January 30, 2009

Should Pete Stark hand over his crown?

atheism_leads_to_civil_war.jpg Two years ago, California Congressman Pete Stark became America's highest-ranking atheist when he affirmed to the Secular Coalition of America that he is a Unitarian Universalist who does not believe in a supreme being. Recently the SCA claimed that 22 other lawmakers privately confessed their non-belief, but until they grow some balls (or ovaries, as the case may be), the title goes to Stark.

Or does it? In an article about Ted Kaufman, who as of Jan. 15 is keeping Delaware's Senate seat warm for Beau Biden, the New York Times reports: "What he calls his 'humanistic' way of thinking he attributes largely to his Irish Catholic mother, a teacher, and his father, a secular Jew, a social worker and his hero."

That's not a hundred percent clear. It is possible to be a religious humanist, or a humanistic deist. But most self-declared Humanistic Jews wouldn't fall into those categories. At the very least, the SCA ought to send Kaufman one of their surveys. It should be noted that the group originally went in search of "the highest level atheist, agnostic, humanist or any other kind of nontheist currently holding elected public office in the United States," (emphasis mine), and Kaufman was appointed. Since part of the issue is that professing nontheists can't get elected in America, that's a useful distinction. But surely it would help to show the citizens of this great nation that, yes, an atheist can serve in high office with honor and distinction. So long as by "honor and distinction" you mean keeping the seat warm for Beau Biden.

The other day, Andrew Sullivan ran an idiotic letter asserting that atheists identify themselves by what they don't believe in because "it's a really cool way to get into the conversation in such a way that everyone has to defend their positions except you -- you get to attack." It concluded, "Atheists should be forced to articulate their positive position (say, secular humanism) as price of admission to the conversation."

Now, I don't know how this guy proposes to force anyone to articulate anything. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) But the truth is he's just wrong. Most atheists are delighted for the opportunity to let people know that they have positive positions on Life, the Universe and Everything. Many of us refuse to call ourselves atheists for precisely that reason. When evangelical Christians ask me if I'm a believer, I always say, "Yes" before going on to burst their bubble. As Harvard's Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein wrote after hearing Barack Obama's shout out to "nonbelievers" at the inauguration, Nonbelievers are believers too: "As believers in Humanism, we too affirm the need to cultivate wisdom, courage, compassion, and above all the struggle towards a universal and universally mutually interdependent human dignity."

Epstein also reminds us that Obama wrote in Dreams From My Father that his mother, who is one of his personal heroes, viewed her international aid work as a kind of "lonely witness for secular humanism." Obama himself is of course a Shiite Sunni Christian, but unlike most top elected officials -- unlike most Americans -- he understands that secular humanism can be a positive force for good in the world. That's not nothing.

If Sen. Kaufman is a nontheistic humanist, he ought to use at least some of his time in office to explain what that means to him and how it helped land him a position of such great respect. Then Beau Biden can come in and sprinkle holy water on everything to re-consecrate the office.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I do believe ... that Andrew Sullivan is an idiot. Also, as has oft been typed, that atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby.

Okay, this all seems great for secular humanists, and a step forward for non-religious belief, etc. Wonderful. But I think the "nonbelievers are believers too" argument is crap. Many atheists think that belief itself is the problem with religion, and prefer vigorous skepticism. However shrill you find people like Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins, to pretend that the only acceptable atheists are the humanist atheists is uncharitable and possibly short-sighted policitally. Secular humanists should think twice before dropping their atheist friends just because some of the religious people think they might suddenly be cool enough to hang out with.

Amen, brother.

Let the crusade for atheism begin!

@Jared. I'm not sure why "belief" and "vigorous skepticism" are contradictions. I happen to believe that vigorous skepticism is the cornerstone of my belief -- just not the end of it. If capital-A atheists want to define themselves primarily by their lack of belief in God or invisible pink unicorns, I'm not going to unfriend them on Facebook or say that they're bad or unacceptable people. But just as I'm willing to say that Christianity is ultimately an unfulfilling and unsupportable belief system, even as I cherish my Christian friends, I'm equally willing to say the same about an entirely negative philosophy that goes no further than "everybody else is wrong." Shrillness has nothing to do with it. I don't like shrill people because they're shrill, irrespective of their philosophy.

Agreed, no one should be denied the right to criticize atheisms more radical than their own. I also agree that it would be wonderful if Kaufman clarified his belief (or unbelief). But to defend atheism by emphasizing its similarities to religion leaves some people out. People whose right to their (strict) non-belief should be protected, and who are no less qualified for public office (assuming that strict separation of church and state is as much about protecting church from state as it is the other way around). I suppose I would be happier if it were "nonbelievers can be believers too" or something like that.

I think we're on the same side here and the initial confusion might have been a matter of conflating belief and faith. Part of the tension no doubt stems from the fact that theists often obnoxiously and ridiculously pronounce to atheists that we're the ones who actually believe/have faith in something absurd, we just deny it.

My point, of course, is that it's absolutely true that atheism is a religion the way not collecting stamps is a hobby... and that define yourself entirely as someone who does not collect stamps is pretty shallow and uninformative. To go to the next step and define yourself as someone who thinks that people who do collect stamps are misguided at best and evil at worst is where it gets shrill. Tell us instead what you do instead of collecting stamps, and why you do it.

I've read Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens. I like two of them quite a bit. And I do think all of them have pretty strong belief systems. They have to have a firm sense of the good and the right to believe so strongly that religion corrupts it. I don't think that makes their beliefs "similar to religion," however, nor am I saying that nontheistic philosophy is only valid when it's packaged in some form of ritual or community. But I would hope that anyone who wants to contribute to the public welfare/discourse would have a positive philosophy underpinning their actions, and I don't think basing it on science and reason rules that out. ("Positive" in the logical, rather than emotional, sense, though that too, I guess).

The argument that atheism is not a belief system is true, but it should be at most a starting point for a discussion about what a person's belief system is. Personally, I don't make it a starting point because my non-belief in god is largely irrelevant to what I believe.

Finally, I'd like to correct the impression that religious people -- or at least evangelicals -- think you're cooler if you identify yourself as a humanist rather than an atheist. In my experience it befuddles them. They can argue on their own terms with someone who doesn't believe in God, and they see that person as simply "lost" and waiting to be found. Someone who actively professes nontheistic beliefs are regarded with more suspicion and, on the outer edges, as tools of Satan.

Not collecting stamps is my anti-drug.

Sullivan seems to think that atheism is a single set of beliefs. There are lots of ways to be an atheist.

As an aside, I get the impression that Obama sees Christianity as a spiritual framework rather than as a comment about the supernatural.

If religion were about beliefs, it would be a lot simpler. Sometimes its about candles, incense and s&m.

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