The group American Atheists has been on the offensive lately regarding a Kentucky law that raises First Amendment concerns. The law requires citizens to acknowledge that “The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.” Further, Homeland Security officials must acknowledge this publicly through plaques and other displays. Failure to comply with this law carries a penalty of up to one year in prison. The law’s sponsor, State Representative Tom Riner, is also a practicing Baptist minister.
The criticisms I have read thus far focus on the constitutionality of such a law, and rightly so. It clearly doesn’t pass the Lemon Test, especially when you read Riner’s comments. His motivation is obviously the promotion of his religious beliefs.
I’d like to focus on another area, however. While I think it is important to recognize violations of the First Amendment, we should not forget to also examine the reasonableness of legislation. If a law is absurd, then we shouldn’t have to rely on gaining agreement about divisive interpretations of the First Amendment. So, I want to examine the central claim of the controversial legislation. Is God required for safety and security?
I can see two ways to potentially answer this question affirmatively—God can either be a necessary condition or a sufficient condition to achieve safety and security. Unfortunately for Representative Riner, neither of these holds up to scrutiny.
A condition is necessary if, without it, some consequence would not be possible. For example, the temperature being below 50°F is a necessary condition for water to freeze. Without a low temperature, water will not freeze. You obviously cannot make ice cubes from water that is greater than 50°F. However, it is not a sufficient condition because the temperature could be 45°F and the water still would not freeze. A condition is sufficient only if it guarantees some consequence. So, the sufficient condition for water to freeze would be for the water to be at or below its freezing point.
Here’s one more example just to hammer the point home. A necessary condition for being an even number is that it cannot end in 1. So, 1, 11, 21, 31, and so on cannot be even numbers. However, a sufficient condition requires an even stricter rule because there are other options that will still give you an odd number. For example, a number could end in 3, 5, 7, or 9 and still would not be even. A sufficient condition for an even number would have to be something like, ‘any natural number that is divisible by 2.’ This would guarantee that any number meeting that condition would be even.
Now, let’s turn back to Tom Riner’s statement. He implies reliance on God must either be a necessary or sufficient condition to achieve safety and security. If reliance on God were a sufficient condition, then that would mean every state or nation that openly relies on God must be safe and secure. This can quickly be dismissed. Very religious countries that have made similar public statements in the past, including the United States, have undergone brutal wars. Perhaps most notably, the countries of Europe from the 12th Century through the 19th Century were engaged in incredibly brutal wars. These included the Hundred Years’ War, the War of the Roses, the Eighty Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Napoleonic Wars. These all involved explicitly religious countries. Some of the conflicts were even brought on because of publicly stated religious affiliation. The Thirty Years’ War, which completely devastated Europe, was fought due to differing religious proclamations. Clearly, publicly stating you rely on God does not guarantee your safety and security. Thus, it cannot be a sufficient condition.
But can it be a less restrictive necessary condition, meaning not everyone who proclaims this will in fact be safe but you won’t achieve safety and security without it? Again, we have several counterexamples, especially in modern Scandinavian countries. These countries are highly secular and have very high rates of atheism. Yet, they also have avoided much of the international violence of the past 200 years and their domestic violent crime rates are significantly lower than the U.S. They are as safe and secure as any modern nation.
Even if a biased Christian judge (and this is known to happen) overlooks the clear religious preference shown by such a law, there are still grounds to challenge it. It is absurdly false, and factual inaccuracy seems like as good of grounds as any for removing a law from the books.