Skip to content

Rambling diatribe about atheism, politics, and the word “secular”

I don’t know American Atheists president David Silverman, but he strikes me as kind of a brash guy. The kind of person who thinks that atheist activism means pissing off religious people, and if you haven’t succeeded in that then you’re doing it wrong.

But apparently he’s now trying to get along with religious people, or at least with America’s political party most known for being religious, because he tried to get a booth for American Atheists at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. The booth was denied, because it turns out (who knew?) that CPAC feels threatened by atheists. Silverman decided to attend the conference on his own anyway, where he was interviewed by The Raw Story’s Roy Edroso.

It’s not a long interview at all, so read the whole thing. If you do, you’ll see that Silverman initially characterized the positions that social conservatives commonly take on “gay rights, right to die, and abortion rights” as “theocratic” which means that they’re not “real conservatives” (real conservatives aren’t theocratic?) before being interrupted by Edroso, who said that the “Right to Life guys” would object to being told they aren’t real conservatives. At which point Silverman replied:

I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion. You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.

 …which seems to have annoyed a few atheists into temporarily forgetting what “secular” means. At Skepchick, Sarah Moglia writes:

If by “secular argument,” you mean “a belief based on personal feelings,” then, sure, there’s a secular argument against abortion. There could be a “secular” argument against puppies, in that case. If you’re using “secular” to mean “a logical, science-based, or rational” belief, then no, there is no “secular argument” against abortion. The supposed “secular arguments” against abortion are rooted in misogyny, a lack of understanding of science, and religious overtones.

Which PZ Myers read and replied to with his own blog post entitled There’s a secular argument for wearing underpants on your head. So?  in which he says “I’m trying to figure out what this secular argument is.”

Really? Actually there are a lot of secular arguments against abortion. They include, among others:

  • A fetus is a human. It’s wrong to kill any human. 
  • A fetus is the property of the man whose sperm helped to create it as much as it is of the woman who carries it. Therefore no woman should be able to abort without the permission of the man who inseminated her.
  • Fetal pain
  • Abortions are expensive and hard on a woman’s body, therefore wrong. Something to be avoided if at all possible. 
Note: I didn’t say they were good arguments. 
This is because all that is required for an argument to be secular is that it not be based in religion. That’s it. It has nothing to do with “personal feelings,” which could be religious feelings just as easily as they could be non-religious, and a secular argument is by no means necessarily logical, science-based, or rational, let alone moral. So yeah, you could make a secular argument for wearing underpants on your head, which is why it’s sort of baffling not to be able to grok secular arguments against abortion. 
Something which, as we saw, Silverman only “admitted” when pressed. He clearly is not pro-life himself, so isn’t it a little odd to make a big deal about him acknowledging that secular arguments against abortion exist when he’s not even the one who brought it up? 
Maybe not too terribly odd. See, there are some other important things to consider.
The first is that of course, arguments that are phrased to be secular often come from non-secular motivations. See, for example, the entire Intelligent Design movement. There is no shortage of people on the religious right who see the strategic advantage in trying to Lemon Test their beliefs into law and classrooms by expunging all religious terminology from it, and “Fetuses are people” is the clearest example of that when it comes to abortion. “Person” is a legal category, but the notion of fetal personhood is generally endorsed by people who think God is the one who makes people, therefore when God puts a person in a woman’s uterus she has no business trying to get rid of it. 
You don’t have to believe in souls or even God to make this argument (that is, you can put it in secular terms), but people who make this argument almost inevitably believe in God and souls. The same is true for people who argue against gay marriage by complaining that it’s an aberration of “traditional” marriage, when “tradition” is merely code for “that’s the way God wants it” (and never mind that the Bible is absolutely brimming with nontraditional marriages if that’s what “tradition” means). 
Really, what underlies this reaction to Silverman simply acknowledging that there are secular arguments against abortion is anger at him for trying to market atheism to conservatives in the first place. For being rather conservative himself, albeit not your typical conservative, and then– here’s the kicker– claiming that he’s a true  conservative whereas abortion opponents, opponents of gay marriage– social conservatives– are not. Sorry Dave, but it comes off as a little ridiculous to play No True Conservative when the people you’re saying aren’t True Conservatives (TM) just got done booting your booth from their conference because they felt threatened by you. Surely he should be reserving these comparisons for when CPAC feels threatened by pro-lifers and homophobes. That is, ironically, when it’s no longer actually very conservative at all.

