Don’t Overestimate Atheists’ Power

Once in a while, some liberal blogger decides to speak contrarianism to power and complain about how atheists are badmouthing religious people and hurting liberal causes in general, and how the American left ought to embrace religious progressives. Olvlzl has just joined that dubious group’s ranks:

Reading leftist blogs you have certainly seen comments hostile to religion. The sometimes witty slurs against people who believe in one or more gods are certainly well known to you. If not, just wait around, one more is on its way. While sometimes quite funny, they tend to be repetitive. They could be intended as a fairly harmless indulgence for those hostile to religion but it isn’t politically innocuous.

I am bringing this up because I suspect there is an effort to stir up these questions just now. Articles in MSNBC-Newsweek and elsewhere might indicate an attempt to kick up a religious fight before the fall election. My interest in this is entirely in its effect on practical politics, I want the left to win this election, winning is the most important thing for the next two months. We can live with a certain level of atheist-religionist animosity, we cannot win an election with leftists falling for the bait the Republican right puts out for it. Leftists can be counted on to come to the defense of atheists who are targeted for discrimination. If atheists are in danger of life and limb, we must do that. But this all too timely row has nothing to do with life and limb. It is not pressing.

If winning elections is all Olvlzl wants, he doesn’t need to worry about this. The Democratic Party is no more secular than the Republican one; when Howard Dean goes on the 700 Club and explains that the Democratic Party completely opposes single-sex marriage and civil unions, talking about Democratic hostility to religion makes no sense.

Even liberals, including atheist ones, are nowhere near as hostile to religion as Olvlzl thinks. PZ Myers brims with anti-religious zeal on his blog, but when he gets out and talks about politics to people outside the echo chamber, his tone is one of conciliation and cooperation. And even on his blog, he generally segregates religion and politics, attacking religion when the subject is whether God exists or whether religion is necessary for morality, and attacking religious fundamentalism’s authoritarianism when the subject is politics.

There is a significant contingent of left-wing fundamentalists like Jim Wallis and Amy Sullivan, who think it’s their inalienable right to make every American liberal speak using religious language, and who think any insistence on separation of church and state is a travesty. There is no similar group of anti-religious atheists; PZ, who is about as extreme as an atheist can get, isn’t saying that religious people should shut up.

Edit: for some reason, I’m an idiot who can’t distinguish Amy Sullivan, a class-A fundie, with Amy Goodman, a human rights lawyer.

24 Responses to Don’t Overestimate Atheists’ Power

  1. The whole reason that I joined the liberal camp in the first place is that we recognize the pluralist nature of a free society. You can’t increase your own freedom by denying freedom to others. The tax issue almost got me thinking conservatively until Mr. Falwell came on with his Moral Majority thing, and Pat Robertson started that big scare about women becoming lesbos and witches if the Equal Rights Amendment passed. So the intrusion of “religious values” against the rest of society is what mostly drives my politics.

    So, why the fuck should I allow the liberal religious to tell me to shut up about my atheism? Why should we be so worrried about scaring people about religion? Can you imagine liberals during the civil rights struggles of the ’60’s telling the blacks that things would work better if they weren’t so uppity?

    I used to subscribe to the Sojourner’s e-mail newsletter, thinking that they were in a sense kindred souls, working for separation of church and state. But after a while I just couldn’t take their “we’re Christians too” whining.

    I told them to stop sending it to me.

    I just don’t see, though, why you refer to PZ as an extremist. He is a solid atheist that doesn’t make excuses for his non-belief, but I don’t think of him as an extremist . An extremist would be someone who advocated destroying religious institutions through violence. I get the sense that he would rather see religion die in a war of attrition; with education being the weapon of mass destruction. When I was a member of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Humanists, I knew some extremists and their headstrong absolutism frightened me.

    Me, I don’t care if someone else is religious, as long as they don’t try to preach to me or make my public institutions into extensions of their faith.

  2. Aerik says:

    While PZ’s philosophy of atheism is as explicit as it can get, I don’t think he’s nearly as extreme as others are. He’s much less so than Richard Dawkins and the like, because PZ has a habit of saying things like, “what they believe is none of my business.” I made it my business to point this out to him in the comments to the most recent post of his that actually tracks back to this page. PZ’s habit of making sure not to offend Xians (to be polite) (just like Ken Miller wants us to) makes him fairly tame, in truth.

    It also makes him a liar when he pulls that crap. People’s beliefs have real life consequences, to real people – that makes them more than relevant for us to care about them. That’s basically the theme of his entire blog.

