If you want to support religion, the worst possible thing you can do is let the government run it.
It’s more than a little ironic, therefore, that a political religious movement that typically decries the role of government helped introduce a bill in North Carolina that declared that the state had the right to establish a state religion (though the bill wouldn’t actually establish one.) The religious right has turned to antidisestablishmentarianism, rejection of the notion that the state must not have an establishment of religion.
Despite the constitutional exegesis in the bill itself, it is manifestly unconstitutional—ignoring the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which effectively amended the Tenth by restricting the right of states over individual citizens. In 1947, the Supreme Court recognized that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited states from enacting laws that effectively caused an establishment of religion.
This week comes the news that the bill won’t receive further consideration, and so stands little chance of becoming law. But the bill’s very introduction suggests that something very strange has evolved in the ongoing relationship between religion and the state. In both the short and the long term, that relationship has had a very complex interaction with science.
It’s easy to see the short term impact of such a bill with respect to science. By removing the requirement that laws need not to favor religion, state efforts to prohibit the teaching of evolution and climate science (for example) will be free of the judicial requirement that alternatives pass as “science” Put another way, critiques of evolution such as creation science and intelligent design, which the courts have ruled are not scientific, would no longer have to ignore the religious aspects of their research programs in order to try to pass as science.
But it’s the longer term history of science, religion, and the state that sheds the most light on the question of religious establishment. In Britain and its colonies in the century or so leading up to American independence, forced conformity to the doctrines of an official state church kept many people from attendance at universities, election to public office, and many other positions of responsibility, prestige and fortune. Even though the North Carolina bill wouldn’t have singled out a particular denomination, it would have excluded atheists, and many other people whose particular religious beliefs would have conflicted with the interpretations of religion that might have been established.
The authors of the U.S. Constitution were parties to a long debate over religious toleration. In the years leading to the Bill of Rights, the most important voices for toleration were not opponents of religion. They saw themselves as defenders of true religion. They argued that the state should not require oaths invoking God because it only tempts people to swear false oaths, putting their souls at risk.
Their reasoning was impeccable. If you offer an incentive— a job, education, social advancement—to someone for swearing an oath, mostly you get people swearing false oaths. For members of the Church of England who argued for Toleration (such as Archbishop Edmund Law and Archdeacon William Paley) this was worse than having the wrong belief. It was perjury. Taking the Lord’s name in vain. It could condemn your soul.
It was better, they argued, that oaths never be required. If someone simply believed wrongly, then in time they could be converted and saved, but if they perjured themselves, they were already lost. Paley and Law believed that their religion was right, but state power was the wrong way to win people to God’s side.
Today, religious toleration and American disestablishment are justified by appeals to pluralism, the view that no belief should be considered exclusively right or holds enough political clout to enforce their beliefs. But this has made people wary of religious toleration when they know their own religion is true. Toleration’s original supporters were not pluralists, but they might be strategically wiser (or more committed to a disestablishment principle) than those who would enlist the government to spare themselves the hard work of saving souls.
Where does science fit into this? Instead of converting people by threatening them or incentivizing them, advocates of toleration basically said that since their religion was right, their arguments ought to appeal to anyone who was open minded and could understand evidence and logic. They therefore began with arguments that took very little for granted. In the case of Paley, this is why he begins with looking at natural theology, because everyone can look at nature, and can be persuaded by rational argument from it. It’s only later on that Paley argues for the reliability of Scripture as evidence, because not everyone would be willing to take that for granted.
Though it’s anachronistic to call this a “scientific method,” the arguments put forward by the writers who helped inspire the Establishment clause effectively said that religious reasoning ought to draw first from objective knowledge found in nature—knowledge that could appeal to everyone. In effect, antidisestablishmentarianism isn’t just anti-science in a trivial or short term way (like making it easier to ban evolution.) It’s anti-science in a fundamental way, by claiming that objectivity, and empiricism have no better claim to knowledge than affirmed truths.
This history of religious toleration, and its intertwinement with the development of science in Europe in the modern era, also suggests that there may be deeper linkages between a separation model of the relationship between science and religion (in a manner such as Stephen Jay Gould proposed) and the idea of separating church and state.