Friday, March 02, 2012

Atheist Legislators

I am continuing with my examination of Sean Faircloth’s new political strategy for atheists. The strategy consists of six principles for advancing atheist political policy objectives, and ten political policy objectives that are to be advanced.

Number eight on that list of policy objectives was stated as, “Congress shall include secular Americans.” In fact, the political and social objective is that there should be no prejudice against atheist candidates.

First, I object to voting for or against a candidate on the basis of establishing a state in which Congress includes secular Americans. What matters are the policies that a candidate will pursue. As I plan to make clear in the paragraphs to follow, religious beliefs are only relevant to the degree that they are likely to influence policy.

Technically, I have no objection to a Congress that is 100% Christian or 100% Muslim. I would not mind if it were 100% white or black, male or female.

In a congress that is 100% fair and just, the religion, race, and gender of its members would be as irrelevant as their left-handedness or the day of the week on which they are born. Congress may, in fact, be made up entirely of people who are left-handed, who were born on Tuesday. For all I know, we have a congress in which right-handed people and people born on a Thursday are entirely unrepresented. Yet, it does not matter.

Nobody cares about these things because discrimination and prejudice based on these factors are not prevalent.

However, let it be widely believed that left-handedness is morally superior to right-handedness, or that those who are born on Tuesday are blessed while those born on Thursday are fools, and these facts become relevant. We can then look on the fact that there are no right-handed people or people born on Thursday in Congress as the effect of bigotry and prejudice.

There is one “avowed atheist” in Congress.

This, alone, is strong evidence that we live in a country that teaches bigotry against atheists. If we did not, the number of "avowed atheists" in Congress, we could expect, would approach the number of "avowed atheists" in the public at large.

Having said this, I must also reject the claim that we must ignore a person's religious beliefs in deciding how to vote. Quite often, When a candidate expresses religious views that come under criticism, the response is to say that criticisms of another person's religious beliefs are out of bounds and represents religious bigotry. Religious equality apparently means ignoring the religious claims of others.

I am waiting for a candidate to say, "I believe that we can bring about the second coming of Christ by starting a nuclear war with Iran and it is my duty as a Christian to do just that. But, you are a religious bigot if you criticize those beliefs and use them as a reason to vote against me."

Um . . . No.

When a person's religion touches on policy, then we have every right to judge that person's religious beliefs. If he thinks his God wants him to adopt a path that will kill millions of innocent people, that is good reason to vote against him.

The candidate has two options. "Either you agree to leave your religion at the door when you enter public office, or we have every right to judge your religion and to judge you a poor candidate on the basis of those beliefs." If a candidate holds that he does not believe in the separation of church and state, then we have a duty to judge his fitness for office by judging his religion.

Yet, this explains why the rejection of a candidate grounded on atheism is bigotry. Atheism, strictly defined, has no policy implications. Atheism says that it is certainly or almost certainly the case that no God exists. You cannot infer any policy objectives from this fact. You cannot even infer the conclusion that religion is a bad thing. Whereas only beliefs that have policy implications are relevant to a candidate's fitness for public office, and atheism has no policy implications, atheism is not relevant to fitness for public office.

My argument is not that criticism of atheists by its very nature is out of bounds - the way that some argue we must ignore a person's religion. My claim is that false and unfounded malicious claims about atheism represent bigotry that has no place in legitimate public discussion. They fall in the same moral category as claims that Jews are a part of a greedy cabal out to control the economy and blacks are unfit for any duty other than basic manual labor.

In the case of atheist candidates, we live in a society filled with unfounded hatred and bigotry that prevents people from voting for atheist candidates even when they are the better candidate. That bigotry is so intense and profound that the honest atheist knows never to even try to run for public office, and (with very rare exceptions) only the dishonest atheist has any hope of serving in public office. Of this latter group, we probably have several, and they may otherwise do an acceptable job, but replacing them with an atheist who is not so comfortable with public deception would likely be a plus, all else being equal.

We create a culture that brands all atheists as immoral, and that then grants the honor of public service only to those who fit the stereotype, while barring all who value truth and honesty.

We see this in surveys that show that atheists are considered as untrustworthy as rapists, that they are the group people claim are least likely to share their values as Americans, and are the people they would least like their child to marry. Atheists are feared for having no moral foundation and, thus, are thought of as being as willing and eager to do whatever benefits themselves regardless of who is harmed because they acknowledge no divine authority that tells them not to or threatens to punish them if they do.

The bigot tells us, if we put an atheist in power, and atrocities at the level of Hitler and Stalin are sure to follow - because atheists have no morals.

Blaming atheism for the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin is as absurd (and as bigoted) as blaming the wearing of a mustache with those same atrocities.

