Sadly, Susan Jacoby, who writes the “Spirited Atheist” column for the “On Faith” section of The Washington Post, has penned her last column for the nonce: she’s writing a book on the factors influencing religious conversion.
Her splendid last piece, “American atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious,” is both sad and pragmatic. Sad, because she emphasizes how little influence atheists still have in the U.S. compared to the giant steam-roller of religious lobbies; and pragmatic because, instead of just extolling atheism, she lays out her solutions to the problem.
Here’s what she sees as the problem:
- We atheists are far less influential than we think we are.
For a true measure of the limited influence exerted by atheism on popular culture, one need only turn to the closing bestseller lists for 2011. Leading the “nonfiction” New York Times paperback bestseller list (having been on the list for 56 weeks) is “Heaven Is for Real,” written by the minister-father of a 4-year-old boy who supposedly went to heaven during an emergency appendectomy and saw Jesus (“he had the brightest blue eyes”) and his baby sister, who was actually never born into this world because his mother suffered a miscarriage. This book is also No. 4 on the bestseller list of picture books for small children.
Guess what does not appear on any year-end Times bestseller list? Dawkins’s “The Magic of Reality,” an enchanting work which explains the origins of life to children in a non-didactic way that places religious myth in the context of the long human struggle to understand how we came to be, is nowhere to be found.
The point is that there is a much larger American audience for childish (in this instance, literally so) supernatural fantasies, which should no more be classified as nonfiction than Grimm’s fairy tales, than there is for any book that attempts to present the world as it is to the next generation. That 15 to 20 percent of Americans are no longer affiliated with any church does not replace the default position occupied in American political and cultural life by religion in general and Christianity in particular.
- We don’t have anywhere near the political power or money of religious lobbies.
Even more important, the most potent religious influence on American politics is exercised by those on the far religious right, who — while they represent only a minority of all believers — are backed by huge amounts of money and organizational muscle. I have written many times in this column about the organizational and financial shortcomings that make it difficult for the secular movement, and indeed for liberal religious organizations committed to upholding secular government, to translate their values into real social and political influence.
- Atheists are not politically united in a common goal.
There is a deep split, as demonstrated every week in the comments about my columns, between American secularists descended from the humanism of Thomas Paine and those descended from the social Darwinists of the 19th century and the Ayn Randian “you’re on your own” anti-government ideologues of the 20th century. The problem for the secular right is that politicians who share its anti-government views are also committed to far-right religion. But the split between the humanists and the neo-social Darwinists is a serious problem for the secular movement as a whole, because the two groups find it difficult, if not impossible, to support the same candidates.
- Religion has controlled the dialogue in a way that puts atheists on the defensive.
First, the anti-abortion crusaders seized the brilliant label “pro-life” to characterize anyone who supported legal abortion as “anti-life.” The women’s movement adopted “pro-choice” as an alternative but was never entirely successful at marketing the label. . . Second, the right has made a pejorative out of both intellectualism and liberalism, often equating both with godless secularism.
She talks in detail about how the faithful are controlling government policy to impose their religious values, including denial of reproductive rights, on the rest of us. And the government is giving tons of money to faith-based organizations, even if they purport to use it for secular purposes. At a congressional hearing in October, for instance, the faithful, whining that religious freedom is “under attack,” lobbied heavily for the government to enforce their views about reproduction:
A parade of right-wing evangelical Protestants and representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops testified at the hearings against all attempts by the Obama administration to attach government regulations to taxpayer money. In this view, the administration is waging “war on Christianity” by, for example, mandating that providers with U.S. government contracts offer a “full range of reproductive services” to sex-trafficking victims in the United States and around the world. The church wants to help pregnant girls forced into prostitution by forcing them to have their abusers’ babies.
Bishop William C. Lori, head of the newly formed Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty formed by the bishops’ conference, attacked provisions of the new domestic health care law that impose any government mandates on religious health providers.
This is not the kind of “religious liberty” (another term co-opted by the faithful) conceived by the Founders, including Jefferson’s Virginia Act for Religious Freedom (see below). That, the precursor of our First Amendment to the Constitution, erected a strict wall between government and religious activities.
