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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Just fantastic.

Pretty much all of you by this point know that I'm an atheist and that I'm very interested in seeing negative stereotypes about atheists decline. This desire motivates me not only to comment on things of interest to atheists but even to write a series of posts that attempt to explain some aspects of atheism to others.* So, it should come as no shock that a couple of things have gotten onto my radar this week.

The first, and in many ways most depressing, item are the comments by Illinois state legislator Monique Davis in reference to atheist Rob Sherman's testimony in opposition a one million dollar grant to a church in the Chicago area. So far as I can determine the church, arguably a historic structure, was destroyed by fire and the state governor vowed to allocate the money to rebuild it. Given that the historic structure was destroyed organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, lodged protests to this plan to funnel public monies to a religious institution. This is not what I want to talk about, however, as I am staggeringly uninformed about the specifics of the case.

Instead, I'd like to share with you a bit of the transcript of Representative Davis' comments:

Davis: I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy -- it’s tragic -- when a person who is engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school.

I don’t see you (Sherman) fighting guns in school. You know?

I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children.… What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous--

Sherman: What’s dangerous, ma’am?

Davis: It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat!

Sherman: Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, and I’m sure that if this matter does go to court---

Davis: You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.

So, let's review: according to Representative Davis atheists are intrinsically harmful to society and it's dangerous if children even know we exist. Am I missing anything? Oh, yeah, right: we have no right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Well, we didn't need constitutional protections anyway. Really, I can ignore the bit about how atheism is dangeorus. If nothing else I take it as a compliment and, really, I'm none too fond of theism. Fair is fair. That said, I'm mighty annoyed that she seems to think that atheists don't have the right to argue points before our own government. If you listen to the audio of her comments it's fairly evident not only that was she really, really angry but also that the other people in the room largely agreed with her. Listen for the chorus of "amens" in particular. I have no particular opinion on the church grant issue but, really, in what sense is Davis' behavior in any way appropriate? Answer: it isn't.

Oh, and the best part? Davis is a Democrat.

From the other side of the political spectrum we have a recent article by Michael Medved arguing that Americans are right to resist an atheist president. Speaking as a guy who is interested in politics, I wasn't aware that we were in any danger of having an atheist president in the near future, but I digress. He begins with a fairly classic setup:

Despite the recent spate of major bestsellers touting the virtues of atheism, polls show consistent, stubborn reluctance on the part of the public to cast their votes for a presidential candidate who denies the existence of God.

A typical result came from the Zogby Poll of January 21, 2008, indicating that 50% of voters rule out supporting “a presidential candidate who doesn’t believe in God”; only 20% said they could definitely vote for such a contender. Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of 78% (86% of women and 67% of men) say they take a “positive view” of candidates citing Scripture when discussing political problems.


Actually, there’s little chance that atheists will succeed in placing one of their own in the White House at any time in the foreseeable future, and it continues to make powerful sense for voters to shun potential presidents who deny the existence of God. An atheist may be a good person, a good politician, a good family man (or woman), and even a good patriot, but a publicly proclaimed non-believer as president would, for three reasons, be bad for the country.

And then he gets into his "three reasons" which can be summed up as follows: The president is the head of the Church of America, an atheist president couldn't connect with the people, and an atheist president would play into the hands of Osama bin Laden. Let's look at each in turn.

First, the Church of America business:

As Constitutional scholars all point out, the Presidency uniquely combines the two functions of head of government (like the British Prime Minister) and head of state (like the Queen of England). POTUS not only appoints cabinet members and shapes foreign policy and delivers addresses to Congress, but also presides over solemn and ceremonial occasions. Just as the Queen plays a formal role as head of the Church of England, the President functions as head of the “Church of America” – that informal, tolerant but profoundly important civic religion that dominates all our national holidays and historic milestones. For instance, try to imagine an atheist president issuing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation. To whom would he extend thanks in the name of his grateful nation –-the Indians in Massachusetts?

I don't know what to say to this because it's just so very stupid but, if I say anything, it's probably that a "civil religion" is just that: civil. Emile Durkheim argued that religion is a way of reifying the group and coming together in the presence of a collective feeling. In that sense, there is nothing about American civic religion that an atheist would have a difficult time participating in. And, speaking as an atheist, I have little difficulty thinking that an atheist president would find a way to respectfully acknowledge both the theistic and atheistic citizens of this country.

Second, we have the "difficulty connecting with the people" thing:

The United States remains a profoundly, uniquely religious society: “a nation with the soul of a church” in Tocqueville’s durable phrase. A president need not embrace one of the nation’s leading faiths: the public accepted two Quaker presidents (Hoover and Nixon) despite the tiny number of our citizens who identify with the Society of Friends, and polling on candidates like Romney and Lieberman indicated that the their devout membership in minority religions hardly disqualified them. There’s a difference between an atheist, however, and a Mormon or a Jew – despite the fact that the same U.S. population (about five million) claims membership in each of the three groups. For Mitt and Joe, their religious affiliation reflected their heritage and demonstrated their preference for a faith tradition differing from larger Christian denominations. But embrace of Jewish or Mormon practices doesn’t show contempt for the Protestant or Catholic faith of the majority, but affirmation of atheism does. The most successful presidents sustain an almost mystical connection with the people they serve – as did Ike, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton (for all his faults), and Bush (before his recent troubles). A chief executive who publicly discards the core belief in God that drives the life and work of most of his countrymen can never achieve that sort of connection.

In response to this I think I'll just say: if an openly atheist president is capable of winning a general election then, odds are, enough of the population can relate to them that this issue is no issue at all. I mean, it's nice that Michael Medved knows better than the electorate, but all the same I think we should stick with democracy. Besides, no offense, but every religion cited above thinks that every other religion cited above is wrong. Atheists are no different in that sense and claims to the contrary are pretty foolish.

Finally, we come to the argument that electing an atheist president is just what Osama bin Laden wants us to do:

On one level, at least, the ongoing war on terror represents a furious battle of ideas and we face devastating handicaps if we attempt to beat something with nothing. Modern secularism rejects the notion that human beings feel a deep-seated, unquenchable craving for making connections with Godliness, in its various definitions and manifestations. For Osama bin Laden and other jihadist preachers, Islam understands that yearning but “infidel” America does not. Our enemies insist that God plays the central role in the current war and that they affirm and defend him, while we reject and ignore him. The proper response to such assertions involves the citation of our religious traditions and commitments, and the credible argument that embrace of modernity, tolerance and democracy need not lead to godless materialism. In this context, an atheist president conforms to the most hostile anti-America stereotypes of Islamic fanatics and makes it that much harder to appeal to Muslim moderates whose cooperation (or at least neutrality) we very much need.

And I'm forced to wonder what Medved would have written if this were 1941. Would he, perhaps, be arguing that it would be bad to elect a Jewish president because that would play into the worst Nazi stereotypes about America?** That we must refuse to elect Jews because, that way, anti-semitic moderates might be willing to join our side? I like to think not and I see no reason why atheists should be treated differently.

Really, it's been a fun week. Atheists are getting slammed from both political sides for all kinds of moronic reasons.

So what else is new?

* See here for the latest installment. Have no fear, the next installment is coming, but I'm awfully busy right now so it may take a bit longer still.

** Not technically a case of Godwin's Law since, in an unquoted segment of his article, Medved had already brought up Nazis.

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