Afternoon Inquisition

Afternoon Inquisition 3.4

This Very Special Afternoon Inquisition brought to you by Oskar Kennedy, winner of last week’s Comment o’ the Week:

Most of us live in societies that are at least ostensibly secular.
(Apologies to anyone reading this in Tehran) In practice, however, we
rarely achieve this ideal. The UK still has an established church. In
the US, atheists are among the least trusted social groups, and
politicians are obligated to put their faith on display in order to
get elected.

So, for my Afternoon Inquisition, I’d like to explore the
possibilities of the concept.

What would your ideal secular society look like, and how would it

Think law and government, but also social structures, moral codes and
anything else that you’d like to throw in. And feel free to use
real-world examples where appropriate.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Interesting question. I’m a little worried that it’ll lead to a whole buncha tl;dr so I guess that I’ll just keep it brief.

    One idea Penn Jillette used to pitch on his radio show involved having every law come up for review on a regular basis. While I could see this being a bureaucratic nightmare, the principle is interesting.

    Societies change, but religious doctrine and dogmatic laws rarely do, instead becoming entrenched long after they’ve stopped serving a purpose. One way that a secular government could avoid the trappings of dogma would be to have a decent portion of its laws come under review every ten years or so. If they don’t pass muster, they are changed until they do, or are summarily dropped.

  2. It would be a big pretty mulitcultural one with wheels and curtains in the windows, it would look like a big Tylenol!

  3. @Expatria: As much as Heinlein suffered from Libertarian Kookism, I always liked one idea that his Professor character in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress tossed off as an alternative to the usual bicameral legislature. In short, one house exists to pass laws, while the other exists solely to strike them down.

    (Obviously, in American-style Republics, we rely on judicial review to accomplish the same purpose, but the requirement for standing means that we still have some unconstitutional laws still on the books because they haven’t actually been used to harm anyone yet.)

    It would amuse the fuck out of me to have some system go into effect and have the anti-legislature repeal one of those ridiculous decrees honouring the sacred holiness of Christmas or whatever. Purely for the lulz.

  4. Or, even better, if they repealed a bill from 1900 establishing a post office that’s been long since demolished. Fucking hilarious.

  5. @Joshua: about your Heinlein.

    Back when “judicial activism” was something people talked about I was a big advocate of it. The powers of rogue activist judges are only subtractive; they can only strike down old laws for being unconstitutional not enact new ones.

    I’ll take two!

  6. What I love about the “activist judges” thing is that half of the things we take for granted about the US Supreme Court are not at all specified in the constitution but rather based on interpretations by early justices, mainly the Marshall court. E.g., the entire concept of judicial review.

    Even the harshest critics of judicial activism never spoke out against it, but it had to be one of the biggest examples of “legislating from the bench” in history. ;)

  7. @Joshua: “As much as Heinlein suffered from Libertarian Kookism” I think you miiight be confusing him for (some of) his characters. I admit he has a libertarian bent, that much is obvious, but I’ve read a LOT of what he’s written and I’m not sure he deserves to be called a kook. He was a fairly rational dude.

    Oddly I came here to post about Heinlein too, but now I forget what I was getting at. I’ll just go with the Professor’s idea too.

    aaaand post this quote

    “What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”

  8. I’m not competent to design a whole society but there are two changes I would like to see:

    1) No political parties. Representative government of people elected for their individual views and records.
    2) Make the President answer questions in the House each week in person (ala the UK Parliament). I love watching the PM stand there and answer the most vicious lines of questioning in the House of Commons. I think it helps to keep the PM on his toes, it provides a check on executive power, and it keeps the people informed.

  9. @SkepLit:

    Make the President answer questions in the House each week in person (ala the UK Parliament). I love watching the PM stand there and answer the most vicious lines of questioning in the House of Commons.

    You have NO IDEA how often I wanted to see that during the Bush administration. It would have been LAUGHABLE. I’m not much for liking ANY politician, but if I can say no more for him, at least Obama would do pretty well in that environment.

  10. @movingshadow: Maybe you’ve never read some of his later books. ;P A lot of them are just unreadably awful.

