More Fuzzy Thinking on Church and State

The issue of the relationship between church and state is always controversial, and arguments about it tend to generate more heat than light. Much muddled thinking can be seen on this topic. But that tends to be true of most important issues being debated in the public arena.

In days gone by, a proper education would include some courses in basic logic. Students would have been taught how to think clearly and spot logical fallacies. One suspects that this is not being taught very much nowadays. Almost on a daily basis, one can find plenty of examples of sloppy thinking and illogical argumentation.

Consider the morning newspapers for example. The letters to the editor page is a good place to begin. What passes for rational and logical discussion there is often something to behold. Most of the things that we were told to avoid in our logic classes seem to predominate in these pages. There is plenty of attacking the person instead of the argument (the fallacy of ad hominem); lots of wild goose chases (red herrings); and so on.

One very common logical fallacy found here – and elsewhere – is the category mistake. Simply put, this fallacy consists of comparing apples with oranges. It mixes two ideas that don’t belong together. Examples abound.

Consider the debate over same-sex marriage for example. Homosexual activists will often throw out a claim such as this: “Just as South Africa had apartheid, so you will not allow same-sex marriage.” But this is simply apples and oranges, pure and simple. Skin colour and race are innate characteristics, while sexual preference is not. A person born black cannot change that fact, but a person can and does change his or her sexual preferences. Many thousands of people who were once homosexual are now heterosexual. Many of them are also married with children. So to compare past and unjust racial discrimination laws with arguments against same-sex marriage is simply to commit a category mistake.

Consider another example, this time found in one of today’s papers. Over the weekend I had a letter published on the Rowan Williams controversy. The Anglican Archbishop had called for the introduction of sharia law – or at least parts of it – in the UK. I suggested this would not bring about harmony and integration, but disharmony and segregation.

I said – in this context – that to make special laws for religious and ethnic groups, or to grant them exemptions, would in fact work against the rule of law and social cohesion. Such a remark is uncontroversial enough, in the context of the debate over the Archbishop’s comments.

But of course some secularist jumped on the bandwagon and attacked me, claiming that no religious groups should get any exemptions, and implying that I was being hypocritical here, because I may think that Christians should get certain concessions or exemptions.

But we have here a major category mistake. This chap is trying to compare apples with oranges. The issue raised by the Archbishop really has to do with the major overthrow or revamping of a millennium of English law, by setting up an alternate or parallel system of law. No country can have two different systems of law, especially if they are in so many respects mutually exclusive.

That is a different issue altogether as to whether a nation allows certain limited exception, concessions or exemptions for various groups for various reasons. There are all sort of acceptable reasons why a largely secular democracy may see the need to allow certain exceptions for religious bodies. And no one – except the hard core secularists and God-haters – has a problem with this.

For example, in some Western countries, certain religious groups can get tax concessions for the charitable work they perform. Most people do not have a problem with that. If a Jewish or Muslim or Christian group is doing great welfare work or running charitable programs which benefit the whole nation, they should be entitled to some tax relief. They in fact will be performing a community service while saving taxpayers money because the work is being done by non-profit charitable, volunteer organisations. I see no problems with helping them out with small tax breaks.

That has nothing to do with running two parallel law systems in the same nation. My critic also mentions how I or others might favour exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, and so on. But again he is showing some confused thinking here.

Let me illustrate with this scenario. The Geelong Football club only hires certain particular types of people to play footy for them. They do not hire women as players. They do not hire 60-year-olds as players. They certainly do not hire someone like me who has never played a game of Aussie Rules footy in his life.

Now no one complains about that. No one cries discrimination. No one says people’s rights are being violated. Club memberships are always selective. And there is nothing wrong with that. In the same way, there is nothing wrong with a particular religious group or church only hiring someone – say, as a teacher – who adheres to their statement of faith. They would expect to have someone faithfully teach the doctrines of that group or denomination.

If an Islamic Mosque were forced to employ secular or Jewish imams to lecture young Muslims, there would rightly be an outcry. There is clearly a place for groups, clubs, charitable bodies and religious groups to have certain ground rules as to membership, teaching, and so on.

Such exemptions have nothing to do with having two competing systems of law operating in one nation. That is the issue I was addressing, not whether there is a place in a secular democracy for religious groups to be allowed to practice their faith freely, even if that means being granted a few exemptions now and then.

And bear in mind that a committed Muslim wouldn’t want a two-tiered law system anyway. He would not be happy with a half-Western law, half-sharia law situation. He wants everyone to be under sharia law. It is all or nothing for the dedicated Muslim.

Thus the critics who think they have caught us out here have done nothing of the sort. One can be fully consistent in warning about the introduction of sharia law while also acknowledging that religious freedom is important, and certain public allowances for it can be safely made.

I of course acknowledge there is always the need to carefully express oneself, and I might have worded my short letter a bit better in order to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. But at the end of the day, these really are two quite different matters, and both can be argued for – or against – on their own merits. Confusing the two issues is simply not helpful.

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7 Replies to “More Fuzzy Thinking on Church and State”

  1. Your ‘secular’ critic also fails to appreciate the role Christianity has played in providing the foundation of English law.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  2. Maybe I am about to generate more heat than light here?

