Obama’s Lip Service to Atheists

This post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the Secular Coalition for America.  He also blogs at Rant & Reason

We got mentioned in an article in Politico today entitled “Atheists keep faith with Barack Obama“.  It addresses the view that Obama has been a mixed bag when it comes to the nontheistic community.  He’s mentioned us in a variety of speeches, true.  But Obama also displays a lot of religiosity and hasn’t made good on some of his promises to restore the separation of church and state.

As a recent example, he’s announced that he intends to nominate Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) to be the new Army Secretary.  McHugh got a 0% rating from Americans United for Separation of Church and State – an ominous sign for our attempts to stop coercive proselytizing in the military.

But he’s giving us exactly the lip service that Secular Coalition president Herb Silverman wished for in his Washington Post On Faith article “For Secular Americans, Lip Service Beats No Service“:

I would be thrilled to see politicians court us by accepting invitations to speak at atheist and humanist conferences, as they do at religious events. I would love to hear them say we were founded as a secular nation, with no mention of any gods in our Constitution, and speak about the value of separating religion from government. I’d be delighted to hear them defend atheists and agnostics from our detractors, reminding Americans that freedom of conscience extends to citizens of all faiths and none.

Yes, even if their words changed nothing about public policy, lip service would be a wonderful new dimension in the relationship between politicians and secular Americans–it would mean public acknowledgement that we exist. It might even lead to the occasional political crumb: an elected official hiring advisers who are openly humanist, for example. Just this minimal level of recognition could go a long way toward changing the hearts and minds of people who assume god belief to be a prerequisite for morality and ethical behavior.

I see no reason why the nontheistic community can’t recognize the good Obama is doing while still pushing him to do more.  In fact, I think it would be irresponsible for us to stop pushing.

So: Thank you President Obama, for what you’ve done for us.  It helps when you include us in the national discourse, and we appreciate that.  But there’s still much more that needs to be done.

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • http://yrif.org Joel

    Just this minimal level of recognition could go a long way toward changing the hearts and minds of people who assume god belief to be a prerequisite for morality and ethical behavior.

    This is a total non sequitur. Being a moral and ethical atheist is a good way to convince people that atheists can be moral and ethical.

    Hiring an “openly humanist” (whatever the f*** that is) political advisor says only that the hirer trusts an “open humanist” to be involved in politics (which, if anything, casts aspersions on his ethics).

  • http://www.secular.org Jesse Galef

    Joel, I agree that serving as an example of a moral and ethical atheist is a good way to convince people that theism is not required to act morally.

    But it’s also extremely valuable to make those examples public. Changing the perception of nontheists will take time and exposure, and public figures and public statements are an important part of the process.

  • http://yrif.org Joel

    But it’s also extremely valuable to make those examples public.

    Oh, I agree with you. I just don’t think that “public acknowledgement that we exist” accomplishes this in any substantial way.

    In any event, my experience is that god-believers are a lot more worried about me not believing in their god than they are about whether I’ll act “ethically” as a result.

    I’ve convinced plenty of god-believers that I’m “ethical,” but that never really seems to make them any happier about me not believing in their gods.

  • http://libskeptics.wordpress.com Sabio

    What I find distasteful here is some sort of sense that Atheists all have the same political inclinations. For instance, though possibly a minority, we have a site for Atheists who highly Value Liberty.
    Many of us are much more concerned with Obama’s economic policies than we are with his religious policies.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-4275-DC-Secularism-Examiner Paul Fidalgo

    I think the Politico is important beyond Obama himself: notice it’s a piece that goes beyond just saying, “Hey, did you know that atheists are a growing movement” and explores one level deeper — it assumes an atheist movement, and takes its temperature. That is a good indicator of things, say I.

  • Steven Capsuto

    Being mentioned neutrally and casually in public discourse dilutes the “otherness” of atheists and agnotics in the public mind. It makes non-theists part of the national “us” instead of part of an all-but-unmentionable “them.”

    Such acknowledgment is especially important for today’s children, who I hope will grow up hearing their president regularly mention theists and non-theists side by side without any value judgment.

