We are living at the crossroads between supernaturalism and naturalism: the world is gradually abandoning the first for the second. Conservative Christians like to say there is a culture war going on, and there is. But it has more than one focal point. Religious vs secular, Islam vs the West, even believers vs non-believers are minor conflicts in comparison to the major focus: supernatural vs natural worldview.
We all have a secular side, even the most religious among us. Separation of state and church is about creating public space for this secular side of us. This benefits not just atheists but theists as well. In fact, the need for secular space is the direct result of religious diversity. (The absence of such space corresponds with religious monopoly. No surprise then that the West is better at making public space for the secular aspects of our life than are most Islamic countries.) So long as there are a variety of healthy but diverse religions practiced in a population, there will be a strong need for separation of church and state.
Although separation of religious power from government power is an essential battle, it is not specifically a battle fought between the religious and the non-religious. It is instead about preventing the monopoly of a particular religion’s viewpoint being imposed through the power of government. Although an important issue, this is one that is political (a matter of basic freedom) rather than one that is strictly cultural (a matter of worldview).
It becomes cultural as well as political, however, when the majoritarian religion which attempts to dominate government embraces theocracy. All too common in Islamic nations, theocracy has its adherents in the United States as well. For example,
So let us be blunt: we must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberties of the enemies of God.
—Gary North, quoted in quoted in Albert J. Menendez, Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach (Prometheus Books, 1993)
The best method of forestalling theocracy is through the expansion of religious diversity. The goal must be to reduce the dominant sect to minority status. This would not be necessary in the United States if the Supreme Court consistently embraced the principle of separation of church and state. But it does not, and so the doctrines of Christianity necessarily become politicized, and appropriate targets for those who love religious freedom. Christianity will have enemies so long as Christians take advantage of government to impress their religious practices on all.
But the key cultural transformation of the age lies elsewhere: educated people around the world are converting from a supernatural worldview to a natural one. The former is inherently monotheist/polytheist/deist; the latter inherently atheist/adeist. Freethinkers tend to gravitate toward atheism or agnosticism because they see the crevasses in the various supernatural worldviews popular today. But I would assert that atheism doesn’t really work in a vacuum: it requires, or at least belongs to, a naturalistic framework.
Atheists, in other words, should not only be saying that supernaturalism is false; they should also be asserting the logical corollary: naturalism is true. I find modern atheism frustrating sometimes because many atheists seem to back away from this obvious step. They are eager to declare that theism doesn’t work, but strangely afraid to step beyond that.
What does embracing a natural worldview mean? It means more than merely saying there is insufficient evidence of a God. If atheism stops dead in its tracks there, at “insufficient evidence,” then it amounts to nothing more than doubt about some forms of supernaturalism. Like Galileo backtracking out of fear, it is equivalent to admitting “naturalism is where the evidence points, but I’m afraid to go there: let me play safe and just say there is insufficient evidence for God.”
In stopping early, atheists leave the underlying premises of supernaturalism intact and often uncontested. I must admit that doesn’t sit well with me. I became an atheist not because the evidence for theism was insufficient, but rather because I saw that the underlying premises of supernaturalism had to be false and, in complementary fashion, that the underlying premises of naturalism were sustainable and even compelling. “Supernaturalism must be false, naturalism is sustainable, therefore there is no God.” Compare that to “There is no evidence for God or gods, therefore supernaturalism is unsupported.”
It is time for atheists to move fully to the other side of the divide between the worldviews. Too many atheists and agnostics (so it seems to me) still have a foot on the supernatural side. They hang balanced between irreconcilable worldviews for no reason at all. Except this: their misunderstanding of the underlying incompatibility of the two worldviews. Rejecting one ought to go part and parcel with embracing the other.
Perhaps the fundamental difference between them concerns the place and role of intelligence and its accoutrements. Supernaturalism places intelligence beyond the brain; naturalism places it within. Supernaturalism sees knowledge as something basic which underlays God’s creation like a blueprint: information is out there in the world, waiting to be discovered by us. Naturalism, in contrast, sees knowledge (and information) as something we create on the inside (within human consciousness) and apply to the world around us to our benefit.
For the theist, then, knowledge is something present from the beginning of the world which our minds can pluck like an apple from the tree of existence. For the atheist, knowledge is a faculty which came into existence only after millions of years of natural selection: not an apple to be plucked from the world, but an inborn capability of our species most beneficial to pursue.
Mull that distinction if you want to understand why theists and atheists so often talk past each other.