Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Religion, Atheists, America

 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one. - Matthew 5:33-37
 The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. - US Constitution, Article VI, par. 3
In this morning Washington Post, columnist Dana Milbank tries to have a little fun at the expense of atheists.
The nation’s atheists went to Capitol Hill on Monday to launch an effort that they hope will someday give them the lobbying clout of the Christian conservative movement.
They don’t have a prayer.
“What does that do to our non-theist community?” asked Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, which bills itself as the only full-time lobbying group for atheists, agnostics, humanists and the like. “What does that do to our minority religions like voodooism, etcetera?”
No doubt it makes them mad enough to cast a hex. 
We often hear people in public life babble about the United States being "a Christian nation".  Without ever being defined, I've always guessed that means people think the US is made up of people who self-identify as Christian.  I suppose that's a fair assumption to make, without being able to draw any real conclusions from such a broad and relatively meaningless statement.

For a very long time, some few have tried to take this rather bland social reality and make out of it a legal principle that we the people of the United States are Christian.  The decades-long arguments about religion and public life, for all the heat they generate, tend to add little light.  As hot things do, they also tend keep people from getting too close to them, so the arguments continue to be stuck in the same terms they have been for decades.

Recent polling suggests the general decline in religious observation we see in Europe has reached America.  Less than half of Americans are now members of a religious body.  These statistics include Judaism, Jain, Islam, Baha'i, and other smaller religious groups.  While we may tend to "see" Christians when we look upon our fellow Americans, as a practical matter, religious affiliation is less and less important a fact of American life.

As a matter of law, the United States is secular.  There is no official religion sanctioned by the state.  There is no official religious test for office according to the United States Constitution.  These have been and continue to be blessings to religious bodies.  With religious life free from state interference, observation and practice can grow and develop and change without it impacting our public life.

Except, of course, the past thirty-five years or so have seen the rise of a powerful political movement rooted in a particular interpretation of the Christian life.  Over time, this group has sought ties with conservative Jewish groups, Roman Catholics, and others to work for a particular set of social and cultural changes they see as necessary for improving American life.  The problem with these groups isn't their religious belief; the problem is their disregard for certain legal, Constitutional and social realities, not the least of which is the decline in religious observation in the United States.

The things these folks care about, and demand we recognize, resonate with a declining subset of the population.  This is not an argument for them to shut up; rather, I am suggesting that even those who support them need to recognize they are reaching a dwindling audience.

Now, Dana Milbank isn't really very funny.  I know nothing about his religious beliefs or practices, but I daresay poking juvenile fun at self-described atheists and non-theists may seem like he's making a point.  In fact, the things about which the coalescing "atheist" lobby are concerned just happen to be things about which I object as well.  Not just swearing oaths and the national motto.  Public displays of religious belief at the Christmas holidays are really wrong.  I hear folks say, "What's the harm in putting up a creche in the public square?" To which I can only respond, "I'm a member of the public, it's my square, too, and I don't like it."

None of these things seem hugely important, yet together they create an undercurrent of public strife and mistrust that wells up every once in a while in particular ways.  I would much prefer we no longer celebrate the mass display of piety as something laudable, but rather remember we are to keep these things private.  Go into a closet and pray.  Stop trying to out-holy one another.  And for crying out loud, don't worry if the checker at the supermarket says, "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas".  Last time I checked, being polite and respectful of other people's beliefs was something laudable.

The atheists have several things going for them, not the least of them the Constitution of the United States, the Bible, and common sense.  Rather than poke fun at them, it might well be time to start listening.

Virtual Tin Cup

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