    Even if no explicit policies come of it during Obama’s presidency, ongoing inclusive rhetoric can help shape a more tolerant and accepting body politic for the future.

  • T. Mackiewicz

    While I do appreciate what little Obama has done for Atheists, he is still a Christian and this leaves me disappointed that no outted Atheists hold any offices of power within the US government. When will we have our first Atheist Governor or dare I say first Atheist President? A Supreme Court nomination would rock, even though they would be shot down as soon as their name was brought up. I guess, as long as Obama realizes that the religious do not need to have their hands in public life, and does what is necessary to relegate their activities to a private affair, I will, at least grit my teeth and approve.

  • Tony

    I read your piece with interest as an atheist and as a Canadian who is fascinated by the religiosity of the country that invented the separation of church and state. But what I found even more intriguing than the piece itself was the ad directly above it for scientology.org. At first I thought it was a joke, perhaps a link to a parody site; but no, it goes directly to the scientology whackjob main page. S’up with that? By the way, I can’t believe that Obama is as religious as he makes out — my theory is that he’s too smart for that but that he’s also smart enough to know that Americans aren’t ready for a humanist president. I think the very mention of non-believers in his recent speeches hints at his true position. But that’s just a hunch based on nothing substantive, I’m afraid. :)

  • http://twitter.com/GetFamous Carl

    I think the lip service is kind of a big deal. Don’t underestimate the power of a handful of words when heard by millions of people. It just makes it that much safer for people to think rationally about their beliefs, and we all know once you start that there is no going back.

    Like I said, kind of a big deal.

  • anothermike

    Long term Congressman Pete Stark stated in writing in March of this year that he does not belive in a supreme being. In the late 30s and early 40s California had an atheist governor. That’s not many who have been out front about it, and there must be others. I think that religionism is just part of the politcians bag of tricks, and that most of them don’t give a rat’s ass one way or the other about religion, except insofar as it helps them get elected, and then keep their jobs. And, how about those god-awful (oops!) public prayer breakfasts, that elected officials love so well? It is all just advertising for the next election, isn’t it?

  • teammarty

    How long before there is a “Obama is really a closeted Atheist. He’s just pretending to be a PX. I’m surprised there isn’t one yet.

  • Anonymous

    In fact, I think it would be irresponsible for us to stop pushing.

    Some of us think that it is counterproductive to push for trivial things like removing “In God We Trust” from coins, things that have no effect on our daily lives one way or the other. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

    I think you should be grateful for Obama’s acknowledgement that nonbelievers are equals with believers. Expecting him to bend his decisions to suit your agenda is living in la-la land. Why should secularist demands be more important than those from a zillion other special interest groups, only a small percentage of whom can be accomodated? What makes you think secularists have any chance, or even deserve one, of making the short list instead of the cutting room floor?

    There are droves and droves of highly motivated Christian hornets in this country. It you keep wacking at this hornet’s nest, don’t be surprised if the amassed Christian drones sting you to death defending the hive.

    The solution to push groups is not more push groups. That will only keep conflict going on forever, like vendettas. The solution is to bar special interest groups from having so much influence in the first place.

    Of course, that will never happen unless mandated from the top down. There will always be professional warlords on both sides whose business depends on keeping these sorts of culture wars going. But that doesn’t mean that secularists at large have to participate in this kind of warmongering. We can begrudgingly let the warmongers have at it if they insist, but we don’t have to play along. The rest of us can take the high road and wash our hands of it, getting on with the business of life instead of the business of warlords.

    Viva la resistance to fighting just for sake of starting fights!

  • http://diaphanus.livejournal.com/ Ian Andreas Miller

    I see no reason why the nontheistic community can’t recognize the good Obama is doing while still pushing him to do more. In fact, I think it would be irresponsible for us to stop pushing.

    So: Thank you President Obama, for what you’ve done for us. It helps when you include us in the national discourse, and we appreciate that. But there’s still much more that needs to be done.

    I agree!

    Table scraps are better than nothing.


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