Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Political Considerations for Religious Belief

What role should religion play in the election of a politician?

Atheists have virtually no chance in the United States of getting elected into government. Is this a matter of religious discrimination? Is it the case, at Mitt Romney argued in his Faith in America speech, that American voters should not consider a person’s religious views (or views on religion) when deciding who to vote for?

I argue that the voters not only have a right, but a duty, to consider the religious views of their candidates and to refuse to vote for any candidate whose religious views threaten the well-being of the country.

For example, let us assume that a candidate is running for public office who holds that it is his God-given duty to bring about Armageddon by launching all of the nation’s nuclear weapons at whoever God tells him to attack.

Imagine this candidate going to Texas to give a speech before a group of evangelical Christians saying, “Yes, you might find my religion to be strange. However, I promise that no church official will dictate policy while I am in the White House. Instead, I will keep my own council with God, and dedicate to executing His will as I understand it. Now, in this country, we have freedom of religion. This means that nobody may legitimately condemn me for the religious beliefs I happen to hold. When you vote for me, you have to ignore the fact that my religion commands me to start Armageddon because you have to ignore my religious beliefs when deciding who to vote for.”

Sorry, but . . . no. Your religious views give me every reason to vote against you and to make sure that you never, ever, under any circumstances, get near anywhere near this country’s stockpile of nuclear weapons – or any country’s stockpile for that matter.

Or, consider, the candidate who holds that blood transfusions are immoral . . . who, the instant he gets into the White House, will go to work ending as much financial and government support for blood transfusions that it is within his control as President to stop. He, too, argued that we, the voters, have no right to hold his religious views against him.

Wanna bet?

We can add the candidate who believes that medical care (other than broken bones) results from failure to properly worship God and to transfer money away from the hospitals (to the degree that he has the power to do so) and to funnel it into faith healing instead. He, too, says that we may not hold his religious views against him when we cast our vote.

The fact is, we have every right to hold somebody’s religious views against them when we vote.

We do not have the right to ban any of the three people that I mentioned from running for office. If any of these candidates wishes to run for public office, they may do so. If they then win, then they can execute their plans within the limits prescribed by law (and campaign to alter those limits). However, in all of this, we have every right to look at their religious views and say, “Absolutely not!”

In the sense that I described above, the atheist is as free to run for public office in this country as the person who will seek to bring about Armageddon by launching the nation’s nuclear weapons at the first opportunity. The people have just as much right to refuse to vote for the atheist for religious reasons as they do to vote against the person who would ban all blood transfusions in the country to the degree that he would do so.

No complaint can or should be delivered on these grounds. Instead, the complaint should be leveled against any who claim that a candidate’s bizarre views does not, in fact, provide a voter with good reason to vote against him.

The problem is not that people have no right to consider an atheist’s views about God in deciding who to vote for. The problem is that people have beliefs about atheists that are substantially false – acquired in a fog of hateful bigotry by people who use whatever money and power they have to spread this hatred of atheists.

If an atheist candidate were to declare that no God exists and that all life is meaningless and pointless, and that he will consider it his job as President to end this pointless existence for as many people as possible, he should not be allowed to argue that voters may not hold his atheism against him. The same is true of the atheist candidate who declares that religion is the root of all evil and, as such, he will set the machinery of government to the task of hunting down religion wherever it may try to hide and exterminate it. He may declare that this is his religion, but in doing so he cannot declare that the voters may not consider these facts in deciding who to vote for.

The problem with respect to atheism is not that it is inherently wrong to consider a person’s atheism as a reason to vote against him. The problem is that those who hold that atheism automatically disqualifies a candidate from holding public office are mistaken. While specific atheists clearly are unfit for the position, other atheists might be in a particularly good position to discover real-world solutions to real-world problems – to use science to explain and predict the results of different policies, and to use his innate concern for self and others to guide the country clear of the dangers in the waters ahead.

Many of the false beliefs that people hold about atheists are themselves a result of well-funded hate-mongers – theists who want to hold onto as much political and economic power as possible and do not care about the lies they have to tell to do so. Furthermore, they have manipulated the government into teaching one generation after another that those are not “under God” are as un-American as those who would support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all. That “we” all “trust God,” and, by implication, none who do not “trust God” can be thought of as “we”.

We have the bigoted prejudices of people like Mitt Romney asserting that freedom requires religion, and of others who hold that no person can be moral (no person can be trusted to rule justly) who does not believe that our rights come from God.

