We should all be secularists

PZ Myers - Guest Columnist
Published: Saturday April 29, 2006

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As some readers of the Raw Story may know, a recent article by Melinda Barton, "The Left's own religious whackjobs", inspired some ferocious denunciations, both in comments and on the wider web. The editors have invited me, an outspoken atheist who has never hesitated to criticize the religious, to provide a rebuttal. I choose not to do that (for one thing, I already wrote a point-by-point rejection of her thesis on my weblog here), but will instead say a few words about the virtues of godlessness, and why even the devout progressive should accept us as comrades-in-arms.

If there were but one message I wanted to communicate, though, it would be that secularism is a progressive value; it is something we should be promoting as a core part of our identity, and an absolutely essential property of good government. Secularism does not in any way imply atheism or agnosticism, nor is unbelief a prerequisite for favoring a government that is completely independent of sectarian religion. At the time of the founding of our country, among the most vigorous advocates of the separation of church and state were the Baptists, not the atheists, who were then and have always been a tiny minority. In a country with a plurality of diverse beliefs (and that also has not changed), it makes sense that the government that serves them all should make no commitment to any one brand of religion, and that we should enforce a studied indifference to all forms of the sacred. It may be counterintuitive to some, but that is the only way to protect the independence and variety of religions that are (unfortunately, to an atheist) thriving in America.

Here's something else on which progressives, both religious and non-religious, should agree: religion is a personal, private, and idiosyncratic belief. What you think in the privacy of your own mind, your home, or any community of the like-minded is not something which should be restricted. However, such personal beliefs should not dictate public policy, except in the broadest sense: if your religious beliefs promote charity, for instance, we shouldn't stand in the way of that. However, when the government favors 'faith-based' charities over those free of religious ideology, then we are seeing shared public investment used to inequitably promote an unjustifiable bias.

This world around us, the material, measurable, physical universe, is shared between us. The supernatural sphere, which we atheists deny, is not, and is peculiar to each religious group and even to each individual. We should be governed by those principles we all hold in common, rather than some untestable and immaterial doctrine held on faith by some minority...or even a majority. It does not violate church doctrine to point out that there is a worldly component to our existence Catholics are bound by gravity, Jews do no violate the laws of thermodynamics, Muslims are worried about Peak Oil, and even atheists heed the Golden Rule so it seems reasonable to me that we should insist that our public servants should restrict their concerns to that worldly part. They can pray for us on their off-hours.

I think that what does far more harm to our cause is to consciously and explicitly associate that reasonable insistence on a secular government with atheism (at least, that is, until we remove the stigma of atheism). It reinforces those false notions that good Christians want a Christian government, that America is a Christian nation, that religion is an essential part of patriotism, and that only the godless would want to keep superstition, religion, dogma, and the supernatural out of a rational government. That is the antithesis of a liberal position, and it supports the goals of the Religious Right. How are we going to promote the virtues of a secular government when our own side panders to the kneejerk anti-atheism of the majority by tying it to a rejection of religion, while simultaneously alienating the freethought community by damning them as extremists?

Here's another important progressive value: tolerance. There is much confusion about what tolerance means. It does not mean that you only allow people whose ideas you like in the party; quite the contrary, if you like and approve of them, it doesn't require the virtue of tolerance to accommodate them. Theists and atheists have mutually exclusive ideas about the afterlife, spirituality, deities, etc. tolerance means learning to hold your nose and deal with people whose beliefs on intangible and irrelevant issues are incompatible with yours in order to make progress on other matters. Trust me on this, but atheists are quite used to holding their gorge back in the face of the daily, unthinking assault of religiosity we face in this country; it would be nice if the Christian majority would learn to return the favor.

Let's compromise. The liberal religious find our disbelief objectionable and uncomfortable. We atheists find their beliefs in the unseen and untestable silly and baseless. We can agree to detest each other's ideas about faith and an afterlife, and even berate each other publicly for each other's beliefs while still finding common cause in improving the world here and now; while our motives may differ, we all want to protect civil liberties, fight for economic equality, oppose the war, promote conservation and renewable energies, fund education and science, and even oppose religious discrimination.

I'm an atheist, and I vote for progressive candidates...even the ones that loudly profess their deep religious beliefs (which is, ummm, like all of them. I don't seem to have much of a choice.) That could only change if progressives abandon their principles and instead find common cause with the Religious Right, making irrelevant piety a prerequisite for patriotism. I see signs of that happening, especially when liberal Christians and Jews are willing to call atheists a threat to freedom and liberty and urge disavowal of some of their most reliable colleagues. Don't blame atheists for driving our country towards Gilead; that's the last place we want to end up.