What, then, does Jacoby see as the most important tasks for atheists now? There are two:
- “If secularists are to succeed in making any inroads on the default position of religion, they must reclaim the original definition of religious liberty, as exemplified by those who passed Virginia’s 1786 law.” I’ve put that law below, and we should all read it for the New Year.
- Get passionate like Hitchens did!
We must reclaim the language of passion and emotion from the religious right, which loves to portray atheists as bloodless, “professorial” (the word always applied to Obama) devotees of abstract scientific principles that have nothing to do with real human lives. This misguided but, again, ideologically useful portrait of atheists appeared frequently in the patronizing eulogies for Christopher Hitchens offered by religious believers who had fallen under the spell of his voice and his prose. . .
This is the sort of mindless obeisance to received opinion propagated by the missionaries for religion as the default position. Confronted by an atheist who does not fit their stereotype, their conclusion is not that the stereotype is awry but that the atheist, deep down, must not really be a true atheist. Because everyone knows that atheists are bloodless elitists (never honest Christian folk) who substitute science with a capital “S” for God with a capital “G.”
One reason why believers couldn’t quite dismiss Hitchens was that he did write and speak with the language of passion and emotion, as Robert Green Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic” did in the 19th century and Thomas Paine in the 18th. I believe that the most crucial task for secularists today is to lay claim to the heritage that unites passion and reason.
This is one reason why we’ll miss Hitch so much. Listen to any of his talks about religion—nay, about anything—and you’ll see a forcefulness and passion showing that, in his bones, he really believed what he said. He was not grandstanding. None of the other New Atheists, eloquent though they may be, come close to that passion, which, wedded with erudition, made Hitchens so mesmerizing. As for me, I’m going to stop smiling when I attack religion in public, a misguided tactic born of nervousness and an attempt to disarm the audience.
Here’s Hitch, in debate with Christian aplogist Frank Turek showing his passion:
Jacoby’s conclusion is powerful, and it’s the message she wants us to remember as she departs to write her book:
. . . let us talk about showing the heavens more just. This is the essence of humanist secularism and humanist atheism and it must be offered not as a defensive response to the religiously correct but as a robust creed worthy of the world’s first secular government. It is also time to revive the evocative and honorable word “freethinker,” with its insistence that Americans think for themselves instead of relying on default opinion. The combination of “free” and “thought” embodies every ideal that secularists hold out to a nation founded not on dreams of justice in heaven but on the best human hopes for a more just earth.
Our greatest weapon against religion, and especially against theologians, is this question: What evidence do you have for your claims? Theology will wither, and with it religion, if we just keep asking that question, which weds “bloodless” science to passionate conviction.
And finally, let’s read the document to which Jacoby pays homage, “The Virgina Statute for Religious Freedom“, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1786. Here it is in its entirety (the link above gives an truncated and annotated version). I’ve put in bold my favorite parts:
I. Well aware that Almighty God has created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal [civil] punishments or burdens or by civil incapacitations [lack of fitness for office], tend only to … [produce] habits of hypocrisy and meanness and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who, being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate [spread] it by coercions [force] on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical [religious], who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion [rule] over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible [ones], and, such, endeavoring to impose them on others, have established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical; that even … forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness … ; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than [on] our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing [of] any citizen as unworthy [of] the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right; . . . that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he [the magistrate], being, of course, judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with, or differ from, his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt [open, or public] acts against peace and good order; and, finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, [for] errors [cease] to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them. [Go Tom!]
II. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
III. And though we well know that this assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the act of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such as would be an infringement of natural right.
Jefferson was so proud of this that it is one of only three accomplishments he wished to be put on his tombstone (he omits his Presidency!), near his home of Monticello, Virginia. (Note as well that he died on July 4, 1826—the very same day as his predecessor as President, John Adams.)
Alongside Hitchen’s Razor (“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”) should stand Jefferson’s Dictum: “Errors cease to be dangerous when it is permitted to freely contradict them.”
Happy New Year!
h/t: Diane G.