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America's last political taboo
December 10, 2013 12:05 PM   Subscribe

We were left wondering why a man who served 16 terms in Congress and who bravely came out as gay all the way back in 1987 felt the need to hide his atheism until he was out of office. Was it really harder to come out as an atheist politician in 2013 than as a gay one 25 years ago? Incredibly, the answer might be yes. For starters, consider that there is not a single self-described atheist in Congress today. Not one.
posted by Chrysostom (165 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
For starters, consider that there is not a single self-described atheist in Congress today.

This seems inaccurate.
posted by oulipian at 12:13 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Not at all, oulipian. Krysten Sinema is probably atheist, but she has taken great pains to distance herself from the word.
posted by mystyk at 12:18 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Simple reason that people won't come out as an atheist or unbeliever - because there is huge prejudice against us, and because unlike other prejudices it's so acceptable that public figures can reaffirm it without any stain on their records.

Indeed, many Christians believe that there is a War Against Christianity which they are losing. The fact that every single President and 99% of all senators and Congressmen have been Christians is simply irrelevant to them.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:19 PM on December 10, 2013 [28 favorites]


Kyrsten Simena does not describe herself as an atheist or even a non-believer.

I do think it's important to have committed secularists who believe their religious belief or spirituality is a private matter, not a public one, but that's not the same thing as being an out atheist.
posted by muddgirl at 12:21 PM on December 10, 2013 [12 favorites]


Heck, I'd settle for a good deist at this point.
posted by Atom Eyes at 12:23 PM on December 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


Incredibly, the answer might be yes.

There's no "might" about it.
posted by eviltwin at 12:25 PM on December 10, 2013


Compare with Tony Blair in the UK who didn't convert to being a Roman Catholic until after he left office... "he told the BBC that he had avoided talking about his religious views while in office for fear of being labelled a nutter"
posted by samworm at 12:26 PM on December 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


There's an awful lot of ceremonial Swearing Oaths On Bibles involved in supposedly secular governments.
posted by ceribus peribus at 12:27 PM on December 10, 2013 [22 favorites]


oulipian: This seems inaccurate."

Sinema's refusal to identify herself as atheist is addressed on page 3 of the story.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:32 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


And I agree with Lupus. It's not easy to be openly atheist in many places -- least of all in elected office -- because it is still socially acceptable to be openly contemptuous and wildly slanderous of us.

I should know. I almost lost my family over coming out. It's been years, and things are still on shaky ground. (Technically it had been an open secret for years prior, but this made my parents incapable of living in denial over it.) Being in the Army, where faith is pervasive and often coercive, doesn't help either.

I'm an atheist. I'm also a Secular Humanist. Because of my experiences I'm now a vocal activist for these groups, but I can certainly remember what it was like to avoid being open about who/what I am for fear of the backlash, and I can understand why many would still avoid speaking out. Hopefully my actions can make the terrain a bit easier for them to walk.
posted by mystyk at 12:35 PM on December 10, 2013 [23 favorites]


Incredibly, the answer might be yes.

There's no "might" about it.


There's also no "incredibly" about it. Bad, yes. Incredible, no.
posted by Longtime Listener at 12:38 PM on December 10, 2013


I hope people do actually read the article beyond the pull quote. The second and third pages are very thoughtful.
posted by muddgirl at 12:43 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Somehow 'atheist' got poisoned the same way 'liberal' did. Now you have people doing epistemologic backflips just to avoid the term.

"I mean, I don't consider myself a believer in Bigfoot, but I wouldn't call myself an acryptid. I don't go around shouting down Bigfoot believers, after all. And I feel a strong connection with lots of other woodland mammals. There are so many possible undiscovered humanoid creatures out there, who can really say none of them exist?"
posted by 0xFCAF at 12:51 PM on December 10, 2013 [52 favorites]


I really hate when articles call something "the last taboo" or "the last acceptable prejudice". There is absolutely prejudice against atheists, especially in politics, but do we have to set it up in opposition to everything else? *sigh* I don't even object to comparing it to things like coming out as gay, it's just marking it as The Worst Possible Thing drives me batty.

(I know it's probably not the author's fault. Just a pet peeve.)
posted by insufficient data at 12:52 PM on December 10, 2013 [13 favorites]


Many people feel the same way, and some have tried to coin new, less charged words—“nontheist” and “non-believer” are popular. Instead of running away from “atheist,” though, we should take a lesson here from the gay-rights movement, which reclaimed a word that had been used as a slur—“queer”—and made it a rallying cry.

I personally prefer "godless heathen."

In all seriousness, I have always hated how politicians have to pretend and go through the motions of religousity to be taken seriously in this country. I had a good friend who decided to run for city council in our small college town. He'd been there for ages and was extremely commited to making the town a better place to live. He had some great ideas on how to help the town and would have been a great asset in public office. First question he was asked after he registered on the ballot was "Where do you go to church?" Second question was, "No really, where's your church home?"

His answer of "In my heart." wasn't suffifcient enough to get him past the primaries.
posted by teleri025 at 12:57 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Relevant
posted by The World Famous at 1:05 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I had never really thought about how the Cold War amplified feelings about atheism, but it makes sense. The country really seems to still be in something of a Cold War mindset, or at least tries to be even if the situation isn't applicable. Here's to hoping that it fades along with the badness that comes with it.
posted by charred husk at 1:06 PM on December 10, 2013


"But Frank also told me he avoids the term “atheist” because people don’t like it. “Atheist is a harsh word,” he said. “It sounds like a repudiation to people—it sounds aggressive.” Many people feel the same way, and some have tried to coin new, less charged words—“nontheist” and “non-believer” are popular. Instead of running away from “atheist,” though, we should take a lesson here from the gay-rights movement, which reclaimed a word that had been used as a slur—“queer”—and made it a rallying cry."

While the piece make many other cogent points, this strikes me as being as ridiculous as some claiming that Christians are oppressed because not all Christians describe themselves as Evangelical. Both “nontheist” and “non-believer” mean something distinctly different to a lot of people than "atheist"and it is a totally ok thing for people to be any of these things. Its totally ok for people to not want to be 'culture warriors', or to not have either a God or a side in the culture wars, or to just not give a shit about the 'culture wars', or to not feel strongly about religion at all, or whatever. Both religion and a lack thereof are deeply personal and idiosyncratic phenomena that don't tend to fit neatly into boxes despite the best efforts of those of us who feel very strongly about religion, we need a great diversity of words to even begin to describe it, and there is nothing wrong with that.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:07 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Indeed, many Christians believe that there is a War Against Christianity which they are losing. The fact that every single President and 99% of all senators and Congressmen have been Christians is simply irrelevant to them.

The thing is, they're the wrong *kind* of Christians, I think. Or they're perceived as not the right kind. They're not what Fred Clark calls Real True Christians, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-evolution- and they're losing on the last two at least, but they're awfully loud and shouty.
posted by insufficient data at 1:08 PM on December 10, 2013


Being in the Army, where faith is pervasive and often coercive, doesn't help either.

That stuff creeps me the hell out. Isn't the Air Force super religious like that too?

Associating killing people with Jesus has never led to good things.
posted by edheil at 1:08 PM on December 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


This makes my blood boil. I'm an atheist, though I too don't really like that word. It's placed in a context I feel uncomfortable with - the problem isn't that I'm not a Christian but rather that I'm labelled an amoral, uncaring nihilist. In fact, it's anything but. I believe that religion is nothing less than the source of 90% of the hate and fear and divisiveness on the planet. The atrocities that have been committed and will be committed in the name of one's belief system is incomprehensible.

My belief is simple: that we are here, and that we have no idea where we came from. All we have is each other and all that we can do is love each other here in the darkness. We create our own light with love. It astonishes me that someone could hate me for that view.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:11 PM on December 10, 2013 [35 favorites]


Both “nontheist” and “non-believer” mean something distinctly different to a lot of people than "atheist"and it is a totally ok thing for people to be any of these things. Its totally ok for people to not want to be 'culture warriors', or to not have either a God or a side in the culture wars, or to just not give a shit about the 'culture wars', or to not feel strongly about religion at all, or whatever. Both religion and a lack thereof are deeply personal and idiosyncratic phenomena that don't tend to fit neatly into boxes despite the best efforts of those of us who feel very strongly about religion, we need a great diversity of words to even begin to describe it, and there is nothing wrong with that.

I agree, but I *also* think that there are people who avoid the word atheist because of the stigma and not because it's inaccurate to them. (I did this for a while.) I do agree it's super obnoxious when atheists try to argue with people about their self-descriptors, though. If I never read another "you're not really an agnostic, you're an atheist!" internet argument it'll be too soon.
posted by insufficient data at 1:12 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


(PS - the remaining 10% is Amanda Palmer and her fans).
posted by jimmythefish at 1:13 PM on December 10, 2013 [15 favorites]


Relevant

Yes! Best West Wing speech of them all, for my money. Vinick justifies the later seasons alone. Around 4:37 in the video:

"I don't see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government. And I want to warn everyone in the press and all the voters out there, if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to. They won't all lie to you, but a lot of them will. And it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes."
posted by jason_steakums at 1:14 PM on December 10, 2013 [13 favorites]


This reminds me of a coming-of-age argument with my eldest daughter - she resented being raised as a pagan because it felt to her like a crusade just to keep our religious freedom (late 80s, early 90s). Paganism was chosen because it seemed like the least destructive superstition around. I would have raised them atheist but it really was safer to raise them as pagan. God-less was way worse to the nutty extended family than having the wrong god. I'm thrilled to see non-theism spread (could do without the more-logical-than-thou atheists, though.)
posted by _paegan_ at 1:16 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I wonder how much of this has to do with the church being one of the existing structures of community. Is it just harder to make as many connections - or seemingly deep connections - without a church as a home base?
posted by stoneweaver at 1:23 PM on December 10, 2013


Some of the nicest, warmest people I know are religious (all different religions, too), and some of the biggest assholes I known were religious too. Similarly, I know lots of atheists who are wonderful, and more than a few who are total dicks. The only thing I can conclude from this is that your religion says absolutely nothing about what kind of person you are. Nothing at all.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 1:24 PM on December 10, 2013 [17 favorites]


A people's dictionary:

atheist: Doesn't believe in god, and is very very angry that other people don't agree
agnostic: Doesn't believe in god, but thinks they need a word to mean they're open to evidence to the contrary
nontheist: Doesn't believe in god, and thinks Latin prefixes are better than Greek prefixes
nonbeliever: Doesn't believe in god, but will never mention that in polite company
secular humanist: Doesn't believe in god, but thinks highly of people who do
untheist: Doesn't believe in god: The Pepsi™ of atheism
antiunatheist: Doesn't believe in god, and opposes people who oppose that
posted by 0xFCAF at 1:24 PM on December 10, 2013 [24 favorites]


OxFCAF, Stephen Fry on language
posted by Blasdelb at 1:28 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I believe that religion is nothing less than the source of 90% of the hate and fear and divisiveness on the planet.

The human desire to search for simple, easy explanations for strange, complex realities is the source of 100% of the hate and fear and divisiveness on the planet.

Religion's been a go-to resource for that, especially as of late, but a love of country, family, community, manliness, free markets, Beatles songs, or anything else in the world can function as a resource in its absence. That religion is especially potent in its dogma has to do with the fact that few other human institutions have had thousands of years to grow or contain literally billions of people within them.

In my experience, religious people are no more or less likely to be ignorant, hurtful, bigoted, or what-have-you than any other kinds of people. For some of them, religion is the lens through which they have transformed themselves into remarkable, empathetic humans. For others, it's an excuse that they use not to think about things they've decided aren't worth their time. My atheist friends have excuses of their own.

Religion is currently a centralized, dominant system that people can use to hurt others, and that stinks, and we should act to decentralize it. But if we do, something else will come to exist as the center, and whatever that thing is — pop music, basketball, organic chemistry — we will find ways of using it to hurt others in our ignorance. The problem with people is people, and the systems they create to simplify the world around them. Sometimes that simplification takes the form of a God, and other times God is used to describe something complex and beautiful and inspirational.
posted by Rory Marinich at 1:30 PM on December 10, 2013 [16 favorites]


untheist: Doesn't believe in god: The Pepsi™ of atheism

I think you mean the 7-Up of atheism
posted by briank at 1:30 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm an atheist and I often wish that people who are also atheists would stop being scared of the word. There's so much hemming and hawing that it frequently seems that when nonbelief or disbelief or not caring is discussed, I end up being the only person who is willing to say, no I don't believe.

People rush to qualify their atheism by saying that of course no one can be sure, but I wonder why that's so unless it's fear of reprisal.

