There’s been a lot of talk lately about Obama being sympathetic to Islamism, largely due to his recent statements comparing the atrocities of Islam to those of Christianity (as well as the fact that his father was a Muslim before becoming an atheist and the fact of Obama’s four-year prepubescent residence in the predominantly Islamic country of Indonesia). Many who discuss this issue have pointed to a seeming failure to repeat that platitudes regarding the supposedly evil regimes of Islam that Bush used incessantly. At the same time, it seems indisputable that Obama himself has repeatedly claimed to be Christian, in spite of the fact that he has stated that several parts of the Bible are unsuitable for implementation in public policy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to characterize Obama here, as my own position is that he does not believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, but does see value in some aspects of Christian communities’ espousal of liberation theology that he identifies with strongly enough for him to use the title. As an African American outspoken atheist who, I must admit, owes a lot to liberation theology (although atheists, to be sure, did play a part in my ability to enjoy my current rights) I identify with the value he sees in some aspects of Christendom, if not in the Bible itself. To me, liberation theology is a powerful example of how blacks in this country managed to take an ideology that was used as a tool of oppression to fight back against that oppression. They found that the scriptures in the Bible that were used to limit and harm them could actually, through changes in emphasis and interpretation, bring them some liberation. The very book that was used to keep them weak and subservient could be repackaged, in many ways, as a tool of unity and strength.
Many black American atheists of history, like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, A. Philip Randolph, Alain Locke, and so on…were not squarely against religion among blacks, because they saw it as a tool of comfort and strength — though they did not believe in Christian tenets themselves, they saw that many of the goals espoused within liberation theology coincided with their own. At the same time, in their writings and lives they often made room for those who wanted to make the world a less segregated, less oppressive way to live, whether they believed in Christ or not.
I left a relatively conservative Christianity not only because it was untrue, but also because it was oppressive to many groups of people I had come to deeply care about. The literal meaning of the scriptures simply did not leave room for the wide range of vitality’s expressions that I found within others and myself. That it was untrue gave me the option to leave; that it largely seemed oppressive gave me the drive to speak strongly against it while leaving it publicly and decisively.
However, my position relative to Christianity, has been revised and reexamined since I first left. Although I am squarely against the Bible and much of the way theology is commonly translated into policy, I have come to think that Christianity — once you get past some of the figureheads and apologists — is mostly best characterized as a social activity, a community. While it is difficult for me to stand manifestations of this community that seem to more closely resemble that of a patronizing country club, I do, at times, feel myself powerfully drawn to groups of individuals that are passionate about helping the poor, sharing love, showing tolerance, and seeking not only to be understood but to deeply understand and empathize and wrestle with the ideals of friends that are different from their own.
I have said before that to call yourself an atheist is to make a statement, at least here in the Bible Belt. There are large groups of atheists, I’ve come to find, that are very enthusiastically insistent on their apathetic status, and I do think that status is available in many cultures; it seems to be somewhat less available in heart of Texas. If you keep it to yourself, no one may notice — but eventually, many conversations come around to the topic of religion and the statement that you’re an atheist is, in itself, frequently seen as an affront to the religious people you happen to be engaged in discourse with. It is far more socially acceptable — and a much more fashionable — to say that you’re a Christian moderate or progressive. Those titles give you a comfortable middle ground — they allow you to symbolically associate with the perceived beauty of a Christian aura that has real practical social, political, and even economic benefits, while at the same time it allowing you to disassociate yourself from the more outdated positions that Christendom perpetually finds itself apologizing for as moral standards adjust to developing perceptions of morality. Were I a more apathetic atheist who was part of a Christian culture and had no real objection to the content of its belief system, I would probably call myself a Christian moderate or progressive.
And here someone may exclaim, “Really? You would lie?”
Is that a lie, really?
Because, to be perfectly honest, I think that’s what Obama is. He has a strong connection in his history to liberation theology , but I doubt, because of some of the things he’s said about doubt, that he literally believes someone who was stone cold dead for three days waltzed away, or was otherwise evicted, from a tomb 2000 years ago. However, it does seem highly unusual that one’s value to a community would be based on their belief (or lack thereof) of a such a highly unlikely story. If a community in Christendom does provide some real benefits he would like to contribute to, what is to keep him from identifying with its ideals and furthering them?