First, in the case of Hitler, the accusation is not even true – Hitler offered a religious defense for the Holocaust and convinced a great many religious people to act as his agents. All if his policies - from forcing Jews to wear symbols on their clothes so they can be more easily identified to killing them can be found in Europe's Christian history. Hitler was not an original thinker with original ideas. He gave voice to what many European Christians had been thinking and saying - and practicing in smaller local scales - for centuries.

Yet, it would be pure bigotry to blame Christians today for the moral crimes of their ancestors – though this is a form of bigotry that many contemporary Christians are very comfortable with.

Second, it actually is true that both Hitler and Stalin wore a mustache. We can instantly see the absurdity of saying that mustache-wearing candidates must be barred from public office because of the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin. We would see the absurdity of saying that atheist candidates are as dangerous as well – except, in the case of atheists, the claim is made in a culture of bigotry, and bigotry often makes absurd attacks on groups sound reasonable.

Hitler and Stalin were both white. Let somebody use this to claim that the Caucasian race is responsible for the greatest atrocities of the 20th Century and see what type of reaction that generates. The mere fact that there is so much silence when atheists are targeted by this type of bigotry betrays just how widespread that bigotry is.

We see other examples of this bigotry in the language.

Bigots have adopted the phrase “militant atheist” to describe any atheist who expresses criticism of religious beliefs. The political and social value of this term is that it generates an emotional reaction on the part of others - they view the atheist as they would view a person with a gun or a bomb and a willingness to use them. The very term is meant to promote an attitude of fear and dislike.

We do not hear of militant Christians at all, even when talking about the theist who says that all atheists are fools and that there is no such thing as a good atheist. And a militant Muslim is one who carries an automatic weapon or wears an explosive vest or flies planes into sky scrapers. With Islam, one only has to agree not to kill people unless provoked and one is thought of as peaceful. With atheism, avoiding the "militant" label seems to require nothing short of kissing the ring and vowing subservience to every theist one might happen to meet.

Another example of bigotry in the language is found in the fact that we so often hear the term "atheist" linked with phrases such as "confessed", "self-professed", "avowed" or "admitted".

Imagine a writer in the main stream media writing an article in which he describes a person as a "confessed Jew" or an "admitted Muslim". I think the reader can immediately sense what this language conveys. It portrays the label as an insult or an accusation - something that the writer would not dare attribute to that person if not for the fact that the accused has admitted to actually having this embarrassing quality.

These habits of language are another one of the social tools used to keep atheists out of public office - tools that have no bearing on reality but, instead, serve only to promote an unfounded malicious aversion to anybody who dares to assert that he considers it extremely unlikely that a god exists.

Worse than all of these is the fact that the government itself, for the past 60 years, has been involved in a campaign to teach anti-atheist bigotry in the public schools and in other public forums - and even through the whole of the economic realm. They did this by declaring as a matter of public oath that all good and loyal Americans support a nation "under God", and that all good and loyal Americans accept the practice of trusting in God.

And they make it a point to have every child swear, from the first moment the child enters public school, that he or she will adopt the bigoted attitude that a person who does not support a nation "under God" cannot be a good and loyal American.

Surveys show that Americans in general believe that atheists are the group least likely to hold the values of a good American. Is there any wonder that this is the case since this bigoted attitude is printed on every article of currency, hanging in many public school classrooms and public buildings, and written into the Pledge of Allegiance?

It says a lot about this country that religious bigotry is our national motto and our national pledge.

We can expect no (or very few) atheists in Congress as long as these practices go unchallenged.

I am not talking about challenging them because they violate the First Amendment separation of church and state. I am talking about challenging them because no fair and just people would write bigotry into their motto and national pledge even if they had no First Amendment. We will know that we have succeeded in targeting the root causes of anti-atheist bigotry when we can find "admitted atheists" included in the halls of Congress.


Pngwn said...

I agree with everything except your definition of atheism.

Anyone who thinks that a God probably does not exist (a greater than 50% chance) would probably be considered an atheist.

Someone who believes with a probability, let us say, 51% that a god does not exist would not say that a god "certainly, or nearly certainly" does not exist, yet they would still be considered an atheist.

This may sound pedantic, but this is a very important definition to the matter at hand.

Zerotarian said...

Alonzo, have you heard of the case here in Massachusetts challenging "under God" in the Pledge?

The lawyer is David Niose of the American Humanist Association, and he's bringing the suit under MA's Equal Rights Amendment rather than the U.S. 1st Amendment. It almost sounds like he's been reading your blog over the years: "'The exercise itself discriminates against them,' he said of his clients. 'There is a religious truth claim within the daily patriotic exercise. Patriotism is defined in terms of religious truth. If you are a patriot, you believe in God; if not, you are a second-class citizen.'"

David said...

Pngwn, why should the definition be germane to the matter in terms of its precision? If all individuals are to be given equal consideration under the law, their conviction, no matter how imprecise or how far it totters to one side, should be irrelevant to the issue, no?