    In a 2005 ‘Australian Humanist’ publication, Max Wallace concludes his piece, titled “Is There a Separation of Church and State in Australia and New Zealand?”:

    “Excluding a few religionists, academia has simply missed the point that there is no separation of church and state in Australia and New Zealand”

    In his opening remarks in the same piece, I would disagree with Wallace on exactly what ‘separation of church and state’ means in the USA. But the phrase itself seems to come with a lot of baggage both here and abroad. I cannot count the number of times in a daily telegraph or SMH forum that I have heard someone comment that the church and its supporters, especially Christians MP’s, should shut up (re issues such as RU-486 or ESCR etc…), because after all, ‘haven’t you heard of separation of church and state?’

    Ignoring the fact that we do not find such a phrase in our own constitution, much less the USA, what would be the purpose of such “separation”? It’s not to protect mothers who want to abort children from Christians who want to pass bills to stop them, that’s for sure. It’s to allow religious freedoms. A bumper sticker that says, “I’m a Christian, and I vote!” might sum it up?

    And just to help you out with another example of discrimination that I think highlights the point you were trying to make before Bill; drivers’ licences. The state discriminates against people under 16 and people who are blind. Go figure? Actually, most people would probably like to see the minimum age restriction increased. More discrimination!

    Duane Proud

  3. And Duane, you could add the extra ‘persecution and discrimination’ of under 25 olds as to what cars they are allowed to drive and specific traffic penalties etc.

    There is always going to be discriminatory laws. Indeed it is necessary.

    Like many words, an unemotional word such as ‘discrimination’ has become emotionally-charged in a negative way. It has also become over-used and mis-represented. It is good to discriminate in some areas and bad to discriminate in others. It is up to a thinking populace to have the freedom choose what forms of discrimination are acceptable within the framework of law. For instance, people should not be allowed to engage in sexual relationships with minors, for the obvious protection of our children.

    As to ‘separation of church and state’. Another phrase that is widely mis-understood and mis-construed. Bill has written some good articles on this site about what this constitutes and the boundaries that it makes. To say that a certain religious group or leaning should have no say in the governing of a country is moronic, just as it is ridiculous to ignore the history of the foundations of the western culture as being borne out of Christian culture.

    Garth Penglase

  4. Bill,

    Your football club analogy is fundamentally flawed. Clubs offer employment to people who have the skills and ability to do the job. There would be hell to pay if Geelong or any other club started rejecting good players because they were Christians, or homosexuals. Yet you support the right of a school to reject a capable and fully-qualified teacher because the school has passed judgement on that teacher’s private life or beliefs. That’s no different from rejecting someone on the basis of race or gender.

    As for your assertion that anyone can change their sexual orientation, you run in the face of professional opinion on the matter. Why on earth would anyone choose to be gay when they face life of rejection, discrimination and opprobrium, particularly from Christians?

    Steve Angelino, WA

  5. Thanks Steve

    Sorry, but wrong again. Both clubs and schools pass judgment on the character, values and views of their members or staff all the time. What is your problem with that? Should schools not check for paedophiles or those with criminal records? Should Greenpeace be forced to accept Japanese whalers? Should a Jewish small business have to employ David Irving?

    Clearly private religious bodies have every right to hire religious people reflecting their ethos and values. Indeed, I am not aware of any atheist organisation advertising in the newspapers for a new CEO with the words: “all welcome, religious beliefs do not matter”. So please spare us this silliness Steve.

    And I will have to call your bluff once again here. Racial characteristics are innate and not a matter of choice. In contrast, plenty of the more honest homosexuals argue for genuine choice in their sexuality. Are you calling them liars?

    Your last point is equally defenceless. You might as well argue, “Why would people choose to be criminals given all the opprobrium and opposition they know they will get?” People make choices for all sorts of reasons, and many are quite happy to make choices knowing that there may be some negative consequences. Cigarette smokers are a classic example.

    Moreover, given how homosexuality has become the flavour of the month, your argument can easily be turned on its head: given how much celebrity status is heaped on all things homosexual these days, why wouldn’t a person want to embrace that lifestyle? It is the one standing up for heterosexuality these days that has become the new social outcast and pariah.

    And the facts on sexual change are clearly there for those who will accept evidence over ideology. Here are just two examples: The decidedly non-religious Masters and Johnson Clinic in St. Louis has treated hundreds of homosexuals and bisexuals. Masters reports that they have successfully “changed” more than half of their homosexual clients, and higher than 75 per cent of bisexuals. And a recent study of 200 homosexuals and lesbians who had been given psychotherapy treatment found that 78 per cent of males and 95 per cent of females reported a change in their sexuality.

    So once again, it is our side with the evidence, and your side with the rhetoric and the ideology. Who is the one living by faith here?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. hmmm.

    Why on earth would anyone choose to be Christian when they face a life of rejection, discrimination and opprobrium, particularly from homosexuals (and atheists, and humanists, and marxists etc.)?

    (sorry. can’t bring myself to use the word ‘gay’ since, from my experience, it’s such a misnomer to use that word to describe practicing homosexuals)

    Garth Penglase

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