I don't believe in life after death, except in the metaphorical sense that as long as we remember people they stay alive in our hearts or that no energy is lost from the closed universe and their decomposed bodies turn into trees and flowers and whatnot.

I don't believe in a personal interventionist god. I also don't believe in an active consciousness guiding the universe or even watching the universe, except in the most metaphorical sense.

I speak the language of the religious and can translate into their language when needed, but it never works the other direction. Mostly, what I have to do for translation is use metaphorical language and assume that it will be taken literally. I have no desire to attack anyone for their beliefs but I sure am tired of "respecting" other people's beliefs when they don't "respect" mine.
posted by janey47 at 1:33 PM on December 10, 2013 [18 favorites]


Apathiesm is where it's at.
posted by jason_steakums at 1:36 PM on December 10, 2013 [15 favorites]


In my experience, religious people are no more or less likely to be ignorant, hurtful, bigoted, or what-have-you than any other kinds of people.

In my experience this is not true. I'm unaware of the great unified atheist teachings of traditional marriage and the hatred of gays and the diminishing of women. If you can prove me wrong, please do so.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:37 PM on December 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


Ha. I walk past that neon "A" in Daley Plaza every day and had no idea that's why it was there.

I honestly think that my subconscious brain thought it was weird that there was a huge Atlanta Braves fan in Chicago, but it wasn't interesting enough.

Up your game, atheists.
posted by graphnerd at 1:38 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


here in the United States the rise of a new libertarian-minded faction in the Republican Party and its embrace of Ayn Rand, an avowed atheist, has changed attitudes among some on the far right.

I think this influences my opinion on the matter the most. Now, when I think of Atheist, I usually associate it with someone either right-wing, STEM-y, or white male.

Also, Hank Johnson, Mazie Hirono, and Colleen Hanabusa are Buddhist. Some branches of which are atheist. Though there is a distinction in American/Western society between the lower 'a' adjective atheist vs. the upper case 'A' Atheist.
posted by FJT at 1:41 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm unaware of the great unified atheist teachings of traditional marriage and the hatred of gays and the diminishing of women. If you can prove me wrong, please do so.

Believing in God and believing in organised religion are not the same thing. I think people should be totally free to believe whatever they want. Out of the people I've loved most in the world, half believed in God and half were atheists. It doesn't say anything about the person you are, its how you live your life that matters. I personally believe in God, but I don't follow any religion, my spirituality is something harder to define and more personal.

Using the bad things people have done under the banner of religion as an argument against the existance God Itself doesn't make any sense to me, any more than saying there must be a God because religious people also do good deeds.
posted by billiebee at 1:49 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm unaware of the great unified atheist teachings of traditional marriage and the hatred of gays and the diminishing of women.

Well, that didn't take long.
posted by FJT at 1:51 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


People rush to qualify their atheism by saying that of course no one can be sure, but I wonder why that's so unless it's fear of reprisal.

Practically speaking, I'm an atheist, insofar as I don't worship anything or maintain any kind of metaphysical spiritual practice. But I describe myself as an agnostic, not because I'm worried that I'll get lynched by theists or whammied by an angry deity, but because I don't fuckin' know and I don't think it's possible for me to know. Call it a qualification if you must, I just think it's a damn good description of what I am.
posted by Strange Interlude at 1:52 PM on December 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


Using the bad things people have done under the banner of religion as an argument against the existance God Itself doesn't make any sense to me, any more than saying there must be a God because religious people also do good deeds.

Nobody in this thread is doing this.
posted by sparklemotion at 1:54 PM on December 10, 2013


Believing in God and believing in organised religion are not the same thing.

...which is why I said 'religion' in my initial statement.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:56 PM on December 10, 2013


Also, Hank Johnson, Mazie Hirono, and Colleen Hanabusa are Buddhist. Some branches of which are atheist.

Eh, kinda-sorta, depending on the strain of Buddhism and the individual and how you define a "god."

I know Buddhists (mostly of the Tibetan variety) who are, for practical purposes, polytheists -- though most reject what I have heard lamas call a "Creator deity," in part because (someone mentions this in another active thread) if the universe has always existed, no deity needs to have created it. There is a sutra in which the Buddha tells a Hindu god who believes he created the universe that he is wrong, which is pretty cool.

On the other hand if you define God as some ineffable cosmic truth that underlies reality, you might get some Buddhists to agree they believe in that, but it's so far afield from the Christian Father figure actively intervening in the details of people's lives that it doesn't seem right even to use the same word for the two concepts.
posted by aught at 1:56 PM on December 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


"The Cold War changed all that. Atheism began to seem almost treasonous amid tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, because the Soviets were officially and emphatically against religion. Sen. Joseph McCarthy famously used the phrase “godless communists” to bash the political left and others he considered his enemies. In this context, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed laws in the mid-1950s inserting “God” into our Pledge of Allegiance and putting it on all our money. (It had been on most coins earlier, but Eisenhower made “In God We Trust” our national motto, henceforth to appear on all bills.)"
"Emphatically" seems like such an insufficient word describe the mass slaughter that resulted from Communist feelings towards religion, and the chasm of understanding it represents will keep liberals from understanding why anyone could ever be anything else until the culture wars cease to be relevant.

The scale and trauma of just how dramatic communist suppression of religion was from the 20s until the bloodbath began to subside with no credible threat and one left to kill in the 70s has somehow from the beginning always ended up deep in the left's memory hole. In a lot of ways it formed the religious right we know today as churches with missionaries in places like the Soviet Union in the '30s, China and Korea in the '50s, Vietnam in the 60s found good reason to be terrified of both communism and the American left's aggressive naiveté. A left wing unwilling to even meaningfully condemn the dramatic democide inherent to Communism International had all kinds of business being a polarizing force that decent people, Apatheistic and otherwise, would find worth distancing themselves from.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:58 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


People rush to qualify their atheism by saying that of course no one can be sure, but I wonder why that's so unless it's fear of reprisal.

There's also the thing you get when you say "I'm a vegetarian" where the listener often projects onto you the idea that you're coming from a judgemental place.
posted by jason_steakums at 1:59 PM on December 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


"I had never really thought about how the Cold War amplified feelings about atheism, but it makes sense. The country really seems to still be in something of a Cold War mindset, or at least tries to be even if the situation isn't applicable."

Well of course it is. You can't simply undo 50 years of propaganda and indoctrination overnight.
posted by Pinback at 2:00 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


People rush to qualify their atheism by saying that of course no one can be sure, but I wonder why that's so unless it's fear of reprisal.

To be kinder, I (speaking as an atheist who dabbles in Buddhism) think many atheists who say that are trying to be fair and trying to acknowledge the limits of their own human experience, an honesty I find rare among the practicing and semi-practicing (or seldom-practicing but intensely superstitious) religious, who often yoke faith and certainty together. When I see a thoughtful religious person who has faith but not dogmatic certainty, I am usually more impressed by their opinions.
posted by aught at 2:03 PM on December 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


Nobody in this thread is doing this.

Sorry, not trying to say anyone is. jimmythefish I was maybe clumsy in how I used your quote. Just I'm never sure why the "bad things religions have done/taught" is the same as "reasons why I don't believe in God". I just see them as separate arguments that's all.
posted by billiebee at 2:09 PM on December 10, 2013


"I'm unaware of the great unified atheist teachings of traditional marriage and the hatred of gays and the diminishing of women."
Traditional marriage
Hatred of gays
The diminishing of women.

That is unless of course you mean to suggest that 'the religious' are somehow unified in these things, which would admit an absence of the most basic kinds of knowledge of religion necessary to critique it.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:19 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Emphatically" seems like such an insufficient word describe the mass slaughter that resulted from Communist feelings towards religion

This is certainly a very strong argument for the absence of a state policy on religion at all, but to continue to discriminate against atheists in the United States because of it should be seen as extremely un-American. It's not like Marxists or Stalinists invented persecution of people of other faiths as a tool of political and social control, or using religions (non-) beliefs as a proxy for political ones, and vice-versa. The story of the USSR should be an example of why the first amendment is so necessary in the United States, not an explanation of why it's acceptable to consider atheists as immoral monsters.
posted by muddgirl at 2:24 PM on December 10, 2013 [16 favorites]


I do think a lot of Americans are woefully ignorant about history, including atheists and modern communists, which excuses statements which are made in ignorance of the policies of the USSR. I don't think most high school history classes even make it to the Cold War, and those that do cover it pretty superficially.
posted by muddgirl at 2:27 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


The story of the USSR should be an example of why the first amendment is so necessary in the United States, not an explanation of why it's acceptable to consider atheists as immoral monsters.

This is noble in theory, but in practice there are a lot of people who see a candidate calling himself an Atheist as something like a candidate saying "I'm a Nazi, but I'm not actually in favor of exterminating Jews."

There are millions of churchgoers in the USA who for decades repeatedly heard stories, sometimes told first-hand, about how the atheists in China and the Soviet Union were persecuting and killing Christians. Regardless of how fair it is, it's going to take a long time for atheism to lose those associations.

Some Muslims are upset at modern-day Christians about the Crusades, and that was a thousand years ago. The stuff that happened in China and the USSR was less than 50 years ago.
posted by straight at 2:37 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Excuses" is the wrong word in my last comment - explains is better.

One pillar of my own atheist beliefs is that all people are on the same spectrum of human behavior, from Nelson Mandela to Joseph Stalin. I've always hated the argument that religious people have to justify all the sins of their forefathers and foremothers, anymore than I have to justify the sins of the USSR. It frightens me that people are walking away from the Cold War with the message that it's OK to yoke religion and politics, as long as that religion is yours.
posted by muddgirl at 2:40 PM on December 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


about how the atheists in China and the Soviet Union were persecuting and killing Christians.

The Communist Party of China still persecutes Christians. And also Buddhists, Muslims, Falun Gong, etc. I think those associations are more damaging to Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans than really Atheists. Sometimes I go out of my way to identify that I'm from Taiwan, and not from the Mainland.

(And sometimes I tell Mainlanders I'm Chinese, so I'm not seen as some pro-independence traitor, but that's another story.)
posted by FJT at 2:54 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


it is a totally ok thing for people to be any of these things.

In theory it should be totally OK, but in practice it isn't. When people identify as atheist they can get tarred with the prejudiced beliefs that circulate around the term in American culture: that atheists are inherently angry, that they object to people's right to religious belief, speech and practice, that atheism goes hand-in-hand with arrogance or irrational certainty, etc. The more people come to know their family, friends and neighbors as atheists, they less these prejudices will hold sway. The publications from The Center for Atheist Research offer some useful research on social attitudes toward atheism and how they change. See also Gervais' "Finding the Faithless: Perceived Atheist Prevalence Reduces Anti-Atheist Prejudice" [pdf].

So I think atheists shouldn't be afraid to embrace the term that accurately describes their position with regard to belief in deity. I agree with the idea that it is good for atheists to publicly identify as atheists if atheism is the descriptor they find appropriate. Encouraging public identifications of atheism does not necessarily entail demeaning those who identify as non-theist or other labels.

Of course, I certainly understand if they make the decision not to do so given the potential consequences. I don't try to fight anti-atheist prejudice because I want to be a culture warrior. I do it because prejudice is inimical to human well being. If "a great diversity of words" is useful to productively explore our religious and irreligious identities, then people need to be able to publicly identify as atheist without prejudice undermining our dialogue.
posted by audi alteram partem at 3:01 PM on December 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


The fact that every single President and 99% of all senators and Congressmen have been Christians is simply irrelevant to them.

Claimed to be Christians.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:05 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is noble in theory, but in practice there are a lot of people who see a candidate calling himself an Atheist as something like a candidate saying "I'm a Nazi, but I'm not actually in favor of exterminating Jews."

Huhhh. This is really interesting to me- maybe because none of the atheists that I know and know of are particularly associated with communism/socialism, and because the USSR doesn't *seem* to be the main thrust of the anti-atheist arguments I've encountered? I mean, I've seen it used, but more as a... rhetorical scorepoint, I guess. Or at least, that's what it's *felt* like. Maybe I've been interpreting it wrong, or maybe it's because both I and the people I've argued with have been too young to have any memory of the Cold War. I know that some Christians do seem convinced that atheists would forcibly outlaw religion if they could (and certainly some atheists don't help that impression, sigh) but are they really concerned that atheists are likely to organize mass murder?
posted by insufficient data at 3:06 PM on December 10, 2013


I agree, but I *also* think that there are people who avoid the word atheist because of the stigma and not because it's inaccurate to them. (I did this for a while.) I do agree it's super obnoxious when atheists try to argue with people about their self-descriptors, though. If I never read another "you're not really an agnostic, you're an atheist!" internet argument it'll be too soon.