The Raw Story article goes on: 

But why is this his battle? Why not let conservatives be conservatives and just vote for the candidates he likes? “Because I want a choice,” said Silverman. “I don’t get a choice at the voting booth, ever.” He describes himself as a “fiscally conservative” voter who “owns several guns. I’m a strong supporter of the military. I think fiscal responsibility is very important. I see that as pretty conservative. And I have my serious suspicions about Obama. I don’t like that he’s spying on us. I don’t like we’ve got drones killing people…” In the final analysis, “the Democrats are too liberal for me,” he says.

It’s not unusual for libertarians– which is what Silverman actually is, so far as I can tell– to talk this way. Not at all. And it’s not so much that they’re wrong per se, as completely unaware that someone listening has no idea what they’re talking about. I don’t, for example, know what the words “fiscal conservative” mean when coming from the mouth of someone who just called himself a “strong supporter of the military.” There is nothing fiscally conservative about having a defense budget larger than that of the next ten most militarily spendy countries in the world combined.

The term “fiscal conservative” is a libertarian dog whistle, or actually I suppose just a whistle because everybody knows that’s what it means. Is supposed to mean. The problem, of course, is that nobody who calls him or herself a fiscal conservative actually is one, which makes it an even more aggravating theft of terminology than Republicans claiming ownership of the word “family.” Liberals don’t speak up about this more often because they don’t believe that government spending is bad by default and taxation is theft (nor should they; that’s quite sensible of them), but they also recognize that when someone calls him/herself a fiscal conservative what he/she generally means is that he/she is anti-welfare. Anti-government spending, when it might help out minorities, women, and the poor. And liberals don’t think it’s so gosh darned important to be fiscally conservative in the first place, so they rarely point out that ending the drug war, legalizing sex work, cutting back on the military campaigning, even giving out birth control for free (literally, as opposed to mandating that health insurance cover it), you know, the things that make conservatives scream? Would actually save the government boatloads of cash.

The existence of libertarian atheists is, you might say, vexing to liberal atheists. It’s vexing to me as well because libertarians are often morons, prone to doing things like complaining that a sexual harassment policy for a skeptical/atheist conference is a violation of their rights, said rights apparently entailing the freedom to be a sexist boor at a conference without repercussions. Discussions about topics like sexual harassment shouldn’t have to begin with explaining, for the 9,000th time, what’s wrong with sexual harassment in the first place, or how freedom of speech doesn’t apply to private venues where other people have spent good money to get together and exchange ideas and “Sleep with me or you’re a bitch” is not generally one of the ideas they have in mind.

So I can absolutely– totally– understand why someone who has worked for years to connect skeptical/atheist activism with social justice issues, actually improve the world instead of sitting around arguing about whether God does or doesn’t exist, would be infuriated by the notion of the president of American Atheists trying to, in effect, pour some white paint into the enormous black pool of “theocracy” that Silverman even acknowledges is “holding down” a brand of political conservatism that doesn’t involve stepping all over minorities and the poor and taking ownership of their reproductive capacities (since I seriously mixed metaphors there, just imagine the black pool holding things down is the goop that killed Tasha Yar in TNG).

However, differences of political opinion amongst atheists and skeptics also makes me very happy, because it forces us to confront some often inconvenient facts. Like the fact that “secular” only means “without a religious basis.” Like the fact that being right about some very important things does not make you right about everything, and conversely that being very wrong about some things doesn’t make you wrong about others. Like the fact that when you find yourself on the same side as someone you normally disagree with, there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that and counting them as an ally to the extent that they’re willing to be one. Like that refusing to do this comes off as petulant and tribalistic, because it often is.

I want everyone who claims to be skeptical to actually be  skeptical. To make good arguments. To be civil, analytical, and willing to work together for the greater good. Needless to say, I don’t always get what I want. But come on, people…we can do better than this.

Christian like me

[Religiously] Unaffiliated Americans are also less likely to vote in presidential elections than other religious groups. Although they make up 19% of the adult population, the AVS found that only 16% of unaffiliated are likely voters.

This quote, from The Evolution of the Religiously Unaffiliated Vote, 1980-2008, made me pause for a moment. Not to think about the importance or ethics of voting (or not voting, as the case may be). That is a fascinating topic, but one I don’t want to address right now. What I’m thinking about, actually, is what it says in terms of privilege.

Think about the fuss raised about Mitt Romney being Mormon, at least before he received the Republican nomination. It’s the exact same fuss that was raised in 2008, if you recall. Not the right kind of Christian. Not a Christian at all, according to some. Because, you see, Mormons aren’t real Christians. It was an uncanny echo of the objections raised to JFK, who also wasn’t a “real Christian” in spite of considering himself one. Obama, we hear, is also not a Christian. Sure, he might attend church. He might have written prolifically about his faith, and even belong to a Protestant denomination– United Church of Christ. But according to opponents who obviously know Obama’s faith more than he does himself, he’s actually, secretly, a Muslim. Or an atheist. Or both.