Yes, I am an atheist. But I also think that, though he may not believe in a remotely literal interpretation of the Bible, Obama has drive to identify with a group of people who are making a social impact he wants to make. And that’s a beautiful thing, I have to admit. Although the prominent group of people in the United States happens to be progressively Christian because of Obama’s strong identification with the black church’s fight for liberation, it also extends to Obama’s understanding of Islam, due to the fact that many (though certainly not all or perhaps even most) Muslim Americans identify with his ideals.
Although I am firmly against Christianity and I think that the Bible is an absolute nightmare of a book, I also feel a need to admit that there is beauty in some communities of Christians who have extremely liberal interpretation of the Bible or who largely ignore the book altogether. As I’ve said before, ideals are there for people, not the other way around. If Christianity were fundamentally changed so that it becomes a more purely symbolic way to promote respect among and between cultures, as opposed to literal truth all humankind are expected to serve at the expense of heart, mind, and conscience, then, although I would not call myself a Christian, I would be much less vocal about its content; there wouldn’t be as much need to oppose it. But standing in the way of such a change is, among other things, unsavory passages and common interpretations of the Bible.
In our current state, I recognize that an atheist who wears the title has no chance of holding the office of a House Representative, let alone the President of the United States. In the end, however, as an anti-theist I am looking for change that respects human lives over that of a nonexistent God, and does so in practice. If Obama can find — as I think he has — a way to identify with the Christian culture while at the same time seeking to promote an ideology that does not place heavy emphasis on allegiance to the literal creeds and prejudices voiced by the Bible…he is probably doing close to what I might be doing if I were in his place.
When trying to figure out whether this makes him an atheist, a deeper question emerges — what, or who, is God? What does it mean to believe in him? I call myself an atheist because I reject a God who has inherent authority over the universe (in addition to rejecting the literal specifics of the Bible’s God in particular). But beyond that, what about an ideal that we give authority to, like the ideal that all human beings should be treated with a sense of dignity and respect? That ideal may not have inherent value, but if we give it value, it carries that value for us, right? So…if we don’t have a blank check of authority that we give to God “just because,” but instead only value ideals insofar as they help us achieve certain effects, then we may be doing something that is in the arena of common sense. It’s hard to deny, for example, that the ideal of equality is not a vehicle in realizing equal rights. But that ideal of equality only has value, then, if we want equal rights to happen.
In a similar way — although most atheists don’t believe in an inherent authority of God who is in charge “just because” (which is what, I think, most religious people mean when they speak of “God”), one may look at a list of effects that benefit humanity, identify the conceptualizations of ideals that would further those effects, and, by valuing those ideals, give the path towards achieving those effects a kind of direction. The ideals are valued because we as human beings want the effects, not at all because the ideals are valuable in and of themselves; without humanity, ideals have no value, so ideals are there to serve humanity, not the other way around.
I think Obama would call the collection of these ideals so conceived “God.” I wouldn’t, partly due, perhaps, to my conservative Christian background. But I think Obama would. And what is in the way of these ideals, he would call “sin.” But the pursuit of that ideals would, in many ways, be secular.
Does the fact that Obama doesn’t actually seem to believe in a real God with inherent value in and of himself — and that he calls himself a Christian to be part of an influential community whose goals coincides with his, as opposed to a belief in the literal Bible story — does that make him an atheist?
Does the fact that most Christians in the United States primarily seem to see Christianity as a social activity as opposed to something whose tenets they take as being serious and binding on their personal life in a profound way — does that make them atheists?
Pastors will mostly say “yes” in more conservative churches, but I think it’s hard to say — I lost interest in defining what a “real” Christian was a while ago, and I use the word “atheist” as a drastic shorthand for an arguably more nuanced position. But it does seem important to realize that, functionally, Obama is doing something important in realizing that people of various social groups and backgrounds can and should come together for the common goal of promoting human dignity. On the outside, as an atheist, I’ll continue to fight to deconstruct the lines religion has constructed. But while that’s a long term project I am passionate about, I also see the value in someone looking at objectives as opposed to the literal rightness and wrongness of ideology, and in that person seeing how they could change ideology in a way that connects them to communities of religious individuals while at the same time promoting a sense of dignity that accomplishes laudatory objectives that help people in very real ways. Though overall I see religion as harmful, I partially agree with Obama’s recent statements (although I disagree with them significantly in places) that the metaphors of religion can be used for negative and, at times, for positive ends, and I do appreciate the fact that his conversation of these metaphors and their ideologies has moved a focus on protecting a sense of dignity for human existence to the forefront of the American psyche.