I think there's been a really weird cognitive shift in recent years, since I'm repeatedly baffled to find myself in conversations where I'm trying to speak a rather quiet and progressive form of humanism, with people who are insisting on speaking New Atheism or "Internet Atheism." I don't think the New Atheists are entirely to blame, because I think they're caricatured as well, and there's lots of weird shibboleths cropping up in other areas of my life. Stuff like a FOX panel with Silverman vs. Donohue makes me think I'm living in a Terry Gilliam distopia.

Religion, sexuality, and politics are all very polarized in discourse in spite of the fact that they're diverse and fluid when you start actually talking to people.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:07 PM on December 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


In my experience it doesn't matter what you are atheist or religious, those are just terms we use to beat each other over the head with. Some of the most liberal people I know are Christian, some of the most obnoxious assholes I know are atheist, and I say that as an atheist. (Though I guess I do a bit of weaseling in that I call myself areligious).
to be fair of course I know plenty of asshole Christians and fantastic atheists as well)

I recall a survey 6-7? years ago that suggested Americans where less trustful of atheists then Muslims, and we all know how Americans are oh so tolerant of Muslims now don't we?
posted by edgeways at 3:08 PM on December 10, 2013


In the end, all of this is just tribalism.
posted by Apocryphon at 3:11 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Just I'm never sure why the "bad things religions have done/taught" is the same as "reasons why I don't believe in God". I just see them as separate arguments that's all.

I never conflated the two. Moreover, it's always Christians which tie a narrow paradigm to the notion of agnosticism. I guess you have to look from the outside to see what utter nonsense it is to compare a narrow belief system with the absence of that belief. Bertrand Russell's Celestial Teapot is the best illustration I can think of.

I don't mind Christians or others who practice religion. It's a healthy cultural activity, and is a great comfort to billions of people. It's when it starts to affect my life that I get concerned. Do not project the beliefs or values of your religion on me.
posted by jimmythefish at 3:13 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Religion continues to have political power because it addresses, however badly, the most fundamental aspects of life. As one atheist puts it:
I do not want the belief in life after death to return, and in any case it is not likely to return. What I do point out is that its disappearance has left a big hole, and that we ought to take notice of that fact. Reared for thousands of years on the notion that the individual survives, man has got to make a considerable psychological effort to get used to the notion that the individual perishes. He is not likely to salvage civilization unless he can evolve a system of good and evil which is independent of heaven and hell. Marxism, indeed, does supply this, but it has never really been popularized. Most Socialists are content to point out that once Socialism has been established we shall be happier in a material sense, and to assume that all problems lapse when one’s belly is full. The truth is the opposite: when one’s belly is empty, one’s only problem is an empty belly. It is when we have got away from drudgery and exploitation that we shall really start wondering about man’s destiny and the reason for his existence. One cannot have any worthwhile picture of the future unless one realises how much we have lost by the decay of Christianity.—George Orwell.
Atheism cannot and will not find a place in the political market unless and until it addresses questions about ultimates.
posted by No Robots at 3:35 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Atheism cannot and will not find a place in the political market unless and until it addresses questions about ultimates.

Various atheist philosophies have addressed such questions since long before Christianity. Atheists already have a place. Their philosophies don't get a fair hearing in the marketplace of ideas, however, because of the prejudice discussed in the article.
posted by audi alteram partem at 3:45 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


^Well, there you have the beginning of engagement. Do continue!
posted by No Robots at 3:48 PM on December 10, 2013


I believe that religion is nothing less than the source of 90% of the hate and fear and divisiveness on the planet.

It may also be responsible for 90 percent of the love and generosity and unity on the planet. Given that religion is the dominant social force in most of the world, I'm not sure it really means anything.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 4:00 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I believe that religion is nothing less than the source of 90% of the hate and fear and divisiveness on the planet.

Praise be! Something to believe in!
posted by IndigoJones at 4:05 PM on December 10, 2013


It may also be responsible for 90 percent of the love and generosity and unity on the planet. Given that religion is the dominant social force in most of the world, I'm not sure it really means anything.

Pretty sure it's not. Also, I resent the implication that human morality is tied to a belief system. I'm inclined to believe that impulses to really hate one person over another based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender etc. can only be learned. It's not instinctive.
posted by jimmythefish at 4:10 PM on December 10, 2013


Pretty sure it's not.

Guess I can't argue with that.

I resent the implication that human morality is tied to a belief system. I'm inclined to believe that impulses to really hate one person over another based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender etc. can only be learned. It's not instinctive.

I'm not saying that human morality is tied to a belief system. I'm saying that if religion weren't around, people would do all the same nasty things in the name of something else. It's not religion you should blame, it's hateful and fearful and divisive people.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 4:23 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]



In the end, all of this is just tribalism.


With extra omnipotence & omniscience of the tribe's boss thrown in for free!

Now you can really smite them others and show 'em who is right!
posted by lalochezia at 4:30 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm inclined to believe that impulses to really hate one person over another based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender etc. can only be learned. It's not instinctive.

Man, I would love to believe this, but it doesn't really seem to the case. *What* we discriminate against changes based on cultural factors, but assigning people as 'us' and 'them' seems pretty universal. Certainly some belief systems are more active in cultivating hatred, and certainly some of those (though certainly not all) are religious, but they're not creating that instinct out of thin air.

*Any* viewpoint that encourages our (natural, imo) tendency to discriminate is dangerous, whether it's religious or not. Similarly, both religious and secular philosophies can be used to encourage us to connect with each other and overcome differences.

I mean... if you're an atheist, where do you think religion comes from, if not from our own nature? If religion *isn't* given to us by a supernatural being, if it didn't come from outside us, then it's something we made. And if we made it, we made it to fill a need. Or, I suspect, lots of needs. Connection, sense of purpose, a way to control people, a justification to kill people, a way to make the world seem *fair* somehow- all of those needs, good and bad, would exist without religion.
posted by insufficient data at 4:36 PM on December 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm not saying that human morality is tied to a belief system. I'm saying that if religion weren't around, people would do all the same nasty things in the name of something else.

One component of religion must be present though: the teaching and propagation of hate. I'm not convinced it would get replaced by something else. People wouldn't find a way to hate gays. The secular world is demonstratively more inclusive socially.
posted by jimmythefish at 4:37 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


are they really concerned that atheists are likely to organize mass murder?

Let me be clear that I do not equate atheism with Nazism or Communism, I'm just trying to describe other people's beliefs.

You wouldn't need to believe a single Nazi in congress would have any chance of passing laws to kill Jews to find the idea of voting for a Nazi repugnant. Likewise, if you equate atheism with Stalin's mass-murders, you wouldn't need to think an atheist in office might successfully organize mass murder to find the idea of voting for an atheist repugnant.
posted by straight at 4:37 PM on December 10, 2013


I recall a survey 6-7? years ago that suggested Americans where less trustful of atheists then Muslims

The Gallup poll from 2012
posted by Peccable at 4:41 PM on December 10, 2013


That poll also shows that despite the association the Republican party has with being religious, there's only a 10 point difference between the two major parties regarding willingness to elect an atheist.
posted by Peccable at 4:48 PM on December 10, 2013


Let me be clear that I do not equate atheism with Nazism or Communism, I'm just trying to describe other people's beliefs.

Oh, absolutely.

Likewise, if you equate atheism with Stalin's mass-murders, you wouldn't need to think an atheist in office might successfully organize mass murder to find the idea of voting for an atheist repugnant.

*nods* Yeah, of course, that makes sense. I've just never encountered that association of atheism with Stalinism (or at least, not as strong as you're presenting it) and it's kind of blowing my mind a little. Like... when I think about "what people who hate atheists think about atheists" I think about people like Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers- academics who are generally contemptuous of religion, maybe think they're better/smarter than religious people. I've always assumed it's associated with the anti-intellectualism that the right seems to enjoy encouraging. If people really have that knee-jerk association of atheism with a murderous regime... jeez. That's kind of distressing.
posted by insufficient data at 4:50 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Being in the Army, where faith is pervasive and often coercive, doesn't help either.

That stuff creeps me the hell out. Isn't the Air Force super religious like that too?

I wonder when all that began. When they asked me what religion I wanted on my Army dog tags in 1967, I put down "NONE," and that's what was on them. I think they made us go to the chapel the first Sunday of Basic Training, but never after that, and nobody made any noise about my dogtags' religious entry.


Vietnam in the 60s found good reason to be terrified of both communism and the American left's aggressive naiveté.

Well, the Catholic upper class did. The majority of Vietnamese were more terrified of the Catholic upper class, the American anticommunist phobics, and their violent refusal to accept the will of the people.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:51 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm not convinced it would get replaced by something else. People wouldn't find a way to hate gays.

They may not find a way to hate gays, but they certainly find ways to hate women.
posted by insufficient data at 4:53 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


My understanding of atheism is that there are at least two positions:
I have no belief in a god. (weak atheism)
I believe there is no god. (strong atheism)

I don't like the adjectives there, but, there you go. I moved from strong atheism to weak, and saw it as progress. I can see no proof there is no god, and none there is. Some might call that agnosticism, but...

Anyway, I'm glad one of our Prime Ministers was unashamedly atheist, but despite Australia seeming to be a secular society, my recent visits to AA have left me intellectually twisting the program to try and make sense of it. So much of the readings talk about god/higher power etc, and someone invariably says they're not religious BUT - they had a religious experience, or god helped them, or they found god through AA.

I respect their experiences and beliefs, but I can't make it happen for me. It just doesn't make any sense.
posted by b33j at 4:55 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The truth is the opposite: when one’s belly is empty, one’s only problem is an empty belly. It is when we have got away from drudgery and exploitation that we shall really start wondering about man’s destiny and the reason for his existence. - Orwell

No Robots: Atheism cannot and will not find a place in the political market unless and until it addresses questions about ultimates.

I'm not sure George Orwell was arguing that something else must step in to fulfill the function of religion in answering 'the big questions' for society to be able to drop religion. And I think that even in his limited analysis, he's actually wrong (rare for Orwell!). I mean, I can see how it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense to think religion arises once you have time to think. After all, you needed a leisure class - or at least leisure time - for classical philosophy to develop in Greece, so the idea that once you are no longer wondering where your next meal is coming from, you have the time to consider other things, such as asking the 'big questions'. Except, it doesn't quite work out like that.

In fact, even going back to Greece, it didn't work out like that at all when it comes to religion specifically. It was the further pursuit of leisure thought that gave us science in opposition to the idea that religion explains the world around us - the Greeks proposed that we find all explanations minus religious ones, and that was the birth of science... the world explained in non-religious terms. That was kind of a breakthrough - a breakthrough that was possible only because the belly was not growling. Perhaps one may say the opposite to Orwell - when you have overwhelming needs and no time to consider anything else, it is religion that gives you answers to the 'big questions' you don't have the leisure time to explore outside of that simple explanatory framework.

And then let's look at more prosperous vs less prosperous societies and religion, to test that thesis. The U.S. is fairly unique in being strongly religious in a very prosperous environment - even if we can quibble that religiosity in the U.S. itself is in slight decline (debatable). It doesn't seem to be correlated in Europe, where it seems prosperity is correlated with less religiosity - I don't personally claim any causative relationship, just interesting correlation in a limited data set - in country after country with differing cultures. I don't know about the Islamic world - is there any kind of relationship?

Anyhow, I don't think it's true that "atheism cannot find a place in the political market unless and until it addresses questions about ultimates". Many examples already exist. How big of a factor is religion in any number of prosperous European countries, and is that a growing factor as prosperity grows, or a diminishing one? I think the answer is pretty clear.

Now, the U.S. is a counterexample, I think that's quite clear. So maybe that statement can apply to the U.S.. But even so, my suspicion is that should the U.S. one day find itself open to atheism in the political sphere, it won't be because atheism has addressed 'the ulitmates', but simply because people drift away from religion, just as they did in Europe - and is prosperity a factor is an interesting question. No way to know one way or another about the future of the U.S. in that respect though, so it's all speculation from that point of view.
posted by VikingSword at 5:03 PM on December 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


I've just never encountered that association of atheism with Stalinism

It's probably fading as people get older. I'm 44, and I grew up regularly hearing missionaries speak about and showing us pictures of specific people who were in prison in communist countries because of their Christian faith. I certainly knew people growing up who didn't believe in God, but the word "atheist" was much more common in the context of talking about communist countries that persecuted Christians.

I honestly don't know how common that association is. I've obviously learned to see the difference, and I agree that I don't hear it a whole lot these days as a talking point among the right-wing culture warriors. But I'd be surprised if there aren't a whole lot of people who still think that what it means to be a capital-a Atheist is that you hate Christians the way Nazis hate Jews or racists hate black people.
posted by straight at 5:03 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


are they really concerned that atheists are likely to organize mass murder?