    If PZ means to say he does not with to impose different beliefs unto people against their will.. then that is exactly what he should say. But he often blurbs that it’s not his business or he doesn’t care – and it’s a lie.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    I just don’t see, though, why you refer to PZ as an extremist. He is a solid atheist that doesn’t make excuses for his non-belief, but I don’t think of him as an extremist .

    I didn’t mean to say he’s an extremist. I meant to say he’s more extreme than other activists (well, except Sam Harris, but even hardcore atheists seem not to like him too much). Basically, I’m saying, “PZ is not an extremist at all, and most other atheist activists are even more moderate than he is.”

    It also makes him a liar when he pulls that crap. People’s beliefs have real life consequences, to real people – that makes them more than relevant for us to care about them.

    Not nearly as much as they do when buttressed by an unequal regime. Every wave of immigrants who came to the US suffered from discrimination; however, with a political system that didn’t make it very easy to keep immigrants away, and no clear way for your average run-of-the-mill racist to tell an Anglo-Saxon from an Italian, there was little that could stop eventual full equality. It’s the same with atheists: remove legally mandated stigmas, and it’ll be very hard for discrimination to continue; remove the influence of fundamentalism from public schools, and people will be less ignorant.

  4. I’ve been reading the debate over on my blog, but I’m supposed to be on weekend rest….

    In any case, the interesting question is not anti-religiosity. Nobody is demanding more Wicca in the House and the Senate. It’s all about Christianity.

    That shifts the angle a bit, for me at least. And then there is the fact that the impression of Democrats as anti-Christian comes almost totally from the wingnut propaganda machine. It has been most successful, of course.

  5. Practitioners of atheistically based philosophies killed 100 Million people in the 20th century alone. (Black Book of Communism, Harvard University Press; The Gulag Archipelago series, Solzhenitisyn).

    And YEP…it was atheism that made communism brutal, Communism of course does not have to be atheistic, as the idea has been around for over two thousand years, but in the form of dialectical materialism it was.

    And its still going on. Mose recently, in this century, the Chinese Atheist Commies have used atheism as a means of destroying the Tibetans cultural identity. (Amnesty International.)

    PZ Myters, Dawinks and the others trying to co opt science for atheism are lying.

  6. Alyssa James says:

    For every life killed by atheist based philosophies, there must have been 1000 times more of lives killed by christian based philosophies over the course of mankind history.
    Though religions help build morals and provide mental and spiritual support, it makes untrue claims as to the creation of man and the universe. It exerts unjust influence and abusive control over meek and suffering souls.

  7. I see where Mike Haubrich says he does not care if I am religious, as long as I do not try to preach to him or “make” HIS “public institutions into extensions of ” MY “faith.” We all share the same public institutions in the US, as far as I know.

    However, who failed in katrina? The so-called public institutions of local, state and Federal Governments. The good ol’ Red Cross is under heavy penalties ($4 million) for not spending their donations properly. WHICH PUBLIC INSTITUTION DO YOU WISH I had no extension of my Christian values of honesty and altruism injected into?

    I see that the ONLY reliable institutions in this country ARE the religious ones, like Salvation Army, which was THE FIRST AND ALST ONE ON THE SCENE IN New Orleans, and still are there for the average Joe. How about Billy Grham’s son Franklin graham, whose Samaritan’s purse has been quietly placing tarps for free on people’s roofs for the past year? How about the Christian value of doing unto others when they are in need, and of sacrificing one’s own wealth for the sake of the poor? I guess he would rather I not inject those religious values into any of HIS public institutions. FINE….I will make sure he gets directed to those same public institutions rather than get help from any religious people when the next crisis hits, if I have anything to say about it.

  8. Ironically, I am not religious, yet, I do not want to oppress those that are…..

  9. yucca says:

    i think your comments are off the point of the passage you quote: the democrats’ stand on religion does not matter whatsoever. the point was that, no matter what democrats think and say about religion, slagging off religious fundamentalists, whoever it is that does it, makes the right stronger.

    on the issue in general, the guy you quote is plain wrong: it is more important to contrast the religious slide than to win the next elections

  10. Alon Levy says:

    Practitioners of atheistically based philosophies killed 100 Million people in the 20th century alone. (Black Book of Communism, Harvard University Press; The Gulag Archipelago series, Solzhenitisyn).

