November 20, 2008

Non-Belief in America: A Rising Tide of Reason?

I find a recent story in The Wall Street Journal encouraging (hyphal tip to Greater Worcester Humanists for the lead). It talks about the growth and emergence of the secular movement in the USA and the rather humorous, panicky attempts by religious extremists to push back against it.

Atheists Reach Out -- Just Don't Call It Proselytizing

Nonbelievers Think the Time Is Right to Better Organize Their Nonreligion and Swell the Membership; 'Reason's Greetings'

...During the past three years, membership has grown in local and national associations of nonbelievers. Books attacking faith as a delusion shot up best-seller lists. For the first time, the faithless even raised enough funds to hire a congressional lobbyist.

Building on that momentum, nonbelievers have begun a very public campaign to win broad acceptance. On billboards and bus ads, radio commercials and the Internet, atheists are coming forward to declare, quite simply: We're here. And we're just like you...

Not so fast, religious leaders respond. They point out that the vast majority of Americans believe in God. A poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life earlier this year found 71% of American adults are absolutely certain God -- or some sort of universal spirit -- exists, and a further 17% said they were fairly certain. Only 5% said flatly that they don't believe.

Atheists "are talking to a very small slice of the population," said Mathew Staver, a leading Christian conservative and law-school dean. "In some ways, they're really just talking to themselves..."
Of course Staver would say that. Staver says a lot of things that don't make much sense. As far as his being a "law-school dean," that's technically true... if you consider Liberty University a school instead of a religious indoctrination center. That's a hard case to make in light of their doctrinal statement and the statement of belief that all faculty there is required to sign, though.

In this case, Staver is twisting facts to suit his argument when he says "only" 5%. Even if that figure were true, 5% is not an insubstantial number of people. To put it in context, the Pew Forum's most recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey shows that only 1.7% of the population follows Judaism and 1.7% is Mormon. Unless Staver wishes to argue that Jews and Mormons have no impact on the rest of America, that they are "really just talking to themselves," then the same can't be said about nonbelievers. I wonder how these other groups feel about Staver suggesting that they should be ignored?
Secularist groups say their membership began to surge in 2005, when Congress sought to prevent Terri Schiavo's husband from removing her feeding tube. Many new members said they hoped nonbelievers could serve as a counterweight to religious influence in political affairs...
Bingo. As is noted later in this article, the rational community is by no means homogeneous and, by its very nature, is not particularly prone to organizational efforts for that reason. Still, the increasing stranglehold of those who believe that their religion should serve as the blueprint for law over political discourse in this country has served as a goad for nonbelievers to put aside differences and come together to push back against the American shariah movement. We can have rational arguments about those areas of disagreement later; they're just not as important in light of a much greater challenge. To do otherwise is tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Rather than renew old battles, such as the symbolic fight to remove "In God We Trust" from currency, members are mobilizing to repair what they view as breaches of the wall between church and state -- such as federal funding for faith-based charities and teaching of intelligent design in science class. They believe many others sympathize with their views -- but are too timid to commit.
I have to admit that as much as I usually dislike having "In God We Trust" on currency, there's a certain irony to the slogan that I can enjoy during the current economic meltdown.
The new ad campaigns and other public-relations efforts are designed to raise comfort levels about atheism by making the point that nonbelievers are "just as ethical and moral as anyone else," said Lori Lipman Brown, who lobbies Congress on behalf of the Secular Coalition for America.

As Doug Krueger, a philosophy professor in northwest Arkansas, put it: "Step one is for people to know we're not crazy, we're just regular people [who have] perfectly satisfactory lives without believing in God."
There's an irony, too, in the necessity for people who don't believe in an invisible, omnipotent being and its winged, praise-singing minions to demonstrate that they aren't crazy while belief in divine intervention and incorporeal evil spirits is the norm. Sarah Palin can talk about an immaterial divine hand "opening doors" for her to "plow through" and much of America nods its head in agreement that such things happen, but if we contend that no bearded man from a parallel dimension provides opportunities, that we humans are responsible for the state of our own and one another's lives, we're a bunch of misfits!
So the American Humanist Association is spending $42,000 to plaster buses in Washington, D.C., with ads asking: "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake." FreeThoughtAction and its local affiliates have put up billboards all over the country asking: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." Eight billboards are going up this month in Denver...

Organizers of such efforts generally say they aren't trying to evangelize. Instead, they say their goal is to make the public more comfortable with the concept of atheism and give fellow nonbelievers a sense of community.

In seeking the spotlight, the movement risks a backlash. Some Christians find the billboards deeply offensive, especially at this time of year. In recent weeks, press releases from the religious right have accused atheists of "mocking" and "insulting" Christmas. In rural Chambersburg, Pa., one Christian group responded to an "Imagine No Religion" billboard with a giant sign of their own, asking: "Why Do Atheists Hate America?"
Ah, there's the humorous part. It hearkens back to the days of 2003, when 83% of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq and those of us who thought it a bad idea were confronted with that stupid question, "Why do you hate America?" If any empty-headed question is symbolic of blind faith, of going along with the crowd simply because it's the majority, that's the one. And just as we in that 17% minority spoke our minds then not because we hated America but because we hoped to steer it away from a direction we thought bad for it, those of us in the 5% that Staver insists is talking to itself are trying to change the course of America toward one that leads to greater reason, to policy based on empirical reality rather than wishful thinking, and to a better future in general. It has nothing to do with hating anything, whether it's a religion or a country, and everything to do with simply being rational. If we have to organize to do that, if we have to reach out to others who have no connection to other nonbelievers in their own localities, so be it.
Still, leading activists say nonbelievers tend to be just as wary of organized atheism as they are of organized religion -- making it tough to pull together a cohesive movement.

"A pastor can say to his flock, 'All rise,' and everyone rises. But try that in an atheist meeting," said Marvin Straus, co-founder of an atheist group in Boulder, Colo. "A third of the people will rise. A third will tell you to go to hell. And a third will start arguing....That's why it's hard to say where we're going as a movement."
No kidding! Independent thought doesn't necessarily lead to agreement; it often results in the opposite. Aside from the core idea behind secular thought — that theology shouldn't be the basis for policies that affect the lives of all Americans — there's plenty of disagreement and debate about the particulars and priorities beyond. That very debate, though, is what reason should encourage. It's how a society learns, changes and progresses. If you find ten nonbelievers in a room agreeing with one another about some aspect of social policy, you can bet that they've been in that room for at least a couple of hours and half of them will probably have exhausted their voices. The very fact that we can change our minds is a strength.

If the theocratically-inclined find this offensive, if they believe that their religions are under attack because we put up a billboard expressing dissent against it and offering some other way of thinking, too bad. It's going to keep happening and all indicators point to it becoming more widespread, not less. That's America for you, and that very freedom is one of the reasons that I, and other secularists, believe it's worth inciting the outrage of those who would take it away. It's a risk we're willing to take on behalf of our country.

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