I can speak only for myself here, but maybe I can shed a little light, as a religious person who would not consider a candidate's atheism alone to be a disqualifier for my vote, but who would want to know if and how their personal atheist beliefs affect their political and policy views.

I'm not concerned that atheists are likely to organize mass murder in the Hitler or Stalin sense. On the other hand, I hold that the free exercise of religion and freedom of conscience are fundamental human rights.

Some fantastic people happen to be atheists - for whom I would not hesitate to vote for public office. Other people are complete assholes who also happen to be atheists and who often and loudly proclaim that the world would be better off if religion were outlawed. If a candidate self-identifies as an atheist, that's fine with me. If I get a sense that a candidate does not share my views on the importance of the right to free exercise, that's a deal-breaker - just as it would be a deal breaker if a candidate of my own religion held views that those not of my faith should be legally disadvantaged in some way.

As far as mass murder goes, my ancestors were chased out of the United States because of their religion and then invaded by the U.S. armed forces by order of the President. And until 1976, there was an executive order on the books in the state of Missouri stating that members of my religion "must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace . . . ." That order, again, was not rescinded until 1976. I'm not worried that Barney Frank is going to turn into the next Hitler, but violent religious persecution by the U.S. government isn't really a laughably implausible thing.
posted by The World Famous at 5:17 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just as there can be secular Jews or Jewish atheists, there is also Christian Atheism.
posted by larrybob at 5:18 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Re the rush to qualify atheism:

I am mostly reluctant to call myself an atheist because I think a lot of people who are quick to call themselves atheists are assholes.

Also, it's none of anyone's business.

Also, it's complicated.

Also, to be perfectly honest I pretty much never even think about this stuff, anyway.

I can't speak for anyone else, but for myself it is in no way because I'm worried about what others will think or because I fear reprisal.

Regarding what language I do use: I tend to just say I'm not religious.
posted by Sara C. at 5:31 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


As far as mass murder goes, my ancestors were chased out of the United States because of their religion and then invaded by the U.S. armed forces by order of the President.

Was atheism the motivating factor?

And until 1976, there was an executive order on the books in the state of Missouri stating that members of my religion "must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace . . . ." That order, again, was not rescinded until 1976.

Was that executive order motivated by atheism?

I'm not worried that Barney Frank is going to turn into the next Hitler, but violent religious persecution by the U.S. government isn't really a laughably implausible thing.

Is violent religious persecution by the U.S. government a laughably implausible thing, if we were to posit that it sprung from atheism though? Would that be laughable? I'd say yes, yes it would be. I'm really not aware of any atheist justification by the U.S. government in persecuting any religion, ever.

It's interesting to see the universe of threats divided into the "Barney Frank might turn into Hitler" and "violent religious persecution by the U.S. government".

I mean, if I were religious, and concerned about persecution on religious grounds, the possibility of Barney Frank turning into Hitler would be so low on the radar of possibilities, that I'm afraid I wouldn't even see it fit to be mentioned. But then again, I would not mention atheism as a motivating factor in 'violent religious persecution by the U.S. government'... if I had that concern, I'd certainly worry about fellow believers-in-another-deity, i.e. religious motivations behind such action by U.S. government, before I'd think of atheists pulling the strings there.
posted by VikingSword at 5:34 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


The World Famous: If a candidate self-identifies as an atheist, that's fine with me. If I get a sense that a candidate does not share my views on the importance of the right to free exercise, that's a deal-breaker - just as it would be a deal breaker if a candidate of my own religion held views that those not of my faith should be legally disadvantaged in some way.

From the way you worded your comment, I get the impression that if someone proclaimed themselves and Atheist, you would not vote for them without knowing more. Do you demand to know more from religious candidates as well, or do you just assume that they don't want to install a theocracy?
posted by sparklemotion at 5:36 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


@straight
I honestly don't know how common that association is. I've obviously learned to see the difference, and I agree that I don't hear it a whole lot these days as a talking point among the right-wing culture warriors. But I'd be surprised if there aren't a whole lot of people who still think that what it means to be a capital-a Atheist is that you hate Christians the way Nazis hate Jews or racists hate black people.

*nod* and I bet some of the people who are too young directly associate atheism with communism still picked up that feeling from parents or older people around them. That is really interesting. I'm definitely going to be thinking about that for a while.

@The World Famous
I'm not worried that Barney Frank is going to turn into the next Hitler, but violent religious persecution by the U.S. government isn't really a laughably implausible thing.

Yeah, I'm afraid my question came off as a little more flippant than I meant- for me, as an atheist it just seems vanishingly unlikely that we'd manage such a thing, considering how few of us there are in the US and the difficulty of getting any of us elected, let alone enough to make such considerable change. I was honestly interested in the answer, though!
posted by insufficient data at 5:46 PM on December 10, 2013


b33j: "Anyway, I'm glad one of our Prime Ministers was unashamedly atheist ..."

At least one. Gough renounced religion in his teens and once famously described himself as 'post-Christian', Hawke was blatant about his agnosticism, etc.

"By my calculations less than half of our prime ministers (11) have taken their religion seriously. They include the two longest serving prime ministers, Menzies and Howard. A clear majority (16) have been either nominal Christians only or agnostic, including the third longest serving PM, Bob Hawke … The number of agnostic and secular prime ministers, while fewer than the religious believers and perhaps even fewer than their percentage of the population, is quite high in comparison with British Prime Ministers and American Presidents."

Religion has never really been a feature of Australian politics, no matter how hard some try to make it so. I suspect the occasional attempts owe more to pragmatism and lack of originality than anything else - simplistic wedge politics, and if it does happen to work you've got a wealth of overseas playbooks to work from…
posted by Pinback at 5:59 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I mean... if you're an atheist, where do you think religion comes from, if not from our own nature?

Bundling 'religion' like that is loaded. There's so much to organized religion, but we can certainly separate the hegemony from the essence of the faith and its goal of finding comfort, and meaning. In a certain sense science has different goals, that being truth. In that case there's a place for both and I think both these urges are innate.

However, the institutions of just about every religion in their modern expressions contain a vestige of the roots of fear of the unknown, which manifests itself in traditions of fear and hatred of unfamiliar things, foreign things, different things. Fear is a huge component of Catholicism, for example.

I think science and the liberal democratic secular world is in many ways equally innate. It is an equally human response to what is unnatural when our reach and understanding expanded. Where religion and their structures tend to be autocratic, our secular underpinnings in society are democratic. This is why the widely held prejudices in western society are unraveling slowly; civil rights movements seem to be inevitable, rather than the other way around. The hate is borne of fear, whereas knowledge breeds enlightenment.
posted by jimmythefish at 6:08 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


But even so, my suspicion is that should the U.S. one day find itself open to atheism in the political sphere, it won't be because atheism has addressed 'the ulitmates', but simply because people drift away from religion, just as they did in Europe

Well, there you go, atheists. You just have to be patient!
posted by No Robots at 6:09 PM on December 10, 2013


sparklemotion:

From the way you worded your comment, I get the impression that if someone proclaimed themselves and Atheist, you would not vote for them without knowing more.

Really? Because that's exactly the opposite of what I said in the excerpt you quoted. The way I worded it, if someone proclaimed themselves an atheist, I would have no problem voting for them unless there was some additional specific indication that I should not.

Do you demand to know more from religious candidates as well, or do you just assume that they don't want to install a theocracy?

I explicitly addressed religious candidates in the excerpt you quoted. I'm struggling to understand how what I wrote could reasonably be interpreted as you've done. Sorry if I wasn't clear. I don't know how to state it any more clearly other than to repeat it and say no, you've got my position exactly backwards.

VikingSword:

It's interesting to see the universe of threats divided into the "Barney Frank might turn into Hitler" and "violent religious persecution by the U.S. government".

Apologies if my prose was insufficiently explicit. I didn't intend to create any such sharp division or dichotomy. In fact, I'm not sure how what I wrote can reasonably be interpreted as a division of the universe of threats, given that the one is necessarily part of the other. At any rate, my apologies if I failed to explain myself with sufficient clarity for you to understand my meaning.

Is violent religious persecution by the U.S. government a laughably implausible thing, if we were to posit that it sprung from atheism though? Would that be laughable? I'd say yes, yes it would be. I'm really not aware of any atheist justification by the U.S. government in persecuting any religion, ever.

As noted in my previous comment, in great detail, I think the issue is whether or not the candidate respects freedom of conscience as a fundamental human right, not whether or not they are an atheist. I think your question about whether various persecutions "sprung from atheism" is - or seems to be in this context - a pretty useless question. Is atheism, all other things being equal, a dangerous or undesirable quality in a political leader? I don't think so. Are some atheists openly and vocally supportive of hypothetical legal regimes that actively persecute religious people? Yes. I like to keep the latter out of office. You don't have to agree with me on that, but perhaps you can understand why I, a religious person, might not love the idea of a lawmaker whose philosophy of government and policy includes or is influenced by a deep personal conviction that religion should be outlawed (just to give one example).

In my opinion, the fact that a candidate professes or does not profess some form of theism does not, in the absence of other information, give me any idea as to whether or not I'd want to vote for them.

insufficient data:

for me, as an atheist it just seems vanishingly unlikely that we'd manage such a thing, considering how few of us there are in the US and the difficulty of getting any of us elected, let alone enough to make such considerable change

Yeah, I don't really worry about a critical mass of atheists rising up and creating a regime that is universally hostile to religion. Not right now, anyway.
posted by The World Famous at 6:12 PM on December 10, 2013


Its totally ok for people to not want to be 'culture warriors', or to not have either a God or a side in the culture wars, or to just not give a shit about the 'culture wars', or to not feel strongly about religion at all, or whatever.

But that's the whole point of the quote, isn;t it? There's nothing inherently "culture war-y" about the word "atheist;" the theocrats and culture war types are the ones trying to co-opt it, and I, like the author, am not inclined to give in to them and give up on a perfectly good and useful word.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:14 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


loudly proclaim that the world would be better off if religion were outlawed.

The history of religious liberty advocacy by atheists is firmly on the side of free exercise. None of the non-theist organizations represented by the Secular Coalition for America support outlawing religion. Their advocacy for equal treatment by government for religious and non-religious alike, however, is often libeled by the religious right as being anti-free exercise.

I am mostly reluctant to call myself an atheist because I think a lot of people who are quick to call themselves atheists are assholes.

To offer another perspective, a lot of the people I know who identify as atheists, just like a lot of the people I know who identify as believers, are decent people not assholes. I'm circumspect as to what contexts in which I reveal my atheism because I have witnessed first-hand coworkers and family members voicing anti-atheist prejudice.

In those contexts where I do share my atheism, I use the label atheist because it accurately describes my lack of belief in deity. I also identify as a Humanist and have in the past been a member of an Ethical Culture society. It's my experience that regardless of the label, identifying as lacking a belief in deity often results in quite ugly responses similar to prejudiced attitudes directed toward other minority groups.

The problem as relates to the OP isn't just social prejudice but the political repercussions thereof. Despite the Constitution's de jure restriction on religious tests for public office, American culture has instituted a de facto test in most congressional districts (some local jurisdictions are better off). A candidate's theism or lack thereof shouldn't have any bearing on voter analysis of a candidate's policy issues, but of course it does and, as the various surveys demonstrate, outright dismissal of candidates based on a single identifying attribute falls disproportionately on atheists.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:17 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm 44, and I grew up regularly hearing missionaries speak about and showing us pictures of specific people who were in prison in communist countries because of their Christian faith.

I'm not much younger, and I regularly grew up hearing the missionaries in my Baptist school speak about people suffering under Catholic rule in Ireland. And yet I had American Catholic friends, and there doesn't seem to be any shortage of Catholic politicians in Washington.

I grew up during the end of the Cold War, raised by parents who grew up in the thick of it, and today is the first time I've ever heard of anyone being unable to differentiate between Soviet and American atheists the same way we did between Irish and American Catholics.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:20 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


The World Famous, I guess I was too selective in picking my quote above. My question as to do with the bolded part of the quote below:

I can speak only for myself here, but maybe I can shed a little light, as a religious person who would not consider a candidate's atheism alone to be a disqualifier for my vote, but who would want to know if and how their personal atheist beliefs affect their political and policy views.

I read that as you implying that finding out that someone is an Atheist means that you would ask further questions, and I didn't get the impression that you would ask those same questions of a religious person (though if the information happened to come out, you would act on it accordingly), and I was curious to know why the religious get the benefit of the doubt.

