Among the Nonbelievers: Part II

Atheist activists in Orlando talk John Locke, religious toleration, presidential politics, and Don't Ask, But Do Tell.


Organized atheism as represented by the Moving Secularism Forward conference sponsored by the Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism is relentless, at least with regard to holding meetings. I must confess that I missed the opening panel on activism on the second day of the conference (read all about the first day here). This was particularly regrettable because among the panelists was Jessica Ahlquist, the Rhode Island high school student who was a plaintiff in the recent case Ahlquist v. Cranston in which she sued her public school over displaying a gigantic banner emblazoned with what was a Christian prayer. The school tried to counter that it wasn't really a "prayer" because it had hung there for 40 years or so and therefore represented part of the "history" of the school. In any case, Jessica sued and won. She has been vilified by many in her Rhode Island community, but clearly was a hero to the atheists (and to me) assembled at the Orlando conference. During the course of the conference, several mentioned that they hoped that she would one day run for president. But as I say, I am sorry that I largely missed that panel.

Over lunch, philosopher Russell Blackford gave an intriguing talk in which he argued that we moderns could learn a lesson or two for the 21st century from 17th century British philosopher John Locke, specifically from his "A Letter Concerning Toleration." Locke's letter was written when much of Europe was embroiled in various religious wars. In Blackford's gloss, Locke made a distinction between what government is good at and what the church is good at. "The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests," asserted Locke. He went on to note that in the secular realm civil magistrates by equal application of the law protects "civil interests" which Locke identified as "life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like." With regard to the spiritual realm, Locke argued, "The end of a religious society is the public worship of God and, by means thereof, the acquisition of eternal life. All discipline ought, therefore, to tend to that end, and all ecclesiastical laws to be thereunto confined." Russell pointed out that Locke's views on religious toleration have triumphed in Western countries since most polls find that the majority of Christians agree with the notion of separation between church and state. (I can't resist pointing out the 1864 Syllabus of Errors issued by Pope Pius XI did not accept such a notion of religious toleration.)

In his talk, Russell however reminded us that Locke did argue that three groups could be persecuted—atheists, Muslims, and Roman Catholics. The first because their lack of belief meant that they would not fear to break their oaths. Locke worried that society would fall apart if people no longer felt bound to fulfill their promises. The second and third because of their allegiance to foreign powers. Blackford thinks that Locke would take contemporary empirical evidence into account and would argue that these groups should now be included within the ambit of religious toleration.

Interestingly, Blackford brought in Locke on the current brouhaha over the Obama administration's health insurance contraception mandate. In Blackford's reading, Locke argues that enforcing mutual generally applicable laws that would apply to all groups is not religious intolerance. But is that quite right? Locke did argue that the "magistrate" is not required to tolerate the religious sacrifice of infants. Why? "These things are not lawful in the ordinary course of life, nor in any private house; and therefore neither are they so in the worship of God, or in any religious meeting," asserts Locke. Blackford's interpretation is that the state has good secular reasons to impose the mandate that all employers buy health insurance that covers contraceptive services; therefore Locke would not deem it persecution when applied even to religiously affiliated organizations. However, it seems a long stretch to get from prohibiting human sacrifice to mandating contraceptive services. To see how persuasively Blackford makes his case of this interpretation of Locke, see his new book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

Answering questions after his talk, Blackford noted that his argument (and Locke's) for religious toleration would "fall flat" in societies in which religion cannot be criticized, e.g., Saudi Arabia. In response to a question about France's more aggressive notions of secularism (laïcité), Blackford said that he is against laws such as those banning the wearing of burqas in public. "I'm not for getting religion out of the public; I am for getting it out of politics," he said. Blackford further asserted that many supposedly "secular" arguments against issues like human embryonic stem cell research and gay and lesbian marriage are actually smokescreens for religious claims.

Participants on the next panel, "Does Secular Humanism Have A Political Agenda?," included geneticist Razib Khan (conservative), anthropologist Greg Laden (liberal), former Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder (progressive), and me (libertarian). I went first and my (shocking) conclusion was that the political agenda of organized secular humanism is basically indistinguishable from the standard issue left-wing egalitarian agenda. More on that at another time.

