Some years ago, I attended a lecture by conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza. He began by asking why atheists care about religion. No one goes around complaining about those who believe in unicorns or mermaids, he said, so why should an atheist complain about theists? Theists and atheists should be allowed their separate viewpoints so that everyone’s happy.
The proper place for religion in society
Atheists are annoyed, and yet they have no reason to be, right?
Wrong. But before I get into that, let me briefly summarize the religious aspects of American society that I’m happy with. It’s okay to hand out leaflets in public places (not government buildings or schools—I’m referring to parks or sidewalks) or proselytize from a soapbox. Free speech is great. We all have to put up with hearing stuff we don’t want to, but the good (each of us getting the same rights) outweighs the bad. Churches are fine. I have no problem with someone saying “Merry Christmas” or religious displays on private property. These are all guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But I do draw a line, so let me summarize some of the things that concern me. I don’t like the tax support for churches ($71 billion in lost taxes each year in the U.S. because church donations are tax deductible). That’s tax money that the rest of us have to make up. I don’t like that all nonprofits’ financial records are available for public scrutiny except those of churches and ministries.
I don’t like “In God We Trust” as my country’s new motto (that change was made about 50 years ago) or on my money. I don’t like “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance (also added about 50 years ago). I don’t like the idea of the Ten Commandments displayed on government property, and I don’t like prayers opening government events like city council meetings.
I don’t like that “I’m more religious than you are” seems to be an important claim to make in politics. In 2002, the Senate passed a resolution in favor of “under God” in the Pledge when that phrase was under attack in the court system. The senators then made a pompous photo op on the Capital steps to demonstrate the God-pleasing (or voter-pleasing?) manner with which they could say the Pledge with “under God.” Even Democrats need to make public pilgrimages to churches to prove their godly credentials.
I don’t like religion clouding policy decisions. President Bush reportedly said in 2003, “I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan. And I did, and then God would tell me, George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq … And I did.”
Why is it that if Bush had said, “Poseidon told me to end the tyranny in Iraq,” he would be laughed at, but when he refers to God, it’s okay? I know the answer, of course—it’s because most of the people he’s talking to are comfortable with the idea of God—but is reason a majority-rules kind of thing?
Political lobbyists of any kind can be a problem, of course, but I don’t like the special influence of religious leaders (James Dobson, Pat Robertson, etc.).
I don’t like that policy questions like abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research are partly driven by religious concerns. I don’t like religion in the form of Intelligent Design masquerading as science in the science classroom. Despite the Dover decision, ID will doubtless reappear, like a hydra.
I don’t like that children are indoctrinated into religion when they’re young and defenseless. I’d like to see religion treated as an adult issue, like cigarettes, sex, or alcohol—something that you can get involved with if you choose, but only after you’re mature enough to weigh the issue properly. Adults are very good at justifying beliefs they arrived at through poor reasoning—that’s why adults from a myriad of religions can each argue with a straight face that theirs is the one true religion. And, of course, this explains why religion must maintain access to children’s minds: their market share would plummet without it.
I don’t like people using religion as a proxy for moral behavior. For example, you’ve probably heard about the survey that ranks atheists as the least trustworthy minority in America.
For more reasons why atheists have a right to be angry, see Greta Christina’s list.
D’Souza is right about one thing—no one complains about belief in unicorns or mermaids. That’s because those beliefs don’t cause harm in society. Contrast that with Christianity.
Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force
for atheism ever conceived.
— Isaac Asimov
Photo credit: Dan Santat