    I mean, he’s no Ayn Rand, but he could still be a bit silly sometimes.

  11. If we’re talking about the regular meaning of “secular society”, that is, one where government is not religion’s business and religion is not government’s business, I have a single, humble proposition: strike religious freedom from the book. No, of course I don’t mean that people should not have the right to have any religion they want. I mean that what we understand as the global freedom of religion could be interpreted as just a set of particular cases of other rights: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of association and assembly… Look, for instance, at astrology or belief in UFOs: they’re not religions, so they’re technically not protected by the freedom of religion. But all those other freedoms prevent the government from acting against them. I think that would contribute to create an even playground where everybody plays by the same rules.

  12. @Expatria:
    I didn’t want to come off as too obvious, but, yeah, the Bush administration got me thinking about how good an idea this would be. I also watched Tony Blaid answer questions in the House of Commons and was knocked on my ass by how cool, cogent, and clearly he could answer a question like, “Mr. Prime Minister, why are you such a dick?” Or words to that effect.
    I have this delusion that, had we and the Congress gotten a weekly dose of Bush failing to cogently explain his actions every week, we might have been spared four years of his nincompoopery.

  13. Nothing would change. Religion is talked about, but by its very nature has no effect on society because it’s a fairytale. It’s pure dinner conversation and pretending. Nobody can go to court and say that he’s not guilty of homicide because a man created by God out of his kitchen’s waste pulled the trigger and killed an intruder.

  14. @TerrySimpson: I agree that we here in the U.S. have the basis for a truly secular society if only we could force the politicians to not mess it up by parading their faith at every campaign stop. Doing away with tax breaks for churches–unless they could meet all the requirements that other non-profits do and would be forced to compete on an equal footing–would be a major step forward. Removing the (unconstitutional in my view) “so help me god” that has crept into so many oaths is another. Essentially, if our government would follow the Constitution that empowers it, we’d be a lot closer to an ideal secular society than we are now.

  15. In all seriousness, I would like to have something on education, especially on science. Science in high school is just blegh! But then again, it could be stupid federal or state standards that could ruin stuff.

  16. @SkepLit:

    There really is no greater TV than the Prime Minister’s Question Time. Blair was incredibly good at it, far more so than the image we have of him as Bush’s poodle would lead one to believe. I have yet to see Brown, but based on eloquence alone I’d have to assume that Blair could run circles round him.

    But the most entertaining, bar none, would have been Bill Clinton. I hope to one day be transported to the alternate universe where the US has Question Time, Bill Clinton is in office, and I have a free subscription to the Cupcake of the Day club.

    Ahem. Right. Secular state… sorry, I’ll stop the threadjack :-P

  17. The Federation of Star Trek would be a good model.

    Everyone equal as far as civil rights. Money has been abolished (Don’t ask me how it was done.) and therefore has lost all of its power over the political process. Gold is simply another useful element, nothing more. (The invention of the replicator would hasten the decline of money by making counterfeiting gold, platinum, etc simple.)

    Greed and racial prejudice are considered major character flaws. All are encouraged and allowed to make the most of their potential, whatever that may be or where ever it leads them in life. A scientist and an artist would be seen to have equal value to society.

    Religious belief is perfectly allowable, but given no special or protected status in society. It has to survive in the marketplace of ideas on its own. (Now, THERE’S a notion for the conservatives to think over…)

  18. I feel that we have advanced technologically beyond the need for “representative” democracy. The earliest models of democracy were of a nature where it was a small group of people, and all laws would be voted on. However, as populations and settlements grow, there became a need to someone to “represent” the views of many people, for pragmatic reasons only.

    With the reach of communications networks, i.e, the internet, I see no reason why a system could not easily be put into place whereby new laws could not be voted on by the people directly. I think we would also be able to send out every week a list of proposed law changes, and maybe some information on the issue to ensure the voter is informed. This would have to be done by an independent body which is concerned with presenting the hard facts, and it would need to be overseen to ensure that. Technically, there would be no need for parties, or congress or any of that malarky. The population is just so aclimatised to the idea of being represented, as its always been a part of the culture…just like religion.

