It's good to be loved.
It seems that Ms. Jones was nice enough, after the September 11th attacks, to assert that she would never vote for an atheist candidate for President of the United States. Specifically, she commented, among other things, that, "I think it is absolutely important for you to be led by a higher power so you feel as if you have some responsibility..." She went on to observe that:
Given a choice between someone who knows the power of a spiritual presence bigger than they, that moves them to have values, to have morals, to have made a mistake and to know forgiveness versus someone who has never understood the gift of a personal relationship with God ... the choice is clear for me.
She finally commented that she prefers a non-atheist as president because: "I want you [the candidate] to feel like there are long term, everlasting ramifications."
So, if I'm understanding this correctly then in Ms. Jones' view atheists are, as a group, irresponsible, amoral, valueless individuals who have no concept of long-term ramifications. Did I put all that together properly? Yes? Okay, thanks for confirming that for me.
Now, you know that I'm an atheist... and very proud of it. You've probably also realized that I am as "devout" about my atheism as any religious person is about their faith. However, that said, I have also asserted previously that there are limitations to the role of science, and that fundamentally atheism is a position of faith just as many religions are. I may be a devout atheist, but I am not an evangelical one, and I believe in the ability of people of all varieties of faith (atheist, agnostic, and godist) to live together side by side. All that being said, there are a few things that need to be said in response to Ms. Jones' statements.
Some might be wondering why I bother to address something that was said years ago. Well, first off, I didn't learn of it until now, and I'm somewhat annoyed. Secondly, evidence suggests that such basic concepts as the separation of church and state, on which atheists rely for fair treatment in this country, remain hotly contested. The remarks may be in the past, but socially accepted hostility towards atheists remains. Thirdly, I'm just struck by the bizarre qualities of the situation. A group of Muslim terrorists conducts the worst attack in U.S. history and an "entertainer" suddenly declares that Atheists aren't fit to be president. To quote Sarge from Red vs. Blue, "Private, why did you administer CPR for a headwound? It's just all so damned inconsistent. What would you have done if I stubbed my toe? Rubbed my neck with aloe vera?" Finally, in an election year, when both candidates are struggling to one-up each other's love of god, I just need to stand up for those of us who don't believe in god at all. So, all that said, let's get on with responding to Jones.
In regards to the responsibility issue, let's define the term "responsible." The first definition of the term, "Liable to be required to give account, as of one's actions or of the discharge of a duty or trust," seems tailor-made for religion. For those of faith who believe that a god will call them to answer for their actions, responsibility seems par for the course. Yet, the second definition, "Involving personal accountability or ability to act without guidance or superior authority," seems rather to be attuned to the atheist. So, definitionally, the concept of responsibility seems capable of applying to both the god-fearing, and atheists, equally. That said, how often do we hear people argue that we should give up our lives to god? Or that our lives are in god's hands? I may be being too literal, but this sounds to me as though believing in god is a way of relieving people of responsibility for their own lives and their own actions, not inculcating a sense of solemnity about it. There is, of course, still the issue of whether or not atheists are, in fact, responsible, even if the concept is compatible with their beliefs. However, in my judgement, Jones is making an argument that a sense of responsibility is desirable because it will lead an individual to make moral and appropriate choices. Fair enough, but this means that the issue of responsibility is really one of morality. So, are atheists less moral than the god-fearing?
To address that, (which is the second point of Jones' that I quoted after all) I would like to ask the god-fearing in the crowd a simple question: who is more moral, the person who behaves because they believe that failure to do so will earn eternal torment, or the person who does so without expecting an eternal reward? Well, put another way, is an altruistic act less altruistic because the one who performs it does so in order to earn a reward? Well, considering that the dictionary defines altruism as "Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness," I would say the argument could be made that it is. So, that being the case, any moral action taken by an atheist arguably represents more pure altruism than any similar action performed by a god-fearing person. (This is, as you've noticed, a simplistic argument. As it happens, I don't think that selfish motives necessarily reduce the value of an act, nor do I think that all religious people are self-interested rational-maximizers. I'm comfortable with the above argument, however, as Ms. Jones' assertions are so utterly foolish that I really feel no need to bring out my "A" material.) Now, we're still left with the question of whether or not atheists, as a whole, are more likely to commit improper acts. Well, since the September 11th terrorists were religious zealots, since abortion bombings are often the result of religious zealots, and since we have seen such global events as crusades in the name of "god," I rather doubt our record could be any worse. Contrary to her implication, a belief in a divine power does not seem to have been noticeably successful in preventing crime, war, or genocide in the past. I see no reason to accept a blanket assurance that it will suddenly begin to do so in the future. Further, since morals for Ms. Jones seem to derive from, "...a spiritual presence bigger than they [the individual]..." one is forced to wonder if Buddhists, who seek to dissolve themself into the universe itself, qualify as amoral people in her mind. Are atheists the only ones Jones is prepared to condemn?
