical fluctuation: in the one-element group of current presidents of the US you can easily name some minorites hugely over-represented, and I do not think you find it unfair. You cannot have a fair representation with respect to all sorts of criteria in a group of nine people.

  5. If you would like the view of a judge on competing claims between the State and God, you could do worse than that given in the UK by Lord Justice Laws (yes: that really is his name!) in the case of McFarlane and Relate Arvon (2010).
    In his judgment, Laws said:
    ‘…the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.’ (para 23)
    Laws is not unsympathetic to the duties that may be owed to God, and has provided a profound analysis on the tensions between the duty of obedience to the State and to God in his 2005 essay, Authority: law and religion.
    Laws argues that, in a decent society, obedience to the law of the state must usually be compulsory (subject to the demands of conscience); but obedience to the law of God must always be voluntary (and subject to the demands of reason). Trying to make obedience to the law of God compulsory is theocracy and tyranny.
    Laws also rejected the idea, proposed by a former Archbishop of Canterbury, of appointing special judges and special courts for matters touching religious rights. And I guess he would similarly reject the notion of devout judges having to recuse themselves from cases on which their church had strong views. It is time to accuse such judges of bias only if their reasoned judgments are legally invalid or clearly irrational. Then appropriate action may be taken against them. That may take a long time, but if we want the rule of law, we have to allow judges to make honest judgments which many may find unpalatable. Disqualifying judges because of their backgrounds or beliefs (provided they do not disbelieve in the rule of law) would be a dangerous two-edged sword.
    On a purely pedantic point, I doubt that any devout judge would ever say that they believe their church to be a higher moral authority than the law, purely because the law is not, cannot be, and has no need to be, a ‘moral’ authority: it is just the law. The law does have authority, but its authority is social and institutional, never moral. After all, the law does not require us to be moral – just law-abiding. They might reasonably reply: ‘Don’t ask me to rank an apple against a banana.’
    To go back to the bigger picture, ULG’s plea for tolerance and broadmindedness is surely right. And when we are trying to decide how much obedience to give to the state (or society) and how much to God (or our own consciences), we would do well to re-read ‘Antigone’ and, for that matter, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’.

  6. Ms. LeGuin,

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and insights.

    Those above have articulated quite well my own thinking about church, state, religion and opponents of religion.

    I would like to add one more thought: I find righteousness and militancy repugnant, no matter what the cause. Richard Dawkins is as unpleasant in his anti-religious diatribes (though not in his science writing) as is Pat Robertson on the other side.

    Thank you for everything you do.

  7. / Howdy, BVC. You may enjoy this little snippet that I discovered lately on the net. /

    Who Needs Holy Catholics?

    There’s already enough holy stuff:

    Holy Father, Holy Mother, Holy Week, Holy Virgin, Holy Water, Holy Orders, Holy Bingo, Holy Savior, Holy Family, Holy Matrimony, Holy Oils, and Holy Communion. So who needs Holy Catholics, especially in politics?

    The New Testament (Phil. 2:9-11) says that “Jesus” is “a name which is above every name.” Since many have viewed Catholicism as a “blasphemous counterfeit” of true Christianity, shouldn’t the Pope tell folks in Catholic countries to quit naming their boys “Jesus” and threaten to excommunicate them if they do? Wouldn’t this be a step in the right direction?

    (Believe it or not, the above message was inspired by “good Catholics” like Boehner, Biden, Pelosi and Madonna!)

  8. Mrs. Le Guin, I don’t know if you read these comments, but I’d just like to inform you that Opus Dei does include women and has since 1930.

  9. Ursula, reading you view on religion and having read almost all your fantasy and SF novels, I admire your urge for compassion and wisdom. From your books also, one should conclude that allways when a system, principles or personal gain get more important than respect for the indidual fellow man/woman, there is disaster, war, collapse or revolution. Please keep us aware.