Over a two-day period this week I had three different people ask me why Atheism should be, or needs to be discussed. After all, Atheism at its most basic definition is the lack of belief of the existence of a God or of gods. Talking about Atheism would seem as logical as debating the merits of a group of diverse people who are bound together only by the fact that they refuse to collect stamps!
“Why,” one person asked me, “do you let religious people bother you? Let it go! They’re not your concern.”
“Religion is good for people,” one of my coworkers said, “Why would you want to take away something that’s good?”
And that’s just the point. I’ll be the first to admit that religion has done some very good things, and maybe it is good for many people, but I’m convinced that religion in general is not good for the U.S.A.
Religion organizes people to become activists who promote a set of ethics in order to please a being that doesn’t exist. Human religious leaders speak with the voice of this non-existent being in order to interpret what it means to be moral, and their word is considered to be inspired or infallible as long as it doesn’t deviate too far from moral code their congregation already accepts.
The common example of a religious leader speaking as the voice of God is the Roman Catholic Church, whose Pope at one time had the power to overthrow kingdoms using the threat of excommunication. Although Catholicism lost that power they still have sway over hundreds of millions of followers.
Protestant based Christianity also has a great deal of influence over their congregants. Modern Protestants are turning this influence into political power very quickly, and using that power to legislate their set of ethics. In doing so they are following one of Martin Luther’s dictates:
As to the common people, … one has to be hard with them and see that they do their work and that under the threat of the sword and the law they comply with the observance of piety, just as you chain up wild beasts.
Lest I be accused of an anti-Christian bias, I’d like to also point out that some countries enforce truly barbaric laws due to Islamic interpretations of the Quran and Hadith.
However, my knowledge of other countries is limited so I’ll stick with discussing the United States of America. And since the vast majority of Americans are Christian, that will be the religion that holds my primary focus.
Why? Because Religion is important
All flavors of secular tradition, not just Atheism, are important in America today because religious leaders and organizations have gained so much power. Secular citizens in the USA are treated as second-class citizens; political and religious leaders are making it clear that nonbelievers do not deserve to be treated as well as Christian citizens. American leaders have suggested that nonbelievers do not deserve equal opportunities, do not deserve equal rights, and do not deserve American citizenship.
I’m against anything atheists represent because I believe in God.
— Rep Alvin Holmes, quoted from Phillip Rawls, “Atom Sculpture Awaits Place Beside Ten Commandments Monument” (AP, October 27, 2001)
[We shouldn’t] indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.
— Joseph Lieberman, quoted “The Bush Years; Confessions of a Lonely Atheist,” New York Times Magazine, January 14, 2001 -link-
We have enough votes to run the country. And when the people say, “We’ve had enough,” we are going to take over.
— Pat Robertson, speech given to the April, 1980 “Washington for Jesus” rally
“I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”
— Vice President George H. W. Bush, 1987. -link-
You might think this is just a bunch of talk by religious and political leaders pandering to their base. Perhaps you believe there is no way that constitutionally guaranteed rights would be abridged. And what would constitute such an abridgment? Obviously I’m not losing my freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly. I can still keep a gun; keep my private dealings private, and have a speedy trial by a jury of my peers.
Although it seems as if all rights are still retained, they are subject to slow erosion that undermines and steadily weakens these rights. Let’s look at an example.
The Religious Carnival Group moves in
Imagine a religious non-profit organization moved into a public meeting hall in your town. You drive by it every day and see that they hold fun-looking carnivals out in their parking lot. They’re a swell bunch of people who teach ethics, citizenship, leadership, and also teach a lot of useful skills to their members. Now imagine that you can’t join because you’re Catholic – and this group says that Catholics are idol-worshippers and therefore inherently immoral. No problem, right? It’s a free country and they’re a private organization so they are allowed to restrict membership in whatever way they wish.
In addition, the leaders of the Religious Carnival Group are popular and give interviews and press releases where they again say things like, “Catholics just aren’t good citizens. If a Catholic happened to find a wallet on the ground, he’d just pick it up and plunder the money!”
Now imagine that this group can’t raise enough money to pay the rent on their meeting hall this month, but because they are so ‘moral’ the city council decides to grant them rent money with no expectation of any return. In fact, the city council goes so far as to draft a law that grants them rent money for forever, and to pay for it the law contains the provision that your property taxes will be raised by a very small percentage.
If you were a good Catholic would you complain? What if you held the same religion as this Religious Carnival group, would you still complain? I would like to think that I would complain.
“But it’s only a 0.3% raise in your taxes,” a council member says. “That’s less than five dollars a year for you! Surely you won’t miss it?” That’s not the point – the point is that my money is being used to pay for something that is not in the common good. Any argument that this group performs a common good is shot down when you point out that they discriminate against Catholics.
You, as a Catholic, would see the hijacking of your tax money to pay for a group who calls you evil as an abridgement of your rights as an American citizen. It is an abridgement because the local government has tacitly agreed with this organization that you are less than equal to other citizens. It’s a foot in the door for the possibility of further unequal treatment. And every time this group appears in the news and calls Catholics immoral, it damages your reputation a bit further until finally you come to the point where you no longer mention your religion, for fear of being treated badly by your friends and coworkers.
Now, instead of Catholic, and some funky Religious Carnival Group, imagine that I’m actually talking about Atheism and the Boy Scouts of America. Actually, you don’t have to imagine because this example is real under H.R. 1815.
This example shows how an Atheist is able to still retain all his or her rights as an American, while at the same time have those rights eroded – just a little bit – making the Atheist just a little bit less equal to other citizens.