    Personally, I have changes I’d like to make to many other areas of society, such as the justice system, etc etc, but thats too much for me to go into on this post.

  19. I don’t think there is any good way to force a secular society that does not destroy freedom of thought and association. And if you look at what happened in Russian and China when they attempted to ban religion, you will see that this just encouraged it (with the added expense of everyone having to live in a totalitarian state).

    I think what we have is pretty close to the best you can do without curbing individual liberty. Right now secularism is competing against religion in the marketplace of ideas and in the political marketplace. I think it is gaining slow, but steady ground. The narrow success of prop 8 (gay marriage ban in California) seems to be creating a backlash which I think will ultimately lead to acceptance of gay marriage nationwide. If you look at civil rights historically it seems to take several generations after a movement gains momentum for these silly notions to die out completely. Scientific discoveries will continue to chip away at many of our prejudices.

    Of course history also shows that progress isn’t always forward. The middle east used to be the center of human intellectual progress until it was hijacked by Islam.

    Of course I am not really answering the question. I suppose, my ideal secular society would be similar to what we have now in the US (with some political reform thrown in perhaps), except that people wouldn’t be quite so gullible. That’s probably asking a lot, however (you can lead a horse to water…..).


  20. I suppose a society where Cognitive Dissonance is listed in the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) and treated with a pill. All else will follow.

  21. I used to like Heinlein’s idea of a house for the removal of laws, but I’m not convinced much would change, or change for the better. Lots of ways to use that to tear down useful institutions as well, and it’s usually more work building something good than tearing it down. I can see it’s place in his very Libertarian world, though.

    My secular society wouldn’t be much different than most democratic republics now, other than I’d favor the systems that allow for more parties, so there’s a choice besides conservatives appealing to their religious base and liberals trying to steal away the religious vote. Not that I don’t see a difference between the two, but I don’t think there’s a friendly place for secularists with only two parties and strong secularism being a minority position. I liked Andres Diplotti’s idea of striking out the special position of religion, but covering it under other freedoms without specific enumeration. And all the “under god” crap would have to go. We had plenty of good, secular, self consistent mottos and such before that crap became fashionable, it’s a modern aberration. And it undermines the secular roots to allow a public religious face for the government. It all just makes my balls cramp.

  22. @Merkuto: You’ve just made me think. I think this was actually not your point, but after reading your comment, particularly the “lots of ways” part, it just dawned on me: even if you somehow got rid of religion, somebody would then come up with some other fake idea to deceive gullible people. I mean, given the total absurdity of religion, it is only an accident (or socio-cultural bias) that it has to do with god, old men, virgins, and the creation of the world. Maybe in some other universe, people are enslaved by their belief that clouds control dogs’ barks (same plausibility).

    So, you cannot have a secular society as a model of society because a secular society is not necessarily a model of society: people would replace religion with some other craziness. An ideal society would be skeptical not only as regards religion (i.e. secular), but also as regards any other stuff (i.e. homeopathy), and you simply cannot get rid of all “other stuff”: non-scientific knowledge has to start somewhere, because you cannot have a scientific standard of knowledge on everything (not enough funding ;-), and that’s where any society will become “non-secular as for X”, that is, “gullible as for X”.


  23. I’ve always imagined a secular society as a type of science fiction utopia. Reallistically, if religions are completely removed from modern society we would probably be left with a number of political and social vacuums which would lead to just as many conflicts. People would find other ways to define themselves, to separate themselves. By the way, it’s separate, not seperate, for you Americans. sue me.

  24. ?march4 915 pm?? I never can get a handle on this, its why my comments are sometimes way behind. Right now, its March 5 th , 1: 30 pm I’ m about to have lunch. It looks to me like you blokes are having yesterday’s brekky.Oh well, eat my dust.

  25. @drockwood: Separation of church and state is wonderful, but it doesn’t cover everything. Take the example that I used in setting up the question. The distrust of atheists that makes it virtually impossible for a politician to get elected in the U.S. without publicly professing faith in a deity. That’s a social condition, not controlled or regulated by the government, but it creates a de facto religious test for office that at least violates the spirit of the free exercise clause. Might there not be a non-coercive way to eliminate that stigma?