    Actually, the Black Book of Communism gives skewed data, deliberately choosing the highest possible estimates instead of the median or most reliable ones. Solzhenitsyn was an instrumental critic of communism, of course, but I wouldn’t trust what he says about atheism and communism; he’s also a Russian nationalist and an anti-Semite.

    the point was that, no matter what democrats think and say about religion, slagging off religious fundamentalists, whoever it is that does it, makes the right stronger.

    I don’t think that was the point. Left-wing critics of atheism, including Olvlzl, generally agree with PZ that Pat Robertson is and should be exposed as greedy and totalitarian. What I read Olvlzl as saying is that atheists shouldn’t criticize religion in general.

    I see that the ONLY reliable institutions in this country ARE the religious ones, like Salvation Army, which was THE FIRST AND ALST ONE ON THE SCENE IN New Orleans, and still are there for the average Joe.

    Is that the same Salvation Army that threatened to pull the plug on all its activities in New York if the state required it to stop discriminating against gays, and that contributed large sums of money to the Republican Party in order to defeat gay rights initiatives?

    It’s fair to say that religious institutions will impoverish you politically and then throw you crumbs in the form of charity, while secular ones will make sure you don’t need them in the first place.

  11. johnbrowne says:

    I would agree with Emanuel Goldstein. Communism and so called ‘atheism’ comes from the Devil. Nothing can break the Church, nor destroy it, because God cannot be destroyed.

    We, as Christians, stand for the Culture of Life. ‘Atheism’ can only be in support of the Culture of Death.

  12. Alon Levy says:

    John, fanatics stand for the culture of death, regardless of whether they’re Christians, Muslims, communists, or secular fascists.

  13. johnbrowne says:

    Yes, you are right. I get a bit heated at times…

  14. J says:

    Liberals and conservatives are dangerously confused about the dangers the country faces. These dangers are posed by the professional politicians from both sides of the aisle. As long as people can be tricked into thinking/beleiving other issues are pressing, the problems will only get worse. Americans need to be concerned with only one thing; repairing our broken political process. The hot-button issues that divert people’s attention from the real problem are never going away. We can slug it out over them after we’ve dealt with the politicians.

  15. PZ Myers says:

    I’m shocked to learn that I try not to offend Christians. You should see my inbox — I must be offending them inadvertently. And the reason I’m assumed to by kowtowing to religious sensibilities is that I lie and say I don’t care what people believe? But it’s true. I don’t care. If you want to believe that there are dwarves living in the crawlspace of your house, go ahead — I can’t very well shout at you until you stop. All I care about is whether you take some action that intrudes on others’ personal liberty…such as by requiring the local school to teach a course in dwarf recognition.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if more murders had been committed by secular states than by religious ones in all of history. That’s a funny consequence of population growth rates: more people have been alive in the past century than previous ones, and also, a larger percentage of that population has been godless than ever before. Anyone who claims that godlessness leads to utopia is a fool; all it means is that we’d have one less irrational reason to do harm to our fellows. One less is still something to strive for.

  16. Alyssa James says:

    John Browne, Atheism is not evil. It’s too bad that Communism happened to be atheist. That does not mean that all atheists are communists! I can see how religion is used by politicians to sway the religious people ! More reason for America to separate Church and State!

    Let’s not forget too that there are people out there believing in God but not believing in the Jew’s, the Christian’s or the Muslims’ teachings of God.

    While these 3 religions revere the same God, they each show their fidels a different way to reach God. How do you know which way is the right one? How do you know which church is the right Church?

    Is a Church really founded by God or is it founded by Man? Isn’t a church’s explanation of God Man’s explanation of God? Therefore, there could be as many churches as there are explanations of God under the sun…one illustration of this is the large number of denominations in the Christian Faith. If there is a God out there, how could he, or she, or it, be so petty as to discriminate against his own children, favoring the heterosexuals and rejecting the homosexuals? By describing GOD as such, aren’t we projecting our flawed, imperfect human love unto God?

    There are people out there with faith, a faith not attached to any existing religion, a faith in a Creator that Man cannot yet comprehend, a faith in searching for the truth of how we came and where we are going, a faith in working toward the well being and the progress of all human kind, a faith in doing less harm and more good.

  17. opit says:

    There is a great difference between the “Mission Statement” of many belief systems and the practical administrative results. Questioning a priori assumptions about our lives and world results in greater comprehension, whether of a scientific, philosophical or contextual nature. Dogmatically repressing exploration is counterproductive irrespective of position.

  18. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t see anyone here dogmatically repress exploration. There’s a big difference between a priori opposing any exploration, and a posteriori disagreeing with something that a results from it. For example, I don’t have to agree with a particular theory of why evolution happens to realize that it’s crucial to try and find out what theory governs evolution.

