Throughout most of history it has been easy for people to assume — and accept — the existence of gods or, later, a god, and the religions they engendered. Even in the beginning of this assumption, in the most primitive of times, there must have been those who doubted, minority though they were, causing “discussions” of the matter. Those discussions have been fairly heated on occasion when such thinkers as, in the ancient world, Democritus, Diagoras, Epicurus, and Lucretius became quite annoying with their doubts, and, in the Renaissance, when Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton challenged the Church’s spiritual views with material realities. Then there were the thinkers of the Enlightenment, Spinoza, Locke, and Jefferson, among others, who, responding to generations of religious wars, doubted not just the metaphysics of the assumption, but also the politics. And, of course, in the 19th Century, Darwin sparked not a few heated exchanges on the subject.
Because of the recent notoriety of the so called “New Atheists” — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens among them — due to their bestselling books and eloquent presentations of their views, we are in another period of heated exchanges between theists and non-theists. In continuity with the discussions from the past, the current one centers on two philosophical points. One is cosmic: either there is or is not a god, a supreme being of some kind that not only created the universe but maintains a control and concern over the creatures in it. The other is more down-to-earth: whether the state, which maintains a more mundane control and concern over its citizens, shall be separated from the various religions within its territory by a wall, and if so, how tall, thick, and strong should that wall be? As important as the first point is, it is the second that has truly motivated the current debate. Religion, despite its eternal concerns, has never been shy about wanting to wield temporal power, and does so today in many nations in the East, and certain conservative factions of religion would be happy to do so in the West. Whereas more liberal theists, and certainly non-theists, feel such theocratic power does nothing but damage to liberty, human rights, and the unfettered pursuit of knowledge — all central concerns for Dawkins and Harris as scientists, as it was for Hitchens, a tireless campaigner against totalitarian power in any form
into this debate on the second point comes Russell Blackford’s Freedom of Religion & The Secular State. Written to be an academic text, it also serves as a handbook on the subject (especially in its more popularly priced trade paperback and eBook editions). Although an avowed atheist, Blackford writes with the dispassion of a legal scholar. This is not surprising as he was once a practicing lawyer and is currently a practicing philosopher with several Ph.Ds, including one in English literature.