If indeed you wouldn't subject an Atheist to more scrutiny than you would a religious person, why talk about your specific concerns about Atheism and religious freedom when anyone of any belief system can be an enemy to religious freedom?
posted by sparklemotion at 6:21 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


(Just to be clear, I have nothing whatsoever against Irish Catholics, as much as I'm against any religious group holding political power over a nation. As an atheist, I view anything I hear from a missionary of any religion with a much deeper suspicion than I did when I was in the second grade.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:24 PM on December 10, 2013


I'm not concerned that atheists are likely to organize mass murder in the Hitler or Stalin sense. On the other hand, I hold that the free exercise of religion and freedom of conscience are fundamental human rights.

This seems to imply that atheist want to forbid free exercise of religion. You may wish to revisit your view of most atheists, if you feel that way. Atheists, in general, will fight more for the right to free exercise of religion and freedom of conscience than theists will. Most theist I come across are far more interested in getting special rights for their particular religion than in the right to free exercise. Hell, most theist don't seem to understand the establishment clause is there to protect them - they've been in the majority so long they don't believe they need protecting (while thinking they are under constant attack and persecution).
posted by Bort at 6:25 PM on December 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Are some atheists openly and vocally supportive of hypothetical legal regimes that actively persecute religious people? Yes. I like to keep the latter out of office.

I don't doubt such atheists exist, since all kinds of people exist (f.ex. Jewish Neo-nazis in Israel) - they may be rare or not, I don't know the statistics. What I do know is that no atheists with any political power have ever been implicated in advocating such policies in the U.S. - and all your examples of persecution were drawn from the history in the U.S.. I can certainly understand not wanting to see in office in the U.S., an atheist who is liable to persecute religious people. Neither would I. I also would not like to see myself eaten by a tiger as I step out for breakfast here in LA. Tigers can be vicious and should a vicious one have the opportunity to attack me here, it would be very unpleasant. Same with religion-persecuting atheists gaining power in the U.S.. We both agree on that. Can we also agree that neither is very likely?

You don't have to agree with me on that, but perhaps you can understand why I, a religious person, might not love the idea of a lawmaker whose philosophy of government and policy includes or is influenced by a deep personal conviction that religion should be outlawed (just to give one example).

In looking at current trends in atheism and governmental power in f.ex. Europe, I don't see any examples of such dangerous atheists exercising power in such a way. Historically, some totalitarian regimes have certainly persecuted religious people, and cited atheism as justification. I don't think the chances are high such regimes are going to come to power anywhere in the West. I could of course be wrong. In that case, I certainly would be vigilant.
posted by VikingSword at 6:31 PM on December 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


Also, I highly recommend The Atheist Experience to any/everyone for good discussions of atheism and related issues. I find Matt Dillahunty particularly good at cutting to the key issues and explaining the/an atheist view point very articulately.
posted by Bort at 6:33 PM on December 10, 2013


I suppose I can't hold anyone responsible to self-identify but it's interesting the language picking up connotations from the stereotypes and then people eschewing the label to signal they don't fit the stereotype. To what extend does it reinforce the stereotype?

I play video games but I'm not a gamer.
I ride a bicycle but I'm not a cyclist.
I ride a motorbike but I'm not a biker.
I don't eat meat but I'm not a vegetarian.
I believe in God but I'm not religious.
I don't believe in God but I'm not atheist.
I think men and women should have equal rights but I'm not a feminist.



It's maybe a stretch to call it "last political taboo" when Muslims are doing only 4% better according to the Gallup poll. Though I suppose a Muslim who manages to get elected is less likely to quibble about how he's not really a Muslim.
posted by RobotHero at 6:43 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm not much younger, and I regularly grew up hearing the missionaries in my Baptist school speak about people suffering under Catholic rule in Ireland.

That I never heard about. Maybe because the Irish didn't actually have prison camps for Protestants. (Sadly, the opposite is not true.)
posted by straight at 6:49 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Though I suppose a Muslim who manages to get elected is less likely to quibble about how he's not really a Muslim.

Obama still won't admit it...

/sarcasm (17 Percent Of Registered Voters Think Obama Is Muslim - from 2012)
posted by Bort at 6:55 PM on December 10, 2013


sparklemotion:

I read that as you implying that finding out that someone is an Atheist means that you would ask further questions, and I didn't get the impression that you would ask those same questions of a religious person (though if the information happened to come out, you would act on it accordingly), and I was curious to know why the religious get the benefit of the doubt.

I wouldn't give the religious the benefit of the doubt at all.

If indeed you wouldn't subject an Atheist to more scrutiny than you would a religious person, why talk about your specific concerns about Atheism and religious freedom when anyone of any belief system can be an enemy to religious freedom?

Because I was answering a specific question asked above. But I also noted that I would have the same concerns with an openly religious candidate. My concerns are not specific to atheism. Sorry, I thought I noted that.

VikingSword:

What I do know is that no atheists with any political power have ever been implicated in advocating such policies in the U.S. - and all your examples of persecution were drawn from the history in the U.S..

As noted, I'm not worried about atheism qua atheism, but about disrespect for freedom of conscience, regardless of the professed religious affiliation of the policymaker.

Same with religion-persecuting atheists gaining power in the U.S.. We both agree on that. Can we also agree that neither is very likely?

I don't understand the point of the probability argument. Are you saying I should be happy to vote for a candidate who openly advocates against freedom of religion (atheist or theist) because it's statistically improbable that they'll gain enough support in the legislature to make good on their personal philosophies? If a candidate holds policy views with which I strongly disagree, I'm unlikely to vote for them, regardless of their odds of winning. That said, although there are few, if any, examples of openly-declared atheists coming to power in the U.S. and being hostile to religion generally or to specific groups, our history is replete with examples of elected and appointed leaders being hostile to and persecuting various sects or religion generally, and I find it highly unlikely that each and every one of those individuals had a deep, abiding faith in deity. Some religion-persecuting leaders are religious, while others are atheists.

But if a candidate is atheist AND openly hostile to religion in general, I'd be curious to know whether their worldview in that regard influenced their policy views. That they're unlikely to come to power even with my vote would not be a persuasive argument to win my vote. If a candidate is openly hostile to me, I'm not likely to vote for them. I'm not sure how that's hard to understand.

In looking at current trends in atheism and governmental power in f.ex. Europe, I don't see any examples of such dangerous atheists exercising power in such a way.

It's encouraging that I'm apparently not alone in my disinclination to elect people who are hostile to religion as part of their political philosophy. Again, the fact that someone for whom I'm unlikely to vote is unlikely to be elected doesn't do much to convince me to vote for them.

Let me ask you a question, if you'll indulge me: All other things being equal, with two openly-atheist candidates running for office, would you be more or less likely to vote for the one with a history of opining that the world would be better off if government eradicated religion? I'd be less likely to vote for that one, and more likely to vote for his or her opponent.
posted by The World Famous at 6:59 PM on December 10, 2013


Are some atheists openly and vocally supportive of hypothetical legal regimes that actively persecute religious people? Yes. I like to keep the latter out of office.

While you're doing that, I'll work on keeping out the ones who openly and vocally try to pass laws over all of us, that are based on their own religious beliefs. It's kind of an uphill climb. Who knows, maybe we'll balance each other out.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:09 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I would be more likely to vote for the candidate that suggested the tax-shelter wealth-engines that are large churches--which then use those tax-free funds to support hateful legislation against, say, gay people, women and increasingly poor people (!)--ought to be taxed and regulated like any other gigantic corporation. Though, having said that, since most gigantic corporations have the government in their pocket and pay no taxes anyway...hm.

I find the fact that we even know what religion a person follows creepy, and the fact people are super-nosy about asking creepier. We generally don't ask strangers "do you like it up the butt?" yet that seems on par with how private one's beliefs should be. Religion should be spelled with a lower-case "r"--something done quietly in relative private, not paraded around like some low-rent and meaningless Badge of Morality, by anyone, let alone politicians. I think even that Jesus dude said as much, didn't he?
posted by maxwelton at 7:13 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't understand the point of the probability argument.

It's pretty simple. The point is, that of all the worries about being religiously persecuted, this is a highly unlikely one to worry about. Atheists are severely discriminated against. Imagine for a moment that Zoroastrians were as despised and discriminated against as atheists are, and are fighting for their civil rights, and there is no track record of Zoroastrians persecuting any other religion - and you come along and say, "fine, but I worry about Zoroastrians taking over and persecuting my religion" - the probabilistic point is: not likely. Not a sensible thing to worry. Highly unlikely that a Zoroastrian or atheist will stand for election on a platform of outlawing all other religions.

Are you saying I should be happy to vote for a candidate who openly advocates against freedom of religion (atheist or theist) because it's statistically improbable that they'll gain enough support in the legislature to make good on their personal philosophies?

Of course not. If you find a tiger in front of your door, by all means don't pet it. But it's not a big worry. Meanwhile, I do take a small exception to your statement:

(atheist or theist) because it's statistically improbable that they'll gain enough support in the legislature to make good on their personal philosophies?

Err, no. The danger is far, far, far, far, far, FAR greater that a theist is going to gain enough support in the legislature to make good on their personal philosophies... and that has happened repeatedly in the U.S., as you yourself cited. So that little equivalence of atheist to theist is not really quite realistic. It's the odds of a tiger in front of your door, versus a vicious dog - which is more likely? Where should you spend your energy? Probability.

Let me ask you a question, if you'll indulge me: All other things being equal, with two openly-atheist candidates running for office, would you be more or less likely to vote for the one with a history of opining that the world would be better off if government eradicated religion?

I would not vote for anyone who would have reprehensible views like that - that's obvious. I just don't think that you're likely to see atheists with political aspirations in the West espousing such views. I'm not so sanguine about theists in this regard. You know, worrying about the tiger in front of your door in Los Angeles.
posted by VikingSword at 7:26 PM on December 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


I wonder what would happen if a city government ran a voluntary religion survey simply asking people to come to the survey place and sign their name on the roster for their religion.

On the one hand, there's the My Team Must Win factor. On the other, the Registration Is Only The First Step, They're Coming For You thing that pops up in every gun control debate.
posted by ctmf at 7:28 PM on December 10, 2013


ceribus peribus: "There's an awful lot of ceremonial Swearing Oaths On Bibles involved in supposedly secular governments."

I had to go in for jury duty a few weeks ago in my southern, rural, conservative county and wondered if it was normal everywhere to have a stack of bibles to pass out for everyone to put a hand on. I thought about saying something or asking what the alternative was— I can't tell if it was more my laziness or feeling it would be self-indulgent and annoying that kept my mouth shut. It would probably still be better for more people like me to at least bring up the fact that it's terribly wrong to make everyone swear on a god-damned bible.
Luckily they were short on bibles so I could just hold my hand up and get on with it.
posted by Red Loop at 7:37 PM on December 10, 2013


"The scale and trauma of just how dramatic communist suppression of religion was from the 20s until the bloodbath began to subside with no credible threat and one left to kill in the 70s has somehow from the beginning always ended up deep in the left's memory hole."

No, that's a weird contention to make. From when Arthur Schlessinger's "Not Right, Not Left, But a Vital Center" on, Anti-Stalinism was the dominant strain of liberal thought for a good 20 years — right up until you get to that, "Nobody left to kill" part. One of the really interesting through-lines of Eric Lott's "The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual" is how much reflexive Anti-Stalinism/Anti-Communism has hobbled the American left discourse.


"In a lot of ways it formed the religious right we know today as churches with missionaries in places like the Soviet Union in the '30s, China and Korea in the '50s, Vietnam in the 60s found good reason to be terrified of both communism and the American left's aggressive naiveté."

Or, in more ways, it was a domestic movement that arose due to shifts in evangelical theology to fundamentalism (in a style that's repeated throughout American history) and the right wing vacuum left by the collapse of the Depression-era Republicans. And since virulent anti-communism had been a staple of the right — especially in opposing labor — since 1917 (when commies took over from [also atheist] anarchists as the right-wing boogey men). So, "aggressive naiveté" from a weird, ahistorical outlook that ignores what was actually happening on the left. I mean, was your problem with Animal Farm that it didn't have enough God in it?

"A left wing unwilling to even meaningfully condemn the dramatic democide inherent to Communism International had all kinds of business being a polarizing force that decent people, Apatheistic and otherwise, would find worth distancing themselves from."

Oh man, isn't one of the joys of being a liberal that you get to denounce liberals as insufficiently distancing themselves on one of your pet issues? I just wish it was the center square on my "The Left Will Eat Itself" bingo, but mine says "Circular firing squad."
posted by klangklangston at 7:40 PM on December 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


wondered if it was normal everywhere to have a stack of bibles to pass out for everyone to put a hand on

No. Not normal.

