"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Atheists’ Convention

I always thought that atheists simply had no belief in God or religion; that is, they were indifferent to religion and believed that if suddenly you took “God” out of the equation defining human society, things would work out just fine.  Theirs, I thought, was a pure secular philosophy – ethics and morality would not disappear if God were to disappear because they are very human constructs, absolutely necessary as the glue which holds human society together, but not divinely inspired.  There was no need for a spiritual quest, or a belief in the Elysium Fields because if one realized the finitude of life, it would be enjoyed to the fullest.

I was wrong.  Atheism is or has become a religion, no different from Christian ones.  It has a doctrine, a dogma, and a belief system; and defends itself with as much passion if not fanaticism as traditional religions.  While there must be some true ‘indifferent atheists’ for whom God and religion simply do not matter, and for whom questions of mortality, salvation, and divine retribution are simply far off the radar screen, they are apparently fewer and farther between.  In this age of individual proclamation (‘This is who I am) and social recognition (Twitter, FB), it is not enough to be indifferent.  Even atheists who don’t believe in anything (spiritual at least) need to be recognized.  The movement needs to have liberals and conservatives, doctrinal issues, and heated internal debates.  A group called the Secular Coalition for America is in Washington these days to lobby against God-things in American political life.  Atheists, because they believe in nothing, need to be against something, and so have made their platform clear:

According to Dana Milbank (Washington Post 10.2.12) they are exercising their God-given right to petition their government for a redress of grievances. And their grievances are many, including:

● the “In God We Trust” national motto.

● the National Day of Prayer.

● the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

● the practice of opening sessions of Congress with a prayer and ending oaths of office with “so help me God.”

Milbank notes that the Coalition bills itself as the only full-time lobbying group for atheists, agnostics, humanists and the like. “What does that do to our minority religions like voodooism, etcetera?”, says the Executive Director.

I happen to agree with all these issues, but group them under a different rubric – the separation of church and state which is a founding principle of the Republic and can easily be defended on secular grounds.  Yet, the Coalition is not simply arguing for a stronger firewall between public policy and religious beliefs – as many before them have eloquently done – but creating what they hope will be a recognized Non-Religion, an entity with equal say and equal respect within the religious community. 

“Years ago, if you played identity politics, you might have emphasized ‘I’m a feminist,’ ‘I’m a liberal/conservative, or gay/lesbian,’ that sort of thing,” [David Niose, the Director of the American Humanist Foundation] said. “Today these students are standing up and saying, ‘You know, I’m an atheist.’ ” He said atheist clubs are popping up at colleges and even high schools nationwide, part of “a program to normalize atheism and humanism all across America.”

Atheism today has little to do with either serious religious reflection – a rejection of God if you have been brought up with Him cannot be easy – or respect for the humanist tradition of one’s fathers.  It is a new emblem of social belonging. 

Yes, suggests Milbank, these non-believers are not likely to coalesce into the potent political force that the Coalition envisages:

In practice, atheists aren’t about to become capable of breaching the “fence of piety” that makes religious expression a virtue for American politicians. This is because the very notion of uniting nonbelievers behind a common cause is pretty much an oxymoron. Those who identify themselves as atheists and agnostics tend not to be the type to join affinity groups. That’s why there isn’t an International Brotherhood of Individualists. “Although it’s a movement, it’s not so much monolithic in terms of unanimity on a lot of issues,” Niose allowed.

I could not have said it any better – many atheists today are groupie wannabees who have trouble fitting in. Whatever the reason, the percentage of Americans who say they are committed atheists has gone up five-fold (WIN-Gallup International 2012).  The question asked weeds out those who say they are not religious or who don’t belong to any particular religion – “Are you a convinced atheist?”.  Unfortunately there are very few data which suggest how people came to this conviction, and what proportion are retro-hippies (“Whatever, man”) compared to those for whom the choice was the result of serious reflection.  This Atheists March on Washington seems to suggest a third, more compelling reason – political and social recognition. 

I personally would like to see all references to God and religion expunged from public (official) life.  The opening prayer in Congress, while certainly expressive of most in this very religious country of ours, does not belong in a body which presumably represents every American, not just the believing.  It is one thing to acknowledge the fact that our Republic was based on Protestant principles, and to admit that the country is the most religious in the world (except perhaps India), another thing for our legislators to sanctimoniously bow their heads in prayer to a God who many believe does not exist at all.  Yes, and lose the ‘In God We Trust’ on the dollar bill. 

On the other hand, what better place for religious sentiment than on the Almighty Dollar?

So, I am all for atheism as a reasonable position to be taken after logical consideration; just as I feel that religious conviction should be arrived at through the same rational examination.  I am only amused at this new PDA (Public Display of Atheism) edging out formerly popular identities.  Now young people instead of exclaiming “‘I’m a feminist,’ ‘I’m a liberal/conservative, or gay/lesbian,’ that sort of thing”, are saying ‘I’m an atheist’; and if they can marry that youthful enthusiasm with political activism (also a young thing), so much the better.  It just seems as though such wonderful, innocent energy could be better spent.

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