In a recent blog, “President Wanted: Christians Only,” vjack at Atheist Revolution spoke about the bigotry involved in refusing to vote for an atheist candidate – something that approximately half of Americans said they would do.
Refuse, that is.
In that posting, vjack used a cliché in the political sphere, that they “simply want someone in office who shares their values.” This, he said, does not excuse their bigotry. However, he did not explain why it does not excuse their bigotry.
This statement has become such a political cliché that I often pass over it without thinking about it. This time, I thought about it.
The Values Voter
My first thought was, “Of course they want somebody in office who shares their values. Doesn’t everybody?”
That is to say, it is not bigotry to vote for a candidate that shares one’s values. Nor is it bigotry to refuse to vote for a candidate whose values conflict with one’s own. In this sense, every voter is a values voter.
Even the KKK member who only votes for those who would segregate the races is a values voter. He certainly wants somebody in office who shares his values. The Nazi who would support the modern contemporary of Hitler is a values voter is also searching for somebody to put into office to share his values.
This is part of what got Bush in trouble in the Middle East. Radical Muslims are values-voters as well. Only, the values that some of them vote for includes the destruction of Israel, execution of apostates, support for suicide bombings, and eradication of the infidels. They refuse to vote for anybody else.
It is not bigotry to vote for somebody who shares one’s values and against those whose values contradict one’s own values. Bigotry is not to be found in the fact that a person votes his values. It is to be found in the values that a person votes on.
Vjack did not say otherwise. I am not criticizing anything he wrote. In fact, this makes explicit what is implicit in vjack’s post.
The problem with the Christian right is not that they are values voters. It is that their values are the bigotries and prejudices of primitive tribesmen that causes its follows to engage in a number of actions harmful to others – in some cases imposing death and suffering on hundreds of millions of people. There is nothing wrong with being a values voter – we all are. The problem comes from the fact that some people’s values are quite poor.
Where is bigotry? If we are going to call a particular attitude towards a group of voters ‘bigoted’, what is it that we need to establish?
Bigotry involves treating the members of a group unjustly by attributing to its members some derogatory or denigrating property that, in fact, is not true of all of those members. An example of bigotry involves inferring a lower intelligence based on gender or on skin or hair color. (Yes, blonde jokes are a form of bigotry, and I do not condone them.)
So, in order to determine if refusing to vote for an atheist counts as bigotry, we need to know why a person is refusing to vote for an atheist.
Holding All Else Constant
Typically, the poll question asks something like, “Assuming a candidate is qualified in all other respects, would you be willing to vote for the candidate if the candidate were an atheist.”
This question asks the listener to assume that he has no other reason not to vote for a candidate. In other words, the candidate shares his values. The only reason for voting against the candidate is the fact that the candidate is an atheist. Is that enough of a reason to vote against him?
Half of the population says, “Yes.”
If we take this situation as described, then having a belief that no God exists (the definition of atheism as the term is actually used among native English speakers) is the sole criteria for judging an individual to be inferior to his neighbor. It says that if we take two people, make them identical twins in appearance and (most important) in disposition, and change only the fact that one believes that God exists and the other does not, even where both treat their neighbors with identical kindness, this belief alone is enough to judge the one person inferior to his twin.
This is bigotry. There is no basis for the negative evaluation. It is grounded on nothing but blind, unreasoned, unfounded, hatred.
Now, this assumes that the person taking the poll understands the question as I have described it. Chances are, he will not. He will associate ‘atheism’ with a number of other traits. Chances are, he will take the assumption – that an atheist and a theist can be otherwise equally qualified – to be inherently impossible. He will reject the assumption and answer accordingly – that he will not vote for the atheist.
However, are the traits that he is attributing to the atheist fair and accurate. Is it true that atheists have those qualities. More importantly, is it true that all atheists have those qualities – that there cannot be one in which those qualities are absent and is worth voting for?
With respect to religion, it might be possible to claim that one will not vote for a member of a particular religion on the grounds that the religion advances objectionable values. If a religion says, "Kill all unbelievers," defining ‘unbeliever’ as anybody who disagrees with the interpretation of holy text provided by the religious leader, then this alone would be reason enough not to vote for a member of that religion.
However, atheism is value-neutral. Anybody who asserts that atheists must necessarily hold certain values, and that those values make the person unqualified to be President, is making an unjust attribution. Atheism has as much to say about value as heleocentrism does. It is a belief about what exists, a belief that is not inherently in conflict with any value claim.
An atheist can even believe that serving God is the ultimate value. Such an atheist will be filled with regret over the fact that this value can never be realized. He will be like the person who thinks that the ultimate value is in having a raising her own biological child, who discovers that she is sterile and will never be able to realize this value. However, this belief that a particular value will not be realized is different from holding that the state would not have value.
By way of comparison, theists and atheists may disagree on where trees come from. Yet, they need not (probably would not) disagree on the height, weight, shape, or color of a tree. Similarly, an atheist and a theist can disagree on where values come from without disagreeing on what has value.
More importantly, an atheist’s values can more closely match the values of any theist than an opposing religion whose values are fixed by their interpretation of scripture. In other words, it should be easier to imagine an atheist agreeing with the voter on matters of value than to imagine a follower of a different religion sharing the voter’s values. If the voter cannot see this – if the voter falsely (unfairly, unjustly, immorally) attributes to the atheist values that are far alien from her own, this is bigotry.
The reason not to vote for an atheist might be based on a false belief in what atheists value. People might hold the belief that atheists value sautéing kittens on an open grill and skinning toddlers alive in a bath of salt water. Of course, these attitudes are clearly bigoted.
Even if, statistically, an atheist neighbor was more of a threat than a theist neighbor, it is the essence of bigotry to blame a person for wrongs committed by others. This would not be an excuse against holding that the best atheists are as fit for public service as the best theists. This, too, would be bigotry – like refusing to vote for a black candidate because, statistically, the per-capita crime rate for blacks is higher than it is for whites.
There is no way to account for this attitude towards atheists other than as an unfair and unjust attribution of negative value to a person merely because he does not believe in God. That is to say, there is nothing to be found in these poll results but unvarnished bigotry.
Where Bigotry Comes From
I hold that the biggest cause of anti-atheist sentiment rests in the policy of having children pledge every day to regard all who are not 'under God' or who do not trust in God that they are not true Americans. This indoctrination into a culture of hate helps most children to become bastions of hate who cannot accept an atheist as American.
I continue to hold that there can be no real progress in the status of atheists until good people demand that the government cease teaching the lesson 'atheists are evil'
Indeed, the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto themselves are bigoted. They both make the unfair and immoral attribution to all who are not under God or trust in God as being anti-American. A national motto of 'one white nation', based on the fact that those who signed the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were all white and obviously wanted this to be a white nation, would be no less immoral.
Of course, this is hate's vicious cycle. The Pledge and the motto were modified in the 1950s as an act of hatred - an act motivated by a desire to teach all citizens, but particularly children, to hate those not under God or who do not trust in God. Ultimately, they wanted to promote hated of Marxists, but used the opportunity to teach a more general hate.
And, you know what?