Not in my Brooklyn jury duty experience, at least.
posted by Sara C. at 7:42 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


VikingSword, I'm getting the impression that you and I agree 100% on everything both I and you have said.

I just don't think that you're likely to see atheists with political aspirations in the West espousing such views. I'm not so sanguine about theists in this regard.

See, I think you're right. I think it's unlikely that an atheist with political aspirations in the West will acknowledge and state such views while they have political aspirations. But - and maybe this comes from reading too many angry atheist screeds on the internet, including on Metafilter - I personally have the impression that atheists who actually hold such views are a lot more common than you're giving credit for. Maybe those folks never end up running for office. Or maybe the years following college give them time to reflect and develop more reasonable, nuanced, evidence-based views. But I think it's more likely that some of them do end up running for office and just keep their mouth shut about that particular view.

But I absolutely agree with you that theist policymakers are a far greater danger to 1st Amendment religious freedom in the U.S. - both on the free exercise side and on the establishment side.
posted by The World Famous at 7:46 PM on December 10, 2013


-I'm not much younger, and I regularly grew up hearing the missionaries in my Baptist school speak about people suffering under Catholic rule in Ireland.

--That I never heard about. Maybe because the Irish didn't actually have prison camps for Protestants. (Sadly, the opposite is not true.)


I guess I was a little too deadpan about my point. Let me put it another, wordier way.

I had a lot of exposure to missionaries in my youth. Missionaries have agendas. One might almost say they’re on a mission. The agendas vary in details from organization to organization.

I’m not saying they never do any good in the world, because they obviously often do. It would be silly to claim otherwise. But everything is married to that agenda. They’re not Switzerland; even if a particular missionary happens to be a nice, kind-hearted person, he's still working an angle 24/7. It's in his job description.

I’m also not saying they all always out-and-out lie, although I've never personally met one who was above tailoring the facts to suit the angle. I’m just saying I have a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of adults basing their sociopolitical views of their own countries and countrymen on things missionaries told them about what happened in other countries on the other side of the world – countries that don’t even exist anymore – when they were children.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:54 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


In my experience, religious people are no more or less likely to be ignorant, hurtful, bigoted, or what-have-you than any other kinds of people.

Where the hell do you live? I mean, I know it is America because of your past posts, but maybe you live in some alternate-dimension America.
posted by pickinganameismuchharderthanihadanticipated at 7:55 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Where are you reading, on MetaFilter, atheists advocating for government eradication of religion? Serious question.
posted by 0xFCAF at 7:55 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Where are you reading, on MetaFilter, atheists advocating for government eradication of religion? Serious question.

Mostly the blue and grey pages, but occasionally the green ones. (I'm not really in the mood to go hunting for quotes for you. I'm not saying you have to take my word for it. I just don't feel like having a citation party.)
posted by The World Famous at 7:58 PM on December 10, 2013


Ed Brayton has a good short post on the positive effects of identifying as atheist - Why Coming Out Matters
This is exactly why it’s equally important for atheists to come out of the closet too, if it’s safe for them to do so (and sometimes it just isn’t). It’s one reason why the current billboard campaign is so important. It’s easy for people to maintain their negative stereotypes of atheists as mean, immoral or hateful as long as they don’t know any (or don’t know that they know any). Once they actually meet some of us, or find out that they already knew some of us, it becomes more difficult to maintain those prejudices.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:59 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the idea that there are secret atheist hordes poised to ban religion if given the power is perplexing. Some concrete examples would be nice (pseudonymous 14 year olds on Reddit who will say anything for attention don't count).
posted by Pyry at 8:00 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, the idea that there are secret atheist hordes poised to ban religion if given the power is perplexing.

Indeed. Did someone here advance that idea? I must have missed it.
posted by The World Famous at 8:03 PM on December 10, 2013


I'm wondering if there may be some mixing up of the concepts of "the world being better off without religion" and "the world being better off if religion was banned." It's kind of like the difference between wanting people to not walk on the grass and putting up a "Keep Off The Grass" sign.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:09 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


On the one hand, any atheists advocating for government to ban religion are so few as to be picayune and have no effect on the freedoms enjoyed by religious and non-religious alike in America. On the other hand, the myth* propagated for decades by the religious right that atheists work to destroy religious freedom of believers contributes to prejudiced attitudes against atheists that materially affect their quality of life.

*See Frederick Clarkson's "The New Secular Fundamentalist Conspiracy!"
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:10 PM on December 10, 2013


(I feel compelled to add that I'm in neither camp; as a secularist I think there's room for everybody as long as we get and keep that wall of separation up and running.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:10 PM on December 10, 2013


I think it's unlikely that an atheist with political aspirations in the West will acknowledge and state such views while they have political aspirations. But - and maybe this comes from reading too many angry atheist screeds on the internet, including on Metafilter - I personally have the impression that atheists who actually hold such views are a lot more common than you're giving credit for. Maybe those folks never end up running for office. Or maybe the years following college give them time to reflect and develop more reasonable, nuanced, evidence-based views. But I think it's more likely that some of them do end up running for office and just keep their mouth shut about that particular view.

I mean, we can quibble about what "a lot more common" means but the idea that there are more than a marginal few atheists who would want to ban religion is perplexing, let alone the idea that there are enough that some would get elected while keeping their radicalism a secret. It's like worrying about electing a secret anarchist who wants to literally grind up rich people into soylent green.
posted by Pyry at 8:12 PM on December 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


Sorry, just to return to this contention: "In a lot of ways it formed the religious right we know today as churches with missionaries in places like the Soviet Union in the '30s, China and Korea in the '50s, Vietnam in the 60s found good reason to be terrified of both communism and the American left's aggressive naiveté."

Like, if you're talking about the John Birch Society, that's a really odd way of describing them, and that was more related to economic policy despite gladly taking up the theocratic banner.

It's also worth remembering that for every Walter Duranty, there was a Gareth Jones or a George Orwell. The American left's relationship with Communism is really deep and complex, just like how the rise of the religious right is a really complex thing that's local in a lot of important ways, and you're overstating the left's refusal to repudiate Communist anti-religious as determinant.
posted by klangklangston at 8:13 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


This issue has nothing to do with Atheism per se -- there aren't any (admitted) Zoroastrians in congress either.

Elected politicians don't affiliate with groups that have no political power. How is this surprising to anyone?
posted by serif at 8:14 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm wondering if there may be some mixing up of the concepts of "the world being better off without religion" and "the world being better off if religion was banned."

I'm wondering if there may be some mixing up of the concepts of banning religion and supporting or advocating policy agendas that, though not banning religion, would be directed toward or advance goals antagonistic toward free exercise. Jumping straight to whether or not someone wants to ban religion outright is not, in my estimation, a particularly productive move in this conversation.
posted by The World Famous at 8:15 PM on December 10, 2013


The only atheists I've ever heard say religion should be banned that were angry idiot teenagers who grew out of it.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:15 PM on December 10, 2013


I'm wondering if there may be some mixing up of the concepts of "the world being better off without religion" and "the world being better off if religion was banned."

I think a lot of this sentiment also comes out of the knee-jerk Hurf Durf Sky Fairy type stuff. There's a strain of modern day atheism which seems to argue that religion is stupid, and obviously any intelligent person can tell that god doesn't exist, so therefore [something vaguely threatening to religious people].

Of course, the religious people who are concerned about this are free to fill in their own blanks after the "therefore". And why come to a sane conclusion when you can come to a conclusion wherein all atheists are just champing at the bit to turn the tables and create an anti-theocracy?
posted by Sara C. at 8:16 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm wondering if there may be some mixing up of the concepts of banning religion and supporting or advocating policy agendas that, though not banning religion, would be directed toward or advance goals antagonistic toward free exercise.

Can you give an example of such a policy goal antagonistic toward free exercise that you think atheists are likely to support?
posted by Pyry at 8:37 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


In happier news, these figures from the latest New Zealand census:

Christian 39.7%
No religion 38.6%
Not stated 7.1%
Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim 4.6%
Object to answering 4.1%

Politicians here keep their religious views [if any] very low key. The few recent attempts by religiously based political parties have had to settle for low single-digits in the polls.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:37 PM on December 10, 2013


supporting or advocating policy agendas that, though not banning religion, would be directed toward or advance goals antagonistic toward free exercise

Let's get concrete - what policies are being advocated by atheists that are antagonistic toward free exercise? Or, this question may provide all I need to know: Is keeping school-led prayer out of schools infringing upon anyone's free exercise?
posted by Bort at 8:38 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think what's more likely is a variation of what we've already seen, atheists backing the nationalism du jour to pass laws that, de facto, discriminate against Muslim immigrants (with possibly Sikhs getting thrown in as well.) I think Harris has already largely done this.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:42 PM on December 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pyry and bort, I'm done with MeFi for the night, I think, but I'll try to pick this up again tomorrow and give you a few examples. In the meantime, may I suggest browsing Hitchens' various writings on religion and public policy and maybe a little Dawkins and Harris.
posted by The World Famous at 9:20 PM on December 10, 2013


I'm wondering if there may be some mixing up of the concepts of banning religion and supporting or advocating policy agendas that, though not banning religion, would be directed toward or advance goals antagonistic toward free exercise.

If you mean people who want the IRS to actually enforce existing laws that tells religious organizations that they can be tax-exempt and tax-deductible 501c3s, or they can engage in political activity that 501c3's can't engage in, but they can't do both... then that goal is not antagonistic toward free exercise. At least not under the centuries-old concept of the facially neutral law of general application.

If anything, failure to adhere to their own rules and carefully examine the conduct of religious 501c3s is a violation of free expression, since viewpoints that are about God are permitted to perform activities that organizations with other viewpoints are not.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:24 PM on December 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


I'm not convinced it would get replaced by something else. People wouldn't find a way to hate gays.

They may not find a way to hate gays, but they certainly find ways to hate women.


I used to moderate gender and sexuality discussions in a community that caters to people who identify as strongly analytical*, and I can assure you that it's not so hard for them to find a way. Not to give too much of an airing to foolishness, but the gist of it generally centers around a rigid** sense of "biological purpose" and often a fixation on anal sex.

Having seen both atheistic and theistic (generally var. US Christian, Protestant, conservative; one or two Muslims and one raving whackadoodle who may have been claiming to himself be the Messiah) forms of misogyny/homophobia/transphobia***, it seemed that people occupied all parts of that spectrum (from near-subconscious bias to advocacy of violence) in strikingly similar ways regardless of their religious affiliation -- the differences in expression were usually minor and had an obvious basis in environmental factors such as that people of any stripe who like to be fighty about religion tend to be most accustomed to fighting with adherents to the majority faith in their area.

Humans being herd animals, it seems like facets of culture are often a lot more durable than philosophical affiliations, and the latter seems to serve the former more often than vice versa. Hence, while I think it's definitely indicative of a problem that a given camp is pointedly not represented in certain positions of power, I don't have that much... faith, I guess one might say... that the outcomes would be particularly different if the positions of the affiliations were inverted but the underlying culture wasn't changed.

* It turns out that it's much more common to identify as strongly analytical than to actually have strong analytic skills.
** That's what ze said.
*** In some sort of topological sense the same thing, it seems; a given person would usually have a preferred starting point but would visit all three eventually if given enough rope.
posted by sparktinker at 9:34 PM on December 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


As a cleric, I'd be completely happy to vote for an atheist, if they could defend religious communities. It's politics. They don't need to go to church, just be very clear about supporting religious institutions.

Atheism need not be anti-religion. An atheist candidate should be comfortable asking for the votes of religious people.

An atheist who comes to my chili-cook off might have my vote. Tax the soup kitchen because it's related to the church? That's something else.
posted by john wilkins at 9:37 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's a theory of pornography that points out that a lot of the ritual elements of a porn video arc, e.g. facials, are only really important to some small set of the audience, but the rest of the audience doesn't find them so objectionable as to not engage with that content. I think there's a reasonable analogy to be drawn there to atheism — most voters don't care a tremendous amount about religion, let alone a coherent practice thereof — but a determined minority does, so rather than lose those votes (which are enough to swing an election), they get pandered to. A more unkind way of putting it would be that many politicians owe their job to the rube vote, so no matter how thin their actual faith is, placating those rubes keeps them in their office.
posted by klangklangston at 10:14 PM on December 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Pyry, bort, don't fall into the TWF trap. Save yourselves.

Tax the soup kitchen because it's related to the church? That's something else.

That "something else" is known as a straw man. Nobody wants to tax soup kitchens because they're related to churches.

Generally, they want churches to pay property tax because not taxing them is considered to be equivalent to a subsidy and thus a violation of the spirit of the Establishment Clause (or the principle of it, outside the US).