Then there's the issue of Jones' purported, "everlasting ramifications." Let me say this, Ms. Jones: for atheists, who believe there is no afterlife, ramifications are pretty goddamn eternal. A life sentence to prison for murder cannot be negated by repentance, and some sort of ethereal forgiveness that will lift the murderer into a blissful afterlife. For atheists, who believe in a finite existence in this universe, all ramifications are considerably more "eternal" than for the believer. Moreover, as suicide bombers so amply demonstrate, a belief in "eternal ramifications," can quite effectively motivate destructive, amoral behavior, rather than restrain it.
Obviously, Ms. Jones' remarks were ill-considered, but it is also apparent that they were not motivated by any more sophisticated a philosophy than sheer bigotry. Indeed, in response to a question about whether or not she would vote for a Muslim, Jones responded: "If that person was a good person." When one of Jones' companions commented that:
You could be a very good person and not believe in God, but the question -- it doesn't necessarily apply if you believe or don't believe.
Jones replied that:
...you wouldn't get my vote. I mean you could be a nice person -- you could baby-sit my kids -- possibly -- but that doesn't mean you would get my vote...
So, the issue isn't whether or not atheists are moral, or responsible, or valueless, but simply that they are atheists. All of her posturing about morality is just that- posturing. Ms. Jones is concerned with nothing more than the individual's belief, or lack thereof, in god, just as racists are concerned with nothing more than the color of an individual's skin. There is nothing here but sheer, unalloyed bigotry. I don't know what disgusts me more: the fact that a black woman feels so confident in categorically denying the worth of an entire group of people, or the manner in which she convinces herself of her own inherent superiority. I might be willing to concede that honor, morality, and self-sacrifice are legitimiate critera on which to judge people, but belief in god is not related to any of those things. If anything, too many people seem content to use their faith to justify their immoral deeds, rather than as a motivation to avoid them. What is it about a simplistic, unexamined belief in god that provides individuals with a sense of infallibile goodness? Is there something about the god concept that teaches people to believe only in their own moral worth, and to thoughtlessly denigrate that of others? I like to think not, and I know too many good, thoughtful religious people to believe it must be so, but all too often religion seems better suited to teaching hate, than to teaching tolerance. Religion is a Janus-faced creature, bringing at once peace about the world, and loathing for humans with dissimilar beliefs.
Now, I don't bring this up to slam Ms. Jones, although she deserves nothing but scorn for her ill advised and prejudiced remarks. I don't bring this up because I wish to be disrespectful to people of faith. I have a number of good friends who are devout believers in one of a number of different gods. I have nothing but admiration for those who take the good and inspirational from faith and use it to guide their lives. I bring this up because I am sick and tired of atheist bashing. Can we really deny that atheists are one of the few groups that it is still acceptable to discriminate against? Ms. Jones couldn't possibly get away with making such remarks about Jews, or Muslims, or Christians, or African-Americans, or any other group. She couldn't get away with such blatant absurdity with any of the "larger" minorities, just tiny minorities like atheists. Yet, the fact is that we may not be as small a minority as some think. How can you identify an atheist, after all, in a nation where religious observance is not mandatory? As the Irregular Times states quite eloquently:
The reason so many people are unaware of this [that atheists are a large minority] is that atheists are a largely invisible minority. Atheists look like everyone else and act mostly like everyone else except for what they don't do, which is participate in religious activities. The fact is that the majority of people who say that they are religious don't participate in religious activities either, so atheists blend in very well. Most people just assume that the atheists in their lives are religious. Many atheists go along with this charade out of fear of persecution. Comments of public figures like Star Jones demonstrate that this fear is well-founded.
If we're getting pushed around, fellow atheists, it's because we find it easier to hide than to stand up and say "no." Well, not me, not anymore. I'm Drek, I run a blog, I pay my taxes, I donate platelets, I'm a registered organ donor, I teach your children, and I'm an atheist. Don't like it? Tough. I have nothing against you because you believe in god, but I won't take any shit because I don't.
We may be invisible, but we're not amoral. We may be unnoticeable, but we're not irresponsible. We're here. We always will be here. And I have only one thing to say to those who believe that we atheists are evil, selfish people:
I forgive you for being so stupid. It isn't your fault- that's just the way god made you.