Mitch Daniels’ anti-atheist comments

Indiana governor Mitch Daniels is getting some favorable attention from libertarians, perhaps with some justification given his reading habits. However he has nothing kind to say about the atheists among us:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.

Everyone’s certainly entitled in our country to equal treatment regardless of their opinion. But yes, I think that folks who believe they’ve come to that opinion ought to think very carefully, first of all, about how different it is from the American tradition; how it leads to a very different set of outcomes in the real world.

I was going to write a longer post about this until I realized the quote is from a December interview. That’s remarkable in itself, given that I just recently came across it. An American governor saying that any religion “leads to brutality” would surely have made bigger headlines, but disparage atheists and hardly anyone takes notice until months later.

Atheists have polled as the least trusted group in the US and a majority of respondents say they would not vote for an atheist candidate. Statements from politicians like Daniels are part of the reason. Since atheists are an invisible minority we have the option of letting such comments slide. As I’ve written before, I think this is a mistake:

Respondents to the survey call atheists elitist and in one sense they are right. Academia and the sciences are wide open to us. Educated Americans on the coasts are more tolerant of atheism. Unless we’re running for public office, no ceiling blocks our ambitions. Unlike other minorities, we have the luxury of not caring what other people think. And so we don’t.

So maybe we ought to be speaking up more. I don’t mean by forming advocacy groups or adopting pretentious new words like “brights,” but by being forthright when people inquire about our religious beliefs. I’m as guilty as anyone of equivocating by saying I’m “not religious” when asked rather than matter of factly admitting to atheism. This polite ambiguity prevents some awkwardness, but keeps atheism outside the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable and, ultimately, shows a lack of respect for ourselves and the people we interact with. Enough of that. We’ve got catching up to do.

To their credit, the Center for Inquiry Indiana has taken Daniels to task for his comments, and Jonathan Turley was on it immediately.

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I’m an atheist about all the gods that matter

Ron Rosenbaum’s “Agnostic Manifesto” at Slate has been making the rounds lately. He makes a few arguments against atheism, the central one being this:

Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. […]

Faced with the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of “multiverses” and “vacuums filled with quantum potentialities,” none of which strikes me as persuasive. […]

Agnosticism doesn’t fear uncertainty. It doesn’t cling like a child in the dark to the dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism. Agnosticism respects and celebrates uncertainty and has been doing so since before quantum physics revealed the uncertainty that lies at the very groundwork of being.

I don’t think this criticism hits the mark. For starters, as Rosenbaum quotes approvingly from John Wilkins, we are all atheists about something: “Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on.” This is the lay meaning of the word “atheism,” and it’s a useful meaning. When I tell people I am an atheist they understand that this means I don’t believe in any of the gods imagined by (or revealed to, if you disagree) human beings, and their understanding is correct.

Does this mean I am 100% certain that no gods exist? No, but certainty is a mug’s game. In real life we are faced with countless hypotheses about the nature of the world and we must use our best judgments about which of them to take seriously. I will concede that there is a non-zero probability that God once made a covenant with my ancestors, or sent down his son to offer us eternal life, or even that we are all headed toward Ragnarök. However I’m not going to spend much time investigating these possibilities.

On this I think Rosenbaum agrees, which leaves us with the less exciting kinds of gods that only philosophers bother talking about. It’s true that I cannot explain “why there is something rather than nothing.” But I don’t see why it should be my job to explain it, or how positing a god does any better. To this question the philosophers’ god is not a solution, but rather the placeholder to a solution. As Julian Sanchez writes, this is merely “gesturing at the realm of mystery and calling the question mark that lives there God.” Without giving the word meaning there’s nothing for me to be agnostic about.

Will advanced physics explain why there is something rather than nothing, if that question makes sense? I don’t know, but I also don’t know where else one would reasonably look. Perhaps the answer will turn out to be something we might call a god, or maybe someday I’ll be presented with a definition of god that plausibly and meaningfully answers the question. Until then I think it most honest to call myself an atheist, at least in regard to all the gods that matter.

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Secular separatists

The Wall Street Journal ran an article last week with more background on the “Imagine No Religion” ad campaign and related developments:

Late next month, atheists, humanists, freethinkers, secularists — in short, nonbelievers of every description — will gather in dozens of cities to mark the holiday they call HumanLight.

Whether by singing from a Humanist Hymnal, decorating a winter wreath or lighting candles dedicated to personal heroes, they’ll celebrate what has been an exhilarating ride for the faithless — a surge in recognition that has many convinced they’re on the brink of making a mark on mainstream America…

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.

The article is interesting throughout and includes the revelation that atheists now fund a congressional lobbyist. I’m looking forward to receiving a federal subsidy for the time I spend not worshiping. Hey, it works for farmers.

So what is this HumanLight day and what happened to its founders’ space bar?

In Western societies, late December is a season of good cheer and a time for gatherings of friends and families. During the winter holiday season, where the word “holiday” has taken on a more secular meaning, many events are observed. This tradition of celebrations, however, is grounded in supernatural religious beliefs that many people in modern society cannot accept. HumanLight presents an alternative reason to celebrate: a Humanist’s vision of a good future. It is a future in which all people can identify with each other, behave with the highest moral standards, and work together toward a happy, just and peaceful world.

I don’t want to denigrate a holiday that’s clearly filling a need for some people, but it seems a bit overly sensitive to think that Christmas is unfit for non-believers. The holiday has already become highly secularized and represents the very things listed above to millions of Americans, leaving them free to attach specific Christian meanings only if they choose to. For many non-Christians the day has as little do with the birth of Christ as it does with the pagan festivals that give it form. Given that HumanLight is not going to knock Christmas off its perch as the primary winter holiday any time soon, this is a good thing. It seems to me truer to the theme of universal good will to continue co-opting Christmas and making it our own than to replace it with an esoteric, separate celebration two days earlier. And if our aim is to make secularism more accepted and appealing, then we should perhaps not send the message that being an atheist requires giving up a treasured holiday with centuries of tradition behind it. (Though if HumanLight makes you happy, by all means enjoy it. The group responds to criticism, including discussion of the capitalized ‘L’, here.)

On a semi-related note, head over to the new Secular Right weblog. It’s got some good names behind it and is off to a promising start.

[WSJ link via Freedom and Shit.]

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God smites

A billboard conveying an atheist message has been taken down in Rancho Cucamunga:

The billboard, at the busy corner of Archibald Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, says “Imagine No Religion” in large letters on a stained-glass background. Underneath is the name of the group, “Freedom From Religion Foundation,” and the group’s Web address…

Judy Rooze, administrator of First Baptist Church of Rancho Cucamonga, which is two blocks from the billboard, was relieved it was coming down.

Rooze said it was unsettling.

“I understand people have freedom of speech, but this is taking it too far,” she said. “It’s very jarring.”

The request to remove the billboard came from the city, which had received 90 complaints from tolerant people of faith like Judy Rooze. It’s not clear from the reports how voluntary that request was, but that’s getting dangerously close to censorship. Cities have no business asking a billboard companies to take down signs just because they have an anti-religious message.

I wonder if Ms. Rooze was offended by the clever “God speaks” billboard suggesting that non-believers will spend eternity in Hell? I’m guessing not, and it’s hard to imagine a city asking that it be taken down so as not to offend secularists.

Unfortunately, this isn’t even the dumbest anti-atheist prejudice I came across today. That dubious honor goes to Wall Street Journal editor Dan Henninger, whose columns I’m embarrassed to admit I enjoyed in college.

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