Next up was Razib Khan who calls himself as an atheist conservative and runs the website SecularRight.org. Khan is a happy intellectual warrior who seems to have become "conservative" on the realization that rationality is not all that there is to human flourishing. People are embedded in and derive meaning from their families and communities. He is quite clear that he sees himself as defending Western civilization and the notion of freedom of religion that is distinctive to the United States.

The designated liberal on the panel, biological anthropologist Greg Laden, noted that the political stances of the two major parties might have evolved differently than they have. For example, the Republicans under Teddy Roosevelt were conservationists and favored various Progressive regulatory schemes. Although Laden didn't note it, Roosevelt launched the agency that has evolved into the Food and Drug Administration which now regulates about one-third of our economy. Conversely, Laden observed that when he volunteered for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party in Minnesota, he found that most of its union members were socially conservative and "all were anti-abortion"—yet they voted DFL. There is a kind of cultural path-dependence in the formation of political parties. In his talk Laden correctly remarked, "You must accept science even if it makes you uncomfortable." Here's looking at you anti-biotech crop crusaders. On the other hand, he also declared, "Nobody should be a Republican unless they make more than $250,000 per year and are religious." Laden thinks that secular humanism has an agenda and it's left wing egalitarianism.

Former Congressperson Pat Schroeder was billed as the progressive on the panel. Perhaps. Basically, Schroeder spent most of her time urging the assembled seculars to get out and vote this November. And she wasn't shy about which party secular humanists should support, repeating the bumper sticker slogan: "Voting is like driving: Choose "R" to Go Backward, Choose "D" to Go Forward." Schroeder properly sneered at Newt Gingrich's incoherent assertion (and that's putting it charitably) at the Cornerstone Church in Texas that he fears that unless he is elected that his grandchildren will live "in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American." Secular atheist and radical Islamist? Schroeder also drolly noted that several earlier Republican presidential hopefuls, e.g., Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, had claimed God's blessing for their candidacy. If that was so, she asked, does that mean that they were removed from the campaign by God? So does secular humanism have a political agenda? At the end we all concurred that as currently constituted that it did and that it amounted to a suite of policies that further the goals of left-wing egalitarianism.

The banquet stemwinder was by Tufts University philosopher and one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism Daniel Dennett. His talk was entitled, "Who Isn't an Atheist?: Don't Ask, Do Tell." Dennett began by suggesting that hostility toward atheists is the result of fear. "When we see hostility, then we know that they are more afraid of us than we are of them," said Dennett. He added that when folks are experiencing deep visceral fear "there is no way to talk calmly and reasonably to people who are that scared." So why are they so scared?

Dennett likened the situation to one in which aliens land on our planet and the young folks begin adopting their culture and mores. From the point of view of the adults the aliens are leading the kids around like Pied Pipers; they abandon their churches, universities, tell the folks that evolution is cool, etc. In fact, more and more Americans are loosening their attachments to religion. From the point of view of faithful parents, "it's as if we [atheists] came from outer space," said Dennett. The reason for the fear, according to Dennett, is the speed of culturally disorienting change over the past 20 to 30 years. Religion has changed more in the 20th century than it did in the preceding two millennia. Explaining what he meant by "don't ask," Dennett equated religionists asked by secularists to justify their beliefs to frightened raccoons trapped in a barn. His advice, don't block the barn door.

Dennett then explored what people might mean when they claim they are believers. He opened by suggesting that talking about religious belief raises the problem of radical translation. Imagine an anthropologist landing among a new group of people and she must learn their language—there will be many confusions along the way—and how can the anthropologist really know that she understands what the native speaker means? Dennett cited philosopher W.V.O Quine's ideas about the web of belief in which the meaning of assertions depends upon deeply embedded background assumptions. If an observer doesn't grok the assumptions, he will have a hard time discerning the meaning of some statements. Religious statements are much like that. A Catholic believer is required to profess certain doctrines, but how well does each believer understand their meaning?