Evangelist Billy Graham’s career has been in large part about advising presidential candidates and presidents on how to be more Christian, or at least appear to be. According to With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America,* Graham (who is a registered Democrat, but opposed Kennedy because he was Catholic) began functioning in the role of adviser to the president on behalf of evangelical America with Richard Nixon, whom he advised to actually attend church every once in a while. Graham, for all of the legitimate criticisms one could make of his beliefs, was (and is, so far as I can tell– he’s still kicking around at age 94) at least earnest about them. He didn’t want to control the presidency or the government; he wanted a voice– according to Graham, Jesus did not have a political party (though he did, apparently, have opinions). In 1979 Graham refused to join Jerry Falwell’s so-called Moral Majority, saying:

I’m for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.

It’s notable this same person supported Mitt Romney for president in 2012, and also that he has spent considerable time in his remaining years lending his name to causes opposing gay rights. Graham, who has been called “the Protestant Pope,” is a complicated man— his son Franklin much less so. The modern religious right is either less thoughtful or less honest, or both.

Now, I ask you to imagine…what if Billy Graham was Richard Dawkins? What if every president in America’s history had been a non-believer rather than a Christian, and a self-appointed advocate of secularism became powerful enough to advise every person aspiring to executive office on how to be properly atheist? And this person could decide for all of his followers whether they would join in allegiance in voting for the sufficiently atheistic presidential wannabe, or his/her opponent? I know of Christians who refused to vote in the 2012 election because they didn’t consider Romney a proper Christian, even though he represents their politics. Can you imagine if atheists did the same, from their own perspective?

Yeah, neither can I.

*Excellent book, by the way. Great for enhancing your own historical perspective. 

You know…

…teaching about the various ways people believe in gods in public school is going to be a little difficult if they’re not even allowed to mention the word for someone who doesn’t.

Text at top: “Will not allow this because it could disrupt the
educational process at LPHS”

From Friendly Atheist:

the Secular Student Alliance group at La Porte High School in Texas wanted to put up flyers advertising their group. To make that happen, the school administration had to approve the design (a standard procedure at high schools).
When they submitted a design for approval, this is the message they got back from the principal

Could the principal have crossed out the definition of “atheist” more vehemently? On the post for this on LPHS’s Facebook page, someone commented “if [sic] his pen were a knife, the poster would be a victim of a crime of passion.”

Instruction on religion in public schools

Today my “faitheist” friend Chris Stedman wrote

In high school, I washed dishes and mopped floors at “Taste of Scandinavia Bakery & Café.” (I’m from Minnesota.) It was not a job that played to my strengths, but my manager—a supremely kind and intelligent young man—made it tolerable with his dry sense of humor and incisive commentary.  One day, after a discussion about LGBT activism and how he took his children to a gay pride event, he told me he was a Mormon. “Really? I’ve never met a Mormon before,” I said. “My old church told me that Mormonism is a cult.” A coworker, overhearing us, added: “A cult? Like in ‘Children of the Corn’?” He patiently explained more about his beliefs, but my coworker and I mostly pretended to listen because we both had a crush on him. (He was very handsome. He should probably do one of those “I’m a Mormon” ads.)  A few days later, my coworker pulled me aside and said she talked to her mom and, upon further reflection, didn’t really feel comfortable working for a Mormon. I didn’t know what to say, so I just took a bite of my cream cheese kolache. Public schools should offer religious literacy classes.

In a word, yes. Yes, they absolutely should. In the 1963 case Abington School District v. Schempp, when the Supreme Court declared that school-sponsored bible-reading was unconstitutional, they took great care to note why instruction on religion itself is not:

It is insisted that unless these religious exercises are permitted a “religion of secularism” is established in the schools. We agree of course that the State may not establish a “religion of secularism” in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus “preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.” Zorach v. Clauson, supra, at 314. We do not agree, however, that this decision in any sense has that effect. In addition, it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment. But the exercises here do not fall into those categories. They are religious exercises, required by the States in violation of the command of the First Amendment that the Government maintain strict neutrality, neither aiding nor opposing religion. Finally, we cannot accept that the concept of neutrality, which does not permit a State to require a religious exercise even with the consent of the majority of those affected, collides with the majority’s right to free exercise of religion.[10] While the Free Exercise Clause clearly prohibits the use of state action to deny the rights of free exercise to anyone, it has never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the State to practice its beliefs. 

(emphasis mine)

Primary Sidebar

Secondary Sidebar