By Mathew Goldstein
I highlight sections of our president's responses and comment on them.
MAHER: Right… they’re atheists, agnostics, or they just don’t want to get up on Sunday morning. And we have no representation in Congress. If our numbers were represented, there’d be over a hundred congresspeople who felt that way. It just seems like we are not included in the basket of diversity in America, which is odd because we are the biggest minority. That is a bigger minority than any other minority you can name. Don’t you think we should get a little more love?
OBAMA: You know, I guess — my question would be whether there is active persecution of atheists. I think that there is certain… well, I think for a candidate… I think you’re right, that are certain occupations — probably, most prominently, politics — where there would be a bias against somebody who’s agnostic or atheist in running for office. I think that’s still true. Outside of that arena, though? You seem to have done alright with your TV show… I mean, I don’t get a sense… to the extent that they’re boycotting you, it’s because of your other wacky views rather than your particular views on religion…
My commentary: Bill Maher is asking about a tendency for non-theists to be excluded and under-represented in the political process wherein people are elected to make our laws. The response from Barack Obama that there is no "active persecution" indicates an aversion on his part to having a discussion on the question being directed to him. Why should "active persecution" be the standard for being satisfied that all is good in the context of a discussion on the civic standing of non-theists? That is a rather low standard and it is not the standard that Barack Obama would set for other constituencies as being sufficient, nor should it be.
MAHER: [Laughs] What are my other wacky ideas? I usually agree with you!
OBAMA: I think the average American, if they go to the workplace, somebody’s next to ’em, they’re not poking around trying to figure out what their religious beliefs are. So here’s what I would say, that… we should foster a culture in which people’s private religious beliefs, including atheists and agnostics, are respected. And that’s the kind of culture that I think allows all of us, then, to believe what we want. That’s freedom of conscience. That’s what our Constitution guarantees. And where we get into problems, typically, is when our personal religious faith, or the community of faith that we participate in, tips into a sort of fundamentalist extremism, in which it’s not enough for us to believe what we believe, but we start feeling obligated to, you know, hit you over the head because you don’t believe the same thing. Or to treat you as somebody who’s less than I am.
My commentary: We agree that a culture in which religious beliefs are personal, like food and clothing preferences, would avoid the problems that Barack Obama correctly criticizes. But are religious beliefs private? Barack Obama is sidestepping this thorny question by assuming religious beliefs are private and personal. Could it be that religion tends to resist and oppose attempts to foster a culture in which religious beliefs are personal? Why should religious institutions want a culture where their religious beliefs have no say in public policy? Whenever self-interested religious institutions see an opportunity to band together to form a majority to enact their religious beliefs into the public laws why would they voluntary refuse to do so? Fostering a culture in which religious beliefs are privatized is like fostering a government without any fees or taxes, it is unrealistic.
MAHER: But we might be more pro-science in America if we were less religious, don’t you think?
OBAMA: Well… you know, I think that the issues we have with science these days are not restricted to what’s happening with respect to religion. There are a lot of very religious scientists around…
My commentary: Bill Maher is asking if the equation "more pro-science" = "less religious" is true. He is not asking if all anti-science attitudes will disappear without religion. We all agree that various problems we have are not restricted to any one factor. Again, this avoidance response suggests Barack Obama is uncomfortable with addressing the question.
My commentary: I agree with Bill Maher's questioning Barack Obama comment that a lot of scientists are very religious. Some scientists are "very religious", but far fewer than the general population. There is wiggle room in the ambiguity regarding what qualifies as "a lot" and "very religious", but I think this response from Barack Obama is misleading. The counter-argument that scientists are significantly more likely to be less religious than non-scientists is the relevant truth that Barack Obama is obscuring here.
OBAMA: … I think the problem here is that in our school systems, and to some degree — and this is where it is relevant — with school boards around the country that are mandating curriculums and textbooks, you start seeing this weird watering down of scientific fact so that our kids are growing up in an environment — and this connects to what I was saying earlier abou the media — where everything’s contested. Where nothing is true. Because if it’s on Facebook, it all looks the same. And if you’re reading something from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist next to some guy in his underwear writing in his basement, or his mom’s basement, on text, it looks like it’s equally plausible. And part of what we have to do a better job of, if our democracy is to function in a complicated diverse society like this, is to teach our kids enough critical thinking to be able to sort out what is true and what is false, what is contestable and what is incontestable. And we seem to have trouble with that. And our political system doesn’t help.
My commentary: Here we go again, more avoidance and a reluctance to confront the question. The watering down of scientific fact is indeed "weird" from the secularist point of view adopted by Barack Obama where religious beliefs are assumed to be personal and private. But for many religious people, such as the religious people that the Republican Party has adopted as one of their main constituencies, there is nothing weird about contesting scientific facts. They mistakenly think that they possess the faith based religious truth, and they then correctly apply their understanding of the truth to their public life. Facts about how the universe functions are, by definition, not restricted to the personal and private realm. From this religious point of view, the scientists are wrong because they contradict the divinely revealed holy texts. Barack Obama sidesteps this problem, placing the blame on the media, the Internet (a.k.a. Facebook), and the political system. But the problem here is not that everything is contested and nothing is deemed to be true. That is merely a symptom of the underlying problem. The problem is that religion claims to identify what is true in competition with, and contradiction with, the empirically derived facts. The media, the Internet, the political system then amplify the prevailing public opinion because they are commercial or popular institutions. Despite all that, he provided an appropriate answer to the question in the third to last sentence where he acknowledged the need to do a better job teaching our kids critical thinking.