Saturday, July 30, 2011

Atheists are here, there, everywhere.

By Mathew Goldstein

The U.S. Constitution forbids religious discrimination by government, it treats freedom of religion as freedom of conscience, yet our government has instituted multiple establishments of monotheism. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia claimed that the Constitution permits the government to disregard atheists. When Congress placed "In God We Trust" on all our coins and currency, when it inserted "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance, when the Supreme Court starts its sessions with "God save the United States and this honorable court," when every legislative session begins with a prayer to God, etc. - those who disbelieve in a supreme being are explicitly told that "they are outsiders, not full members of the political community," while theistic Americans are told "that they are insiders, favored members of the political community."

Is this a concern of humanists and freethinkers or not?

Government cannot eliminate invidious opinions, but it can--and, when the opinions are based on religious differences, it constitutionally must--stop fostering such beliefs. The fact is that we are not a second-class citizen who should be seen and not heard. The United States of America is just as much an atheistic entity as it is a theistic entity, just as much a polytheist entity as a monotheist entity, with zero being the measure of each. This is a civil rights campaign, as important and as serious as any in our history.

The accusation that groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, by focusing on, and pursuing, a non-establishment of religion agenda that seeks equal regard for atheists and polytheists with monotheists, are somehow interfering with dealing with the debt ceiling, unemployment, public education, reproductive choice, climate change, environmental degradation, GLBT rights, etc., is nonsense. There are groups and individuals that focus their time and effort on each of these issues at the expense of spending more time and effort on other issues. By having a limited focus these activist groups and individuals are not guilty of giving "listeners a very narrow and limited perspective on what humanism is all about" or "putting [pick one: reproductive choice, climate change, etc.] ahead of everything else". They are all making a contribution, and by specializing in seeking remedies for a particular category of problem they all contribute to the common good. Furthermore, they arguably contribute more effectively to the common good than they would if they did not narrow their focus and specialize.

The same is true of those individuals or groups who have decided to focus on EC compliance problems facing atheists and polytheists. The accusation that their doing this somehow "weakens the positive thrust of humanism" is groundless. The accusation that EC violations that target atheists and polytheists are not a common concern of, and challenge for, all people of good will, including those who identify as Catholics, Protestants, Jews, etc. is mistaken. If this currently isn't their concern then it should be. Violations of constitutional principles that today targets only some minorities also weakens and undermines those constitutional principles generally, thereby increasing the future risk to those who are not currently targeted by the violations.

George Lakoff's book about framing issues, when referenced in this context as an excuse for singling out and not addressing one category of problem because the targets of the problem are unpopular, amounts to little more than a non-ethical argument for appeasement of majoritarian prejudices. If the majority objects to atheists standing up for their civil rights then I don't feel the slightest obligation to appease that prejudice by "framing" atheists and atheism into a closet. Nor should you or anyone else be intimidated into silence and invisibility by majority prejudices.

What works against the advancement of humanist values is this appeasement of the prevailing 'atheists must remain hidden' attitude. What works against the advancement of humanist values is this 'atheists are to be excluded from residing within the larger context of "core humanist concerns"' attitude. This double-standard nonsense that somehow the presence of atheists or atheism anywhere on the activist agenda is incompatible with "the advancement of humanist values" is itself inconsistent with humanist values.

There is no way that atheists will accept being told that they are not welcome as equal participants in all respects, including being part of the agenda of humanist concerns today for civic equality. If humanists are for civic equality today then they must be for non-establishment of theism today. To place non-establishment of theism off of the agenda is to fail to commit to civic equality. This is an either or choice, there is no third option. So is civic equality a core humanist concern or not?


Edd.Doerr said...

Since Mathew Goldsstein was responding to my comment, I suppose I should amplify a bit. My point is that by seeming to be concerned only with "mere" atheism, naturalists project an image of narrowness, not unlike the image projected by assorted religious fundamentalists. What is needed is a balanced, broad approach, such as that projected by the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II.

And let me add that what humanists and naturalists say about religious matters (for want of a better term) carries a lot more weight if the person doing the projecting has credentials. After WW II three prominent humanists, two Brits and a Canadian, Julian Huxley, Boyd Orr and Brock Chisholm, headed up three important UN agencies, UNESCO, Food and Ag, and World Health Org. They had cred not because of their positions on "God" but because of their records of accomplishment. The same could be said of people like Mark Twain, Isaac Asimov, Andrei Sakharov, and so many others.

We don not want to come off sounding like Johnny-One-Notes. We to need emphasize priorities and strategy. All this is borne out by my 60 years as a humanist activist, which involved, for example, being involved 55 years ago in the campaign to keep a religious motto off our currency, starting a lawsuit that blocked US tax aid to foreign religious schools, engineering a Supreme Court brief on reproductive choice signed by 12 Nobel laureate biologists and 155 other distinguished scientists, getting a brief on evolution to the Supreme Court signed by 72 Nobel laureate scientists, playing a role in keeping the US out of the Nigerian civil war, spending nearly 50 years as a professional church-state separation activist, etc etc etc, and all without playing the "Madalyn O'Hair" card.

Strategy, strategy, strategy.

Don Wharton said...

For the record, I love Edd Doerr and his strategic vision. He has been extremely effective in advancing humanism, naturalism and the separation of bizarre wacko fundamentalism from government. I am also fond of Mathew Goldstein (Explicit Atheist) and the style with which he attacks religious nonsense. My problem is that those on these two ends of the secularist spectrum do not see that each end is accomplishing something profoundly good.

The side that works with liberal and moderate religious folk have massively greater varieties of things that can be accomplished. There are many more people to engage in positive judicial, legislative and elective actions. Edd is profoundly correct when he asserts that strategic vision in cooperation with the religious is of great value.

However, religion in general (including the moderate and liberal end of the religious spectrum) advocates preposterous nonsense. Mathew and others who are willing to be publicly confront this nonsense are providing a valuable service. They are removing the centuries old taboo against any criticism of religion. We are going through a major change is societal notions of what is open to criticism. Religion is no longer being given total protection from criticism in mainstream media. We need to continue to find the points where religious claims are either false or totally lacking in any reasonable positive meaning. Getting these points out serves to enhance the ferocious decline in the demographics of those supporting religion.

Over the long term we will eventually become more like a post-religious European country. This will mean that Edd will fewer fights where he would need cooperation from religious people to maintain governmental sanity.

In short, both sides are working toward a sane society based on secular naturalistic principles. Neither should be asserting that they have a monopoly on the best way to achieve that society. I would wish that each side would be able to appreciate and support what is achieved by the other side.