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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • John Nernoff

    The U. S. Constitution was created to hold politicians in check.

    What about Islam? Corners of that vast superstition hold the world hostage in terror. How do we re-educate over a billion believers in Jihad?

  • Justin

    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.

    Sometimes I struggle with this issue. Yes, politicians are elected by the people and should be held accountable for their actions in office. However, I think that politicians should lead public opinion (through persuasion) and be fully prepared to uphold unpopular but moral laws and to oppose unjust laws no matter how popular those laws are. I’m stating the obvious, of course.

    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 predict that this will change enough that we will have an atheist president in 12 to 20 years; enough time for the stereotypes to subside a bit and for such a candidate to work their way up to a governorship or Senate seat from which to jump to the presidency.

  • Christopher

    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.

    They do this because they have no real power at all – they need to remain inoffesive as possible to the mob and kiss the asses of the special interests for the lack of the ability to say “no” to either one of them. Instead, they promise the moon to the masses (which ususally swallow whatever is pleasing to them) whilst splipping as many favors through legislation for the special interests (who practically own the government).

    I’ll admit that democracy seemed like a “good” idea at the start, but now I’ve completely lost faith in the system…

  • http://www.brucealderman.info/blog/ BruceA

    I think Elizabeth Dole’s attacks on Kay Hagan may actually have increased the possibility of getting an atheist elected in the near future. I’m sure at least some people asked themselves the question, “What if she were an atheist?” and decided that her competence is not dependent on her religious views.

    Once people start imagining the possibility of electing someone who does not believe in God, it becomes easier to actually do it. For that matter, wasn’t Jesse Ventura an atheist?

  • MisterDomino

    I liked this post very much, Ebon, especially this part:

    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.

    Demagogues have existed since the idea of democracy came into being, and the only true safeguard against them is a populace motivated by reason rather than emotion. A free society begins to decline when that populace shirks its civic responsibilities – namely, the eternal state of vigilance required to be a good citizen. Living as a free individual isn’t always easy because it means shouldering the burdens necessary to safeguard that freedom, both for oneself and for posterity.

    Politicians are masters in the arts of sophistry and persuasion; it’s hard to get elected if you’re telling it straight and your opponent is promising the world to anyone who casts a ballot for him. Like Ebon mentioned, the only way to combat such techniques is with rational mores that encourage justice, liberty and fraternity.

    This is something that Ingersoll understood well, and it’s something we atheists should always keep in mind. Religion is plagued with spiritual shills who claim to guarantee salvation, usually in exchange for your life savings. They exploit people’s deepest beliefs and insecurities in order to pad their personal expense accounts – and they get away with it because those same people have little experience with critical thinking. Ingersoll was one of the most respected, although not always liked, intellectual minds of his time, and he could have had more political influence than most people dream of had he pursued it. However, he chose to risk his reputation and poison any chance he would have in the political arena to be a standard-bearer for reason, rallying Americans together to combat such base exploitation. He knew such path was long, arduous and fraught with peril, but eventually, the rational would vanquish the irrational.

    In lieu of fame and fortune, he chose virtue. This is the most important lesson that Robert Green Ingersoll taught us; atheism is a natural path to altruism because reason encourages faith in mankind.

    If any theist ever claims that God holds a monopoly on goodness or that atheists can’t be moral, point them toward Ingersoll.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    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.

    In lots of places in this country, they wouldn’t even have to take things out of context. It would be enough to say, “He’s an atheist,” to shoot down any chances you would have had.

  • mikespeir

    Granted, you can’t even say publicly that you don’t believe in God without offending a lot of people. Nothing we can do about that. But Robert Ingersoll showed how to do it right. Anyone who was offended at his words was just too easily offended.

    If any theist ever claims that God holds a monopoly on goodness or that atheists can’t be moral, point them toward Ingersoll.

    Amen to that! If we all lived up to his standards, most believers would have to hang their heads in shame by contrast. The “moral argument” would become a quaint relic.

  • Christopher

    Amen to that! If we all lived up to his standards, most believers would have to hang their heads in shame by contrast. The “moral argument” would become a quaint relic.

    Doubtful – it’s more likely they would just proceed to redefine “morality” to suit their own purposes and then accuse you of not following it.

  • Vin

    As perhaps your only ‘right-winger’ on your site, I couldn’t agree with you more on this statement:

    The best way to bring about real reform, real progress and justice in society, is not to create more regulation or more rules.

    But by being so against the Bush administration and electing a whole sea of Democrats, you bring more regulations on our country and less freedon.

  • Christopher

    But by being so against the Bush administration and electing a whole sea of Democrats, you bring more regulations on our country and less freedon.

    The Bush admistration pushed for plenty of new regulations to serve their masters too, you know. I don’t see another republican administration being any different from the incoming democratic one – both will do nothing more than make promises they don’t intend to keep and kiss the asses of the special interests…

  • Neil

    A self-described right winger…must be time for the avalanche of scare tactics, ignorance, and B.S. Please enlighten me about the horrible loss of freedoms we will suffer under these Stalinist democrats. Are we outlawing all guns and SUVs as soon as Obama takes office, or waiting until summer? And we have to get started on ending capitalism right now or we’ll never be ready for the launching of the new communist state! Of course if we kill the free market too soon, there won’t be any money left to build the tolerance training camps! Oh, what to do, what to do?