These beliefs, all of which keep atheists from public office, and which the government itself is involved in teaching and reinforcing whenever possible, are prejudices that keep atheists out of office. If they were true, then they would be perfectly legitimate reasons to vote against any atheist candidate. The trouble is not only that they are false, but that they are so far from being true that only hate-filled bigots could think that they had any merit.

Hate-filled bigots, in this case, are not people who consider an atheist’s morality when deciding who to vote for. Hate-filled bigots are those who think that no atheist can be moral. Hate-filled bigots, in this case, are not people who would vote against a candidate who was a threat to liberty. Hate-filled bigots are those people who hold that the mere fact that one is an atheist implies that one has no concern to preserve liberty – as if atheists have no particular objection to people living the one and only life they will ever have as a slave.

It’s not just hate-filled bigotry that keeps atheists out of office. It is also the love of deception for the sake of political and economic power that dominates the leadership of religious institutions in this country. If, per chance, those religious leaders had an interest in an honest presentation and evaluation of the relevant issues, the people generally will see that there is no reason to keep a person out of political office merely because he is an atheist. However, this would weaken these religious leaders.

However, seeing that the economic and political power they covet can be more easily grasp through a campaign of deception and of unfounded hate, they pursue these options instead. Since they hold that their religion gives them a special understanding of ‘morality’, and ‘morality’ to them obviously includes malicious deception to promote hate for the sake of economic and political power, it is little wonder that they have trouble seeing their atheist rivals as being moral.

Yes, the voters can and should consider a candidate’s religious views in deciding who to vote for. The constitutional prohibition on a religious test says that the government will not impose such a test, not that the people may not do so. However, the people have a moral obligation to make an honest and just evaluation of the religious beliefs of those candidates, and the implications of those beliefs for the country. It is the voter who cannot do this honestly who is the bigot, not the voter who does this honestly and still judges a candidate unworthy of public office by reason of religion.

The candidate who believes that Israel must be restored to its biblical borders in order to trigger Armageddon is a threat to the safety and well-being of people in the real world.

The candidate who would block stem cell research for religious reasons is no better than the candidate who would block blood transfusions.

The candidate who believes that the Earth is only 10,000 years old is not smart enough or not connected to reality solidly enough to run the country.

These are perfectly legitimate factors to weigh in deciding who to vote for.


Matt M said...

I agree that atheism should not automatically be counted as a strike against a candidate, however:

Firstly, I believe that putting my faith (and this is what voting for a candidate is) in someone who has once and for all decided that a god, a higher power does not, and cannot exist would cause me a profound and deep sense of unease. If the said candidate has drawn his lines and built his walls in this area of his life, how does that reflect on his approach to other topics? Would he be so blindly close-minded? I am not arguing in favor of religion, merely against a completely and absolute rejection of it.

Secondly, you speak of a non-religious president opening the door for science to lead us forward into a happier future; why do you assume this is a good thing? I believe the insidious spread of the scientific method into everything we do, and its ultimate failure in many fields, will be the great philosophical upheaval of our lifetime, or possibly since the Enlightenment. Once again - not a pro-religious argument, but rather an argument against blindly entrusting politics to the calculating hands of the scientific method.

Kevin said...

Excellent post.

Dootdoot, you're putting forth two common misconceptions there. While I expect there are possibly a few close-minded atheists that dogmatically reject the possible existence of gods, that's not true for the majority of atheists, especially of the skeptical variety, who reject the gods of the various existing religions for lack of evidence or even contradictory evidence. Without getting too deep into ignosticism, the statement that "god(s) may or may not exist" is vague to the point of meaninglessness. Gods have taken a variety of forms throughout history, from supernatural and unfalsifiable to transcendent beings bound by either their own or our physics, and even human leaders of civilizations have been granted the designation of "god." Gods can literally take any form, and in some forms (such as Einstein's God) do exist. An anti-gods ideologue is one thing, but that's hardly representative of all atheists. If you take something from this post, keep in mind it's not the religious affiliation you should judge, but the content of that individual's beliefs as is relevant to the tasks they are expected to perform, which just so happen include religious and philosophical beliefs.

On the second part, how is the scientific method a bad thing? It is the best and only available method of acquiring real knowledge we have. It's self-correcting, and constantly evaluating against reality by means of evidence. It's not prescriptive, but it is descriptive, and is necessary to inform decisions to attain desired goals. Good intentions can have bad repercussions if improperly informed. Science is the closest to "Truth" we are capable of achieving, at least so far. A good leader uses the best information and best tools to make his decisions. A leader depending on the "revealed knowledge" of ancient shepherds over the heavily vetted stores of modern scientific understanding is not a good leader.

