Friday, July 5, 2013

National atheist association shouldn’t resort to cheap rhetorical tricks

By Marc Jampole

The full-page ad by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the July 4th edition of many national news media, including The New York Times (where I saw it) does a great job of reminding us that our founding fathers were not religious men; and that to the extent that they did have religious beliefs, they tended towards deism, which rejects revelation and faith as the essence of religion in favor of reason and empiricism. 

With so many right-wing politicians falsely claiming that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Paine, Franklin and the others were devoted bible-thumping Christians, it’s good to see what they actually said in print. The FFRF ad demonstrates that, in fact, the founding parents questioned the existence of god, disdained organized religion and believed neither in miracles nor in the truth of the Bible.  FFRF chose an auspicious day—July 4th, a favourite time for wrapping the American flag tightly around the Bible. 

The headline of the ad says it all, “Celebrate Our Godless Constitution.”

The call to action in virtually all issues advertising is to send viewers to the website. Here FFRF disappoints by telling us an extended fib in its mission statement:

The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion.  In modern times the first to speak out for prison reform, for humane treatment of the mentally ill, for abolition of capital punishment, for women's right to vote, for death with dignity for the terminally ill, and for the right to choose contraception, sterilization and abortion have been freethinkers just as they were the first to call for an end to slavery.”

What? Most social and moral progress brought about by atheists?

Was Gandhi free of religion? Was Martin Luther King free of religion? St. Thomas Aquinas? The Quakers in the abolition movement? Erasmus? Epictetus?

Believe me, I’m no fan of organized religion, which has been used to inflict a lot of harm on people and countries.  But that does not mean that people with religious beliefs have not made major contributions to ending slavery, having a secular government, giving women and minorities the vote, curtailing discrimination, enfranchising LGBTs and all the other steps we humans have made towards moral and ethical perfection.

Both atheists and the religious have contributed to our moral progress, and in implying otherwise, FFRF overplays its hand.

The second and more disturbing overplay is to use the term “free-thinking” in opposition to “religious.” FFRF wants us to be free-thinking, by which they imply that only people free of religion can be “free-thinking.”

But free thinking refers to a mode of thinking that atheists, agnostics and the religious can all have. To my mind, the free thinker can see into the minds of others; take the point of view of others; look for new ways to solve a problem when old ways aren’t working; appreciate new music, cuisine and other entertainments; and have opinions that continually evolve as opposed to being set in stone at the age of 21.

A free-thinker often thinks situationally, as do the many Catholics who condone abortion if a woman is raped or if it’s a 13-year-old girl with mental disabilities.

While it may be more likely for a religious person to have a rigid thought process, I have known more than a few atheists who have been such rigid thinkers that they could not see the value that ritual plays in organizing the lives of people simply because rituals usually reflect a religious context. 

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the efforts of FFRF to make sure that our government spends no money promoting any religion. But while protecting the separation between church and state, FFRF does not have resort to distorting the role of atheists or the religious in pursuing social change.

Instead, FFRF should tell us what it does best.  The website features an impressive list of accomplishments in defending the public and public spaces from the intrusion of religion. Listed among FFRF wins are:
  • Winning the first federal case challenging “faith-based funding” of a pervasively sectarian social agency
  • Winning the first court order to a U.S. Cabinet revoking federal funds to a pervasively sectarian agency
  • Halting federal funds to a bible school offering no academic classes
  • Ending “parish nursing” faith/health entanglements at two state universities
  • Halting a government chaplaincy to minister to state workers
  • Winning a legal challenge ending 51 years of illegal bible instruction in Rhea County (Dayton, Tennessee) public schools
  • Winning a federal court decision overturning a law declaring Good Friday a state holiday
  • Barring direct subsidy to religious schools, in a federal lawsuit upheld by an appeals court
  • Declaring unconstitutional the creation of a state post to “assist clergy” to save marriages
  • Stopping public financing of an annual nativity pageant at a state capitol
  • Ending commencement prayers at a Top Ten University
  • Halting religious postal cancellations
Note that in all these cases, the organization did not promote atheism or agnosticism, but rather defended all of us against those who would use public funds and public venues to proselytize their beliefs.  It promoted free-thinking by removing the official stamp of approval from one type of thought.

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