Unfair advantages equal eroded rights
It isn’t just Boy Scouts either; several religious organizations are also gaining in political power and support. Political leaders are even now arguing that these organizations must have special privileges, even though they are private, and even though they discriminate against classes of people.
Here are some examples of legislation in action right now that individually erode the rights of the non-religious ever so slightly. Individually each piece of legislation affects me as an Atheist only a little – but seen as a whole it demonstrates a clear pattern wherein America is becoming a nation that is split along the lines of a religious upper class and a nonreligious lower class; where American citizens become just a little more unequal.
H.R.1815 (section 1058) This legislation is now law. It requires the Department of Defense to provide support to the Boy Scouts, regardless of their discriminatory policies against Atheists and gays. It also creates conditions that require any state or local government entity to allow BSA to have meetings in their facilities or on their property, overriding anti-discrimination laws or regulations that the local government may already have in place.
H. R. 2679 – makes it prohibitively expensive for anyone to bring a court challenge against the federal government for practicing religious discrimination. It does this by refusing monetary awards, including legal expenses, in the event that a case is won against the government. It specifically lists federal support of the Boy Scouts as being protected.
S. 3873 – gives churches blanket immunity against imminent domain. No other entity has this protection.
H.AMDT.574 to H.R.2123 Introduced by Representative Boehner (R. Oh) in Sept. of 2005, this amendment exempts religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, or societies from certain nondiscrimination provisions of the School Readiness Act, making it legal to give federal education money to these groups that discriminate against students for religious reasons.
HR 2389 – Pledge protection act. Strips all federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, of the power to decide the Constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance or its recitation. This completely guts the basis of the American Constitution – making the Judicial branch of the government subservient to the Legislative and Executive branches, and removing an important check and balance.
There is much more proposed legislation that limits the freedoms of nonbelievers by granting unequal protections to religious organizations. Most of this sort of legislation is presented by a Representative or Senator in order to satisfy their voting base and this legislation will then slowly fade away or die in committee. However the trend seems to be that this sort of legislation is picking up more and more support from other legislators. Religious bills are dying in committee still, but with closer margins. Legislation granting unusual rights to religion still fails on the Senate or House floor, but the vote margins are narrower.
And sometimes they get passed. This seems to be happening more and more often.
I was astonished when I first learned the amount of legislation aimed at modifying the Constitution of the United States. American citizens tend to think of this document as ‘fixed’, but in reality Congress is constantly proposing major changes. Right now amendments being considered include several that would allow foreign-born American citizens to become President. Another would overturn Presidential term limits, so that a President could be elected more than twice and could serve longer than 10 years.
But there are plenty of Amendments proposed that would further erode my rights as an Atheist. Several Christian Nation amendments are still technically open that would alter the Constitution in such a way that the power of the Constitution would be granted by God, and not by “we the People.” This scares me because when “God” rules a country it usually means that it is really ruled by a person or people who have their own spin on what “God” really means. Does anyone remember their history lesson on the Divine Right of Kings?
Although Article 6 of the Constitution and the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment enforce the application of the 1st Amendment at the state level, making it illegal for states to require a religious test for office; many state constitutions do require such a test. These requirements are unenforcable due to the Constitution, but they are left in place.
Not removing religious test laws from state constitutions shows a level of distain for these state’s secular citizens. These laws send a clear message of unequality from the state to their nonbeliever population. This unequality is often translated into law.
Atheism, indeed all Secular philosophies are important because religion is important. We are important because we are American citizens who want the same protections, opportunities and treatment that every other American citizen enjoys.
We are important because we also point out things that are obvious to us, but seem to be overlooked by the religious majority in this country. We gladly call attention to laws that are enacted to benefit religion today may very well be the same laws that injure religion tomorrow.
Right now there is a religious dispute; in fact many Christians call it a religious war, going on between Christianity and Islam. Like some kind of Orwellian nightmare, Christians of all flavors have banded together against non-Christians, and have forgotten that at one time different Christian denominations used to label each other as being ‘evil.’ Catholic against Protestant, Baptist against Anglican.
What if Charismatic Christianity became powerful and used existing religious law in order to promote a view that, “No one can be a good citizen who hasn’t shown outward evidence of accepting the Holy Spirit into their lives?” With ‘outward evidence’ meaning speaking in tongues, having visions, prophesy, being ‘slain in the spirit,’ or even miracles.
Imagine our future politicians passing laws that protected these beliefs from challenge in court. Imagine political rhetoric that screamed about a, “War against Charismatics,” and politicians introducing legislation that protected and encouraged students and teachers who spoke in tongues in class every day and encouraged other students to do the same. Think about a future Fox News commentator who claimed that any other religion was evil and contributing to the downfall of America and its values.
This is why Secular philosophy is important in America, why Atheism is important. It is important because it provides a balance against religious world views that pass short-sighted laws because they see the world in black or white, with no shades of gray in between. Yes, there are religious organizations that also try to balance the current religious fervor, but perhaps there are too few, and perhaps they are more willing to let less offending laws pass.
Religion is important in America, and Christianity is attempting to make changes to American law at all levels, including the Constitution. Christians in America must stop looking at the short term and ask themselves what would happen if, in the long term, one Christian denomination took control over all others. Is this okay? Look at the example of how Atheists are now treated in America and ask if it is okay for certain Christian denominations to be treated in a similar manner.
That is why Atheism is important – we are the weathervane, the canary in a mine shaft. America must be judged by how it treats the least of its citizens.