Also, non-profit charity organizations, religious or otherwise, can already apply for tax-exempt status, so the connection to churches is a complete distraction. However, churches own a lot of property and the services they consume (water, sewer, transportation, etc.) don't come cheap. The automatic exemption for churches allows profit-making enterprises like megachurches and Scientology to fleece the people without providing any valuable services at all.

Have that chili cook-off and invite some atheists. It'll help you clear up a lot of your misconceptions.
posted by klanawa at 2:01 AM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


I would be more likely to vote for the candidate that suggested the tax-shelter wealth-engines that are large churches--which then use those tax-free funds to support hateful legislation against, say, gay people, women and increasingly poor people (!)--ought to be taxed and regulated like any other gigantic corporation.

It's hard to understand how atheists who propose such things don't seem to realize that, if we started taxing religious groups, state legislators would be crawling all over each other to enact schemes to tax mosques and other religious minority groups out of existence while bending over backwards to give Baptists more tax breaks than General Electric.
posted by straight at 2:35 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I’m also not saying they all always out-and-out lie, although I've never personally met one who was above tailoring the facts to suit the angle. I’m just saying I have a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of adults basing their sociopolitical views of their own countries and countrymen on things missionaries told them about what happened in other countries on the other side of the world – countries that don’t even exist anymore – when they were children.

I guess I don't understand your point. Are you claiming that persecution of Christians in the USSR and China didn't really happen? That it was all just urban legends made up by missionaries?
posted by straight at 2:48 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Generally, they want churches to pay property tax because not taxing them is considered to be equivalent to a subsidy and thus a violation of the spirit of the Establishment Clause (or the principle of it, outside the US).

Yes, this. And if legislators go back to enacting laws or tax codes that favor one religion over others, they would also be violating the first Amendment, and their laws and tax codes would be disallowed. Government should not be promoting or assisting religion, either generally or specifically.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:58 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Generally, they want churches to pay property tax because not taxing them is considered to be equivalent to a subsidy and thus a violation of the spirit of the Establishment Clause (or the principle of it, outside the US).

Also, non-profit charity organizations, religious or otherwise, can already apply for tax-exempt status, so the connection to churches is a complete distraction. However, churches own a lot of property and the services they consume (water, sewer, transportation, etc.) don't come cheap. The automatic exemption for churches allows profit-making enterprises like megachurches and Scientology to fleece the people without providing any valuable services at all.

Have that chili cook-off and invite some atheists. It'll help you clear up a lot of your misconceptions.
"
Thankfully we have the courts to protect all of us from the gaping ignorance of the constitutional and non-profit law that govern these things, which dominates in both religious and non-religious circles, but just how categorically and self-assuredly wrong this and most things written for the benefit of Atheist communities are is pretty dramatic.

Non-profits are, in essence, organizations that use surplus revenues to achieve their goals rather than distributing them as profit or dividends, being a non-profit is an essential part of what a church is. The United States government broadly provides tax exempt status to non-profit organizations and to discriminate against churches specifically with the tax system on the basis of their religion would indeed represent an attempt to prohibit the free exercise of that religion. The problem with requiring that churches file paperwork to that effect in order to be certified as non-profit organizations like any other non-profit before receiving that tax exempt status has to do with the other clause and what the paperwork actually means.

The application and informational filing requirements for non-profits to receive tax exempt status that the IRS has are there primarily because the non-profit community has demanded them for the kind of structure they provide so as to enforce and communicate legitimacy. It is not an onerous punishment the IRS doles out but a helpful service it provides to the community to help it weed out bullshit artists by establishing basic standardized structures for governance that are reasonably resistant to fraud. The goal is to enforce uniform governance structures that fail in ways that are predictable, difficult to hide, and broadly familiar. A lot of what makes different kinds of churches, synagogues, and mosques different from each other however, are their fundamentally different governing structures that are essential parts of their religious doctrines. The first amendment explicitly declares federal government has no right to establish, as in the opposite of Disestablishmentarianism, any kind of church over any other as being proper for religious exercise.

Making the IRS force these kinds of governance structures on churches would not only put it in the both really uncomfortable and fundamentally unconstitutional position of regulating doctrinal questions in these kinds of non-obvious ways but is also just unnecessary; unless of course the goal is to discriminate against churches this is a solution in search of a problem. Churches have been wrestling with how to effectively govern themselves for a lot longer than non-profits have; Presbyterian churches, Methodist churches, Conservative synagogues, Baptist churches, Sufi mosques, Orthodox synagogues, Sunni mosques, all have their own very different and pretty equivalently effective governance structures that align with their ideas about how we should govern ourselves in groups. Non-denominational churches tend to have more problems, but a willingness to trade structural rigidity for those problems is an inherent part of their religion exercise. Churches neither need nor want the kind of standardization that the non-profit community both needs and wants, except for those that voluntarily go through the standard process for various reasons as they are free to do, and this kind of meddling in other people's religious affairs is exactly why we have to protections of religious liberty from establishment in the first amendment.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:02 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Pyry and bort, I'm done with MeFi for the night, I think, but I'll try to pick this up again tomorrow and give you a few examples. In the meantime, may I suggest browsing Hitchens' various writings on religion and public policy and maybe a little Dawkins and Harris.

Don't bother, I'm done. If the best you can do for examples of atheist policy positions against free expression that causes you to think atheists are more suspect than theists is a hand wave to browsing writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, then you're just being disingenuous.
posted by Bort at 4:54 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I guess I don't understand your point. Are you claiming that persecution of Christians in the USSR and China didn't really happen? That it was all just urban legends made up by missionaries?

No, she's saying that it's hard to believe that, 25 years after the end of the Cold War ended, people who oppose atheism on the basis of OMG COMMUNISM are the driving force. Evidence to support this contention would be helpful, though. But to further accuse atheists of being responsible for whitewashing it despite, as klangklangston pointed out, the construction of American atheists being supportive of, complicit in, or even just willfully ignorant of persecutions in the USSR and China is a myth, well that's a whole 'nother can of worms.
posted by zombieflanders at 5:14 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I guess I don't understand your point. Are you claiming that persecution of Christians in the USSR and China didn't really happen? That it was all just urban legends made up by missionaries?

No. I'm saying that if I'm going to use historical events from another country inhabited by people of another culture to inform my views on politics, people, philosophy, and social institutions in my own country decades later, I'm going to get the information about those historical events from historical scholars, using multiple sources, to put it in the larger social, psychological, and historical context rather than leaping feet-first into the very narrowly-focused narrative of a missionary, who by the very nature of his job sees the situation from one angle and isn't likely to have examined any others.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:09 AM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


The nice thing about being Jewish - aside from running the media, bien sûr - is that I get to dodge questions about agnosticism and atheism.

Two cheers for a religion that you can be a part of, without actually believing in anything in particular!
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:27 AM on December 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have no problem with the observation that anti-theists would, if given the opportunity, act in ways that discriminate against religion. (Although given the current political rhetoric where conservative churches make excessively broad claims about religious discrimination, that can't be taken at face value.) My primary objection is with the broad stereotyping, media bias, and internet bias that spins anti-theism as much more of a dominant force among atheists than it really is. Something is wrong when a tweet by Dawkins triggers op-eds around the world but no one reviews Ronald Dworkin's posthumous work. I also think (with a fair amount of research into online discourse to back it up) that weakly moderated discussion forums on the internet make aggressive disagreement more visible than agreements.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:04 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


The soup kitchen was a poor example. My point was not about not-for-profit law, but about political positions much more broadly. Atheists who defend issues that churches care about might do differently. In another sense, Atheism as a personal belief is conceived as unrelated to public policy.
posted by john wilkins at 7:18 AM on December 11, 2013


Blasdelb, if churches don't want to be bound by the strictures of other non-profits they should pay taxes like every other organisation. It's ridiculous on its face to claim that special treatment for religious organisations over secular ones is anything but favouring religion over non-religion.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 7:28 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Another way in which bias against atheists plays out is in the policing of discussions about atheism. Non-atheists will complain about what they see as the extremist positions among atheists. These positions may be real or imagined. Like CBrachyrhynchos, I believe that critiques of atheists are difficult to unpack because among genuine problems (like Harris' xenophobia) there're also a lot of strawmen to work through. When given the opportunity to engage more nuanced atheist positions, however, many of those viewpoints critiquing atheists insist on focusing narrowly on what they see as the worst versions of atheism.

So, would be atheist politicians face at least two obstacles: the outright dismissal of atheists qua atheists and knowing the likelihood that if they were to engage their fellow citizens about their atheism they'd face a considerable uphill battle against being pigeonholed as some extremist looking to shutter churches. I'm not saying anyone's wrong to worry about any candidate (atheist or not) infringing on liberties, but when it comes to atheists in American politics today our much more pressing problem is the stereotyped thinking that makes political engagement so difficult.

Over the long term, the more atheists are able to speak their atheism among friends and family, the less prejudice will hold sway. It's also important to pay attention to the diversity of atheist thought. For every Sam Harris there's a multitude of atheists working for values cherished by theist and non-theist alike. American Humanist Association president Dave Niose has an excellent interview with Sikivu Hutchinson on the troubled relationship between secular organizations and many dimensions of social justice. Maryam Namazie and her colleagues are doing incredibly important and difficult work in the UK and Europe navigating the Scylla of rightwing xenophobia and the Charybdis of Islamists infringing on liberties.

As for politicians not affiliating with groups that don't have political power, that situation seems to be in the process of changing. The Secular Coalition for America has had a lobbyist in DC since 2005 and the AHA has recently started the Center for Humanist Activism. Cecil Bothwell, an atheist in Asheville NC, won a seat on the city council. The Freethought Equality Fund PAC has starting raising money to support open atheists running for office. The destigmatization of atheists in politics will take time, but I'm hopeful for the future.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:39 AM on December 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


if churches don't want to be bound by the strictures of other non-profits they should pay taxes like every other organisation

As someone who apparently believed in the separation of Church and State put it, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's".
posted by billiebee at 8:35 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


"many of those viewpoints critiquing atheists insist on focusing narrowly on what they see as the worst versions of atheism."

Well put. Now how is that any different from those viewpoints critiquing the religious? Atheists hardly enjoy a monopoly on being painted by an unfairly large brush or pigeonholed as extremists. Just ctrl-F this thread for "hatred of gays and the diminishing of women".
posted by klarck at 8:35 AM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Blasdelb, if churches don't want to be bound by the strictures of other non-profits they should pay taxes like every other organisation. It's ridiculous on its face to claim that special treatment for religious organisations over secular ones is anything but favouring religion over non-religion."
Religious organizations are treated identically to non-religious organizations, being religious in nature is not itself a shield against IRS interference in governance; it is being a church with governing structures that are an inherent aspect of religious practice that is. If someone were to make a non-religious organization with governance structures that were an inherent aspect of their [whatever the mirror opposite of religious practices is], like some kind of hypothetical Atheist Masonic Lodge, they’d have a pretty obvious case for the automatic exemption from taxes and filing provided to churches. The fact is though that religious expression is indeed explicitly called out by our constitution for special treatment in the form of the two balanced Expression and Establishment clauses, that specifically protect it from either interference or establishment.

They cause the IRS to be caught in a constitutional paradox by a secular non-profit sector no one saw coming in the 1780s, where it can neither regulate churches nor treat them meaningfully differently from otherwise nearly identical organizations that all stake holders desperately want to be federally regulated. Both of your proposed solutions for churches to choose between, either taxing churches in a discriminatory way or regulating religious expression, are fundamentally unconstitutional and absurd for a secular government. The only constitutional way out of the paradox that perfectly addresses your concern would not be to treat churches like non-profits, which the IRS cannot do, but to treat non-profits like churches, which would benefit no one.

Even if it may not be perfectly fair in a meaninglessly abstract sense, all Americans do indeed benefit from the protections that the special treatment of religion in our constitution provides, and especially the non-religious.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:46 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another way in which bias against atheists plays out is in the policing of discussions about atheism. Non-atheists will complain about what they see as the extremist positions among atheists. These positions may be real or imagined. Like CBrachyrhynchos, I believe that critiques of atheists are difficult to unpack because among genuine problems (like Harris' xenophobia) there're also a lot of strawmen to work through. When given the opportunity to engage more nuanced atheist positions, however, many of those viewpoints critiquing atheists insist on focusing narrowly on what they see as the worst versions of atheism.

A very good point. One sees a great many religious people who think it's silly and outrageous that anyone could ever entertain the thought that they might have any small thing in common whatsoever with a Fred Phelps or Jerry Falwell ("I shouldn't have to TELL you that; you should just KNOW it without a word from me, you stupid person!"), but have no trouble at all firmly believing that every single atheist is 100% devoted to building his entire life, and remaking the world according to, every word of the most extreme sentence that Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris ever wrote on a bad day.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:48 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Atheists who defend issues that churches care about might do differently.