Your last statement suggests to me that perhaps you've bought into the Hollywood myth of the heartless, ruthless rationalist scientist that gladly sacrifices human lives to further his own goals or causes untold tragedy by "playing god". Science isn't like that. As I previously said, science isn't prescriptive, merely descriptive. It doesn't tell us what to do, merely how things work (as we currently understand them). What we do with that knowledge is a separate matter all together.

Matt M said...

Kevin: I think you're taking the term atheism a little too broadly here. An atheist is by definition anti-god, and anti-religion. Someone who dithers on the fence due to lack of evidence is not an atheist.

My second statement has absolutely nothing to do with 'Hollywood myth' and a whole lot more to do with the changing nature of the social sciences, the transformation of knowledge and postmodernism.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The vast majority of atheists, in talking about the existence of God, use something like Bertrand Russel's teapot analogy. The claim that God exists is like the claim that there is no teapot orbiting Mars. It is not something that can be proved true with absolute certainty, but it is not something that we have any reason to believe either.

Richard Dawkins in "The God Delusion" says that his claim that no God exists has a ranking of 6 - on a scale where 1 means absolutely certain that a God exists and 7 means absolutely certain that no God exists.

Some atheists hold to this certainty because they view the concept of God like the concept of a "round square" - as internally inconsistent. Yet, even these must acknowledge that their argument depends on a concept of God that is internally contradictory, and does not apply to any concept of God lacking this feature.

If you believe that all atheists dogmatically assert that no God exists, then this is because you have been listening to people who preach hate from the church pulpit, bearing false witness against atheists in order to frighten their congregation from listening to what atheists actually say.

As for using the scientific method . . .

Consider a case in which you have two possible cures for cancer. The scientific method says to run an experiment - use Method 1 100 times, and use Method 2 100 times. If Method 1 cures cancer 30% of the time, and Method 2 cures cancer 60% of the time, then scrap Method 1 and use Method 2.

This is what scientists do. They are constantly involved in comparing two or more theories by running them through tests, and then choosing the winner - the option that best explains and predicts what happens in the real world (like, the option that best predicts that a patient will survive cancer).

Nothing in human history has proven to be more effective at feeding the hungry, curing disease, and saving lives, than the scientific method.

Matt M said...

That was an excellent summary of the basics of atheism, thank you. I'm not going to discuss it any more because you have done far more reading on the topic than I and I don't want to back myself any further into a corner!

I agree totally that the scientific method is well suited for finding cures for cancer and the like. However, I find it disturbing when such a mentality is applied to studies of human behaviour and when it gets dragged into politics. I know this isn't particularly relevant to your argument, but I suppose that's the price I pay for posting comments late at night! Hope you all had a merry Christmas (or whichever non-denominative festival you choose to celebrate!).

Kevin said...

Why do you think the scientific method is insufficient for such fields? If a politician is looking for policies to reduce violence among the populace, should she merely guess or follow the party line, or should she look at the knowledge of sociology, consider the known contributory factors to such trends, and seek to change the environment within reason to reduce the tendency toward violence in society (such as increasing education and decreasing poverty)?

Matt M said...

Because the human subject is neither reliable nor predictable! How can science claim hegemony over knowledge in these areas if to do so it has to sacrifice one of its key principles - the replicability of results?

Kevin said...

The results are replicated though. "Soft" sciences are just a rigorous as "hard" sciences. It's not like sociologists and psychologists are just making things up. They have to use strong methodology and get peer-reviewed like all the other scientists.

I don't know where you've gotten these crazy ideas about science, but you've been terribly misled.

Matt M said...

Can you please stop being quite so condescending? Have you ever studied the social sciences? Do you have any idea how unlike the 'hard' sciences they are, and how many more problems they present?

Kevin said...

To be less condescending, I would have to be condescending in the first place so there would be a measure of condescension from which I could remove some. I have yet to be condescending, but I could be if you'd like me to be so that I could at a future time be less so.

And yes, I have studied sociology and psychology. That's why I know your claims that they can't provide useful information and that applying science to the studies of human behavior is a bad thing are false. No, they don't work the same as hard sciences, but they still have rigorous methodology, are repeatable, and provide valuable, practical information. To claim otherwise is simply wrong.

Dale said...

Alonzo, I just wanted to let you know this post is now included in Humanist Symposium #13, here:


Thanks! -Dale