On May 1st humanists will gather with many other secularists around the country to celebrate the National Day of Reason. Local Minnesotans will be doing the same at the state capitol. As in the past, this year’s National Day of Reason coincides with the Congressionally-mandated and federally-supported National Day of Prayer when many religious people gather to pray in and around halls of government. To counteract the latter, secularists come together to uphold this day as a Day of Reason—and ask our legislators to commit to making every day of their public service a day of reason.
Like all other secularists, I as a humanist acknowledge people’s right to pray for our political leaders, our state and our country. But for those so inclined, the place for prayer is in your churches, in your homes and in your private lives--not in and around the halls of government. The common knowledge, shared values and joint purposes needed to govern are to be found in a common currency* of human reason. Reason informed by scientific naturalism, empiricism, verifiable evidence and the needs and consequences of our shared lived experiences. In contrast, faith provides no common currency by which to govern all people, and thus, separation of church and state must be maintained.
Prayer within the halls of government suggests that god is to be seen as the sovereign authority guiding the decisions made there. But our democratic government is a product of the Enlightenment – government established by the rule of law—human law--made by its citizens. The Founding Fathers rejected government based on divine will—setting a new course for our nation.
Sadly today we still watch religious sectarian struggles around the world hamper the formation of stable democratic governments. And here in the U.S. religious fundamentalism has again emerged to try to control our leaders through their moral hubris. Never has there been any consensus on religious belief in human history. Asserting religious authority of one kind or another into our governing bodies is the wrong approach to modern civic engagement—especially in the midst of an increasingly diverse population. Instead we must bring this common currency of reason into our political deliberations in order to gain knowledge, solve problems and determine worthy values for good and effective government.
As humanists, we embrace our civic duty to come together with fellow citizens to seek the general welfare and to promote the common good. Unfortunately some people feel the need to inject religious piety into our political deliberations because they believe that without it our government would be bereft of values and morality. But we must not equate morality with religion. They are not one in the same! Humanist philosophy shows us another way—a way to be “good without god.” Ethical codes of conduct are inherent to every social structure and government, and require no religious foundation.
We DO need a common authority upon which to base our laws and policies, but that authority is none other than the informed reason, empirical findings, and natural pragmatism of citizens entrusted to serve the common good. The rule of law becomes, then, a mutually constructed authority --through the common currency of informed reason. Our reasoning together. It may not be easy, and it will be messy; but it is the quintessential ongoing ethical project of our species.
We who embrace humanism--with its foundation in philosophical naturalism and its commitment to global ethics--will continue to teach and promote the use of informed reason. It is the essential common currency by which to govern our state and nation, maintain a civil society, and perhaps most importantly, establish a sustainable world. May every day be a day of reason!
* I am using the term "common currency" a bit more generally than does Joshua Greene in his book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. He typically uses the term as a method of discerning moral values and fact through utilitarianism--a particular philosophical approach to reasoning.