One of the tragedies of our time is a flawed perception of a chasm between believer and nonbeliever. The fact is we are all brothers in the same boat. Neither believer nor nonbeliever can prove his opinion is the right one and that makes us all equals and brothers. In that context we are all believers because our opinions are based solely upon our respective beliefs.
Now, there is a real division between the two opinions, of course. For it cannot be true that there is a god and also be true that there is no god. We seem to be able to agree on that. The problem I am addressing is a semantic one. A correct definition of a non-believer is “one who believes there is no god or believes that it is not possible to know whether there is a god.” The fact that this description correctly uses the word “believes” demonstrates my point. We are all believers in our individual positions on this question and are thus truly in the same predicament. So that is the false dichotomy that inflates the issue to double it’s true size.
Because this idea that a non-believer is a believer seems self-contradictory, we need to focus on this a moment. One may ask the question of an atheist, for example: “Can you prove there is no god?” His honest answer must be negative for it is impossible to logically prove the total absence of anything. Given that fact, it is clear that the atheist holds his opinion based on faith or belief alone. Since it is possible to correctly define anyone’s personal view on religious subjects beginning with the phrase “He believes …” it must be true that we are all believers in this broad general sense.
Well, So What?
Well, for one thing, since both the atheist and the believer (in God) are both believers, they will both be equally interested in the issues surrounding freedom of religion. Typically, the atheist doesn’t see this and that really weakens his position. (Because only a correct perception of things can lead to a correct understanding, and without understanding there is no strength.)
There is yet another facet of this problem and it’s very parallel to the one just treated. This time the semantics are “religious” and “non-religious”. In our common speech we take “religious” to mean someone who believes in and/or worships God, and vice versa. It’s really the same issue.
To illuminate the matter a bit, consider the fact that many atheists hold their opinion with the same intensity of emotion and logic as the “believer” holds his. It seems proper to say they both hold their opinions with “religious fervor”. We hesitate to call the atheist “religious”, and indeed many of them would take offense at the idea. But this is a problem of semantics. If we are going to understand one another across this divide, we have to get beyond the words and reach for understanding.
There is a space between words and their meanings, and this false dichotomy exists because that space exists. But if we search for understanding we can get past the words. If we do we will surely find that both sides of the argument are “believers” in their own opinions and are therefore in a real sense equally “religious”.
Well, Here’s the Real What
Our society is troubled by this false dichotomy in two ways:
- The issue is packed with much more emotion that it ought to be, for surely we would have much greater patience and tolerance for opposing views (god or not) if we all understood that we are actually in the same boat, and,
- Our perception, being confused by our semantic use of the relevant words, is actually establishing a de facto state religion while we all think we are separating church and state. This is a case of results exactly opposite their intentions.
So here’s what is happening. In the middle of the night, we look out the back window of our nation’s home to see a believer and non-believer standing side by side, looking over the back fence at the universe. Each one is talking over the other as they ply their arguments about what they think they see. Neither one can point out something to prove his position, but each insists the other is wrong. We watch for quite a while and it just goes on and on until finally we ask ourselves, “Why don’t they just agree that neither one can prove his position, and just agree on that and say to one another, ‘It’s been fun to talk.’ They just need to tolerate one another, accommodate each other’s opinion and stop wasting time and emotion arguing about something neither one can prove.”
So the real shame of it all is that the argument over the fence went on so long and was so bitter at times. We should be able to do better than that.
And That Leads to This “Separation of Church and State” Thing
Our present dialogue uses these pivotal words (believer/nonbeliever and religious/nonreligious) in such a way that their everyday definitions hide the whole truth of the matter: that nonbelievers are actually believers in the broader sense, and that both parties are equally religious in their adherence to their separate opinions.
Because that otherwise unifying fact is hidden, both sides of the discussion feel that is must be OK to write laws that suppress the public religious expression of the “believer” who senses that something is wrong, but is speechless. Thus the two are on completely uneven footing but should not be.
So the attempt to separate church and state moves on (but not forward) and the “free exercise thereof” portion of the First Amendment is being slowly shrunk toward nothingness. The effect is the de facto establishment of a state religion we might call atheism. Thus we are violating the first three phrases of the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” and “or abridging the freedom of speech, …”.
All that because of a false dichotomy.