  26. @Fat_Anarchy: There are millions of people in this country who can’t afford to own a computer. A representative republic at least pretends to attend to their interests, since voting is free and they can participate in the process. (I know, the reality of campaign donations and spending is far different, but I’m idealizing here).

    Your proposal would create a barrier to participation for anyone who couldn’t afford a computer and Internet access. How would you protect the interests of the poor citizens who couldn’t directly participate in your Internet democracy?

  27. @Skepthink: In my thinking, a secular society doesn’t have to be one in which the people share common scientific or otherwise skeptical values, but the institutions do. Even if 100% of the population has one sacred cow or another, but is otherwise rational, the majority can be rational on every issue. You might think the clouds control dog barking, and I think God created herpes to punish us for bumping uglies, and someone else thinks string theory is evidence that their violin is an instrument of divine power, but 2/3 of us think the other is an idiot on any given topic, and will share some reality based point of view. It’s a society that can get along with itself, and operate rationally despite having a crazy-assed segment for every given issue.

    And woohoo! My first drunk post on Skepchick. I’m amazed it took this long, and hope I made some sliver of sense.

  28. Well it would be pretty close to something we have had in the past. Eisenhower hadn’t been baptised and said he would get around to it later when the issue was brought up during the campaign. Kennedy said that America shouldn’t be concerned about his religion. My grandmother finds public displays of religion offensive because it isn’t a polite subject to talk about in public. Before the time that it was thought to be necessary to insert “under god” into a pledge that had been written by a baptise minister. A minister who didn’t feel the need to include god into the pledge. Or add “in god we trust” to our money instead of our fine motto of E. Pluribus Unum. I just that someday we as a country, as Americans, will live up to our dream of ourselves and of our country.

  29. @Oskar Kennedy (LBB): Regarding your comment on Fat Anarchy’s comment on voting on every issue – actually, I think this is a good idea as well. While I agree with you (Oskar) that there could be an issue regarding people who don’t have/can’t afford a computer, this is easily solved with public access terminals. In my city (Toront0) there is no shortage of public access terminals available in libraries, government buildings, and so forth, and many homeless shelters, etc. have terminals as well (to allow job searches, train people on internet usage, allow them to have email access, etc.) I don’t believe that access to the internet is really an issue right now; if we were to go to a system where every issue were voted on by the entire public we could make an extra effort to ensure access.

    Frankly, I think the biggest problem would be ensuring there was no fraud; some sort of biometric measure would likely be needed.

    And while we’re doing internet voting, I have one more wrinkle to add – before you can vote, you have to show an understanding of the issues for that vote. I want a simple quiz, where the questions are non-partisan. It’s not enough to want to vote YES or NO on prop. 235, you should understand it before you vote for or against it. Same with politicians – you should have to answer a simple, non-partisan question about the platforms of the individual politicians before you’re allowed to vote. No uninformed voting, please!

  30. @ familyman – your’s was a brilliant and very concise answer

    Regarding the religious issue, seperation of church and state must stop being violated ; religion should never, ever , ever enter into the process of creating law or influencing public policy. Brian stated it best: ” essentially, if our government would follow the Constitution that empowers it, we’d be a lot closer to an ideal secular society than we are now.” I shall always defend the individual’s right to believe in whatever he or she wants ( be it religion, superstition, or both ) ONLY as long at it does not influence law or social policy.

    I too hate the two party system, but when one looks at governments throughout the world, it’s obvious that a no party system wouldn’t work well either. Anarchy or monarchy would reign in due time. But we do need more diversity. Hell, Lincoln won with a pleurality not a majority. Presently, the rigid belief systems of both democrats and republicans exhibit features of religion with emphasis on dogma and spin rather than on evidence , history, and foresight. Though it can be argued that there are several other parties and if the principles of these other parties were good enough then they would thrive as well. But the truth is without significant funds no party or candidate is viable. This country must minimize the dollars spent on campaigning SIGNIFICANTLY. All parties, whether they number 3, 4, or 5, must be able to have equal access to the same pool of money. The populace, if they choose to donate money, dumps that money into an equal access fund and NO candidate should be to raise seperate funds. Let issues decide an election, not money.

