Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Atheist out of the closet

If you hang around bookstores, you get a sense of cultural trends. One of the latest seems to be evangelical atheism. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris not only do not believe in God, they want to share this "good news" with the rest of us.

My own sense is that this is sort of 19th century, but debate tends to be a good thing. What gives me pause is the argument that atheistic proselytization reflects some type of immutable characteristic that the larger society must not only tolerate, but accept in the same manner as race, ethnicity and, more recently, sexual orientation.

Thus the Secular Coalition of America, a recently formed group that seems to want to create an identity politics of nonbelief, celebrates the fact that it has found a "nontheistic" Congressman, Pete Stark (D-Calif. - but you could have guessed that part), and suggests an inconsistency between the constitution's prohibition of a religious test for public office and the fact that most people would be reluctant to vote for an atheist.

Is that right? Isn't there a difference between assessing people on a characteristic that they do not choose and that is almost certainly unrelated to what we regard as truly important about an individual and forming judgments based upon a person's worldview? It is one thing to abjure legal standards for office holders and another to argue that people must ignore what is arguably the most important belief (or nonbelief) that an individual holds.

In at least one sense I am sympathetic. We tend to be uninformed about world views that we do not hold and our first presuppositions may be inaccurate; Amanda Marcotte being a recent notorious example. Someone's conservative Christianity might be very relevant to understanding him, but Marcotte couldn't be bothered to learn the first thing about conservative Christianity. A famous historic example is some protestant reaction to the candidacy of President Kennedy.

But doesn't that suggest that we be cautious, as opposed to indifferent, about a candidate's religious (or irreligious) world view?

I raise the issue because we seem to be congenitally unable to have a rational public conversation once something is successfully labeled as "discrimination" or "bias." Particularly for us baby boomers, racial enmity (more accurately, its death throes) was the great sin of our youth. If you pitch something to us as a matter of "equality" and "prejudice", we tend to check our critical faculties and get on board.

Atheists are certainly entitled to voice their views and to live without civil disabilities. But the notion that they might be the 21st century's next protected class seems wrongheaded.

7 comments:

JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe said...

I agree. The fact that there are very few non-theistic members of congress is troubling. It's a bit scary. It's an indicator of what is wrong with America and what is wrong with the voting public. But that does not mean that we should be a protected class. If people don't want to vote for us because we don't believe in the same fairy tales they do, that's their right. I'll say that they are ignorant, maybe even stupid. But I'd never demand protection from them in any sort of political sense.

I'd never vote for a person who admittedly bases policy decisions on conversations with God or on things he read in a dusty old book from the 1950 years ago, just like I'd never vote for a politician that openly bases policy decisions on conversations with his dog or stuff he reads in High Times Magazine. I'd be a hypoctrite if I didn't expect the same from them.

That said, I think what Harris (and to some degree Dawkins and others) advocate is a really really good thing. Although he can be a blow-hard at times, his "conversational intollerance" has the potential to change some minds. When people express a belief in something as a matter of religion we should demand evidence in the same way that we do when someone expresses a belief in any other thing. You think the moon landing was fake? What's your evdidence? You think there's an invisible man in the sky that really cares about whether or not you eat oysters? What's your evidence? In other words, Religion shouldn't get a free pass.

elliot said...

"...but accept in the same manner as race, ethnicity and, more recently, sexual orientation."

I find it interesting that you don't mention religion in your list. I would think, for argument's sake, you would have to accord Atheism the same rights, respect, and restrictions as you would any religious belief.

illusory tenant said...

I suspect a colorable argument can be made that atheists aren't protected by the Free Exercise Clause.

DannyNoonan said...

"I suspect a colorable argument can be made that atheists aren't protected by the Free Exercise Clause."

I'm sure one could be. But can you imagine any activity an atheist would need protected, or would aasert is protected by the free execise clause, that wouldn't be protected as free speech? Not that that matters with respect to the topic of this post, which, if I read it correctly, isn't really about government action.

illusory tenant said...

Nah, it was just a combination of picking up on elliot's comment and wasting Counsellor Esenberg's bandwidth.

Rick Esenberg said...

Elliott

I do not think that atheists should operate under civil disability and they should be free to "exercise" their faith (I use that term quite intentionally.) But, as Brother Noonan, points out, the post is not about legal sanctions as much as it is about social approbation.

As for Brother Doobie's point, I don't think that it is at all unreasonable that religous people who seek to persuade others explain themselves. Dawkins, of course, can't be bothered to learn the first thing about how they do that. If you are going to write a book criticizing theology (or the philosophy of religion), you ought to learn some first.

JesusIsJustAlrightWithMe said...

"As for Brother Doobie's point, I don't think that it is at all unreasonable that religous people who seek to persuade others explain themselves."

I like a man who knows a Doobie Brothers reference when he sees one. But what I mean is more than just that religious people that wish to persuade others to be religious should have to jsutify themselves. If someone is advocating a policy position, or a position about anything, and their support for their position is based on religion, we should demand right then and there that they justify why religion-based support should weigh one iota in favor of said policy. Want an example? Here's a nice young Wisconsin-born Hitler-youth who actually thinks we should put gay people in prison:

http://wildwisconsin.blogspot.com/2007/03/learning-from-africa.html

Of course he bases this opinion on the bible. Shouldn't we make him provide evidence to support the idea that the Bible is something more than a work of fiction if we are going to take seriously any policy position based on it?

"Dawkins, of course, can't be bothered to learn the first thing about how they do that. If you are going to write a book criticizing theology (or the philosophy of religion), you ought to learn some first."

Well, I think you're misinterpreting on purpose if you think Dawkins didn't bother to learn the first thing about how religious people explain themselves. I bet he knows the typical methods better than most. He just thinks their explanations are nonsense. I'd also bet that Dawkins knows more about Christian theology than 99.9% of Christians. I know it's rare that I run into a Christian that knows more than I do about their theology.