    If you insist on holding to the ridiculous lie that our democrats are actually particularly liberal, the least you could do is consider the results of right-wing government as well. Maybe there are reasons to be anti-Bush.
    The last eight years of Bush and unfettered right-wing powermongering has hurt this country in plenty of ways. Expanding executive power beyond our nice checks and balances, waging pre-emptive war based on lies and cherry-picked intelligence, ignoring the free market and rewarding cronies with expensive, no-bid contracts to repair the damage done in an unnecessary war. Using terrorism as an excuse to violate the constitution and put us into a semi-permanent neverland of expanded government power. Using tax money to promote and reward sectarian religious groups for delivering the ignorance vote.
    Eight years of Bush and worthless right-wing thieves and murderers…where’s that smaller government and lower taxes? They had eight years, and yet not one good result! I guess you could argue that there is more liberty and less rules now, but not for the citizens, just for our phone tapping, torturing, war criminal government and the corporations that assist them…not the kind of liberty I need in my life, thank you! What we have are a dramatically larger, more powerful government that has violated more rights, spent more money, and created more national debt than any liberal(s) in American history! Maybe I could take conservatives more seriously if they could hold on to even one of their own self-proclaimed values. Please feel free to get some facts together, and maybe you won’t sound so ignorant in the future.
    For the record, I agree that social change is better from the ground up than forced from above. Some amount always has to be from the ground up, or civil unrest and even war becomes a risk. Unfortunately, if we want to have any forests left, if we want to protect any wildlife, if we want to slow climate change, if we want to promote equality for all humans, if we want to see all children have decent healthcare, if we want sexual autonomy, or if we want to accomplish any of many different worthwhile goals…you know, securing LIBERTY for ourselves…society cannot always wait for the bigoted, the greedy, and the ignorant to grow up and act like human beings.

  • mikespeir

    Doubtful – it’s more likely they would just proceed to redefine “morality” to suit their own purposes and then accuse you of not following it.

    Sadly, that’s probably true. Besides, don’t you know, the very worst of sins is not accepting Jesus. They’ve got us on that one no matter what.

  • Vin

    Neil, PLEASE! I’m not a big supporter of the last few years of the Bush admin., but the FDR mindset of goverment having all the answers is wrong, as well. Social Security, Public Education, Welfare, and Medicare are just a few examples of good intentioned policies that are poorly mishandled and have become beaurocratic, costing the taxpayer (i.e. the middle class) loads of extra money. Ever look at your Federal withholding lately? And I’ve also heard from Obama and a few other Democrats like Leahey and Schumer that they want to resestablish the ‘Fairness Docrine’ which would take successfull talk radio and make it pure vanilla.

  • Christopher

    Sadly, that’s probably true. Besides, don’t you know, the very worst of sins is not accepting Jesus. They’ve got us on that one no matter what.

    Yep, that’s pretty much all they have to do to call you “evil.” Thus one of the main reans I no longer care what they think of us on a “moral” level…

  • StaceyJW

    On topic:

    Its a nice dream, but an atheist president seems SO far away to me. I know people thought that a black (or half black) president wouldn’t be possible, but look how long it took to get there. The fight for free thinkers as equals in society has only just begun, and I think that religious intolerance will be harder to defeat than racial hatred. I HOPE I am wrong though.

    Sad to say, but Politics IS all about the common denominator, and the only way to gain power as a minority is to strategically organize from the bottom up. This is what the religious right did, and look how far they got. The problem is that most free thinkers have other things to do with their lives. Since we know this is the only life we have, we don’t spend it narrowly focused on making others bend to the “will of our lord and master”. Believing that you are on the side of “god”, and all that is right, is a powerful motivator.

    As far as safeguarding our freedoms goes, most people in the US aren’t even aware of what freedoms they HAVE. Every time a show does a segment where they go to people on the street and ask about the constitution, 99% of people are clueless! They cannot fight for, or value, what they are not aware of. Voting may be the cornerstone of democracy, but the meaning gets lost when the population doesn’t understand the real issues. Education, and a focus on journalistic integrity (and media thus created) is the best way to combat this. There is a reason the free press was protected.
    And,
    I agree the fairness doctrine is ridiculous, but don’t forget it was the modern right wing who destroyed our most important, basic, freedoms- more than any other group. Personally, I would love to see the hate mongers that spread misinformation and venom (Hannity! O’Reilly! Fox News!) stopped, but not this way. I still can’t believe anyone listens to them, they are boastfully ignorant and blatantly hateful caricatures.

    Off topic:

    Vin-
    Basically, FDR created safety net programs to cover people where the free market cannot/ will not. I don’t see this as failure. And I don’t mind paying for it. (BTW education is funded by local taxes). I don’t think government has to have all of the answers, but it is the best way to provide this safety net. Could these be improved? Of course.

    The FDR doctrine has been SUCH a “failure” that…
    – All people have a shot at education now (not that all schools are good, but the majority ARE). And you are still free to home school your kids if you want.
    – Social security creates a back-up savings plan and social net for older Americans- this is even MORE important now that most companies have lowered wages while eliminating pension plans, and many peoples 401K’s and retirement savings are being wiped out by the “free market” liars.
    – Medicare covers a vast number of people, even those that are rejected by private care plans. I don’t see private insurers are lining up to cover the elderly (unless their primary coverage is MEDICARE).
    – Medicaid- Is a plan to cover the nations most vulnerable- the poor, the very ill, and pregnant women without maternity coverage. Are we to quit covering them, and if so, who will?

    Middle class people are saddled with the responsibility to pay for EVERYONE (not just the needy, but also the very wealthy) because large companies/ the super rich avoid their taxes through off shore accounts, and other tax dodges. If the wealthiest 1% don’t pay more, the rest of us will.
    But someone will pay.

    StaceyJW

  • Vin

    Stacey:

    You are a voice of reason. I’m not knocking these programs outright, but they meed major reform. The’ve become a place where politicians hire people they either owe favors to or build their own base of people who then owe them favors. Anyway, this is off topic, perhaps we can discuss this in another forum!


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