    Finally, I agree with the Parliament’s ability to call on the carpet, their leader at any time. The process is too cumbersome in the USA. This point is crucial because in order to maintain a seperation of church and state, the process must be monitored intensely and there must be consequences for all repetitive failures, especially if the constitution is violated ,including failure in this hotbed of a topic.

  31. There once was a secular society
    That put reason well above piety
    Rocking the boat
    Was the Skepchick vote
    Which strictly outlawed sobriety

    Just a thought.

  32. Finally … term limits are crucial. One 8 year term for all, no matter what the office may be, including a Justice of the Supreme court. As long as their competence can be reviewed on an as needed basis as noted above, holding these people accountable to the electorate, let them hold a long term position. Let them truly GOVERN. Politics interfere with the act of governing. When a man or a woman in public office turn their energies toward re-election of a current office or toward election to another office, it diminishes one’s efforts to govern in his/her present role. If one wants to run for a new office one must leave his/her present office ,with advance notice – two years notice would be needed – so a timely election can be held for a replacement and serial office holdings can be minimized . If one isn’t worried about re-election, one may become less dependent on special interest groups, including religious.

  33. @Oskar Kennedy (LBB): Hard to think of a non-coercive way, but if, when running for a “state” office any mention or discussion of “church” affiliation, beliefs, faith, etc, were placed off-limits by law, that would be well-within and, in a way, necessitated by, both the establishment and free exercise clauses. I suppose, though, that my imagining such a thing might happen in my lifetime is influenced by the scotch whisky I just enjoyed.

  34. @Oskar Kennedy (LBB): As far as computer access is concerned, all the public libraries in my area (Northern Virginia) offer ample, free access to PCs and the Internet to anyone who has simply to come in. I would hope similar conditions prevail throughout the US, although I don’t know that for a fact. Admittedly there may be some people without the means either to afford a computer/’net access or to find their way to a public library, but I’m sure that a significant number of citizens could do so if a participatory democracy came to pass.
    This isn’t to say that I think that’s a viable idea–frankly I entertained the idea at one time but don’t now. The representative democracy we have now certainly can be improved, but I think we’re a very long way from ensuring that every citizen has the background and knowledge of all the issues that would arise on a daily basis in a participatory democracy, let alone the interest in weighing in on them. Just look at the routinely poor voter turnout–especially in local elections in which one would think the prospective voters would have a more personal interest than national ones. People tend to pick-and-choose what they actively support or dispute, and I don’t see that changing even if the form of democracy does.

  35. Oskar: A great topic, thanks for suggesting it.

    Joshua: The anti-legilature is a good idea. The other idea I liked from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is replacing electoral districts with a petition-based system where each representative just needs x votes to get a seat from anywhere in the country. x is set to get the right number of representatives.

    Question Authority: The thing about The Federation is, that despite its alleged utopianism, its actually fairly crap (for autopia). Its fanatically anti-transhuman, and despite being supposedly free it has a startling level of conformity. Not to mention that its culturally stagnant (all its art and literature is alien or centuries old). I much prefer The Culture from Ian M Bank’s novels. Of course in either case you can’t have an economics-free society without unlimited resources and that means cheating the laws of thermodynamics. Without some form of free energy The Federation would be a wasteland after a generation.

    Fat_Anarchy: Direct democracy would not be a good thing. Read The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan. He makes a persuasive case that the bad policy decision of governments (he focuses on economic policy, but his point generalises well) is due to the irrationality of the voting public. If we want to improve government we need to make it, in some ways, less democratic.

    Honestly, I don’t think institutional design makes a country secular. New Zealand has no constitutional protections, but its more secular than the Us because that’s how the voters want it. As long as fundies are a big part of your voting population there will be a de fact religious test for office.

  36. I have to agree with James K about institutional design not making a country secular. Probably the only change I would make would be to remove tax exemptions for religions.