  19. Federico Contreras says:

    Emmanuel Goldstein said:
    Practitioners of atheistically based philosophies killed 100 Million people in the 20th century alone. (Black Book of Communism, Harvard University Press; The Gulag Archipelago series, Solzhenitisyn).

    And YEP…it was atheism that made communism brutal, Communism of course does not have to be atheistic, as the idea has been around for over two thousand years, but in the form of dialectical materialism it was.
    =====

    What Emmanuel has done here is simply replace “religious dogmatism” with “political dogmatism” and pretended that political dogmatism == atheism. I suggest you look up the definition champ.

    Atheism: a‧the‧ism  /ˈeɪθiˌɪzəm/ Pronunciation Key – Show Spelled Pronunciation[ey-thee-iz-uhm] Pronunciation Key – Show IPA Pronunciation
    –noun
    1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
    2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.
    [Origin: 1580–90;

  20. Cy says:

    Who could over-estimate the power of non-theists? We are the weakest in the world. Hitler and Stalin, and others I expect, managed to rouse themselves to some programs of extermination, but they picked on particular faiths. It was not us non-theists who conducted witch-hunts and heretic-hunts. If we add up the totals I bet that for every theist murdered by a non-theist there will be at least a thousand free-thinking, question-asking non-theists murdered by self-righteous, ranting and raving, moronic, monstrous theists. I am ashamed of our side’s poor record… oops! What a give-away… cyquick.wordpress.com

  21. Alon Levy says:

    Well, Hitler wasn’t even a nontheist to begin with, and Stalin’s single greatest crime, the Ukrainian Holocaust, was a nationalist power game.

  22. Cy says:

    Thanks, Alon Levy.

    Sorry, you are right: Hitler was a Pagan. Pagans must qualify as multi-theists. And I guess I clumsily used the term ‘Stalin’ to stand for the Soviet Communist Party as a whole. I suppose it was thought, wrongly it turns out, by the Party that most citizens would be converted away from theism. But there are weak people who need faith in a super-human sugar-daddy before they can function. I propose they be taught Natural Afterlife.

    I am bewildered by the claim of Emanuel Goldstein that non-theism made communism brutal. It does not follow at all. In fact, a strong ethical sense is more likely, I would submit, to repose in the bosem of non-theists because they are more capable of straight thinking.

    I hope that nobody took my first comment (which I have re-read with some dubiety) as anti-Jewish, by the way. What a fool Hitler was! He hated, and had murdered, the most creative citizens (including Jews).

    I suppose I was thinking of Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Christians. But even then, I ought to make a distinction between the flock of believers who are victims, and the victimisers, or preachers and priests. I confess that I cannot feel bad when priests or any other theist extremists die.

    The idea of solving the thesist problem by mass murder is (unless very choosy and hush-hush) a bit alarming. Even SELECTIVE assassination is the thin end of a nasty wedge, and may be, for a change, a genuine case of “we would make ourselves as bad as they are” (which anti-capital-punishment wimps burble). I am, however, prepared to tolerate a fair amount of alarm and guilt by voting for it. Cy

  23. Cy says:

    Reforming the U.S. political system should begin with making the President like the German, Irish and Israeli ones, no power (except in extreme emergency) just ceremonial work.

    The House of Represenatives ought to be like the UK House of Commons with a Prime Minster being the head of the administration, and with he and his Cabinet members all being elected representatives. The Senate could stay the same I guess.

    As to the electoral system, I favour 55/45 where the party with most votes gets 55% of the SEATS and the other 45% of seats are distributed proportionately to the other parties. This means always a strong government, but it can be forced to a new election if it loses support of its members; and fair division of seats for opposition parties.

    Obviously, the monarchy, the House of Lords and the present electoral system in UK (first past the post) are outdated rubbish. Cy

  24. Alon Levy says:

    Hitler was a Pagan.

    No, he was Catholic, and made it very clear that even when he attacked the Catholic Church, he was attacking it for not being nationalistic enough. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, never excommunicated him.

    As to the electoral system, I favour 55/45 where the party with most votes gets 55% of the SEATS and the other 45% of seats are distributed proportionately to the other parties. This means always a strong government, but it can be forced to a new election if it loses support of its members; and fair division of seats for opposition parties.

    Why? The evidence suggests that fully proportional representation doesn’t have any ill effects. Italy and Israel are extreme cases; other countries, like Sweden and the Netherlands, work perfectly well without artificially inflating the representation of the largest party.

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