Speaking Truth to Popularity

When the great freethought orator Robert Ingersoll died in 1899, the New York Times eulogized him thusly:

…there is something more in the orator’s art than the power of expression. There must also be sympathy in the sense of an electrical connection which is set up between speaker and hearers. And eminently Ingersoll had this. He never misjudged, more properly, he never misfelt his audience.

…He held the keys of laughter and of tears, and there are many passages, mostly, indeed, detached sentences or even phrases, in his addresses which move even the reader and which strangely thrilled the hearers.

And yet, despite its praise for Ingersoll’s oratory, the obituary goes on to say:

Of the chief use to which these remarkable gifts were put there is really nothing to be said in favor… He went about denying and ridiculing for the joy it gave him to agitate dignitaries and bigwigs. The effect upon the public could not be otherwise than bad. The irony, by a stroke of justice, of fate, was that the lack of respect in which he exalted was his bane, that by reason of it and of his free exhibition of it he never took that place in the social, the professional, or the public life of his country to which by his talents he would otherwise have been eminently entitled.

In Ingersoll’s day, just as today, outspoken freethinkers were scorned as “disrespectful” and accused of not paying the proper deference to the delicate sensibilities of believers. But what I find interesting is the Times’ admission that Ingersoll could have had a long and successful political career, if not for his habit of speaking his mind honestly about religion.

It is still the case today that open nonbelievers are more or less shut out of politics. Although we are making gains, it seems to me that we’re destined to remain outsiders for the foreseeable future. I doubt I’d ever run for office; I can only imagine the kind of attack ads an opposing candidate could create against me, just by lifting snippets out of context from this website. We still have a lot of progress left to make before an openly atheist candidate would stand a chance. Even so, I’m not too regretful about that. For two reasons, I think atheism stands a better chance of achieving real progress out of office, rather than in it.

First is that except in rare instances, politicians do not lead public opinion, they follow it. This is as it should be in a democracy, since we’d expect people to vote for candidates who will represent their views. But it also means that, other than in exceptional circumstances, politicians can’t be the drivers of real social change. That kind of change must begin with the grass roots and work its way up. It also means that those in the vanguard of reform are rarely elected to public office. Only once those views have prevailed and become popular do their successors stand a chance. If there comes a time when open atheists can be elected to office, then we’ll know that our goals have largely been achieved. The real work of changing people’s minds is being done now, during the first generation of activism.

The other reason is that politicians, unlike private citizens, have to take into account the views of all their constituents. The necessity of winning elections means that candidates must often take the politically expedient position rather than what they truly believe, and this makes it far more difficult for them to express their own views. We all know countless examples of this, of politicians expressing themselves in bland language carefully parsed to offend no one, or blatantly pandering to influential lobbying groups or wealthy special interests.

Here on Daylight Atheism, I don’t have that problem. I don’t have to pander to religious groups or flatter their beliefs, and I don’t have to be concerned about getting a majority to agree with me. I can speak my mind precisely as I believe. The nature of the blogosphere is as a source of independent and unfettered commentary, while the world of political discourse is always carefully shaped and tailored to appeal to popular sensibilities. The two don’t mix well, as Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan unfortunately found out in their ill-fated tenure at the John Edwards campaign.

The genius of democracy, and also its greatest failing, is that people get the government they deserve. As easy as it is to satirize the clumsy pandering and overheated rhetoric of politicians, the fact remains that they do it because it works. Our government is a reflection of the popular will. If government is saturated with Bible-thumping fundamentalists, it’s because that’s what people want to see in their officeholders. If government is corrupt and run by moneyed interests, it’s because ordinary people are apathetic and easily led by expensive ad campaigns. To complain about the hypocrisy and corruption of politicians is to treat the symptom without addressing the cause. The best way to bring about real reform, real progress and justice in society, is not to create more regulation or more rules. The way to do this is to educate the voting public so that they demand it. That is the role atheists should take – not to win office and bring change by fiat, but to focus on educating and persuading the public, poking holes in popular delusions and countering bad arguments with reason. As Ingersoll knew, if we can achieve that, all the rest will follow naturally.

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