Dennett puckishly asked: Is the Pope an atheist? Dennett suggested that the Pope doesn't really know himself; that he is no more an authority on what he believes about God than anyone else. What does Dennett mean by "do tell?" Dennett cited the recent ruckus in Canada where an education official in Alberta asserted that homeschoolers could not teach their children that homosexuality is a sin because that would violate Canadian non-discrimination laws. This is confronting a trapped raccoon. Instead of confrontation, Dennett advised when silly claims made by religionists come up, that secularists gently expose people, especially children, to mountains of fact that undermine certain assertions. The world was created 6,000 years ago? Mention that scientists have discovered that dinosaur fossils are millions of years old.

Dennett suggested that religion is much like the Santa Claus myth. It's mutual knowledge among adults that Santa Claus doesn't exist; everybody knows that everybody knows that it's a myth, but they go along with it for the sake of entertaining young children.

The final session on Sunday morning asked: What are our objectives as secular humanists? The panel featured Free Inquiry columnist Ophelia Benson, Director of CFI's international programs Bill Cooke, U.S. Executive Director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science R. Elisabeth Cornwell, evolutionary biologist P.Z. Myers, physicist Victor Stenger, and religious studies scholar Anthony Pinn.

I will focus on the arguments made by Myers. Myers is a well-known (and much appreciated) opponent of intelligent design creationism. Myers did call out House Energy Committee Chair John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who at congressional hearing asserted, "Man will not destroy this Earth. This Earth will not be destroyed by a Flood. I do believe that God's word is infallible, unchanging, perfect." Sigh.  

On the other hand, Myers outlined in his talk his worries about the global environmental crisis. According to Myers, the world is overpopulated and overheated. In addition, we are destroying the oceans by overfishing and increased acidification due to increased levels of carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels. Moreover, we are depleting nonrenewable resources (specifically citing declining oil production) and species diversity. And we are at increased risk of global pandemics. In the face of all of these crises, Myers further claimed that we are dismantling the education system in this country thus making it harder to deal effectively with these problems. "Capitalism is not going to magically manifest solutions," concluded Myers. In other words, Myers is running with the herd of independent minds that has been peddling imminent environmental doom for the last half century.  

U.N. population projections suggest that world population will peak at around 8 to 9 billion by mid-century and fall back to 6 billion by 2100. Interestingly, countries that score high on economic freedom average an under-replacement fertility rate of 1.8 children per woman, whereas in countries that score low on economic freedom average fertility rates of 4.3 children per woman. Maybe capitalism will "manifest solutions" to some problems after all.

Man-made global warming is a problem, but it's not at all clear this global commons can be effectively governed by international treaties negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations. Actually, Myers' fellow panelist Stenger suggested that worrisome carbon emissions might be cut by switching to thorium reactors. With regard to resource depletion, the amount of a resource depends crucially on technology, e.g., shale gas was not a resource until fracking was devised. One day the world will run out of oil that can be produced economically, but we are at greater risk of political peak oil in the near term because nearly 90 percent of the world's known oil reserves are owned by governments.

Overfishing and species extinction occur in open access commons where the incentives are to exploit resources before someone else beats you to them. Privatizing fisheries helps protect them and allowing local people to control the use of lands in their communities instead of relying on centralized government bureaucracies, which are better at protecting resources like forests. With regard to future pandemics, it is very possible that Mother Nature could concoct a truly virulent bug, but the best way to counter future diseases is to unleash a robust biomedical industry.

Finally, Myers exhibited the same touching faith in the efficacy of government monopoly schools that many of the assembled secularists in Orlando did. Apparently, they are unaware of the fact that real per pupil spending has tripled since the 1960s while measures of academic achievement have hardly budged. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting to get different results, what does tripling the effort imply?

I think that it is vital to move secularism forward. Of course, secularists must wield our First Amendment protections in the courts when believers try to use government to propagate their creeds by hijacking public monies and public functions. Ultimately, I think that Dennett is on to something with his notion of "Don't Ask, But Do Tell." The good news for secularists like me and those gathered in Orlando is that trends supporting secularism in the U.S. are positive.

Disclosure: I want to gratefully acknowledge and thank the Center for Inquiry for inviting me to participate and for paying my travel expenses. I have been out as an atheist since my early teens. 

Ronald Bailey  is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.