The evolutionary origins of religion are conceptualized by multiple suppositions, but the most persuasive among these is the development of areas of the human brain capable of processing such thoughts and feelings. There is no physical evidence to support religion, but among the quirks of human development is the ability to suspend disbelief and imagine one or more gods in response to any unexplainable physical observation — which is not surprising given that mysticism and superstition preceded science by thousands of years. The resulting multiple religions (an estimated 300) and numerous variations of belief, dogma and faith have been the source of much conflict, violence and human misery for a very long time.
The conflicts inherent with religion can be seen in the cultural wars that permeate U.S. politics. Even with the separation of church and state very clearly written into the constitution, there is no shortage of conservatives using distorted logic to declare the country a Christian nation while trying to impose their religious beliefs upon others. They readily use any pretext to protest the war on religion and religious freedom, war on Christmas and war on the country’s putative values — which they deem as American exceptionalism. Indeed, they insist that their god favors the U.S. above all other nations.
Not only does this needlessly create unbridgeable divisions with the culture, it also ignores the other significant aspect of the separation of church and state: freedom from religion. More than ten percent of the population is atheistic or agnostic.
There is no pragmatic justification for insisting that religion is part of governance. Those who wrote the constitution were very clear that those who govern are not to impose or use religion upon citizens. There’s nothing ambiguous about this. They knew well how organized religion in Europe had imposed itself politically on others. Indeed, the desire for religious freedom was a primary motivation for some to colonize America (although even here religious tolerance was often marginal in the early colonies).
Faced with a changed world and country they find disconcerting, conservatives have become fearful and angry, and one of their refuges is religion. Unfortunately, many have become willing participants in the efforts of the most zealous to reverse the separation of governance and religion that has been a founding principle — although sometimes inconsistently applied — of the nation. The resulting secularization should be welcomed by all for its inherent fairness, but those who say they are the defenders of freedom and personal liberty are often the same ones who would use religious dogma to restrict the freedom and personal liberty of others. Hypocrisy is not a pragmatic characteristic.
The authority of the church began to erode in the 18th century as religious tolerance and non-conformity increased. Individuals began to define morality more individually. The secularization of government and society were inevitable results. The failure and curse of religious faith is that its “truths” can get in the way of larger realities. Religion works best, if it works, as a private matter, not as a completely inappropriate attempt at public policy. Personal liberty (civil rights) is about live and let live (peaceful coexistence) under the neutral laws of society, and for this to occur, the society must be secular. It’s the most pragmatic way of allowing people to find their own way in life in matters most personal.