Not fully human?

There’s a fuss going on in places like (excellent site for nonbelief-relevant news!) about this statement on BBC radio by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, that “atheists are not fully human.”

I’m not sure I agree with the fuss. In the context of his religious beliefs, O’Connor’s statements are reasonable. Most theists, liberals as well as conservatives, think that there is something important lacking in people who do not believe. Most also think that atheists are closed to—even, sometimes, that they deliberately shut themselves off from—critically important transcendent depths toward which religious people orient themselves. And again, it’s hardly unusual if theists think this has moral consequences, not to mention that nonbelievers therefore are deficient in appreciating the purpose humans are made for. “Less than human” strikes me as merely an honest, even mild, way of expressing that conviction.

As long as such sentiments don’t have strong political consequences, such as handicapping nonbelievers in public life because they are not “fully human,” (and I see no reason to think the Cardinal meant this) I don’t see much of a reason to complain here. If some nonbelievers are tempted to get nicely outraged over these sorts of statements, well, perhaps that should also lead them to more sympathy toward Muslims who get worked up over insults to their way of life.

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