Why should we?

In my opinion the best thing about being atheist is that I don't have to care about defending issues that matter to churches. Because I don't care about churches. Because I'm not religious.

If atheists have to come out and be all "yay church woo" in order to be respected by the broader culture, I'm not sure that's respect that I would want, as an atheist.

I want to live in a world where it's just perfectly OK not to be religious at all, no lip service necessary. I don't see the point in having token atheist politicians who are directly fighting against that cultural shift.
posted by Sara C. at 9:07 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now how is that any different from those viewpoints critiquing the religious?

On an ethical level, I don't think it is. I'm probably a bit radical in my views that religion and atheism can't be understood or critiqued except in a local and ethnographic sense, but that's a position that makes sense to me.

Politically? When an anti-theist tweets something it generates outrage across a dozen op-eds and blogs. When a member of the U.S. House delivered the worm food speech on the House Floor, the result was the passage of legislation barring Humanist Celebrants from becoming chaplains. When the BSA says that we're not fit to be rolemodels, we're barred from volunteering, except in those cases where local orgs choose to ignore national policy. It's far more likely that a major news magazine will run a cover story explicitly denying work by atheist charities than the converse, or that those stereotypes will be used to exclude atheists with a history of interfaith activism from interfaith events.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:24 AM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


Politically?

There's nothing new about persecution for religious beliefs in US politics. (Or in all recorded history for that matter.) With atheists now in the fray, it's just no longer an intramural sport.
posted by klarck at 9:42 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Blasdelb, if churches don't want to be bound by the strictures of other non-profits they should pay taxes like every other organisation. It's ridiculous on its face to claim that special treatment for religious organisations over secular ones is anything but favouring religion over non-religion."

Blasdelb is explaining the law in kind of a complicated, backward way. The clearer response is that churches are bound by the strictures of other non-profits in statute, with two caveats: If they comport themselves as required under 501(c)3, they are not required to file for tax exempt status, and the prohibitions against political activity are often thinly enforced. However, because most churches have employees or own property, applying for tax exempt status makes operation significantly easier, so many churches do go through the same process as other non-profits (well, (c)3 non-profits).

And even if they don't apply, churches are still bound by the same regulations regarding tax exempt status as other (c)3s, meaning that if they violate them, they can be charged income tax on their contributions and contributions would not be tax deductible.
posted by klangklangston at 10:15 AM on December 11, 2013


No. I'm saying that if I'm going to use historical events from another country inhabited by people of another culture to inform my views on politics, people, philosophy, and social institutions in my own country decades later, I'm going to get the information about those historical events from historical scholars, using multiple sources, to put it in the larger social, psychological, and historical context rather than leaping feet-first into the very narrowly-focused narrative of a missionary, who by the very nature of his job sees the situation from one angle and isn't likely to have examined any others.

I don't think anyone here is arguing with being informed in that way, and as I said earlier, I agree that it's totally unjust to tar atheists with the Stalinist brush.

All I'm saying is that, 30 years ago, a significant portion of the American populace most often heard the word "Atheist" in the context of stories about Stalinist and Maoist religious persecution and it wouldn't surprise me if there are some people who, for this reason, have an unexamined, knee-jerk idea that "Atheism" means an ideology that wants to put religious people in death camps the way "Nazism" is inextricably connected to the holocaust. Most people don't feel like they need to study up on the history of National Socialism to confirm their idea that Nazis are bad.

In fact that would explain the thing I've seen among some older religious people who seem to think that some people (especially young people) who call themselves Atheists are not serious and just trying to get a rise out of people. It's possible they see it like a teenager who calls himself a Nazi just to be rebellious and they think, "Sonny, you have no clue what you're invoking here."

And again, this is speculation. I don't know how much of the current prejudice against atheists is attributable to the Cold War era. I do know that Christians talk a lot about people who aren't religious and usually call them something like "unbelievers." The word "Atheist" seems to be reserved among many Christians to describe people who actively attack religion in some way.

I agree with you that such ignorance is a bad thing. And again, I do not think it is legitimate to compare atheists to Nazis. I'm saying that what some people think they know about atheists may be in a similar category in their head to what they think they know about Nazis.
posted by straight at 10:16 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now how is that any different from those viewpoints critiquing the religious? Atheists hardly enjoy a monopoly on being painted by an unfairly large brush or pigeonholed as extremists.

Context is how it is different. The chart in the article illustrates how. I never said atheists were the only group unfairly described. When Christian Americans are unfairly described by some atheists, such unfair arguments do not contribute to nor emerge from a systemic disadvantage that operates through longstanding anti-Christian bias in American culture.
posted by audi alteram partem at 10:30 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now how is that any different from those viewpoints critiquing the religious? Atheists hardly enjoy a monopoly on being painted by an unfairly large brush or pigeonholed as extremists.

One big reason it's different is that any time it happens to a religious person or organization, hordes of mainstream sources rush to the defense of the rest of the religious, insisting and demanding that all religious people not be tarred with said brush in a deafening, fear-inducing wave. If it happens to an atheist person or an organization with humanist leanings, the public outcry is either absent or consists of a few loud voices saying how regrettable it is that atheists bring that sort of thing on themselves.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:44 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Ok. I hope everyone had as restful a night as I did. When we left off, I told Pyry and Bort that I was leaving for the night, but that I'd try to pick this up again this morning and provide some examples of what they asked for.

Based on a few of the comments made after I left the thread, it looks like Bort and maybe others have not actually been reading my comments at all and that Bort, in particular, completely forgot the question he asked me to which I was responding. So let's recap, just so we don't end up arguing about something nobody actually said or positions nobody is actually taking. Here are a few key things I've said in this thread that Bort and some others seem to have somehow missed. My apologies if they didn't pop out of the comments earlier. Hopefully reproducing them here will help solve that problem:
If a candidate self-identifies as an atheist, that's fine with me. If I get a sense that a candidate does not share my views on the importance of the right to free exercise, that's a deal-breaker - just as it would be a deal breaker if a candidate of my own religion held views that those not of my faith should be legally disadvantaged in some way.

. . . if someone proclaimed themselves an atheist, I would have no problem voting for them unless there was some additional specific indication that I should not.

I think the issue is whether or not the candidate respects freedom of conscience as a fundamental human right, not whether or not they are an atheist.

In my opinion, the fact that a candidate professes or does not profess some form of theism does not, in the absence of other information, give me any idea as to whether or not I'd want to vote for them.

I wouldn't give the religious the benefit of the doubt at all.

But I absolutely agree with you that theist policymakers are a far greater danger to 1st Amendment religious freedom in the U.S. - both on the free exercise side and on the establishment side.
Now, in that context, Pyry asked me:

Can you give an example of such a policy goal antagonistic toward free exercise that you think atheists are likely to support?

Let me answer that one first, since it's the easy one: No, I cannot. I don't think atheists, as a general category, are likely to agree on any particular policy goal. In fact, as I think I made incredibly clear over and over again, "I think the issue is whether or not the candidate respects freedom of conscience as a fundamental human right, not whether or not they are an atheist." (Quoting myself - again - in case Pyry missed it the first two times.)

Then Bort asked two questions:

Let's get concrete - what policies are being advocated by atheists that are antagonistic toward free exercise? Or, this question may provide all I need to know: Is keeping school-led prayer out of schools infringing upon anyone's free exercise?

I'll answer the second question first:

Is keeping school-led prayer out of schools infringing upon anyone's free exercise?

No. Keeping school-led prayer out of schools is not infringing on anyone's free exercise. In fact, I think it's critical to both the free exercise clause and the establishment clause to keep school-led prayer out of schools. I hope that provides all you need to know, particularly when combined with the other statements I've made in this thread that you seem to have missed.

And now to Bort's first question:

Let's get concrete - what policies are being advocated by atheists that are antagonistic toward free exercise?

Now, when I first read this question, I took it at face value and believed Bort was asking me what policies are being advocated by atheists that are antagonistic toward free exercise. So my intention was to return this morning and give a few examples of notable atheists who publicly advocate specific policies antagonistic toward free exercise. I was going to start with Hitchens, since he seems to be the most obvious example of an atheist who advanced specific anti-religion political policies in the modern era, and I didn't think any reasonable person familiar with Hitchens' work could possibly disagree that he did, in fact, advocate such positions. I just assumed that Bort was completely unfamiliar with Mr. Hitchens, or he wouldn't have asked me such a bizarre question.

I didn't give any examples last night, though. I was walking down the sidewalk and typing on my phone while on my way to go put my kids to bed and work on my bike, and I just didn't have time to hunt down specific examples or any inclination to pick this back up when I'd rather be doing other things for the night. So, trying to be polite and not just leave things hanging, I specifically said I wouldn't be responding to the questions until this morning. Thinking Bort must not be familiar with Mr. Hitchens' work, since he seemed unaware that some atheists do advocate such policies, I suggested browsing some of that work (since a basic familiarity with Hitchens by Bort should have quickly resolved the question).

But then Bort made another comment, which really muddies the waters:

Don't bother, I'm done. If the best you can do for examples of atheist policy positions against free expression that causes you to think atheists are more suspect than theists is a hand wave to browsing writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, then you're just being disingenuous.

This is really perplexing. First, I don't think atheists are more suspect than theists. In fact, I said exactly the opposite. Second, I didn't make any attempt to give you any examples. Third, I didn't hand wave to browsing Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris - I suggested that, if you're genuinely unaware that there are, in fact, atheists who advocate policies antagonistic to free exercise, then those guys might be a good starting point for you to get more informed.

You're right. If I said what you say I said, I would have been "just being disingenuous." But it's exactly the opposite of what I said, so I'm not sure where to go from here.

At this point, it looks like your questions of me are nothing more than a misunderstanding on your part.

Since I've now repeated my prior assertions and my position, do you still want me to give examples of atheists taking positions antagonistic toward free exercise? I don't think atheists are more suspect than theists (I think it's the other way around), so maybe that answers your question. Does it?
posted by The World Famous at 11:14 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Catholics are unfairly described by some Protestants, Muslims are unfairly described by some Christians, Jews are unfairly described by both. Such unfair arguments have and do indeed emerge from a systemic disadvantage that operates through longstanding bias in American culture.
posted by klarck at 11:15 AM on December 11, 2013


I forgot to mention that we're in the middle of the War on (atheists at) Christmas(tm) an annual season-long propaganda campaign across multiple networks to make a handful of media campaigns and lawsuits by activist groups into a big culture war.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:23 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Such unfair arguments have and do indeed emerge from a systemic disadvantage that operates through longstanding bias in American culture.

Not "a systemic disadvantage." There is anti-semitism in the US and there is anti-Muslim prejudice and there is anti-atheist prejudice. There is no systemic anti-Protestant prejudice. Historically, anti-Catholic nativism also materially affected the political lives of Catholics, but that has receded in today's America (not entirely gone, but certainly much diminished from the era of the Philadelphia Bible Riots). And of course, these conditions vary tremendously regionally and locally, as has been demonstrated in the thread, so the Christian social privilege that assumes every juror will be swearing on a Bible in one locality is absent (or at least manifests differently) in another.

But the existence of anti-atheist prejudice cannot be denied, and as an atheist that is the issue I address most directly, though of course I will and have, repeatedly, come to the defense of other religious identities that are not fairly described in conversation.

The question of unfair arguments, however, when separated from the social context is meaningless. The chart and a growing body of sociological research prove that atheists face extreme political disadvantage and prejudices that are uniquely attached to atheist identity. Christian Americans do not even if they encounter viewpoints that unfairly characterize their positions.

Hecht's piece should invite Americans to reflect on how they could make running for office more accessible to their fellow atheists and how they could confront in themselves and their friends the stereotypes they may hold.
posted by audi alteram partem at 11:41 AM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


While anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish prejudice exists, the idea of the House having a vote to keep Rabbis and Priests out of the armed forces chaplaincy is inconceivable to me.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:23 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


That hypothetical is inconceivable to me, as well. What's not inconceivable is the military having policies or practices designed to discriminate against various specific denominations or categories of denominations, which was the crux of a class action just a few years ago against the Navy. The case was ultimately unsuccessful, but the District Court's decision did acknowledge some merit to the allegations. This is not to minimize, however, the fact that atheists are the subject of greater discrimination in the public sphere in the U.S. than many or most religious denominations.
posted by The World Famous at 1:46 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


We know there must be some closeted atheists in Congress—out of 535 people, simple math tells us so

If the people at Politico think the makeup of Congress is exactly proportional to the public at large... that's just too naive a thought to complete.
posted by psoas at 2:40 PM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


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