    Oh and more nudity.

  37. I don’t think direct democracy is such a great idea. It’s very seldom that we have elections (once or twice a year), yet it is still a major undertaking to make sure that there is no cheating and turnout is generally abysmally low. Imagine trying to do that every day? A representative democracy is meant to provide some filtering between the emotional impulses of the voter and the rule of law (thereby protecting minorities). A friend of mine who is a fellow electrical engineer describes it in network terms as a “low-pass filter” between the high-frequency impulses of the voter and the rule of law.

    The best way to create a more secular society and to reform the political process is to somehow foster critical thinking skills in the population. The more critical people think, the less likely that they will be hoodwinked by the abundance of religous and political hucksters.

    As to how the hell you foster critical thinking skills in the population, I don’t know. That’s a big challenge. That’s really a “how do I reform an entire culture kind of question”. An early lesson for me was a 9th grade algebra teacher who encouraged us to listen to the specific language in TV commercials to see if we could find the loopholes that allowed the advertiser to mislead without technically telling a lie.

    Of course, I also had a EE professor in college (expert on signal processing) who witnessed for Jesus Christ in front of the entire class near the end of the term. It made me kind of uncomfortable. I think he wasn’t too comfortable either, as if “I am compelled to do this because of my beliefs, not because it feels good”.

    My $.02


  38. @Billy Clyde Tuggle:

    I don’t think direct democracy is such a great idea. It’s very seldom that we have elections (once or twice a year), yet it is still a major undertaking to make sure that there is no cheating and turnout is generally abysmally low. Imagine trying to do that every day? A representative democracy is meant to provide some filtering between the emotional impulses of the voter and the rule of law (thereby protecting minorities). A friend of mine who is a fellow electrical engineer describes it in network terms as a “low-pass filter” between the high-frequency impulses of the voter and the rule of law.

    Not to mention, any internet based system or electronic system as Fat_anarchy suggested is highly susceptible to hackers, there is also the amount of information necessary for each individual to go over in order to make an informed decision, the likelyhood that they will even bother (hell some of our congress people don’t even read most of the bills that cross their desks, what makes anyone think we could convince approx 300 million to). Our founding fathers did not create a representative democracy because of technological constraints, it’s because they realized that pure democracies, specifically ones on the scale of a country, don’t work.

  39. Our law and government is already secular, even though they’re too chicken to abolish the state church.
    What I want is to secularize our churches and have secular congregations and sunday sermons. Take the pieces of religion that can justifiably be said to be beneficial and co-opt them. “Today’s sermon is on from a book by Dawkins. Feel free to discuss and disagree vehemently afterwards. But kiss and make up before the community meeting.”

  40. @Skepthink: As for gullibility, just look at the popularity of New Age quackery and “quantum” thinking among some who claim to have given up religion.

    I echo the opinion that the ideal secular society would look much like the US if it actually followed the First Amendment. I still go back and forth about whether charitable organizations would be taxed, but I don’t think of churches as charitable organizations–they’re basically social clubs–so tax ’em.

  41. @sinphree: Allegedly in Spain it’s legal to go nude anywhere. Part of the backlash against the Franco regime after his death.

  42. @QuestionAuthority: I agree.

    Having had childhood holidays there, my perfect society would be the DDR circa 1985. No cars (well one or two per street), Universal Healthcare, Universal free education up to University level, One pair of shoes per person, No “trash” culture, Only two TV channels and one of those shows nothing but Opera, Ballet, Classical Music and Theater, Guarenteed High-Quality housing for all, Guarenteed job for life, Meat only three days a week and every family has pet rabbits to suppliment their diet.

    AND most importantly of all a Carbon Neutral lifestyle. If you want to know what a secular “green” country looks like, the DDR is the perfect example.

    Think about it, working for the good of the country all day, then comming home to dinner of locally sourced food, and then Checkov on the TV before lights out for the National Bedtime at 10:30.

    People in Eastern Germany miss it so much, they get dressed up in their old clothes from the DDR and pretend it never ended.

    If only I had a time machine…

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